Book Review by Zahir K. Dhalla, Toronto, 2017
“The Sultan’s Spymaster: Peera Dewji of Zanzibar” by Judy Aldrick, launched at Fort Jesus, Mombasa, Kenya, in 2015, All Africa Books.
310 pages, 58 captioned photos, images and maps. Paperback $18 at Amazon.
The name Peera Dewji does not roll off the pages of write-ups on the early prominent Ismailis of East Africa as do Tharia Topan, Sewa Haji (Paroo), Alidina Visram, … It does not even make the list of 101 prominent Ismailis according to one ranking. Yet, as the author informs the reader, he was the unofficial prime minister, the right-hand man, the admiral of Sultan Barghash who called him “our friend Peera”, and later again Khalid who called him “the trusted one”, these roles lasting until British rule was completely imposed over Zanzibar by the mid 1890s.
The author had her work cut out in digging up Peera’s personal background. “…nothing at all is known about Peera’s private life,” she makes clear. [This dearth of personal information is not peculiar to Peera. The early Indians in East Africa were not known for keeping journals of their lives. And by extension, there is therefore a dearth of information on ‘the man on street’, of everyday life, described by the locals themselves. The author also found “No headstone or grave survives for Peera Dewjee”.]
However, the author has done a yeoman’s job of digging up information on the Zanzibar milieu in which Peera played his public roles. The author remains true to her research, and avoids any imagined dramatization to fill in gaps in his personal life. Thus, the reader expecting glimpses into Peera’s personal life will see only some of it – better a disappointment than fantasy, seems to be the author’s wise approach. But what it does cover in the way of the Zanzibar milieu is very extensive indeed: slavery, palace intrigues, public health (cholera and a graphic description of elephantiasis – reader discretion is advised!), foreign powers, etc – including the three Cs of Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation – using many different sources including famous personalities like Sir Richard Burton. On Burton though, the author does warn the reader of “his jaundiced views”. [This reviewer will add a reminder that Burton was famously wrong about the source of the Nile, and yes, he had a penchant for over-the-top dramatization which made his writings fascinating and titillating for readers’ entertainment. The careful reader will therefore add a grain of salt to his concoctions.] Another personality referenced is Dr James Christie, the famous cholera man, who focussed on sanitary problems in Zanzibar. [To this we can add that these problems were not peculiar to Zanzibar and similar places but that they were world-wide e.g. in England around the same time, the Public Health Act 1875 was passed to combat filthy urban living conditions which created health threats, including cholera and typhus! The local populace in Zanzibar and the mainland, over time, learnt and thoroughly improved sanitation. Unfortunately, this is not the case everywhere today: The Indian Express reported in 2015 that more than 60% of the people in India are without access to toilet and this after more than a 22% improvement since 1990! 1 in 5 young children dies of diarrhoea!]
We learn that Peera Dewji Parpia was born in 1841, in Kera, Kutch. He first came to Zanzibar in the 1850s. He died there in 1904, aged 63. The author reveals that he started out as the sultan’s barber and lamp* cleaner, going on to becoming a very capable and loyal right-hand man. [*Peera’s great granddaughter Mumtaz shares with the author the story of grandma Fatupira, Peera’s only daughter, who used soot mixed with ghee to make aanjari, eyeliner, selling them by the half-teaspoon, in small sea shells!] One of his trademarks was organizing sumptuous banquets on siku kuu (literally, big day in Swahili, meaning public holiday) including a feast for 8,000 people during an Eid ul-Adha. [This is to be compared with khushiali feasts in Toronto and other big cities, which involve managing a huge, experienced manpower and using modern, efficient technology for cooking, transportation, food safety, … which were not available to Peera. He used open fires for cooking, begging at least one question: How does one control the temperature?] In later years, Peera established a business under his sons’ names Abdool Hoossein Bros. & Co dealing in cotton calico (marekani, kaniki), decorative plates, imitation fez, agencies in cement, clock, beer, mostly wholesale. Of his sons, we are told, the eldest Abdulhussein was sent to boarding school in England, in 1892, becoming the first Zanzibari to receive an education in England! The author shows us a photo of him on the school cricket team.
Peera was a staunch Khoja Ismaili. His grandfather Parpia, we are told, was entrusted with delivering tithe from Kera, Kutch to Imam Shah Khalil Allah in Yazd, Persia, which duty Peera too carried out, albeit from Zanzibar to London: presenting to the then Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III, in London where Peera had come for Edward VII’s coronation in 1902, we are told. And in 1899, we are told, 58-year old Peera personally pulled the rickshaw of Aga Khan III (the first-ever visiting Imam) through the narrow, winding alleyways of Jangbar, Zanzibar. As background, the author gives us a coverage on Khojas but quotes only one source and that too of a relatively newcomer (2012) whereas there is ample other material available. Also, there is no mention of Ginans (Khoja pious hymns) which were, and still are, recited by Khoja Ismailis and which, this reviewer bets, the staunch Khoja Peera would have sung all his life, by heart!
This book is valuable, at the very least, in its extensive coverage of political environment, internal and external to Zanzibar. It also presents Peera Dewji Parpia, to the extent possible.
Zahir K. Dhalla is an author, all of whose non-profit books are available on Amazon.
Zahir K. Dhalla is a retired GIS (Geographic Information Systems) and IT (Information Technology) freelance consultant in Toronto, Canada. He is a graduate of the University of Nairobi, Kenya (mapping science) and the University of Toronto, Canada (computer science).
Proceeds of ALL of his books go to needy school children in Tanga, Tanzania where he was born, grew up and finished high school.
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