by A. W. SMITH
IT WAS through one of those ludicrous and occasionally happy accidents of war that I came to Zanzibar. I had missed the southbound flying boat. There was a steamer leaving which I just managed to catch. When they said rather apologetically that she was to call at Zanzibar they seemed surprised when I said it would suit me quite well.
Sixty years ago when my parents were first married they lived in Zanzibar, then a place of some importance. The Arabs said, “When you play on the flute at Zanzibar all Africa as far as the lakes dances.”A dozen trumpets there today would disturb no one, except perhaps the spice merchants on Pearl Street wondering about the price of cloves for which the island is still famous.
Zanzibar’s first Western exploitation was by another seafaring city whose greatness has also departed. Salem captains made friends with the Sultan a century and a half ago. Salem brigs used Zanzibar as a depot from which they traded up and down the East African coast. To this day certain gray cotton goods are known as Merikani, although years ago the trade went to Manchester and eventually to Japan.
By my parents’ day others had displaced Salem in that jealously guarded preserve. Perhaps even the American Consul, originally appointed to foster federalist Salem’s rights, had been withdrawn, a loss the limited white society could ill afford. Church of England missionaries were its most numerous group. Headed by a bishop whose see covered most of East and Central Africa, they formed an enclave of priests and a few ladies of birth and breeding who taught in the mission school. Both male and female missionaries were chiefly concerned with the rehabilitation of freed slaves. The process demanded education of the young, resettlement of the adult, the conversion of all, and a certain amount of mar-
rying off among themselves if that seemed to be advisable.
Clearly the supply of freed slaves to be rehabilitated depended upon efforts to suppress the slave trade which was an Arab monopoly. The missionaries were not popular with the Arabs, who naturally resented a simultaneous attack on their livelihood and their faith.
The Sultan of Zanzibar, a despot of the old school, had recently submitted to demands to close the public slave market. The site had been promptly bought by the Bishop for the erection of a cathedral. An enormous banyan tree was left standing to shade the door. Under it had stood the slave scales for those categories of slaves sold by the pound.
Though the public market was closed, slaving was still active and profitable, in spite of the best efforts of the missionaries and the Royal Navy. The Arabs ran their cargoes in fast-sailing dhows from the mainland to the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba in a night. Sometimes slaves were sold locally for the clove fields where many wore driven to death, for a clove crop is urgent and must be harvested before the buds can open into full flower. Sometimes slaves were sold for shipment to the Persian Gulf. Either way, Zanzibar was the center of the trade.
My father first came there as a Naval officer in suppression of the trade. Ships’ cutters were sent away in charge of young officers on long cruises to watch for the dhows. Occasionally there was a prize, but that was seldom, for dhows are very fast before the wind and Arabs are excellent seamen. Unless a cutter could come to windward, there was little hope of catching them. Prizes were sent to Zanzibar. The dhows were burned. The slaves were freed and handed over to the missionaries.
My grandfather had been a leading abolitionist, a friend of Wilberforce and Zachary Macaulay. Freeing slaves must have been in the blood. Also, my father’s war on the trade was a crusade which, for a young and adventurous Naval officer, was not without its rewards in independent command, freedom from the quarterdeck, and the matching of wits with superb Arab seamen who knew every inlet and mangrove-grown creek. The boarding of dhows with cutlass and pistol was never without some danger. The slaves themselves were always grateful and appreciative.
For us boys there were the red dhow flags hanging in the hall of our little house in England — very ordinary pieces of red cotton cloth on very ordinary pieces of wood, but romantic when you knew that each represented a prize taken by boarding at gun point. There was also the slave chain, a heavy iron length with neck rings at intervals. It hung looped above the flags except when it was being borrowed by missionary societies. It was a popular item with them — unusual and dramatic. My mother was always ready to lend it. Possibly she may have wished they would keep it.
My father liked the life so well in Zanzibar that he swallowed the killick — he left the Navy and took a shore job. He married my mother and returned to Zanzibar as British Consul. My mother liked nothing of the life there. One of my sisters was buried there and another brought home just in time. My mother did not think Zanzibar romantic, but she remembered good friends among the missionaries. She asked one of them — Miss Barclay — to become my godmother.
FOR a day and a night we wallowed in the swell, the tow yawing in our wash. The towrope slacked and dipped as the lighter took the plunge down the gray slopes of ocean. It tautened in a snap of silvery spray as she took up the strain again.
It was very hot. There was a sea without wind and the air was soft and sticky with salt, brushing like cobwebs across the face. Morning came and there was no swell, only an undulation of the polished surface of the sea lost in the gray haze of the horizon.
There was, too, a heavy fragrance, warm and cloying — of cloves with all their nostalgic reminders, licit and illicit . . . of toothache and English apple pie, of camouflage for a glass of thin railway sherry on the way to school, of the more unpleasant brands of chewing gum.
I was glad that I was going to Zanzibar. Hanging over the rail, I watched the island, incredibly green, lift out of the shimmering sea. The city — flat white cliffs of houses rising straight from the purple sea — was just what I had always expected. Only the all-pervading fragrance of cloves, heavy and cloying, made it all new and real.
In every Eastern port where a tourist could conceivably land, there is a polyglot race who style themselves guides. For them there is only one reason for anyone coming ashore. They can get themselves ludicrously worked up at the thought of the possibility of other people’s vices.
Athanase was one of these. If possible, he was older and more obscene than the general run. He was also more persistent. He might have been an Arab. He tried Arabic first. His English was beyond recognition. His French, however, had the same rudimentary quality as my own. We understood each other well enough in that language. When he remarked that he was from the French Islands of Comoro I could guess the rest. The people of Comoro are by local tradition disreputable. The men go to sea and the women whoring to the mainland. Eventually they all return to marry on the proceeds and to raise families who will repeat the pattern.
He got down to business at once in four languages, adding Swahili in the urgency of his salesmanship. He offered girls — fat girls, thin girls, Arab, African, girls who danced and girls who did not, but every one virgin and young.
By the time that I had got into the only taxi, Athanase was already seated by the driver and giving him what seemed to be quite unnecessary instructions as to the direction in which he was to proceed. There was only one — straight down the water front past the iced wedding cake of the Sultan’s palace, where the street — as far as wheeled traffic was concerned — ended.
When I got out Athanase got out. When I reached to put the fare into the driver’s outstretched hand, somehow, magically, Athanase intercepted it on the way. It was he who actually paid the driver. Clearly he intended to make himself indispensable.
I told him he was not wanted. His bright old eyes searched my face for a sign.
How then, he asked, could I possibly expect to occupy myself for the twelve hours or so the ship would be in port?
I would see the Cathedral.
At once the goatish look disappeared. He crossed his hands on the round little orange of his stomach. He lowered his gaze in pious devotion.
Ah, the Cathedral. . . . But that could not take long. And then? His wicked eyes brightened.
I would call on the Bishop.
Fresh hope kindled. The Bishop was away, he countered. He had gone on a visitation to the mainland. So. But let us first find the Cathedral.
In those climates stone walls grow green beards. The Cathedral square was like the bottom of a sea pool. In the middle was the great banyan tree I had expected to see. The whole lay in green shadow. Here and there flicks of sunlight dappled the uneven stones of the yard. There was no sound — no noise of wheeled traffic, as the streets of Zanzibar are too narrow — only the shuffle of bare feet and the click of my Western heels.
That, said Athanase, is where they sold the slaves. Young girls. . . .
He pointed across the green subaqueous shadows at a house on the other side of the close.
The bibikhana, he said. The women’s quarters. Where the Bishop keeps his bibis.
The bibikhana? I was puzzled, for bibi may mean anything from a wife down. And with Athanase I could be pretty sure it. would be down. But it was unlikely that an elderly missionary Bishop. . . .
And then suddenly, as if by arrangement, a little, habited old lady, a deaconess, as like as could be to my recollection of Miss Barclay on her rare visits to England, swam with small tripping steps out of the mission ladies’ home and across to the vestry door. It was not Miss Barclay, of course. She had been dead many years. But it gave me quite a turn.
Athanase shuffled his feet. He had had enough of sight-seeing. Alors, he said in a businesslike fashion.
There did not seem much point in spending any longer on the scene of my father’s triumphs. They seemed somehow very remote. And there was one other matter I had in mind. It was not morbidity. I knew it would please my mother if I could tell her I had seen the grave of that sister who had died a dozen years before I was born.
I said I wished to go to the cemetery to find the grave of my sister.
The old imp barked an incredulous laugh. La fosse de votre soeur. . . .
It did sound improbable, like something out of a macabre French grammar — the pen of my aunt. . . .
ça bien, he said briskly. It sounded like a threat.
It was afternoon and hot. The narrow streets, clefts in the cliffs of houses, ran between high walls broken only by great carved doors studded with brass. The doors were always closed, the streets deserted and silent. Only sometimes there was a voice behind the gates or a high-pitched laugh or the sound of gates swung softly to at the clicking warning of my heels. It was like being the headmaster of some school where the boys were always avoiding the prying eye of authority.
Away from the street the long shadows of the trees lay over the golden-green turf. The colors of flowers had an unnatural brightness. Crimson acacias, deep red cannas like stiff soldiers, and scarlet pomegranate blossoms cast reflected blushes on the earth. A newly watered road smelled sweetly with the scent of earth after rain. Over all hung the penetrating fragrance of cloves.
The cemetery was a dismal spot of tangled bushes and dry bones of palms. Athanase sat on a wall, still incredulous. Hunting among the uncared-for graves, I found none that could be the one for which I searched, and in that dreadful place I was glad for my non-success.
Athanase came to life as I fought my way back through the tangled jungle. It was, he remarked, most extraordinary. No one landing on the island had ever acted quite like this. He made it sound as if I were guilty of one of the more peculiar vices. What could my interests possibly be?
Perhaps I would have saved myself a lot of trouble if I had told him to begin with. With our backs to the harsh light of the evening sun, sitting on the broken wall by the rusty gate, I told him about my father.
But he knew him, of course. It was an easy guess that he was lying, but among friends we let that pass. Might it not, he asked, have been better to have gone to the cemetery at M’bweni where the mission school was? The name was somehow familiar and I knew he was right and that it was too late. It was time to return if we were to get back before darkness fell.
I mentioned Miss Barclay. Athanase dropped to his feet off the wall. He was not lying now. He knew Barclay Bibi well. Everyone in Zanzibar knew her. She had been there when he arrived many years ago. She had died, he said, to the universal sorrow not long ago — by which I knew he meant twenty years.
Barclay Bibi, he said. Oh, indeed yes, Barclay Bibi. . . .
WE HAD to walk fast to catch the last half hour of daylight. Sweat trickled from me. There was the bitter taste of dust on my tongue. A large car swept slowly by, raising the dust about us in a soft cloud. Athanase bent from the waist in a low bow. The Sultan, he remarked. Perhaps it was.
There was a smell of wood smoke and of hot food cooking in oil for the evening meal. Fires twinkled in the dusk. People were out taking the evening air. The lesser folk Athanase pushed unceremoniously aside. The greater were saluted with dignity. They walked with slow paces down the middle of the street in flowing robes of cream-colored silk only slightly lighter in shade than their skins.
They all knew Miss Barclay. There was no doubt about that. There was always the same exclamation of interest, the same grave inclination of the head in my direction. Athanase warmed to his work in this new reflected glory. All men of importance had to hear.
In the fruit market they were lighting naphtha flares for the evening’s business. The yellow lights flickered smokily in the purple darkness. They glowed on banks of color — mangoes and pineapples, fat red bananas and green custard apples, on pink flesh of watermelon, on oranges and limes.
Lights were popping up suddenly in the town. But the deep gullies were still dark. In one of these Athanase came to a sudden halt. His bony fingers gripped my wrist. He knew, he said, what white men like at the end of an arduous day. . . .
I must get back to my ship.
He sighed in the darkness. You misunderstand, he said sadly, reproachfully. Whiskey. Whiskey and soda in a long glass. Cold. With ice.
In a Syrian bar under dim electric lights men of uncertain origin drank what looked like mastic. Athanase led me to a small whitewashed room at the back, which had one table and one hard chair.
The Syrian brought a bottle. I shook my head. It had been opened — a bad sign in a part of the world where even a sealed bottle can be tampered with. And it had a familiar highly colored label — MacDougall’s Mountain Dew O’ the Heather, Genuine Scotch Whiskey Distilled from Pure Potato Spirit in Sidney, Australia. Even a Cairene bottle doctorer would be hard put to it to do worse than that.
I said I would go without.
Athanase grasped the situation. He exploded into Arabic. He backed the Syrian against the wall, waggling a bony finger under his flattened nose. At the end I heard Miss Barclay’s name.
The Syrian was suddenly gone. And suddenly back. With a corkscrew and a bottle. He laid both on the table and stepped back to admire the effect.
It was Haig & Haig Gold Label, to my knowledge unobtainable in Africa for years. I examined the bottle for any of the telltale signs which would show it had been tampered with. The Syrian approved my caution. He motioned towards the corkscrew. I was to operate upon the cork myself.
Ice clinked in the pint-size tumbler. Soda frosted with cold popped as the old-fashioned glass ball stopper was depressed.
Modestly deadpan, Athanase pretended he did not know he had worked a miracle. I gestured towards the bottle. Athanase shook his head. The Syrian was back in a moment with the other bottle.
So we drank a silent toast, I in Haig & Haig, Athanase in Mountain Dew. Whom he drank to I could not tell. Perhaps, like me, to Miss Barclay and all her friends.
It was November when I next saw my mother. We sat together over the small wartime fire, — the raw night blacked out with heavy red curtains. We talked and she slept a little.
Hands to the tiny blaze I let my mind range. Within forty-eight hours I would be flying back to Africa. My father on the mantelpiece, young and in uniform, brave in gold lace and medals. Yet you could get killed just as dead with a hammered lead bullet from an Arab’s muzzle-loading gun as with anything that Hitler could produce. Africa and my job. . . .
“I am sure Miss Barclay knows.” My mother was awake again. “And how gratified she must be to know that she is still some use. But your sister. . . . We buried her at M’bweni on the mainland, but perhaps I never told you. . .”
She was looking into the fire and I wondered what she saw. Purple seas and skimming dhows, the translucent coolness of early dawn, a laughing child, my father slim, handsome, and very straight cantering his pony to the office. . . .
Suddenly she laughed, shaking a little as she always does when she is really amused.
“Oh what fun!” she cried. “How Miss Barclay must be enjoying it.”