Swahili Coast Daughters

From the 1850s, photographs captivated people across the globe, and Zanzibar was no exception.   By 1883, Sultan Barghash bin Said created a camera obscura room in a high tower of his new palace, called the House of Wonders. Life-sized portraits in oil, stereopticon viewers, and photo albums replete with cartes-de-visite of local and European sovereigns graced the Sultan’s many residences.

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two women

Top:
A.C. Gomes and Co.
Gelatin silver print
Zanzibar, c. 1900
61-3 Courtesy the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies Winterton Collection
Northwestern University

Bottom:
Photographer unknown
Gelatin silver print
Zanzibar, before 1905
72-3-11-2 Courtesy the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies Winterton Collection
Northwestern University

During the 1870s, Zanzibar Town’s first commercial photography studios were among the earliest established in east Africa. A. C. Gomes and the brothers Felix and J.B. Coutinho, probably part of the Portuguese/Goan diaspora, sold portraits, views, and commercial subjects to the Sultan’s family and Zanzibari elite, as well as to the stream of foreign visitors and emigrés. But an entirely different kind of subject would soon emerge with the end of slavery in 1897 - images of newly freed women.

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Photographer unknown
Albumen print
Zanzibar, 1896
30-1-21 Courtesy the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies Winterton Collection,
Northwestern University

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Gomes & Co.
Albumen print
Zanzibar, c. 1900
61-6 Courtesy the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies Winterton Collection,
Northwestern University

After 1897, newly freed people, many of whom had come from the east and central African mainland, immediately embraced new fashions that reflected their shifted status. Prior to abolition, unfree Zanzibari women working in the city or countryside would have signaled their position as slaves by wearing inexpensive white merikani cloth wrappers or the indigo-dyed cloth, kaniki. After abolition, women immediately choose to buy kanga, cloths printed with lush colors and bold graphics. Free women could choose cover their heads and shoulders with ornately folded turbans in public, a sign of Muslim propriety previously the prerogative of Zanzibar’s elite women.

Top:
Coutinho Brothers
Postcard, collotype
Zanzibar, c. 1900
TZ-20-11 Courtesy the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

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An Arab girl. Mombasa, B.E.A. [British East Africa]
D.V. Figueira
Postcard, collotype
Mombasa, c. 1925
KE 20-72 Courtesy the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

Felix and J.B Coutinho photographed in the studio and on the street, capturing turn-of-the-century Zanzibar. Their success was rooted in their production of thousands of postcards, sold to the city’s enormous flow of visitors. While some postcards and souvenir photographs were staged with models, others originated as private portraits that later entered the mass market. These women, heads modestly covered, dazzle with luxury clothing and imported jewels. Their panache stands in stark contrast to the labeling of the postcards, which categorises them, rather than naming them as individuals.

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Photographer unknown
Gelatin silver print
Zanzibar or German East Africa, c. 1880-1890
73-4 Courtesy the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies Winterton Collection,
Northwestern University

Bottom:
Photographer unknown
Albumen print
Zanzibar, c. 1890
65-8 Courtesy the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies Winterton Collection,
Northwestern University

By 1850, Zanzibar Town was populated predominantly by people brought forcibly from east and central Africa. Others were traded or migrated from across the Indian Ocean, from Madagascar and the Comoros, Oman, Persia, Georgia, and India. That Zanzibar was the hub for so many exchanges and migrations perhaps encouraged photography collectors to ascribe portraits by location or origin—though these captions are not entirely reliable—such as “Jeune malagache Majunga” (Young Malagasy woman from Majunga).

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Photographer unknown
Albumen print
Zanzibar, c. 1890
65-3 Courtesy the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies Winterton Collection, Northwestern University

Middle:
Photographer unknown
Albumen print
Zanzibar, c. 1890
65-1 Courtesy the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies Winterton Collection, Northwestern University

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Coutinho Brothers
Albumen print
Zanzibar, c. 1890
65-2 Courtesy the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies Winterton Collection, Northwestern University

Three photographs from the Coutinho Brothers studio show women reflecting distinct and different engagements with the photographer and each other. Alternately resistant, playful, and decorous, this range of interactions leaves a complex and ambiguous photographic record. References from the albums in which they were collected suggest two may represent Comorian women, likely referencing the long chemise and trousers and the stylish kanga.

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Photographer unknown
Albumen print
Zanzibar, c. 1890
72-3-32 Courtesy the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies Winterton Collection,
Northwestern University

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Arab Ladies, Zanzibar
A.C. Gomes and Son
Postcard, collotype
Zanzibar, c. 1910
TZ 20-17 Courtesy the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

Sultan Seyyid Said established the Omani Arab sultanate on Zanzibar in the 1830s, allying with the local hereditary rulers, the Hadimu and Tumbatu dynasties. The new sultanate brought women from central and east Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Indian Ocean islands, Oman, Persia, Circassia, and India to marry the Sultan—as freeborn wives and as concubines. Upon arrival, they were renamed and adopted Omani dress. Royal wardrobes brought together influences from the Indian Ocean - marinda pants with flared ankles, thought to be a Circassian introduction, were worn with long chemises and shawls of fine silk and cotton cloth, intricately wrapped kilemba (headscarves), and heavy, imported silver jewelry.

Photographer unknown
Postcard
Zanzibar, c. 1890
TZ 20-25 Courtesy the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

This portrait is notable for the extraordinary grace and splendor of its sitters. With their fine chemises of imported silk and cotton, tailored marinda pants, expensive shoes, silver jewellery and beads, and uncovered heads, these young women may have served Omani royal women. Wapambe were a class of unfree women who were adorned expressly for public display and who literally embodied the wealth of their owners. Heavily jeweled wapambe paraded and danced at festivals; they represented the aristocratic ladies who were required to remain hidden from view.

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Photographer unknown
Albumen print
Zanzibar, c. 1890
72-3-7-2 Courtesy the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies Winterton Collection, Northwestern University

Bottom:
Photographer unknown
Albumen print
Zanzibar, c. 1890
64-8 Courtesy the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies Winterton Collection,
Northwestern University

Portraits of the Zanzibari elite of the 1890s reveal changing vogues of fashion and personal adornment, glimpses of which were seen in the city, in women’s private domestic spaces, and in the photographic studio. Collections of elite portraits suggest that photography studios were a liminal place, semi-private and semi-public. In them, photographers captured a woman’s adornment as individual expression - ephemeral beauty refined into a still image. One unattributed portrait presents a royal woman in her finery and barakoa, a mask made of silk and embellished with silver and gold threads, which both shielded and featured her eyes.

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Mombasa, Mother and Child
Coutinho and Sons
Postcard, collotype
Mombasa, before 1911
KE 20-60 Courtesy the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

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Lamu Girls. Mombasa, B.E.A. [British East Africa]
Printed by Anderson & Mayer, proprietors, Mombasa
Postcard, collotype
Lamu, c. 1920
KE 20-03 Courtesy the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

After abolition, women, regardless of their class, could choose to cover their heads. Whereas before, working unfree women would have worn plain undyed merikani cloth or dark indigo kaniki, the introduction of kanga became another equalizer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Kanga were adopted by elite, freeborn, and newly freed women in Zanzibar as well as the network of cities—Mombasa, Lamu, Malindi—along the coast.

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Daressalam, Native Woman – Tanganyika Territory
C. Fernandes
Postcard, collotype
Dar es Salaam, c. 1900
20-16 Courtesy the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

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Photographer unknown
Postcard
Dar es Salaam, c. 1910
TZ 20-15 Courtesy the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

Women wearing kanga in Dar es Salaam reveal the extent of different styles along the coast and exemplify the overwhelming popularity of the cloth for urban women. The demand for kanga grew quickly, taken up by all classes of women, and preferred styles changed continuously in each place and independently from city to city. South Asian shopkeepers and Zanzibari women tastemakers began to dictate new styles to European traders, who produced kanga in European factories expressly for the east African market. Fashion was big business, and its tempestuous history mirrors dramatic changes within east African societies.

Top:
Photographer unknown
Gelatin silver print
Zanzibar, c. 1900
56-2-48 Courtesy the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies Winterton Collection,
Northwestern University

Bottom:
Photographer unknown
Silver gelatin print
Zanzibar, c. 1900
72-3-8-1 Courtesy the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies Winterton Collection, Northwestern University

Feminine beauty was viewed as both intensely personal and a commodity; for example, beautiful servants were highly sought after and enhanced their owners’ reputations as they moved through the city streets. Wives were sought for the hope of bringing beautiful children. Sailors working on the Indian Ocean for ten months of the year relayed tales of Zanzibar’s legendary beauties, whose images were captured in touristic photographs. Studios experimented with the formal qualities of their models, as seen in these photographs for the commercial market. Photographers framed young women’s faces and bodies with careful lighting, emphasizing their adornment, decorum, and elegance. The effect is at once inviting and distancing.

Photographer unknown
Albumen print
Zanzibar, c. 1900
65-7 Courtesy the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies Winterton Collection,
Northwestern University

This puzzling image of a young man dressed as an elite Zanzibari woman might be a joke played by the studio, or the trace of a costume party. It also brings to mind Swahili stories of the possibilities of transformation through dress. Sultani Majinuni, Sultan Darai, and Kisa cha Kihindi all feature tales of mistaken identity effected with a change of clothes—of slaves dressing as sultans, and a man who, when dressed as a woman, was disinherited.