S is for Samosa : Indian Influences on the Island of Zanzibar
The birthplace of Freddie Mercury has a rich and interesting heritage — as did the charismatic rock star.
I found the camera app on my mobile and tapped, tapped, tapped without much hope. How often do we capture images that delight us as we pass in taxis or on buses?
This time I lucked out.
The Beit El-Ras School on Zanzibar Island is decorated with an alphabet and images to help the children learn the sounds of the letters. N is for nose, O is for onion, P is for pen… S is for samosa.
The samosa has its roots in Central Asia. But to many of us, these triangular filled pastries seem quintessentially Indian. I saw a lot of samosas on offer during my January 2020 visit to Tanzania, a nation that includes the island of Zanzibar. The samosas reminded me of the long ties between India and Africa’s east coast.
To me, the carved wooden doors on old buildings in Zanzibar’s Stone Town also show the island’s links with India.
These doors are a famous attraction of Zanzibar. Photos of the doors appear in postcards and travel guides and articles written about Stone Town. Zanzibar was a slave port and a transit point for ivory. Much of Stone Town’s prosperity thus depended on deep suffering, as is true of many of the world’s beautiful cities, especially those built up in the 19th century. New Orleans, Savannah, Havana.
Zanzibar has a protected deepwater harbor, making it a jewel for trading nations.
Even the shortest history in a travel guide will give you a rundown of maritime powers that controlled Zanzibar. The Portuguese held it from around 1503 through 1698, losing Zanzibar to Omani sultans. The British then took control in 1890 of Zanzibar as a protectorate.
But overlooked in these histories are the contributions of traders and merchants from India.
Initial voyages between India and Africa’s eastern coast predate the Christian era, wrote Padma Srinivasan. In an article for the Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, Srinivasan detailed the early travels of merchants in sailings ships known as dhows.
“From mid-December until the end of February, they could rely on the northeast monsoon to carry their dhows from northwest India, the Persian Gulf and Southern Arabia to the East Coast of Africa and between April and September, the southwest monsoon helped them on their return journey,” Srinivasan wrote.
Under Oman control, Indian merchants set the stage to push Zanzibar onto the world stage.
“The very presence of Indians linked Zanzibar to the flourishing markets of Bombay and other western ports,” Srinivasan wrote. “This in turn gave a fundamental stimulus for the remarkable growth of Zanzibar in the 19th century.”
Few names in geography conjure the kind of magic Zanzibar does.
Below are my photos of some of the famous doors of Stone Town, taken in January 2020.
The doors of Zanzibar are said to reflect a mix of customs. They build on older traditions from Africa’s eastern coast, according to the website for “World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean,” an exhibit in which the Smithsonian Institution participated.
But the sculptural forms seen on the doors derive from Indian art, particularly that of the state of Gujarat in northwestern India.
“By the 19th century, wood-carvers fused Gujarati, neo-Gothic, and British Raj imagery and styles in a playful combination of many places and periods.. (W)ealthy patrons imported entire doors and windows from places like Mumbai, which signaled their ability to consume the artifacts of global modernity,” says the website for the “World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean” exhibit
On the topic of Gujarat and Zanzibar, we come to the island’s most famous native son, Freddie Mercury of Queen.
Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara on Sept. 5, 1946, in Zanzibar. In interviews done in his years as rock star, if asked, Mercury would speak briefly of his childhood in Zanzibar and about how his family had to flee the island after a 1964 revolution. He left the island for boarding school in India as child and returned only briefly as a teenager before the family’s move to London.
Mercury seemed more inclined to play up his family’s Parsi religion, or Zoroastrianism, with its ties to ancient Iran. He would refer to himself as a “Persian popinjay.”
I’ve been a Queen fan since my early teens, using money I made babysitting to buy the band’s music. I’ve long known Mercury was born on Zanzibar to a Parsi family. I think many fans of Queen knew this, but few of us knew his parents were born in India.
His parents, Bomi and Jer, were both from the northwestern Indian state of Gujarat. They’d moved to the island of Zanzibar due to Bomi Bulsara’s job as a cashier in the British Colonial Office. Bomi Bulsara is said to have worked in Zanzibar’s House of Wonders, a once grand building that these days is sadly in need of repair.
Mercury’s attitude about his family background irritated Indian columnist Vir Sanghvi. In writing on the recent Queen biopic, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Sanghvi recalled Mercury talking about how his father had been a British civil servant who travelled around the world.
“This, said Freddie, was why he had been brought up all around the British Empire. I was dubious: there was not much of an Empire left by the late Fifties and the Sixties so how did this make any sense?,” Sanghvi wrote in the Hindustan Times.
“Then Freddie proceeded to further embellish the truth. Asked where he was from, he replied ‘Zanzibar.’ This was less a lie than an evasion. His father had taken a job there. But Zanzibar was a place few music journalists had heard of so there were no follow-up questions. At other times he said he was Persian. And then he stopped answering questions about his origins completely.
Asked by a better informed music journo why he never talked about his family or the relatives he had left back in India, Freddie was dismissive. ‘Oh that’s so boring, darling. Let’s talk about something else?’ he said.”
Sanghvi may be referring to another Rolling Stone article, but I think he may be thinking of this 1981 one, “Queen Holds Court in South America”. It’s not quite as described, but close enough..
“Thirty-four years old, Mercury was born Frederick Bulsara in what was then Zanzibar. His father was a British civil servant, and Freddie left home when he was seven to attend boarding school, first in India, then in England. ‘You learn to fend for yourself at an early age. I was quite rebellious, and my parents hated it. I grew out of living at home at an early age. But I just wanted the best. I wanted to be my own boss’,” Rolling Stone quoted Mercury saying.
In preparing to play Freddie Mercury, actor Rami Malek tried to hint at the Gujarati background that had been obscured. A 2019 GQ article described Malek’s work in trying to replicate Mercury’s voice. The actor found footage of Mercury’s mother speaking in her Gujarati accent. Malek copied that Gujarati accent, which sounded nothing like Mercury.
GQ reported Malek “then adapted that to an accent that was 80 percent Gujarati and 20 percent British, which still sounded nothing like Mercury, and then mastering an accent that was half and half, which was closer, and finally working his way up to an accent that was almost entirely British but with the faintest smidge of Gujarati intonation, like 98 percent to 2 percent, and, voilà, that was Mercury.”
There is now a museum for Freddie Mercury on Zanzibar. We didn’t visit it. But we did stop for lunch at the waterside bar named for Freddie in Zanzibar. This precious fierce little kitten had the run of the place.
Zanzibar is home to quite a few wandering cats, which reminded me of Freddie Mercury’s well-known affection for these animals. The cats of Zanzibar managed to look regal and fierce even while begging, as this little one shown below was doing at my favorite cafe in Stone Town, Bahari.
Zanzibar was a place I’d dreamed of seeing for many years. It turned out to be both more grungy and more gorgeous than I’d expected when I finally got there in January 2020.
What you don’t see in postcards and travel articles is how rundown Stone Town is. Below are the same photos of the carved doors seen before in this article. But this time I’ve put them in context, showing them close cropped and then in their settings.
Even rundown, though, Zanzibar was a feast for the eyes, much like its most famous native son.
The trees and plants of Stone Town were lovely. On the northern and western sides of the island are world-class beaches. Freddie Mercury’s home island is well worth a visit, once we are all free to go wandering again.