The Parsi Bazaar Street in Bombay’s Fort area had an unusual resident in the late 1860s. Barghash bin Said, an Omani prince who was exiled from Zanzibar, lived in the bustling neighbourhood, making friends with the city’s Parsis, as he contemplated returning to Zanzibar and becoming the sultan of the archipalego in the Indian Ocean.

During his two-year stay in Bombay, Barghash thought of ways to modernise and improve life in Zanzibar. “Barghash’s time in India had given him an international perspective, which he used to develop his kingdom,” John Hinnels, who was Professor of Comparative Religion at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, wrote in his book The Zoroastrian Diaspora: Religion and Migration.

Former Zanzibar resident and one-time secretary of the Zoroastrian Anjuman of Zanzibar Hoshang Kased’s unpublished book, Parsee Lustre on the Emerald Island of Zanzibar, mentions Barghash interacting with eminent Parsi intellectuals in Bombay, such as scholar and social reformer Kharshedji Rustomji Cama (after whom the KR Cama Oriental Institute is named). Observing Parsis’ attention to detail and English-language skills, Barghash, who became the Sultan of Zanzibar in 1870, arranged for specialists from the community to move to the archipelago.

Early immigrants

Accounts of foreign travellers to Zanzibar mentioned a few Parsi inhabitants even before Barghash invited members of the community to settle there.

A travelogue by Sohrabji M Darukhanawala, who was the sultanate’s Superintendent of Health and one of the first people Barghash brought to Zanzibar, talked about a Parsi man who had dealings on the islands as the agent of one Seth Kamani in the slave trade in the 1830s. This agent was apparently appalled with the business and quit. The archipelago was at one time the centre of the East African slave trade, and there is enough historic evidence to suggest that Indians from Gujarat made a lucrative profit from it.

British explorer and writer Richard Francis Burton wrote about two Parsi trading agents in Zanzibar in 1859. “To the general consternation of Europeans, two Parsee agents lately landed on the island, sent by some Bombay House whose name they concealed,” Burton wrote in his book titled Zanzibar: City, Island and Coast. “These will probably be followed by others, and if that most energetic of commercial races once makes a good footing at Zanzibar, it will presently change the condition of trade.” He wrote that the Arabs and Africans in Zanzibar viewed the Parsis without prejudice. “The late Seyyid (Said) was so anxious to attract Parsees who might free him from the arrogance and the annoyance of the ‘white merchants,’ that he would willingly have allowed them to build a ‘Tower of Silence,’ and to perform, uninterrupted, all the rites of their religion,” Burton added.

These agents were not the first Parsis to permanently call the islands home. Kased wrote that the first member of the community to settle in Zanzibar was a trader from Surat, named Maneckji Mistry, who moved in 1845. The young man is believed to have escaped from Surat on a ship that was bound for Zanzibar after he assaulted a European senior. The city, then under the control of the East India Company, had a stringent legal system under which Mistry would have faced the death penalty. After building a successful business in Zanzibar, Mistry arranged for his wife and children to move there.

Putting down roots

In the 1870s, Barghash took the initiative to expand trade with India. “To obtain food and extend his clove sales, Barghash developed trade with India, running four steamer ships on this route, and in 1872, he started a monthly steamer service, Zanzibar-Aden, thus linking with the London mail service,” John Hinnels wrote. One of the engineers on the Bombay-Zanzibar steamers, Bomanjee M Darukhanawala (brother of the travelogue writer Sohrabji), became Zanzibar’s Minister of Public Works.

Impressed by Parsis, Barghash bin Said, the second sultan of Zanzibar, took a number of specialists from the community to the archipalego in Indian Ocean. Credit: Maull & Co./National Maritime Museum, Greenwich/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

The Zoroastrian Anjuman was founded in 1875, well before there was a significant community. “In 1882, Sohrabji Darukhanawala brought with him from India the first Zanzibari priest, Ervad Bhicaji P. Sidhwa from Udwada, and he started the first ritual fire in a separate room on the ground floor of Darukhanawala’s own home,” Hinnels wrote. “The same year the trustees purchased some land on which community buildings were to be erected, and Sultan Barghash gave them land for a cemetery.” A Tower of Silence was never built in Zanzibar.

The migration of Parsis was small in number and initially comprised of well-educated professionals taking up important positions. Barghash’s personal physician was one Dr Pestonji B Nariman.

Barghash died in 1888 and two years later Zanzibar became a British protectorate. While the archipelago continued to be officially ruled by the sultans, the British Empire exerted a great deal of control. The British implemented a dual jurisdictional court system. For foreigners and British subjects, including Indians, there was a high court and lower courts, called British subordinate courts. A parallel system existed for the sultan’s subjects.

Many Indian laws were used to govern those under British jurisdiction in Zanzibar. Among others, the Indian Penal Code, the Whipping Act, the Indian Succession Act, the Bombay Civil Courts Act and the Indian Contract Act were applicable to everyone who was not a subject of the sultan. “From 1897, the Indian Code of Criminal and Civil Procedure applied to Zanzibar, as though it were a district of the Bombay Presidency,” Hinnels wrote. “In criminal cases, the assistant judge was deemed to be a magistrate of the district of Bombay Presidency and the High Court of Judicature of Bombay was deemed to be the High Court of Zanzibar – apart from the cases involving the sultan’s own Arab citizens, who could appeal to him.”

These new regulations led to the immigration of Parsi advocates and police officers to the island. By the late 19th century, the high court in Zanzibar’s capital Stone Town boasted of several Parsi advocates, and there were also a few senior police officers from the community. Maneckji Dalal became the Chief Police Inspector.

The British encouraged Parsi immigration to Zanzibar. The community grew from 26 people in 1884 to 215 in 1945. The island was the launchpad for the community to Africa and many Parsis subsequently moved to the East African mainland.

Zanzibar’s elite

As the community grew in Zanzibar, its cultural practices mirrored those of the Parsis in India. While the community was happy to proclaim its Indianness, the British policy of organising the Indian population into subgroups on religious, ethnic, social and social patterns was welcomed by the Parsis, who mingled with Europeans and Indians alike. A few accounts of travellers from the early 20th century indicate that the Parsi community expressed a deep sense of loyalty to the British but refrained from aping them.

In her 1908 book titled Glimpses of East Africa and Zanzibar, British writer Ethel Younghusband spoke of the Parsis of Zanzibar in glowing terms. “By far the most superior of the natives of India who have come to Zanzibar are the Parsees, mostly from Bombay. They are a most interesting people, quite different in nearly every way from the other children of India,” she wrote, adding that some of them were as light-skinned as Europeans and some even lighter. The British writer also praised members of the community for their “kindness, generosity and benevolence towards other less well off than they are,” and mentioned that they built many institutions and subscribed “liberally to funds for any worthy object”.

Although the Parsis strictly refrained from intermarriage, the community socialised with other communities from India. Language was used as a common ground for interactions with business families from Kutch, Kathiawar and Surat. In his book, Hinnels said his ex-Zanzibari sources informed him that Parsis socially mixed the most with Goans. “The social club had facilities for entertainment and sports including an indoor badminton court and an outdoor tennis court, and members of both communities attended ballroom dances at the Parsi Club and the Goan Institute,” Hinnels wrote.

The community also managed to form competitive cricket teams that were always in the hunt to win the Zanzibar cricket cup.

Such was their link with Indian causes that the community raised funds for social causes in India and contributed to the National Indian Defence Fund during the 1962 India-China War.

The famous Bulsaras

It goes without saying that the most famous Parsi son of Zanzibar was Freddie Mercury, who was born Farrokh Bulsara in Stone Town in 1946. Mercury, who was a singer, songwriter and the lead vocalist of the rock band Queen, spent most of his childhood in India, but Zanzibar has been cashing in on tourism in his name. The house in Stone Town, where his family lived, is a major tourist attraction.

Until Farrokh Bulsara, whose father Bomi worked in the Zanzibar High Court as a cashier, became an international sensation known as Freddie Mercury, the most well-known Bulsara in Zanzibar was a community member named Rati. In the 1950s and 1960s, Rati Balsara, one of the main pillars of the Parsi community in the archipelago, was the publisher of the Adal Insaf, a trilingual Gujarati-English-Kiswahili weekly newspaper that was published every Saturday. The paper was printed at Zanzibar’s most sophisticated printing press and had strong socialist (and anti-American) leanings.

Rati was actively involved in politics and won the 1957 Stone Town constituency seat in Zanzibar’s first legislative council elections for the Zanzibar National Party. His newspaper repeatedly published articles against the British and in 1959 received a one-year ban from publishing for indulging in anti-colonial propaganda. He remained an important public figure in Zanzibar until December 1963 when Zanzibar ceased to be a British protectorate and became an independent constitutional monarchy under the sultan.

Revolution of 1964

Zanzibar’s status as a constitutional monarchy ended in January 1964 when revolutionaries led by Ugandan John Okello overthrew the sultan. The existing parliament at the time was dominated by Zanzibar’s Arab minority. After the sultan fled, the revolutionaries turned on the archipelago’s Arab and Indian minority. Unofficial estimates put the number of civilians killed in the aftermath of the revolution at 20,000.

Eminent Parsis who had worked for and supported the Afro-Shirazi party, which came into power after the revolution, appealed to the new president, Abeid Karume, to protect the community. There were no recorded deaths of Parsis in the aftermath of the revolution, and Hinnels cites a case of one Parsi man who was arrested since he ruled against Karume in an old court case. The man was slapped a few times and then released. The new president is believed to have offered protection to the Parsis, but most members of the community left the archipelago. Some of them, such as Hoshang Kased, left for India, while others like Freddie Mercury’s family moved to Britain. “They were allowed to take their possessions and were not impeded, although of course they lost all their property and landholdings,” Hinnels wrote. “The Parsee story in Zanzibar came to a relatively quick, and sad, end.”

The sacred fire was maintained until the mid-1980s by the handful of Parsis that stayed back.

A few attempts by members of the community to restore the Parsi fire temple and other historical buildings have not met with much success. An account by Farah Bala in 2012 spoke of the fire temple being in a dilapidated state, but on a positive note, it mentioned that a descendant of the Darukhanawala family, Diana, still lived there with her then 83-year old father. They were then the last Parsis in Zanzibar.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.