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Book Review


Sarah K. Croucher, Capitalism and Cloves: An Archaeology of Plantation Life on Nineteenth-century Zanzibar. New York: Springer, 2015. Pp. xiii + 256. References and Index. $99.00 (cloth).


     Sarah Croucher, an anthropologist at Wesleyan University, expanded the field of global historical archaeology with her 2015 publication of Capitalism and Cloves: An Archaeology of Plantation Life on Nineteenth-century Zanzibar. The book draws upon years of research and field work to address multiple themes in its treatment of the archaeology of the Omani Arab plantation system on Zanzibar and Pemba in the 1800s. Historical and archaeological studies of the Western plantation system across the Colonial Atlantic World abound. Far fewer works have sought to understand the plantation economy of the Indian Ocean World, much less place it within the context of global studies. Croucher's book, drawing upon archaeological analysis, oral histories, and colonial documents, skillfully rectifies the imbalance, offering scholars insight into a non-Western context for plantation colonialism. In addition to placing the nineteenth century Zanzibari economy into a global, and Islamic, framework, the book argues that identity formation among the Swahili was a far more complex process than previously assumed. Central as well to the author's thesis is that the archaeology of the plantation household demonstrates how gender roles and sexual relations were more fluid and diverse than one would expect, offering both female plantation owners and concubines opportunities to advance their status.

     The book begins with the history of colonialism in East Africa, the coming of the clove and slave trades, and the development of the Omani plantation complex, which began in earnest when Sultan Said bin Seyyid relocated the sultanate to Zanzibar in 1840. Central to this chapter is the complex process of identity formation among the Swahili as the plantations grew. After critiquing the imprecise and misleading political categorizations of what it meant to be African, Swahili, or Arab, ethnic categorizations first employed by European colonial rulers and further confused by earlier linguists and historians, Croucher unencumbers the discussion by noting, "ethnicity related more to the way individuals dressed, the houses they lived in, the religion they followed, and the food they ate" (49). Understanding identify formation by such measures provides for more fluidity and flux as various groups on Zanzibar, many of them arriving as immigrants, sought to establish local commonality with others and advance their social position.

     After examining the cartography and spatial definitions of plantations, Croucher delves into the heart of the book to discuss the archaeology of slavery and plantation households in Chapters Four and Five. Croucher, as a scholar of feminist, gender, and sexuality studies, is interested in questions of identity and power, and pays special attention to female plantation owners and sexual slavery, two topics decidedly under-treated in the scholarly literature. Focusing on female plantation owners, who were albeit in the minority, allows scholars to "better understand and reassess the changes in gender roles occurring on Zanzibar" (167). Upending previously held assumptions about gender relations, she argues, "Hints begin to appear that women could take on powerful roles within a deeply paternalistic society…so that they may have taken on relationships with dependents and others that were akin to those of men in power" (168). Similarly, when addressing the topic of sexual slavery, the author found that women initiated into concubinage often "wielded a certain degree of power" and were frequently taught to take advantage of their sexual prowess for material gains (175). None of the author's findings should be taken as a diminution of the brutality of sexual slavery nor a suggestion that female plantation owners represented a liberated society. The author is frank on these points. But her study does conclude that "the interpretation of the plantation household shows some of the complex material negotiations of relational identities that were taking place in colonial Zanzibari society, allowing interpretations of space that go beyond the intersection of gender and status alone" (178).

     Chapter Six addresses Zanzibar's position and role within the emerging global trade networks of the nineteenth century. Zanzibar, as the author correctly notes, was a trade entrepot within a far-flung commercial network. Croucher examines the nature of trade, wealth, and global capitalist relations, demonstrating how capitalism on Zanzibar was "shaped by the particular cultural context of the island, and the way in which the practices of Zanzibaris were also integral to the shaping of the wider capitalist world" (208). For example, up-ending a previously held notion that international trade was "simply the imposition of capitalism through European powers" (186), the author's archaeological findings demonstrates that Zanzibari consumer desires shaped global trade patterns. Uncovering a wealth of ceramic wares "significantly different from those of Europe, America, or European colonies," shows "the commodity supply of ceramics to Zanzibar was not simply the overflow of that to the nearest European colonial settlements, but appears to represent the desires of nineteenth-century consumers on Zanzibar and particular patterns of use that show the manner in which commodity exchange was incorporated into the cultural context of clove plantations" (205, 199).

     For world historians in general, the book is a valuable and informative treatment of the topic. Croucher widens the professions' understanding of the colonial plantation complex within global society and offers a gender-balanced alternative to the Atlantic perspective. Her conclusions are a convincing challenge to standard interpretations, especially regarding Swahili life within the plantation household. Traditional studies of the Atlantic World plantation complex were often undergirded by, and reinforced, a simple dichotomy of black African slaves versus white European male slave-owners, functioning as material providers to a European-imposed capitalist model. Such a dichotomy, however, did not exist in the Indian Ocean World complex, where Croucher demonstrates that under-represented groups, slaves, concubines, and women, were often able to leverage their status to seek a more advantageous position, even as Zanzibari consumers were able to leverage their purchasing power to impact global capitalism in such a way as to satiate their own cultural desires. In so doing, Croucher provides a model which may help historians seek a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the larger colonial plantation system.

     As the fields of Indian Ocean World studies and East African history grow, her book should become standard reading for historians. The author marshals and demonstrates the value of using a diverse and multi-disciplinary range of sources, from archaeology to oral interviews and documentary analysis. Teachers of relevant topics, which include advanced courses on East Africa, the Indian Ocean World, or plantation studies in general will find much information and considerable insights to incorporate into the classroom. In this vein, the book would provoke challenging discussions and fresh insights. For many of these same reasons, the book would concomitantly be a difficult read for undergraduate students. The book is well-written, but the research methodology, and indeed the topic itself, is best suited for scholars and graduate or doctoral-level students.

Phillip Cantrell is an Associate Professor of History at Longwood University who specializes in World and East African history. His publications have appeared in the Journal of Modern African Studies, the Peace Review, and Church History, as well as having authored numerous book reviews. He is currently completing a manuscript on the history of Anglican Church in Rwanda. You may reach him at


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