Article: A lost library in Zanzibar

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It is nearly ten years since I first sat on the terrace of the Africa House Hotel in Stone Town, Zanzibar, and waited expectantly for the sun to meet the ocean.  I was talking to the manager, who asked whether I knew that the building once housed the English Club, and that its library still existed if I would like to see it.  I forgot the sunset in an instant.”

A slice of literary history from the magazine of the London Library, this article is for bibliophiles and those interested in East Africa, Zanzibar and colonial life. 

Jono Jackson, historian and author, recounts his fascination with the library of the former colonial English Club in Zanzibar and how he traced its holdings through the collections in the London Library several thousand miles away  while researching the social value and meaning of books in Stone Town.  

In the process, he reconstructs the life of this cultural cornerstone of the former British Protectorate as well as its significance to residents and visitors to Zanzibar (including Evelyn Waugh who refers to the library in his travel book Remote People). 

He recalls a time when obtaining reading material when travelling was considerably more difficult than downloading books over a wifi connection and involved more than browsing second-hand bookshops or book exchanges in hostels, even if the underlying motives had more in common.

To the isolated dweller in the more distant parts of the Empire, books often afford an indispensable link with the old country as well as an indispensable source of happiness and comfort. 

The demise of the English Club naturally followed that of the British Empire.  Remarkably, though, much of the Club library’s collection remained intact following independence and, following a renovation, is available to be viewed by guests of the Africa House Hotel as “an unintended survivor of a colonial past”.   

Jono Jackson has contributed to the Footprint Guide to Tanzania and some more of his writing on Zanzibar can be found at Mambo magazine.  I particularly liked this one in which he follows a walking tour from an old 1961 guide to Zanzibar he picked up from a secondhand bookshop.

His article on the English Club library is at page 24 of the London Library magazine, embedded below via Issuu. 

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