In this episode, we learn about Richard Waters who served as the first consul from the United States to Zanzibar.
Because the burgeoning trade of Salem merchants required some official oversight, but in order to be successful, Waters had to learn to navigate the world of Indian Ocean trade.
Bennett, Norman R. 1965. New England Merchants in Africa: A History Through Documents, 1802 to 1865. Brookline, MA: Boston University Press.
Bishara, Fahad, and Hollian Wint. 2020. “Into the bazaar: Indian Ocean vernaculars in the age of global capitalism.” Journal of Global History. 1-21.
Croucher, Sarah K. 2015. Capitalism and Cloves: An Archaeology of Plantation Life on Nineteenth-Century Zanzibar. New York: Springer. https://public.ebookcentral.proquest.com/choice/publicfullrecord.aspx?p=1964753.
Gilbert, Wesley John. 2011. Our Man in Zanzibar: Richard Waters, American Consul (1837-1845). WesScholar. http://wesscholar.wesleyan.edu/etd_hon_theses/675.
Hooper, Jane. 2018. “Yankees in Indian Ocean Africa: Madagascar and Nineteenth-Century American Commerce.” African Economic History 46: 30-62.
Prestholdt, Jeremy. 2006. Mirroring Modernity: On Consumerism in Nineteenth-Century Zanzibar. Boston, MA: African Studies Center, Boston University.
Sheriff, Abdul. 2002. Slaves, Spices & Ivory in Zanzibar: Integration of an East African Commercial Empire into the World Economy, 1770-1873. London: Currey.
Producer: Deepthi Murali
Fact-checker: Kris Stinson
Music: Andrew Cote
Voice actor: Dan Howlett
ABBY MULLEN: Imagine your clothes for a second. Think of all the things you have in your closet or your drawers. Now think of how many of those things have a visible manufacturer’s logo on them, like Old Navy, or Louis Vuitton. Now imagine that those garments were made of coarse, plain, uncolored cotton, except for that manufacturers’ mark. That doesn’t sound particularly appealing to me–I like colors and patterns in my clothes. But cloth like that–plain, coarse cotton except for that all-important manufacturer’s mark–was partially responsible for the creation of an American consulate in the city of Zanzibar, and it was key to keeping the merchants of Salem, Massachusetts, in business in the 1830s and 1840s.
I’m Abby Mullen, and this is Consolation Prize, a podcast where we look at the history of the United States in the world through the eyes of its consuls. Today we’re going to Zanzibar, an island on the eastern coast of Africa, where we’re going to learn how this cloth, merikani cloth, helped to create the consulate in Zanzibar, and what happened after that. The first consul to Zanzibar was named Richard Waters. He went in order to establish the trade of one particular part of the United States–Salem. But in order for him to succeed, he had to understand and break into a system of trade in the Indian Ocean that had been working for hundreds of years.
Before we get to our story, I want to ask you a favor: if you like Consolation Prize, we really really want you to tell your friends. Would you please post about this episode on your social media? You can tag us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. Tell your friends why they should hear this episode. Thanks for doing that.
Okay, so let’s start with the important stuff: Where is Zanzibar?
If you’re like me–or if you are me, before this episode–you don’t know where Zanzibar is. You might not have even known that it’s a real place. The name “Zanzibar” just sounds kinda fanciful–probably all of those z’s in the name. But Zanzibar is a real place.
It’s an island. Today the island is called Unguja. It’s on the eastern side of Africa, in the Indian Ocean, north of Madagascar. In the 1830s, which is the time period we’re interested in, Zanzibar was a bustling trade port. It was part of the sultanate of Oman. Now that’s kinda weird because Oman is not that close to it. Oman is on the Arabian peninsula, far north of Zanzibar–it’s actually about the same distance from San Francisco to Washington DC as it is from Oman to Zanzibar. It’s important for our story that Zanzibar was under Omani control, so let’s talk for just a minute about how it got that way. Alexandra Kelly, a historian of East Africa, tells us that from Oman, merchants traveled out all around the Indian Ocean, including Zanzibar.
ALEXANDRA KELLY: Because they had to follow the monsoon winds, they would end up spending months, like at a time in various ports around the Indian Ocean, they often had families and children in these ports, and then they would return back to the Hadhramaut in the on the Arabian Peninsula. And they would send their sons back, you know, to the Arabian Peninsula to be educated or they would go back there to be buried. And so they created this whole system of Islamic scholarship and mercantile networks in the Indian Ocean. And so that already existed, prior to, you know, the 17-1800s.
MULLEN: In the early days of European imperialism, the Portuguese started to colonize a lot of East Africa. But the rulers of the region weren’t quite ready to give up their land without a fight.
KELLY: The Swahili Sultans are petitioning the Omanis to help them oust the Portuguese, and so the Omanis end up, like doing that very successfully. And I think it’s, by the end of the 17th century, they’d mostly kicked the Portuguese out of East Africa.
MULLEN: The Omanis just stuck around in Zanzibar after they got rid of the Portuguese. In fact, in the 1820s, and especially by the 1830s, Said bin Sultan, the Omani ruler, wanted to move toward Zanzibar as a primary base of operations for a lot of reasons.
KELLY: At that point, the Omani Sultanate is based in Muscat, and there’s a lot of rival, you know, rival dynasties and succession disputes. And so I think Said was, he found Zanzibar appealing, because one, when he was in Zanzibar, he sort of got away from all the political turmoil of Muscat. But then he also realized that there was a big trade possibility in East Africa, and that, if he could consolidate all those goods to funnel through Zanzibar, then he was in a position to make, you know, huge profits off of Western demand for East African goods, and, you know, Indian demand for East African goods.
MULLEN: Zanzibar became known for a lot of different commodities that Westerners might want: things like ivory; and gum copal, which is a key part of furniture varnish; and things like cloves—yes, the spice that makes me think of Thanksgiving or Christmas pie.
In return for these goods from East Africa, Westerners—Americans in particular–brought a number of goods to trade. One big one was guns, which the sultan was particularly interested in. But the driving force behind American trade was that cloth we already talked about—merikani. And Salem was in the forefront of that trade.
JOSHUA MORRISON: There had been American ships in the western Indian Ocean since before the United States existed back when they were British colonies, and the town of Salem had really made its money, made its name after American independence by sailing, at least through this region.
MULLEN: That’s Joshua Morrison, who studies American interactions with Oman. He told us that Salem merchants were very good at what they did, but world events caused a major shift in their strategy.
The War of 1812 crippled American maritime trade. After the war, Northern merchants tried to pick up the pieces and restart it. At that point, Salem had to compete with bigger, wealthier ports like Boston and New York, where steam technology was starting to take off.
MORRISON: The merchants in Salem, who are decently rich, very experienced with this type of deal, they basically have to go back to the drawing board and look for new places to send ships. So they’re sending out all of these little ventures, to places really around the world. And it’s really almost happenstance that they’d also been doing some trade up to Madagascar and up to the Arabian Peninsula. And basically, Zanzibar is on the way, and they stop there occasionally. And that’s really what gets us going is Zanzibar is one stop out of many, and they’re kind of searching for perspective markets.
MULLEN: Salem merchants were looking for markets for a lot of goods. But in particular, in the 1820s, textile mills in Lowell and elsewhere were starting to make a big dent in the world market for cloth—the cloth that became known as merikani. Anna Arabindan-Kesson, a historian of visual culture and the African diaspora, helps us understand what’s so interesting about this cloth.
ANNA ARABINDAN-KESSON: It was imitating Indian cloth production. You know, it was used in different ways as wrappers and but then it was also easy to dye and, you know, reformat. And the British, you know, started getting in on that to, you know, to kind of appropriate the trade there. And then the Americans were then competing with British imitations of Indian textiles, and so it was the American imitations of British. East Africans knew that these European and American imitations were not as good quality as the Indian textiles. But that was, that became part of the appeal, you know, the texture; and then and then with americani, the label also became quite important. So the wrappers were, were often worn with the manufacturing companies’ label on the front and so that became a kind of a statement.
MULLEN: Salem merchants were the ones who could take those textiles, with those designer logos, to the people that wanted them. By 1826, Salem merchants had made their first stop at Zanzibar, and it became one of their frequent trade destinations.
So, this brings us back to the consul. Why does the United States need a consul in Zanzibar?
Well, it turns out that trading in Zanzibar was not that simple. There were a lot of moving pieces, and American merchant captains struggled to understand the system.
MORRISON: Imagine you’re a captain, one of the first captains who lands on Zanzibar, you don’t speak the language, you don’t really know what’s being sold, you don’t know what they’ll buy. So how are you supposed to not only sell stuff but make money off of it?
So if you have some sort of formal relationship between your government and this foreign government, at least, maybe there’ll be some very broad rules that will limit outright exploitation or something like that.
MULLEN: So in 1833, a diplomat named Edmund Roberts negotiated a treaty with Zanzibar. It was just one of several treaties that he instigated with nations in the Indian Ocean world. This treaty was the first commercial treaty Oman signed with a Western nation.
The treaty was exactly what the Americans—specifically the Salem merchants wanted. But maybe you’re thinking, OK, but why does the sultan of Oman care about the Americans? What’s he getting out of this deal? Jane Hooper’s going to help us out here. She’s a historian of Africa and the Indian ocean world.
JANE HOOPER: So Sultan Said Bin Sultan was recently trying to consolidate power in Oman in the beginning of the 19th century. And he did so in part through alliances with other European powers, especially the British, the 19th century is really known as the rise of British power in the Indian Ocean. And so the US involvement in Zanzibar has been seen as one of the few instances where American merchants are really intervening in this what’s known as a British Lake, the Indian Ocean during this time.
And so I – I view this alliance between the sale of merchants, at least when this initially starts when Edmund Robert shows up in 1827, that this is coming out of the Sultan trying to consolidate power in the Middle East, but also in East Africa.
MULLEN: The terms of the treaty were fairly straightforward: the sultan wanted munitions, and he wanted the Americans to sell them only to him–presumably, that was to keep them out of the hands of rebellious factions that threatened civil war. The treaty also gave Americans and Omanis most-favored nation status with each other.
HOOPER: Well for the United States, what this means is that they get the same deal as the British did. And so this is a means for the United States to be able to trade with the sultan’s domains. So this includes the Arabian Peninsula, as well as East Africa. And this is important because trade is not just with Zanzibar, but also in the Middle East as well during this time. So this means that the United States agrees to only pay 5% customs duties on all items. And so this is a significant boon for them. It may it means that trading in Zanzibar is relatively cheaper than other ports in the Indian Ocean, so Madagascar, Portuguese, East Africa, and so on.
I think that for the United States, though, this seems relatively new. So that becomes kind of this badge of honor, that, look, we were able to get the same status as the British for once. And I think because the Sultan was so recently coming to power that gave the US in this opening, that was a very brief time period.
MULLEN: The final term of the treaty was the establishment of a US consulate in Zanzibar. If you’ve listened to our bonus episode with Nicole Phelps, you know that sometimes specific groups of people requested the creation of a consulate—and had a particular person in mind for the job.
In Zanzibar, the group that wanted a consul to support their own interests was the Salem merchant community, who hoped to choke out other American merchants who might find their way to Zanzibar. To do that, they needed a man on the inside. He could help grease the wheel, so to speak, with the local officials.
The guy the Salem merchants picked was Richard Waters.
To be honest, Waters didn’t seem like anything special. But he was part of the Salem mercantile community, which was very close-knit and family-based.
MORRISON: His two brothers who are involved in kind of international trade, at least one of his brothers is already a captain and has sailed for some of these merchants before. And right about the time that Richard Waters is named consul, he’s sailing ships to Zanzibar and around the whole area. So Richard Waters is kind of a young man, he is maybe trying to edge his way into being a merchant in his own right.
MULLEN: When Waters arrived in Zanzibar, in 1837, he had no idea what he was doing. He didn’t speak Arabic, or Bantu, or Swahili, or any other of the local languages, and he knew very little about the customs of the port.
MORRISON: He’s being welcomed by these Arab representatives, who luckily for him speak English. So he’s welcomed them onto a ship. And then he offers them some wine. And he they they refuse because they’re Muslim, and they don’t drink alcohol. And so he’s like scribbling this down in his notes afterwards, that they refuse for religious reasons. So right off the bat, it’s clear that, that he is not really an expert on the situation. Which there’s no real way he would be.
MULLEN: Nevertheless, Waters had a job to do: to establish and support American trade—specifically, Salem trade. Waters had three priorities for his tasks in the port: his duties to the United States, his duties to Salem, and his duties to himself.
I am willing to work hard for a few Years, and be sepperated from dear friends, if I can acquire a necessary portion of riches. Not that I mean to make gold my God, but feel that I am in the performance of duty, while engaged in an honest business and acquiring riches. I want money for my own sake, for my dear Mothers, Sisters & Brothers sake, and to do good with.
— Richard Waters in his journal, dated August 18, 1837Norman R. Bennett and George E. Brooks, Jr, “New England Merchants in Africa: A History through Documents, 1802 to 1865,” African Research Studies, No. 7 (Brookline, Massachusetts: Boston University Press): 203-204.
MULLEN: As a consul, Waters was responsible for maintaining ties with the local officials. This was a challenge for Waters, who had very little in common with the people he was supposed to be working with.
KELLY: He was shocked, I think, at the, the level of the level at which the trade success in Zanzibar was dependent on interpersonal relationships. And his status as U.S. consul didn’t really grant him anything in terms of authority or ability to maneuver trade in Zanzibar.
MULLEN: The most important relationship for Waters to cultivate was with the Omani sultan, Said bin Sultan al-Said. Said moved to Zanzibar just a few years before Waters did, so Waters had relatively easy access to him.
MORRISON: In his mind, that’s the relationship that matters. This guy he sees as this Eastern kind of absolute ruler, this despot, although a pretty nice one who really has control over everything that’s happening, and it’s really at his kind of beck and call. And to a certain extent, this is true.
MULLEN: Now this relationship with Waters and the sultan was often secondhand—Waters didn’t speak Arabic and the sultan didn’t speak English, so there were always translators involved. But the sultan did seem to use Waters as a go-between host for other American and European dignitaries who came through the port. There might have been a reason that Waters was favored by the sultan, and it wasn’t just about him.
KELLY: Part of it is that the Americans were just trading in Zanzibar; they didn’t have any imperial ambitions. And so I think that the Sultan, and you know, Zanzibari Indian merchants didn’t see the Americans as, as such a threat in terms of being interested in directly colonizing these areas. So I think the Americans seemed a little bit more neutral in that way. They also weren’t interested in suppressing this, the slave trade, like the British were. So that was also a reason why the Americans were, seemed to have like, developed a good relationship for, for at least a chunk of time in the mid-1800s.
MULLEN: Some historians have characterized Waters as an abolitionist. Waters may have have been personally opposed to the slave trade, but he came from a town that sold cloth made from cotton picked by enslaved people, and now he lived in a town where the slave trade was a key part of the economy. it was sort of a necessary pre-condition for any consul in Zanzibar—or to be frank, really anywhere in the world—to turn a blind eye to slavery.
All the time, while Waters was doing consul things, he had to remember his other constituency—maybe his more important constituency.
KELLY: Waters and these various other agents, they don’t identify really, as Americans, you know, they identify as Salem, Salemites and with the firms that they work for.
MULLEN: The merchants in Salem needed Waters to help them maintain dominance—they were feeling squeezed out of bigger markets on the route to China by the more powerful ports like Boston and New York. So those Salemites wanted to keep Zanzibar for themselves—not just keeping out Europeans, which was not likely, but maybe some other Americans too. Salem merchants had gotten to Zanzibar first among the Americans, and they wanted to stay on top.
Waters always acted like his duties were more to Salem more than to the United States in general.
MORRISON: He sees himself primarily as a merchant, and his bosses who are merchants definitely see him as their kind of representative for their merchant house. So he tells one of his deputies that quote, our object is to do an honest business and make all the money we can. So, yes, he’s going over as consul, yes, he has this diplomatic American position as the American representative on the island, but, who’s trying to make money himself and trying to funnel as much trade as he can to his bosses, which have really sent him over there.
MULLEN: So in the day-to-day operations of a consul who also needs to make his bosses—and himself—some money, it turned out that the sultan wasn’t the most important person for Waters to know.
MORRISON: He slowly finds out that Said bin Sultan is going to take a backseat to a certain extent in some of these commercial ventures. And the real power behind the throne economically on Zanzibar is the Custom Master.
MULLEN: When Waters was there, that Customs Master was an Indian Banyan merchant named Jairam Sewji. (Lots of people write his name lots of different ways, so we’re going to go with the pronunciation that our producer Deepthi suggests, since she knows a lot more about names of Indian origin than I do!)
From one perspective, Sewji had all the power in the port of Zanzibar, because he was in charge of assessing fees on all the commerce that flowed through the port. Keeping the fees low might make Zanzibar a more attractive trading port for foreign merchants, but low fees meant less profit for Sewji. So it was a balancing act for him.
MORRISON: He is really pulling the strings on daily import export trade of all these commodities. He’s able to marshal a lot of the Indian traders on the island who are actually the predominant economic players, he can kind of bully them or corner them and get them to agree on set prices or to do business with someone or not to do business with someone.
MULLEN: When Waters first arrived in Zanzibar, Sewji was making life a little difficult for the Salem merchants. He was assessing fees beyond the fees that were in the treaty. Remember that most-favored nation status? Part of that deal was that the Zanzibari officials would only assess a 5% fee on imports and that was all. But Sewji required a 5% export fee on top of the import fee.
Now that was a violation of the 1834 Treaty with Said bin Sultan, so he had to stop doing that. Then he started making Waters and his fellow Salemites pay for the labor of the coolies who loaded and unloaded the American vessels. But that was also against the treaty, and after Waters complained to the sultan, Sewji stopped doing even that.
After a while, Waters seemed to realize that working with Sewji was better than working against him. And so he and Sewji came to an agreement. Around 1839, they came up with a plan to scratch each others’ backs. This plan might not have benefited the Americans, and maybe not even the Salemites, but it certainly did benefit Waters himself.
MORRISON: Around 1838, 1839, Waters has been on the island for a year, a year and a half. He knows how things work. And so somehow him and Sewji come to an understanding. And I would think that it’s Waters who’s reaching out and really ingratiating himself to a certain extent, although he wasn’t particularly modest. So who knows, because basically, Waters has much more to gain by working his way into the system, then, Sewji would have in kind of holding out a hand to the American representative. But basically, they come to the understanding that by working together and by really cornering trade between Western players, especially the US and these Indian merchants, that they can set themselves up very nicely. So basically, they come to an agreement that Waters that Jairam will basically not let any of the Indian merchants on the island trade with any Western ship that doesn’t hire Waters. And then basically, every American and English ship arriving on the island is going to have to go through Waters, pay him probably two and a half percent commission fee. And then Waters goes to Jairam, Jairam will likely also get a cut of a commissions fee, and then Jairam can go to these Indian merchants who are the ones marshaling all of thousands and thousands pounds of cloves, or ivory, or gum copal, or stuff like that.
MULLEN: Now you may notice that EVERY ship going through Zanzibar has to pay these fees—even those American ships Waters is supposed to be working on behalf of. This kind of fee structure may or may not have been what the State Department had in mind. It certainly had the effect of making him unpopular amongst the merchants in the area–and Waters had already gotten off on the wrong foot with many of them since the day he got there.
MORRISON: The real problem Waters has is that his arrival is displacing people and taking away business from people who had really stepped into the role as middlemen between arriving American and English ships, and the Indian and Arab merchants on Zanzibar. So basically, once there’s an American consul, all the Americans are going to come to him, and he’s going to get the commissions fee for selling all of their goods.
MULLEN: Waters had to live near some of these people that he had displaced—it was a very small island after all. Some of them took out their frustration in more than just commercial ways. One of them was a merchant named Amir bin Saeed. Waters really seems to have disliked this guy a lot, but things came to a head with Amir on July 15, 1837, before Waters even hatched this scheme with Sewji.
I thought it best to leave the yard, and had got to the gate, which leads into the street, when his language and manner became so highly insulting to me and my country, that I felt obliged to notice it. I stepped up to him, and putting my hand on his collar, said . . . “Do you know what you are saying?” “Yes,” said Armere, “I know very well what I say.” And then with his hand gave me a slap in the face, and at the same moment, three of his slaves surrounded me with clubs. Finding myself thus suddenly and unexpectedly attacked, and having no weapon with which to defend myself, I was obliged to use such as nature gave me, until I could make my retreat, which I did as soon as I was able, believing my life in danger. The bodily wounds I have received are severe, and will require great care and probably two or three weeks to heal them.
— Richard Waters’ letter to Said bin Sultan, dated July 15, 1837Norman R. Bennett and George E. Brooks, Jr,”New England Merchants in Africa: A History through Documents, 1802 to 1865,” African Research Studies, No. 7 (Brookline, Massachusetts: Boston University Press): 220.
MULLENS: Waters appealed to the sultan to right this wrong.
I indulge the hope, that your Highness will adopt such measures in regard to this complaint, that the offender may receive merited punishment … as will in the future prevent insults to my country, preserve my person from felonious assaults, and the Treaty which guaranties that a “Consul’s person & property shall be inviolate,” from violation.
— Waters’ letter continued…New England Merchants in Africa, 220.
MULLEN: Despite the fact that the locals and the foreign merchants weren’t too pleased with Waters, he seemed to be making a pretty good go of his job as consul—if his job was to funnel American trade through himself. But in the early 1840s, trade from all over began to pick up, and Sewji began to see new opportunities.
MORRISON: And so after that Waters is still a decently successful merchant on Zanzibar. But there are other American representatives, one or two other firms in Salem are sending American representatives. So he’s no longer the only game in town. And as such, he can’t really exploit the situation as successfully and really funnel money to himself and to his bosses back in Salem.
MULLEN: Waters said when he arrived that he had taken this post mostly to make money—which, as we’ve learned from other episodes, is a common desire amongst consuls, and also one that is almost never realized. He saw his own business dealings as somehow furthering the mission of the United States as well.
In Zanzibar, acquiring riches usually meant trading merikani cloth. By the end of Waters’ time in Zanzibar, the demand for the cloth was so high that the Lowell manufacturers couldn’t keep up with it, and the trade almost got destroyed because the supply couldn’t meet the demand.
Just as the United States’s fortunes in the Indian Ocean were inextricably linked to textiles, Waters’ fortunes were as well. He understood the value of the merikani. When he left the consulship in 1845, he returned home to Massachusetts, and get involved in a new technology that would make merikani manufacturing quicker. As president of the Naumkeag Steam company, he helped the Massachusetts mills to become faster and more efficient by using new technology: steam, the very technology that had forced Salem merchants to seek out Zanzibar in the first place.
Alexandra Kelly is Assistant Professor of History and Anthropology at the University of Wyoming. She specializes in the material culture and heritage of Africa and the role of material culture in capitalism, imperialism, and transatlantic exchange. Dr. Kelly’s forthcoming book project Consuming Ivory: Mercantile Legacies of East Africa and New England (University of Washington Press, Spring 2021) examines the historical transatlantic ivory trade by re-tracing this forgotten history through object biographies. Kelly received her PhD in Anthropology at Stanford University, and an MA in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago.
Joshua Morrison is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Virginia. He specializes in US-Arab relations in the nineteenth century. His dissertation is titled “Cut from the Same Cloth: Salem, Zanzibar, and the Consolidation of the Indo-Atlantic World, 1820-1875.” Joshua’s work has been supported by numerous fellowships including a Fulbright Foriegn Fellowship and Francis E. Malamy Fellowship from the Peabody Essex Museum.
Jane Hooper is Associate Professor of History at George Mason University. Her research and teaching focuses on the history of Africa and the southwestern Indian Ocean. Her book Feeding Globalization: Madagascar and the Provisioning Trade, 1600-1800 (Ohio University Press, 2017) examines the history of Madagascar as a global trading port. Her current research focuses on American activity, especially commerce and whaling, in the Indian Ocean in the nineteenth century. Dr. Hooper received her MA and PhD from Emory University.
Anna Arabindan-Kesson is Assistant Professor of African American and Black Diasporic Art at Princeton University. Her work studies long-nineteenth century African American, Carribean, and British art focusing on issues of race, empire, and transatlantic visual culture. Her forthcoming book Black Bodies White Gold: Art, Cotton and Commerce in the Atlantic World (Duke University Press, Spring 2021) examines the connections between transatlantic cotton trade, art, slavery, and colonialism in the nineteenth century and the continued impact of these issues in contemporary art practice. She is the co-recipient of an ACLS Collaborative Research Fellowship for her second book project Beyond Recovery: Reframing the Dialogues of Early African Diasporic Art and Visual Culture 1700-1900. Dr. Arabindan-Kesson has a MPhil and PhD in African American Studies and Art History from Yale University.