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The Myth of the Sultans in the Western Indian Ocean during the Nineteenth Century: A New Hypothesis

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image of African and Asian Studies
For more content, see Journal of Asian and African Studies.

The power of the Al Bu Sa'id Sultans of Oman was widely known as based on delicate balances of forces (and ethnic-social groups), deeply different among them. In fact, the elements that composed the nineteenth century Omani leadership were, and had always been, generally 'divided' amongst three different ethnic groups: the Baluch, the Asian merchant communities and the African regional leaders (Mwiny Mkuu). Within this framework, the role played by European Powers, particularly by the Treaties signed between the Sultans of Oman and the East India Company for abolishing slavery, and by the arms trade was crucial for the development of the Gulf and the Western Indian Ocean international networks They highly contributed to the gradual 'shifting' of the Omanis from the slave trade to clove and spice cultivation – the major economic source of Zanzibar Island – along the coastal area of Sub-Saharan East Africa.

The role played by the Omani Sultans – the myth – within the western traditional historiography, which often described them as firmly controlling both the Arabian and African littorals and the major trading ports of the Western Indian Ocean during the nineteenth century, will be reexamined in this paper, taking into account recent research studies and international debates in the topic.

The new hypothesis consists of a different perception of the concepts of power and control (political and territorial) of the Western Indian Ocean littorals by the most famous of the Sultans of Oman during the nineteenth century: Saiyid Sa'id bin Sultan Al Bu Sa'id.

Affiliations: 1: History and Institutions of Africa, Faculty of Political Science, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Largo Gemelli, 1, 20123, Milano, Italy;, Email:


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