Urban Design, Chaos, and Colonial Power in Zanzibar
William Cunningham Bissell
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Across Africa and elsewhere, colonialism promised to deliver progress and development. In urban spaces like Zanzibar, the British vowed to import scientific techniques and practices, ranging from sanitation to urban planning, to create a perfect city. Rather than remaking space, these designs often unraveled. Plans were formulated and then fell by the wayside, over and over again. By focusing on these flawed efforts to impose colonial order, William Cunningham Bissell offers a different view of colonialism and cities, revealing the contradictions, confusion, and even chaos that lay at the very core of British rule. At once an engaging portrait of a cosmopolitan African city and an exploration of colonial irrationality, Urban Design, Chaos, and Colonial Power in Zanzibar opens up new perspectives on the making of modernity and the metropolis.
home governments to deploy the treaties as a bargaining tactic to gain British compliance elsewhere—in Madagascar, Mozambique, and the German sphere on the mainland. With the Portuguese, the French, and especially the Germans, relations were both awkward and competitive, and Portal was fooling himself if he expected them to simply roll over and do his bidding. This is particularly true insofar as what Portal desired was their willing participation in his efforts to reduce them to bit players in
descriptions often equated alleged spatial disorder with political disarray (if not moral dissolution). The cumulative impression they preÂ� sent is of a city allowed to lapse into literal and figurative darkness—left in ruins, without regulation, devoid of sanitation or services. Colonial complaints about chaos and confusion went beyond mere surface appearances, however, extending to the essential fabric of urban structure. Early on, Consul General Portal established the tone, objecting to what
More than rents, what the government ultimately feared was losing face in public and thereby the semblance of control. In the official view, lawlessness, once unleashed, might become contagious. Better to stamp it out at an early stage before things got truly out of hand. As a result of this mentality, minor points of order were often inflated into major crises. Seemingly insignificant issues were blown far out of proportion, provoking an overdetermined— and unworkable—legal response. Losing
part of the urban fabric prior to European control, with different quarters of the city being set aside for different groups of merchants and traders (a structure adopted by Stamford Raffles in the layout of early Singapore). In general, French colonial policy took over this established spatial form, constructing “new towns” along European design principles outside existing cities—model sites of modernity set apart from walled medinas, ossified as preserves of tradition (Çelik 1997; Wright 1991).
tended to reduce available building areas, discourage new construction, and render existing accommodations more expensive, especially in central business districts. More glaringly, for three decades the authorities had failed to make any effort to provide new and affordable housing, abandoning this responsibility to the private market. By World War I, the pent-up demand for affordable housing had far outstripped the existing supply, and landlords responded to the shortage by sharply increasing