Letters: Muslims and the Zanzibar slave trade

You can't blame just Muslims for Zanzibar slave trade

Saturday 08 August 2009 00:00 BST

On 27 July, you carried Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's "rebuttal" against criticisms of her programme on slavery in Zanzibar in which she said an unnamed "top Zanzibari professor was among the grossest deniers". I take this as a case of giving a dog a bad name and hanging it. I am the "culprit", and I wish to clarify matters.

In April, the BBC sent me the synopsis of a documentary they were planning. I felt it sounded so much like other Arab- and Islam-bashing that I responded with a long letter declining to be associated with it.

There is no denying there was large-scale slave trading and slavery in Zanzibar in the 19th century; that slaves were used to produce cloves there which continued to be consumed even in the West; that American and European traders at Zanzibar used slave labour to transport their goods, and that some of them even kept slave concubines. But if I was such a denier, would I have titled my 1987 book, Slaves, Spices & Ivory in Zanzibar?

In Yasmin's article, she again describes Zanzibar as "an Arab slave port for centuries", and says "Muslims had perpetuated this evil". Zanzibar had an Arab ruler at the time to which she refers, and a Hindu customs master who received a tax on each slave landed.

The slaves were from the African mainland; many were captured and brought to the coast by African chiefs and Swahili and Arab traders. In what sense does this become purely an Arab or a Muslim phenomenon? If slave trade and slavery is to be identified by the ethnic group and religion of the perpetrators, would we be able to understand the Atlantic slave trade better if we described it as Christian and European?

I decry ethnic and religious labelling not because of the contemporary and understandable sensitivity to these issues since 9/11, but because they do not explain the phenomenon, and cannot help us fight new forms of slavery by different ethnic groups and religions.

What is worse, they can only worsen inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations.

Professor Abdul Sheriff

Executive Director

Zanzibar Indian Ocean Research Institute, Tanzania

More spin on the Barmy Army

Hurrah for Dominic Lawson and his tirade against the Barmy Army (4 August). How much longer must we put up with this selfish, boorish and ignorant behaviour at Test match grounds?

I was at Edgbaston for two days last week. My seat had one huge advantage: it was the width of the field away from the noise and disruption from the Barmy Army. They were largely confined to the stand named after that outstanding Warwickshire spin bowler, Eric Hollies, whose skills would never have been appreciated by these so-called fans who seem to have no love or knowledge of the game, only love of their own misplaced sense of importance. They are slowly turning Edgbaston into a ground unfit for purpose, which is the enjoyment of a game of cricket.

But the cricket authorities and commentators seem determined to support jingoistic behaviour with the belting out of "Jerusalem", the screen display of an appalling anti-Australian "vox pop" video and praise for the crowd's antics on dressing-up day. The fact that it rained incessantly on their parade last Saturday almost made up for the loss of a day's cricket. Maybe the gods are with us after all.

Keith Clement

Northwood, Middlesex

So the ECB in their wisdom are banning the leader of the Barmy Army from bringing into Headingly the flag of St George, and are stopping Billy from bringing in his trumpet. I attended all five days of the Edgbaston Test. The Barmy Army caused no trouble; a few drunks in the same stand apparently did, a sure sign that the ICC ban on the importation of alcohol is really working.

Next year, this country entertains Pakistan. Will the ECB ban the Pakistan supporters from bringing in the Pakistan flag and the thousands of trumpets and horns that really do assault the ears throughout the match? If they do not take this course of action will they leave themselves open to charges of racial discrimination? What a load of killjoys exist in the corridors of cricket's power.

J Fox

Newbold Verdon, Leicestershire

I was at the Monday session of the Edgbaston Test match. The media have been as one in excoriating the Barmy Army for their boorishness, and I agree that the booing of Ricky Ponting on Sunday, and the recycling of tired football chants, are examples of this.

But I think there are two elements. Some I suspect to be the true Barmy cricket fans (such as Vic Flowers and The Trumpeter). They are almost Shakespearean entertainers, injecting levity and humour into the natural lulls of the game. And then there are the nasty hooligan hangers-on, fuelled by drink and boredom, without humour and making it difficult for us to concentrate on the contest we've paid to see.

The question isn't whether the Barmy Army's standard-bearers should be banned, but whether cricket can manage this new hooligan element?

S Lingard


I have been astonished by some of the replies to Dominic Lawson's criticism of the Barmy Army. Although I rarely agree with anything he writes, on this occasion he hit the nail on the head. Attendance at a cricket match should be an enjoyable experience, but that has become almost impossible, since modern spectators can't do without noise, spectacle and boorish behaviour.

Your 18-year-old correspondent (letters, 6 August) seems to be typical in suggesting that cricket should provide a "fun" day out, which apparently means dressing in stupid costumes, producing as much noise as possible, shouting inane remarks to other spectators and the players, and engaging in a beer-fest (although she herself doesn't indulge in the latter). Why does "fun" need to involve such irritating side-shows, when cricket itself is so fascinating?

Lawrence Johnston

Modrydd, Brecon

I don't understand Dominic Lawson's opposition to "boorish chauvinism". Isn't he a supporter of the Conservative Party's policy on Europe?

Christopher Clayton

Waverton, Cheshire

Organic food can bring new life

Having recently returned from visiting organic farmers in Ecuador (where 40 per cent live on less than $2 a day) it seems that a vital group of people are being forgotten in the debate about the relative benefits of organic food ("Organic food debate boils over", 6 August). These are the poor farmers around the world who are lifting themselves out of poverty by going organic.

Small-scale farmers, such as Alfredo Ruiz and his fellow villagers in the hamlet of El Cristal in the Andean foothills, told me how they have stopped forking out for expensive chemicals in favour of traditional methods of growing which they haven't used for decades.

The result? Small communities are re-learning how to manage their natural resources, meaning they produce more reliable, bigger crops and a better living wage.

Alfredo now sells his produce at the local market and has even started converting his neighbours to organics. For many of the world's 1.4 billion small-scale farmers, the benefit of organics is clear: better food, security and a better life.

Jo Barrett

Communications Officer, Progressio, London N1

Ah, so at last we have the truth. In your article on organic products under the headline "Organic food - Is it worth it?" (5 August), you say "the official Government position is that the vast majority of pesticide residues are safe for human health".

Vast majority? This implies that there are still a number that aren't safe. One of the main reasons for buying organic is the absence of chemicals used in conventional farming, whose intake may be the cause of who knows how many ailments.

Hasn't the Government rather shot itself in the foot?

V & E Fitch

Maidenhead, Berkshire

Drug patents are wrong target

Johann Hari delves into fantasy to try to justify his theory that patents on medicines are somehow responsible for world health problems ("The hidden truth behind drug company profits", 5 August). First, he assumes that there are factories in the developing world ready to produce swine flu medicines. There aren't. Production of modern medicines is a complex and intricate process that must be carefully monitored.

Second, he assumes developing nations can easily deliver such medicines to patients. Not only are some countries so poor that they cannot afford even the cheapest medicines, but they also do not have doctors, clinics, transport and storage systems for the medicines, nor the trained staff needed to ensure patients understand how to take them. Solving these problems is a pressing priority for the global community: they are not a result of the patent system.

Third, Mr Hari fails to understand the nature of pharmaceutical innovation. Companies would not hold patents unless they had themselves discovered the medicines. On average, every medicine costs about £500m over 10 to 12 years to research and develop, and that investment has to be recouped.

In just one instance, GlaxoSmithKline has trebled its production of antiviral medicine, setting aside 10 per cent of its production capacity for developing countries and investing more than £1bn in new vaccine production. Without the industry's ability to innovate, and to respond swiftly and effectively, we would be facing this pandemic empty-handed.

Dr Richard W Barker

Director General,

Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, London SW1

Johann Hari is right to highlight the human cost of unaffordable drugs treatment in developing countries. Abolishing the patent system is not a realistic or even desirable option, but we must do all we can to ensure patents do not prevent life-saving medicines getting to those who need them most.

The UK's Department for International Development fully supports Unitaid in the development of a "patent pool" where pharmaceutical companies would volunteer patents in return for an agreed royalty.

This would allow generic manufacturers to produce medicines cheaply for developing countries, and researchers could develop new combinations of drugs that meet the needs of developing countries, particularly for children.

I urge the pharmaceutical industry to act now.

Mike Foster

Minister for International Development, London SW1

Bank stings staff

An unemployed friend in Manchester was recently offered a job by a major high street bank. She was required to do seven weeks of unpaid training, which seems a little harsh, and also pay £200 towards the cost of it, which seems completely unfair. Are staff as well as customers now being stung by unfair bank charges?

I & G Shingler

Barton-le-Clay, Bedfordshire

Asperger a gift

It is good that Asperger syndrome is becoming better known and understood, but it irks me that you describe it as a terrible affliction (report, 5 August). It has disadvantages which no one would deny, but Aspergers are often highly intelligent and gifted people, and they can look at things from a different perspective and have fresh insights, a resource, indeed, for humanity. Many of us live normal lives and work in the professions. I always say that I do not suffer from Asperger syndrome; it is a gift.

Revd J D Wright

Brighton, East Sussex

IVF on taxpayers

As a single, childless female, I am happy to contribute towards children's education and wellbeing, but I do object to my taxes paying for couples to have IVF treatment. It must be sad when people who want children find they are infertile. But I think they should look outside themselves and find something else to do. People living in the West have enough options.

Valerie Nash

Chorlton, Manchester

Right answer, petal

The short story the name of whose author M J Cooper has forgotten (letters, 4 August) is The Lotus Eater, by W Somerset Maugham.

Nick Chadwick


Hacked off

David Carter and Michael Oppenheim (letters, 4 Aug-ust) claim Gary McKinnon has done the US government a favour by hacking into their computer systems and exposing their lack of security. I trust that they would be equally forgiving if a burglar did them a similar favour by breaking into their homes.

Gordon Elliot

Burford, Oxfordshire

Well briefed

The same day I heard the noun "hero" used as a verb ("the move was heroed by..."), I read Martin Hickman ("Tired of waiting for the web?", 28 July) describing "the headline speed caveated with the weasel words 'up to' ". What noun is next to be verbated?

David Hasell

Thames Ditton, Surrey

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