Zanzibar is a tourist destination known as an island of fantastic, white sandy beaches, blue-turquoise sea and spices.
But do you know that the slave market in Zanzibar island was the last legally operating slave market in the world?
Yes, you read it well, and I was shocked too.
The slave market in Zanzibar was officially closed in 1873, under the pressure from the British government.
During our Zanzibar’s adventure, we visited its capital Stone Town. In the center of Stone Town, there was the former Slave market. Today, exactly on this place, Anglican Christ church was built in 1873. Near the church, there is the Memorial Museum with an exhibition which shows a detailed history of slavery in Zanzibar.
Our tourist guide Mussa from Upendo tours agency told us about the history of the slave market. Even though it was a very dark and sad story, it is worth hearing it and seeing The East African Slave trade exhibition as well.
So, let me tell you something about the Slave market.
The history of slavery
To understand the whole story about the slave market, we have to go back into history for a while.
Because of its specific position in the Indian Ocean, the history of Zanzibar was very turbulent. Unguja (Zanzibar) was a perfect place and port for traders voyaging between the African Great Lakes, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Indian southern region.
The first inhabitants of Zanzibar Island were the Africans, Bantu people from the mainland of Africa 3,000-4,000 years ago.
The next were the Persians, who came from the Middle East in the 10th century. They named the island Zangi-bar, which means “the land of the Black people” (Persian words Zangi = Black, Bar = the Place of). Over a brief period, they became absorbed into the local population with their specific language – Swahili. This African-Persian population converted to Islam and adopted many Persian traditions.
Slave trade in Zanzibar
While searching for the route to India, the Portuguese came to Zanzibar at the beginning of the 16th century. They traded in spices and ivory, but also in slaves. Zanzibar was a part of the Portuguese Empire for almost two centuries.
In the 17th century, the Omani Arabs expelled the Portuguese and established control over many settlements, including Zanzibar. The ruling sultan of Oman, Said bin Sultan Al-Said, relocated his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar. The late 18th and early 19th centuries was a period of rapid expansion of the slave trade.
Together with ivory, clove and spice trade, the slave trade was very important for the economy. Zanzibar had a central role in trade routes into the interior of Africa. And the new city on the Swahili coast was born: Zanzibar city or Stone Town.
The slave market in the 19th century
The 19th century was a period of the most rapid expansion of the slave trade. It was a very lucrative business conducted by Europeans, Arabs, Indians, coastal people and ethnic leaders in the mainland.
The streets in Zanzibar were full of slaves, accounting for more than two-thirds of the population.
People were taken from a vast area, extending south of Lake Nyasa (now Malawi), west of Lake Tanganyika (now DR Congo), and north of Lake Victoria (now Uganda), to the Stone Town open slave markets. Today, this area includes countries such as Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, Ruanda, Nigeria, Zambia, Tanzania, and Mozambique. However, people from Zanzibar were free and not slaves.
The captives were from different cultures and language groups, and usually, the whole families were taken to slavery. Some of them were skilled craftsmen and women, musicians, ironworkers, and farmers. They lived in settled communities and engaged in hunting, fishing, and gathering firewood.
The journey: from homes to the slave market
Traveling in caravans was very a popular way of traveling through the centuries. So, it was a better and safer way than traveling alone. Many of them also had armed guards. And the slave traders traveled with their captives in caravans, using the existing East Africa trade routes to the coast.
But it was a horrible journey. They traveled for days, sometimes for weeks, with minimum food and water. Some people died of exhaustion, disease or malnourishment. The captives were in chains to be prevented to run away, and whoever attempted to escape was shot. On long journeys, sometimes the slaves were sold to new owners on the way.
Then the slaves were brought to Zanzibar in dhows, wooden boats, where many as possible were packed in with no regard for their comfort or safety. Many of them did not survive the journey to Zanzibar island.
The slave market in Stone Town
In the 19th century, except Zanzibar, there were two other important slave trade centers, such as Kilwa in Tanzania Mainland, and Quelimane in Mozambique. But in the middle of the 19th century, Stone Town in Zanzibar became the major slave trade center for the whole region of Eastern Africa.
The buyers and sellers were Zanzibar’s merchants, leading citizens, and businessman, then Arabs, Somalis, merchants from India and Mauritius. One of the most famous slave traders was Tippu Tip, who worked successively under several Sultans. He was a Swahili-Zanzibar’s slave trader, ivory trader, plantation owner, governor. And he led many trading expeditions into Central Africa.
Every year, about 40,000 – 50,000 slaves were taken to Zanzibar.
About a third went to work on clove and coconut plantations of Zanzibar and Pemba. The rest were exported to Persia, Arabia, Madagascar, Mauritius, the Ottoman Empire, and Egypt. Almost 30% of the male slaves died every year because of horrible conditions on the plantations. The young women were sold for harems or for help in the houses.
The slave market at Mkunazini, in Stone Town
After captives arrived in Zanzibar, the slave traders imprisoned them in underground chambers. It was a test.
If they lived for more than three days, they would be sold on the market at Mkunazini, in Stone Town.
The slaves were stripped completely naked and cleaned. They were forced to walk nude, in a line up in rows, according to age or gender. The potential buyers checked their health condition: from mouth and teeth to their feet, and every part of the body, including intrusive examinations on women. So, if the price was agreed, the naked slaves would be delivered to their future master.
But there is something more.
The slaves were tied to a tree and whipped with stinging branches. It was a demonstration of their strength. Those who didn’t cry or scream during the whipping got a higher price at the market. Terrible isn’t it…?
The slave chambers
Today in this place you can see only 2 of the 15 slave chambers.
According to a story, a larger chamber was for 75 persons, women and children. The second is smaller and intended for 50 men.
The chambers were used to keep slaves before taking them to the market for an auction.
The conditions in the chambers were terrible. The chambers had small windows and no fresh air. Food and water were very limited. In the center of the chamber, there were channels used as toilets. With these channels, the chambers were connected with the ocean. So, during the high tide, the water would rise about 30 cm inside and clear most of the excrement away.
But when the tide was low, can you imagine the smell in the tiny chamber?
So many people died, especially children, because of starvation and suffocation.
We were in chambers for only a few minutes.
Believe me, we felt so claustrophobic. And could not wait a moment to escape from the chambers!
Dr. David Livingstone, an explorer, and anti-slavery activist
David Livingstone was a Scottish missionary, doctor, writer, and explorer of Africa.
He joined the London Missionary Society and 1840 came in Africa for the first time. David Livingstone identified and mapped numerous geographical places in Africa (lakes, Tanganyika, Zambia, Congo, etc). One of his most famous explorations was the Victoria Falls in Zambezi River, which he found in November 1855.
David was one of the first missionaries who was fighting against slavery and the slave trade. His reports and stories about the slaves’ life in Africa lead to the creation of the Mission for the abolition of slavery and the establishment of the Anglican Church. Well, he was a real national hero.
His last journey was searching for the source of the River Nile. But he got sick and on 1st May 1873 died of malaria and dysentery at Chitambo village, now northern Zambia. His loyal African servants and companions, Abdullah Susi and James Chumah found him dead.
David loved Africa so much that he ordered to Susi and Chumah to remove his heart and bury it in the African soil after his death. And they really buried David’s heart under the tree at the spot where he died. They embalmed his body and carried it to the coast and, after a difficult journey, his body arrived in England. Finally, David Livingston was buried in Westminster Abbey on April 18, 1874, after a great Victorian funeral.
Abolition of slavery
The British government in London sent the warships to the Indian Ocean, to prevent the slave trade.
Thousands of East African slaves were freed by the British Navy from dhows.
In 1861 Zanzibar was separated from Oman and became an independent sultanate.
But 5th of June 1873, the Sultan Barghash of Zanzibar was forced under the threat of a British naval bombardment to prohibit the slave market. It was the Anglo-Zanzibar war (the shortest war in history, which lasted only 38 minutes). As a result, all public slave markets were closed.
But the slaves were not automatically freed. They had to apply for manumission through colonial officials, according to the abolition decrees in 1897 and 1909. And the concubines had to wait 12 years more to be free, but they could still take care of their children.
Many freed slaves in Zanzibar left the plantations. They moved to rural lands, planted the trees and built new houses. Thousands of former slaves crossed the creek in Stone Town, seeking new works and opportunities for a new life.
And in 1890, the British proclaimed a protectorate over Zanzibar, which lasted for more than 70 years.
Anglican Christ Church and Bishop Edward Steere
After the abolition of the slave trade in 1873, the English Missionaries bought the site of the Slave market.
Together with Edward Steere, the third Bishop of Zanzibar, they started building the Anglican Christ church.
Unfortunately, Edward Steere died in 1882 from a heart attack, when the cathedral was almost completed.
He was a linguist and published works on several East African languages and dialects. One of his most important books is a Handbook of Swahili from 1870. He also translated a large part of the Bible into Swahili as well.
Because of his huge commitment to the abolition of the slave trade, Edward Steere was buried behind the altar of the cathedral.
This high altar now stands exactly on the site where there was the whipping post, used for testing and punishing the slaves. Here you can see around the circle in the stone which represents the post and blood from slaves.
Behind the altar, there are the bishop’s throne and the copper panels which represent various Old Testament figures.
In the cathedral, you can see one wooden cross as well. It is known as Livingston’s Cross because it was made from the tree beneath which Dr. David Livingstone’s heart was buried.
At the entrance, near the baptistery, there are marble pillars.
These pillars were erected upside down by mistake of the workers when Bishop Steere was away.
So, when he came back, it was too late to rectify the mistake. And the pillars stay in this position even now.
Illegal slave trade and finally abolition
Although the Slave market in Zanzibar was officially closed in 1873, it was not the end of slavery. Slave traders continued the illegal trade at least two decades longer. The kidnapped slaves were hidden in caves or underground chambers in Zanzibar before they were sold and shipped to Arabia or Asia.
One of the illegal slave chambers is located in Mangapwani, 25 km north of Stone Town, on the western coast, and on the Pemba Island. Finally, the slave trade was abolished in 1904 in Kenya and in 1919 in Tanganyika.
After the Zanzibar Revolution in 1964, the Sultan, and some Arab and Indian inhabitants were expelled from the island.
In the same year, Tanganyika and Zanzibar were united in the Republic of Tanzania.
“Memory for the Slaves”
Outside, in the cathedral’s garden, there is a Slave Monument, “Memory for the Slaves”.
It is sculpture dedicated to the memory of slaves, made by Swedish artist Clara Sornas in 1998.
The monument consists of 5 five stone slave figures, men and women, young and old, in a pit. On their necks, they have chains from the dark slave period, connected with metal collars.
It is difficult to explain the expressions of their faces. In a word, you can’t remain indifferent.
The pain, disability, tears, torture, and defiance, despite the chains…
According to the statistics, between 1500 and 1900, up to 17 million Africans slaves were transported by Muslim traders to the coast of the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, and North Africa. Under Omani Arabs in the 19th century, about 50,000 slaves were passing through the city each year. Yes, Zanzibar was once East Africa’s main slave-trading port.
And today we could only ask why all these terrible things had happened?
So much suffering, tears, pains, destroyed families, and dead people. Well, all of that was because of the profit.
Even today, in some countries in the world, there are certain forms of slavery.
But everyone deserves to be happy and to live a life his/her way.
And everyone deserves to be free.
Because neither life or freedom has no price.