Volume 10, Issues 2 & 3
Fall 2008

Domesticating the World: African Consumerism and the Genealogies of Consumerism. Jeremy Prestholdt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. 272 pp.

This elegant investigation of consumption in Zanzibar in the nineteenth century deserves a wide audience among Africanists as well as readers interested in the politics and cultural tensions within consumption. Like so many other scholars, Prestholdt critiques facile understandings of “globalization”. He notes how Western discussions of consumption abroad still rely uncritically to the racial and political hierarchies of the age of high imperialism, by contending that Europe and North America remain the standard by which others are ranked. Thankfully, he does not simply stop at that rather obvious point. Instead, he furnishes a holistic and creative set of approaches to understanding the social and cultural meanings and struggles embedded in Zanzibari and European discussions of consumption. His essays skillfully introduce a wide range of issues related to consumption that both reflect the state of the current literature and press research in new, exciting directions.

Several themes are particularly novel and important here. One subject that Prestholdt deals with in an apt and provocative way is the local understanding of Zanzibari consumption. Though a close reading of European accounts and nineteenth century Swahili poetry, the author contends that local people believed several aspects of an individual’s personality could become enthralled by the need to acquire goods. Although obtaining foreign and local goods was seen as a key element in social success and a vital element in patronage, Zanzibaris also feared that desires to acquire goods to attain the dreams and fantasies of respectability that came with them could overwhelm right judgment. On the other hand, Zanzibaris derided the unwillingness of foreigners to perform their respectability through consumption, particularly different Indian communities. People thus had to walk a fine and constantly changing balance as they bought and used goods to display their taste.

The effects of Zanzibari consumption were felt far beyond East Africa. Much as David Richardson has noted the important of West African consumption of imported goods for the British economy, Prestholdt traces out the changing fortunes of Indian and American companies who exported cloth to Zanzibar. Changing local tastes drove American and Indian companies to alter their merchandise and their methods of marketing. While Massachusetts firms struggled to retain their foothold over local cloth commerce between the 1840s and the American Civil War, Bombay-based textile mills gradually took over the Zanzibari market in the late nineteenth century. Local people could thus have a dramatic impact on production outside Africa, rather than being merely passive pawns in global flows of goods and money.

Another innovation in this study is how slavery and commoditization were intimately linked in nineteenth century Zanzibar. Prestholdt terms the symbolic subjection of slaves treated as objects that denoted the tastes and authority of their owners. Owners could impose their own narratives of backward and faceless chattel redeemed by civilized townspeople by renaming and redressing slaves. Colonial officials and missionaries claimed to be opponents of the horrors of the slave trade, but in reality, they also enjoyed providing names and outfits for Africans rescued from bondage. Some former slaves, such as David Livingstone’s African associate Jacob Wainwright, adopted European tastes and dress through their travels in England, East Africa, and India.

Other topics covered are far more familiar. Rulers and ordinary people in mid-nineteenth century Zanzibar shared a taste for imported European goods and architectural styles with their counterparts in Egypt, Madagascar, Siam, Morocco, Hawaii, and other independent kingdoms. Since mobility was a crucial element of life for slaves, traders, clerics, and most other people living on the island, interest in foreign goods permeated through different social classes rather than remaining solely the purview of the powerful. However, these objects and styles reflected local understandings of global connections rather than acquiescence to the supposed innate superiority of European consumption patterns. Prestholdt coins the term similitude to describe how Comoros Island communities could try to develop bonds with visiting English ships through consuming English goods, adopting English dress and manners, and through speaking English. This tactic succeeded in building a sense of solidarity between local people and the English particularly before the mid-nineteenth century. However, East African coastal consumption practices became by the mid-nineteenth century an object of scandal and mockery by English and other European visitors. By deeming local consumption of foreign goods a sign of “semi-civilization,” they could present the region’s negotiations with other parts of the world as a failure and a sign of African inferiority. Only Europeans could legitimately claim to be modern in their view. Such sentiments naturally fit will with other justifications for colonial expansion. Historians have certainly treated the same issues in many parts of coastal West Africa, but the author does review them in a thorough way.

There are only a few minor complaints this reviewer can make here. One wishes this book had more clearly tied together internal debates over consumption with struggles over social status, as Jonathan Glassman and Laura Fair have done in Zanzibar and the Tanzanian coast. Perhaps Fair and Glassman’s work led the author to believe these subjects had already been covered, but the agency of slaves and ordinary people at times fades from view. Indian-Zanzibari and Omani-Zanzibari connections do enter the discussion at times, but a further exploration of these links would have even further cemented the author’s hopes of analyzing local understandings of global connections. Despite these quibbles, instructors of courses on imperialism, consumption, and African history for upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses should seriously consider using this book. It reads very well and addresses issues of critical theory in a very lucid manner. All in all, this is a major new contribution to the fields of African history and consumption.

Jeremy Rich
Middle Tennessee State University