MY FATHER AND THE ‘USEFUL’ PLANTS OF ZANZIBAR

My father, Robert Orchard Wi11iams, known as ‘RO’, who lived from 1891 until 1968, was the son of a Dorset fisherman. His grandfather’s main living had come from crabs, lobsters, mackerel, whiting and other fish. During fifteen years of his life RO was involved with agriculture in Zanzibar, first, until 1948, as Director of Agriculture and then, until 1959, as General Manager of the Clove Growers Association.

The clove has for long been Zanzibar’s main cash crop. The tree was named Eugenia aromatica after Prince Eugene de Savoire-Carignan, an Austrian General who lived from 1663 to 1736 and was famed for the help he gave the Duke of Marlborough during the war of the Spanish succession . The clove originated in the Moluccca spice islands of the South China Sea where it was used to purify the breath of dancing girls, amongst other things. When brought to the West by the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama it was found to mull well into wine, cure toothache and preserve meat. When the Dutch eventually took over control of the clove trade they went to the extent of felling clove trees on islands other than Amboina so as to corner the market a monopoly which continued until about 1870. They did not know that a Frenchman had captured some seeds and established a few trees in Mauritius.

In 1818 a Zanzibar Arab, Harameli bin Saleh, is reputed to have obtained some seeds from these trees and there by received a pardon from the Sultan of Zanzibar for some murder he had committed. By the middle of the twentieth century 80% of the world’s clove supply was coming from Zanzibar and Pemba – mostly Pemba.

Mature Zanzibar clove trees were 30 to 40 feet high with shiny, dark-green foliage; a full stand was about 80 trees to the acre. A plantation usually looked more like on area of wild forest for it was neglected except at harvest time when the weedy undergrowth was slashed. The trees were unshapely and ragged, the result of breaking off branches to pick the cloves. Gangs of pickers who arrived from the mainland did not care what happened to the tree and the owners regarded the damage done as inevitable. The tree would need one or two seasons to recover. After planting, trees took about five years to yield a first crop. The owner then had little more to do than sit back, engage a contractor for harvesting and collect the proceeds. The clove is the unopened flower-bud at the tip of a branch. Harvesting has to be done quickly and then the crop is sundried for four or five days. Stems and low quality buds are distilled for clove oil.

RO made a shrewd analysis of what his appointment as Director of Agriculture involved on arrival in Zanzibar. He found the clove industry largely managed its own affairs through a growers Association and that he had a member of staff, G. E Tidbury, who had made the crop his speciality and was writing what became the authoritative book on the subject. There was a worrying disease ‘sudden death’ which clearly required specialised research and the preparation of an application for funds and a team to undertake it. This was done.

RO’s offices were near the sea front on the ground floor of the main government office building which also accommodated the Legislative Council chamber. This square fantasy of some architect had been designed in the 1880’s. There were railed verandahs around each story, the whole surmounted by a clock tower. The antiquated lift, the only one on the island, was incredibly slow, but it worked and transported His Highness the aged Sultan when he attended meetings of the Council. It was the Sultan who later awarded RO the Brilliant Star Medal, the highest honour for a non- Muslim.

Office hours started early and finished for the day early in the afternoon. RO took advantage of the spare time this gave him to record, collect and make a catalogue of the plants on the islands. His well known book Useful and Ornamental Plants in Zanzibar and Pemba was published in 1949 by the Crown Agents, an impressively produced volume containing many illustrations, several of them by F. B Wilson. Wilson’s photographs of a coconut flowering spathe and a bunch of young coconuts are particularly striking.

The growing of coconuts was, to some extent, of greater importance than clove growing. The crop occupied a larger area than the clove on Zanzibar island though not on Pemba. The trees in Zanzibar were practically all of the tall type and could tower to 90ft when between 80 and 100 years old. The coconut industry was fully established and required little day-to-day attention from the Department as the marketing end tied in with the Clove Growers Association.

The coconut really seemed at home in Zanzibar particularly in its southern half where palms jutted over the beach as gracefully as anywhere on tropical shores worldwide. Scientists continue to argue as to the original home of the coconut, whether it be the Melanesian area of the Pacific or Central America. The Kon Tiki voyage did not solve the problem as ripe nuts have always floated on the sea and germinate when washed up on any suitable shore. After cloves and coconuts came the lesser crops. Rice was the most important cereal; others maize and sorghum, the former grown on low-lying land, the latter on the shallow soils of the coral-rag ‘wanda’ country. Sweet potatoes and cassava were the most important starchy food crops. Chilli peppers were a small export commodity. Oranges, mangoes and pineapples were the main fruits. The durian was a rarity but immensely popular but RO never had the courage to taste it! It smells more sickly than it tastes. A worthy description is written by Alfred Russel Wallace the famous explorer and navigator who expounded the theory of evolution at the same time as Darwin … ‘ its consistence and flavour are indescribable. A rich butter-like custard flavoured with almonds but intermingled with it come wafts of flavour that call to mind cream cheese, onion, brown sher y and other incongruities’. ‘Best eaten by a novice while holding the nose’ another writer said.

Pulses were rarely cultivated; vegetables uncommon. Breadfruit trees were found around villages. Livestock rearing was insignificant.

None of these were particularly time absorbing or significant enough to warrant more attention than they received at the Department’s experiment station at Kizimbani. RO’s answer to his quandary on what to focus his attention was to find and develop a cash crop that might play a supporting role to the clove or substitute for it if and in areas where ‘sudden death’ became serious.

He thought he had found it in cacao, a crop with which he was very familiar. But there was a degree of apathy about anything new. It was only the discovery of small numbers of old cocoa trees in both islands that prompted the idea of developing the crop. The best of the fields was at a remote place called Dunga. In spite of their age the trees seemed remark ably disease free . After weeding and pruning the field it was established that the quality was of the best and plans were made for the establishment of trial areas. A station for the rooting of cuttings was constructed and areas selected for planting and shade trees put in. Unfortunately that was about as far as the project got because RO moved to the Clove Growers Association and there was no one of his enthusiasm to follow it up.

RO became a businessman and trader in cloves, clove oil, copra and coconut oil. But that is another story!
R.O Williams Jnr

Mr R. O. WILLIAMS JNR. spent his career in the Colonial Agricultural Service in Kenya, British Guiana and Sarawak where he was the Director of Agriculture. He now lives near Corfe castle in Dorset.

1 Comment »

  1. Tanzanian Affairs » 36 YEARS OF TANZANIAN AFFAIRS – PART 1 said,

    September 3, 2011 at 10:50 am

    […] popular attempts to reduce corruption. It also covers the “great debate” on multi-partyism. “My Father, and the useful plants of Zanzibar” by R.O.Williams Junior follows his father’s career as Director of Agriculture in Zanzibar, a […]

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