Vibrant triangles of wind-taut canvas catching the last rays of the setting sun, the trading dhows slide down from the north, forming white highlights against the emerald of distant jungled shore. Then the huge lateen sails collapse into billowing clouds at the end of the homeward run and spill down over the struggling crews onto weather-worn decks. These huge trading vessels dwarf the fragile fishing outriggers at the breakwater, as their momentum carries them in to join the dozens of other dhows that clog the harbour. Over a maze of precarious plank and pole walkways, hundreds of black muscled bodies unload exotic cargoes from their heavily laden decks. Above the collision of wood, ropes and restrained canvas, the stench of dead shark mixes with the heady aroma of cloves and washes into ancient Zanzibar on the warm monsoon breeze.
Days before, one of these timeless vessels had delivered me to this fabled ‘spice island’ for the very first time. Although, in the romantic imaginings of my youth, I had already had adventures in the realm of Sinbad the Sailor many times before. Here I had done battle with the Cyclops and the giant rukh bird as it carried off my men and elephants to distant mythical lands and I had found and saved my princess time and again. As though conjured up from Alladin’s lamp, Stone Town (the old centre of Zanzibar) rises from imagination into reality out of a sapphire sea on a coral island of incandescent green. As you enter the endless narrow streets in the shadows of fortresses and the Sultan’s palace, the silent mosques, cool courtyards and bustling bazaar easily transport you to a bygone age.
From at least the beginning of the Christian era, merchants have voyaged to the coasts of Anzania (present-day Tanzania and Kenya) in search of trade, conquest and plunder. Sumerians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Phonecians, Indians, Chinese, Persians, Omani Arabs, even Portuguese, Dutch and English have all, at one time or another, been carried before the Indian Ocean tradewinds to ‘Zanguebar’, the land of the Zanj or ‘black people’.