In the steps of Zanzibar's slave trade

Saturday July 2 2016

Built in l883 on the waterfront by Sultan Majid

Built in l883 on the waterfront by Sultan Majid during Zanzibar’s “Golden Age,” the Beit-al Ajaib (House of Wonders) showcases Zanzibar’s history. PHOTO | DANA SEIDENBERG 

By Dana Seidenberg

In East Africa, as elsewhere, grave distortions in the historical record on slavery abound. Blurring historical memory to obscure a disturbing past, however, is never a good idea.

Reflecting on the efficient job that the US and other areas of the world have done to conceal their own catastrophic slave pasts, and believing that exposure that reveals the gains achieved is the best route to follow, I travelled to Zanzibar for an investigation of putative Stone Town slave sites.

My aim was to discover current and past attitudes towards forced labour, the accuracy of historical material in Stone Town’s many museums, and to link the system to present conditions.

The Back Story

Zanzibar has a proud history: Islanders had the courage to resist and to eventually overthrow an unjust system of human suffering. For over 150 years, people were bought and sold with impunity: By 1873, this ghastly trade, but not the slave system, had been abolished.

For decades, the plantation system, predicated on a free supply of labour, lingered, leaving a legacy of seemingly insurmountable societal divisions based on unequal access to basic needs deemed essential to survival.


Zanzibar had always been 98 per cent Muslim, but solutions had to be found elsewhere as neither Islam nor its predecessors outrightly condemned the ancient practice.

Learned, cosmopolitan Zanzibaris took their cue from the alternative thought-worlds of South Africa’s ANC, Amilcar Cabral and Samora Machel, as well as Fidel Castro’s recent socialist success in Cuba against the excesses of the American imperium; by 1964, Zanzibar’s citizenry had overthrown the British-Omani power elite in a successful revolution.

Free medical care and education were viewed as critical measures for the implementation of basic social justice, and an apt social landscape for Zanzibar’s grandeur.

Having nationalised the colonial financial sector, the Islanders’ bank became the People's Bank of Zanzibar. Outsized homes — obvious symbols of ill-gotten wealth and greed — were seized and inhabited by the homeless. These egalitarian institutions of unity and fair play remain as monuments to the revolution, as well as unsubtle reminders of what can happen when scoundrels and hustlers grab more than their legitimate share.

With this illustrious past, who better than Zanzibaris can boast of a history that became a significant strategic resource for radically altering their lives and future?

Yet many Zanzibaris continue to be spooked by slavery. Still believing its citizenry complicit in that ignominy, some Islanders are involved in a collective public mission to protect their countrymen and foreigners alike from it.

Well-rehearsed speculation passed off as evidence, specious stories collected by gullible foreigners, and undocumented facts — hidden in plain sight — become deceptive episodes in the recovery of Zanzibar’s malodorous past.

Tour- guide history

Several of Zanzibar’s enormous architectural masterpieces have been repurposed as convenient museum sites. Conventional wisdom has the Anglican Cathedral built over the Island’s notorious Central Slave Market as Zanzibar’s flagship memorial to slavery and the trade.

Tourists with appetites for horror get their money’s worth as mischievous tour guides lead unsuspecting visitors into underground “slave chambers” found in a cement cellar conveniently nearby.

What begins as high drama — a frightening experience in a dusty, airless enclosure — turns absurd when we learn that the place had been used as a cold-storage unit to preserve precious medicines beneath a demolished mission hospital.

Zanzibar’s “Middle Passage”

Along Stone Town’s 19th century Gold Coast called Shangani, Tippu Tip’s mansion lies in a state of dereliction in a line of grand old houses.

Scaffolding supports the still-handsome structure, and an exquisite carved teak door centres the façade. For centuries it was thought that the slave trade had been the province of Gulf Arabs.

Hamed bin Mohammed, better known by his nickname Tippu Tip (1837-1905), had been among the foremost. Yet photos in his 1903 autobiography reveal this well-known “Arab” to be African! Concealing his black identity was thought to be a reflection of the prejudices of his time. More to the point, Africans, South Asians and Europeans too were also heavily involved in the trade.

Although no one has actually seen one, underground tunnels were thought to have run from the open sea to cellars in homes of slave-traders as holding areas for captives before they were auctioned off. In fact, slave chambers probably existed in 19th century homes all along Zanzibar’s coast.

More historian than tour guide, Herry Bakari identified another hidden slave chamber at Shangani, under the Government Boys and Girls School. Formerly St Joseph’s Missionary School, and before that an Arab home.

Today, schoolgirls use the cool underground room as a chumba kusalia (prayer room). A tiny, barred window, revealing another dank cellar at the edifice’s opposite end, put paid to the “slave chambers” discovery.

Barred below-ground window of a slave chamber.
Barred below-ground window of a slave chamber. Today the building is the Boys and Girls Secondary School in Shangani. PHOTO | DANA SEIDENBERG

Four kilometres off Zanzibar’s west coast lies the notorious Prison Island. Its dark history is of helpless, incarcerated individuals captured on the mainland and held here on their way to Zanzibar’s many slave markets. On closer inspection, however, neither slaves nor prisoners (caged sea turtles excepted) were ever kept at the so-called Prison Island.

Although in 1873 the slave trade had been officially abolished, for decades, smuggling on a large scale continued. In 1877, Sultan Barghash bin Sayyid formed a military force of 500 men, and Lloyd William Mathews, an officer of the British Navy, was made commander of the troops to intercept this now illegal trade.

In 1890, Zanzibar became a British protectorate and its administration was brought under British control. In 1893, on behalf of the Zanzibar government, Changuu Island was bought from its Arab owners with the objective of erecting a central prison. Although a jail was built, the island instead became a quarantine station.

Having faced a cholera epidemic in Egypt and bubonic plague in Bombay, the colonialists were fearful of plagues in Zanzibar and in its most recent acquisition British East Africa (later Kenya Colony). The authorities instituted measures for protection of their new territories against vessels and their passengers at risk of disease epidemics.

Beit-al-Ajaib (House of Wonders) and Palace Museums

Built in l883 on the waterfront by Sultan Majid during Zanzibar’s “Golden Age,” the Beit-al Ajaib (House of Wonders) showcases Zanzibar’s history.

Inside a cavernous interior, a life-size jahazi (dhow) sat afloat in a sea of marble-flooring. Upstairs, in a dreary display of musty museum fare, Zanzibar’s rich, complicated past is depicted in scattered memorabilia collected in even more dusty glass cases.

A series of exhibits arranged neither chronologically nor thematically profile slaves, spices and ivory, mimicking the book of the same name authored by the curator, Abdul Sheriff.

Yet something is amiss with his thesis and organisation: The items are not in the same category, as slaves denote labour while spices and ivory are commodities.

With the exception of a few curiosities such as Livingstone’s small medical case that survived his many safaris into the African interior, it is necessary to turn to the Nyaraka za Taifa (Zanzibar National Archives) and the many better works on the slave trade and Zanzibar’s pivotal role in it. Zanzibar’s labour history — the legacy of slavery through the revolution to the present — is yet to be written.

The Beit-al Sahel, now the Palace Museum, was the town palace of the sultans. In the mid-19th century, it was built for the sultan’s court in the Omani style, reconstructed after the British bombardment in 1896, and modified again in 1936. It is here that the first mention of women and slavery is found in the person of Salme.

A “bedroom” contains yet another dusty glass case of regal women’s attire. Of near celebrity status, Salme (1824-1924), the daughter of Omani Sultan Sayeed Said (d. 1856), eloped with a German merchant, changed her name to Emily Ruete and wrote a book about her life. What has all this to do with slavery? She herself was the daughter of a white slave.

Yes, white slavery existed too! In her work, Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar, her mother is identified as a “Circassian concubine” from the Caucasus Mountains of Russia who was part of the Sultan’s harem.

Although some may feel that the work — praised to the sky — would have been better left unpublished, it provides an unvarnished testimony to elite attitudes towards enslaved people.

In a revealing passage, she laments the laziness of her own slaves: “The negro, above all, is fond of his ease — works only when he is compelled to, and then requires the strictest control even for the little work he is required to do in our parts. Neither are they an easy family to rear and keep, for there are a great many thieves, drunkards, deserters, and incendiaries among them. What is to be done with these? To overlook their sins would be to encourage them in their practice. Imprisonment they would not resent, but on the contrary court it, and revel in their cool retreat, eating, drinking and dreaming their time away.”

Livingstone House Museum

David Livingstone (1813-1873) was a missionary doctor, explorer and abolitionist. In 1866, he stayed in this royal estate as a guest of Sultan Sayyid Majid (1857-1870).

A small exhibition — in a state of becoming — lies within the Business Information Centre of the Zanzibar National Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture. On display is the French-inspired furniture of its original owner, the eldest son of the first Omani ruler.

Also exhibited are accoutrements of freed slaves — called Bombay Africans — whom Livingstone recruited for his safaris into the interior of the African mainland.

In the context of current struggles for global justice, trafficking in human beings continues unabated. A conservative estimate says that between 10 and 30 million people are still enslaved worldwide.

Whether this deeply unsettling figure includes the tens of millions of Atieno Yos — those overworked, underage domestic workers found throughout East Africa as identified by the late Kenyan poet, Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye — is an open question.

Why is this so? Unfortunately the enlightened consciousness and egalitarian ethos of Zanzibaris is light years away from the thought-worlds of citizenry elsewhere in East Africa.

The Zanzibar Revolution was an epic performance. Out of a heightened awareness of an invidious, dual colonial past, Zanzibaris became a better people for it. Exposing displays of criminal greed and violence that came with enslavement eventually catalysed a revolution. The battle is not over. Dark forces always fight back.

In Zanzibar today, with few industries to absorb the Isles’ runaway population growth, unemployment is rife and the standard of living low. Gross income inequalities resulting from the return of a capitalist class structure, which always accompanies neoliberal, free-market policies, are creeping back in.

A new hospital, built specifically for the governmental/ambassadorial elite, as though quality health care need only be available to those who can afford it, is a reflection of this trend.

The underserved remain underserved…but not forever.