Zanzibar Tales (1901)

Folktales from the Zanzibar archipelago of Tanzania bear traces of the centuries during which the islands served as a center for trade in the Indian ocean, the complex history of intracontinental cultural exchange on the East African coast, and the influence of Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit stories on Swahili narratives. As such, it is difficult to reconstruct the history of these tales. (An 1894 German translation of similar stories wondered if they “were told already in Noah’s ark”.) Presented here are ten stories adapted by George W. Bateman, which some claim inspired Disney’s Bambi and The Lion King, although we have been unable to find the resemblance.

On the subject of animals, many of the stories feature creatures playing archetypal roles. “The Hare and the Lion”, for instance, sits somewhere between the story as it is told in the ancient Sanskrit Panchatantra and its Persian adaptations, Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and hare, Winnie-the-Pooh, and Grimms’ Little Red Cap. In this folktale, Soongoora, the hare, finds a calabash tree full of honeybees and recruits the big rat named Bookoo with a lie. “My father has died, and has left me a hive of honey. I would like you to come and help me eat it.” After smoking out the hive, they begin to feast, but the lion who owns the honey, Simba, camps out at the tree’s base. The hare throws himself to the lion, disguised as a bundle of straw, leaving Simba a honey-stuffed rat for his supper. Three days later, Soongoora plays the same trick on Kobay, the cautious tortoise. The story ends with Simba hidden inside Soongoora’s warren, waiting to ambush him and his wife. But the wily hare, seeing paw marks, sprints away, and the lion, exhausted, returns to his tree, giving up any hope of revenge. (Simba gets off easy: in the next tale, after the lion gets his head stuck in a cave, a rabbit eats his rear then annexes his farm.) Aside from nonhuman protagonists, we also meet: a fatherless huntsman in training, who, after trapping animals, lets them go and is rewarded with silver and gold; a magician who trains the sultan’s children to be great scholars, keeps one for himself, and eventually gets boiled alive in a pot of stew; and the son of a great physician, who, to follow in his father’s lineage, must confront the king of snakes.

Not much is known about George W. Bateman, who translated these tales from Swahili. He was working in the intellectual shadow of the colonial bishop Edward Steere, author of Swahili Tales, As Told by Natives of Zanzibar (1870). Unlike Steere — who once wrote that the “streets [of Zanzibar] are empty of prostitutes because the homes are full of them and there is no scandal because there is no shame” — Bateman assumes neither a tone of imperial dehumanization nor falls prey to what Jeremy Prestholdt describes as a strain of “British humanitarian discourse” whereby the Zanzibari become “blank slates onto which the interests of others could be written”. Bateman opens his preface not in the register of idylls or myth, but with a description of Unguja circa 1871, before the late-nineteenth century New Imperialism, when the “Scramble for Africa” accelerated. The island, writes Bateman, “was the starting place of all expeditions into the interior”, with caravans loaded with beads and cloth to be traded inland for “elephants’ tusks and slaves — for Unguja boasted the only, and the last, open slave-market in the world then”.

Much has changed, yet Bateman sounds like he could be commenting on twenty-first century trophy-hunting tourism when discussing parties of “rich white men going to hunt ‘big game’”. Bateman’s interest in conservation is both biological and linguistic. Yet, like the folktales selected here, he is perhaps more concerned with the animals than the people of Zanzibar. “If you have read any accounts of adventure in Africa, you will know that travelers never mention animals of any kind that are gifted with the faculty of speech. . . No, indeed; only the native-born know of these. . . it will not be long before such wonderful specimens of zoology will be as extinct as the ichthyosaurus, dinornis, and other poor creatures who never dreamed of the awful names that would be applied to them”.