Zanzibar: Slave Market

High on my list of things to see in Zanzibar was the slave monument by Swedish sculptor Clara Sönäs. I have a peculiar fascination with the worst of human history and am drawn to places that commemorate atrocities committed in the name of religion or commerce.

Slave monument ZanzibarSlavery was abolished in 1873 but it took until 1897 for the Sultan to declare all slavery illegal and only then could slaves petition a British court for their freedom. Except for concubines. It wouldbe  another 12 years before they could seek their freedom as they were regarded as wives rather than slaves.

According to Michael Shepard, a merchant trading in Zanzibar in the mid-1800s, ‘it [was] the custom to buy a tooth of ivory and a slave with it, to carry it to the seashore.  Then the ivory and slave [were] carried to Zanzibar and sold.’ I read somewhere that for every piece of ivory leaving Zanzibar, five slaves died.

Slave monument Zanzibar

Slave monument Zanzibar

Underneath what is now St Monica’s guesthouse, men, women, and children brought to Zanzibar from mainland Africa were held for days in cellars awaiting their fate. The current exhibit offers harrowing first-hand accounts of the treatment they received.

Cypriani Asmani was six years old. When he tried to run away, he was chained to a log weighing 32 lbs. The only way he could move around was to carry it on his head. He was six. Just six. He carried that log with him for eight years before being freed by a missionary.

While each slave had a value, some were more valuable than others. Those stubborn enough to refuse to cry out when tied to a tree and whipped were the most expensive. Those were the strong ones, the ones with mettle.

Hamad bin Muhammad bin Juma bin Rajab el Murjebi aka Tippu Tip plundered Central Africa, before returning to Zanzibar with a fortune in ivory and slaves. At once stage he was said to have owned ten thousand, making him the biggest slave trader in the region. His house was under construction so we couldn’t go see it. It’s mind-boggling to think that back in the day, the man was probably revered as a progressive.

Charles Miller in his book The Lunatic Express (Macmillan 1971) writes of the African slave trade, telling of how men, women, and children were exchanged for beads, or corn, or cloth.  Women carrying both babies and ivory had an even harder task because if their load became too heavy, the baby was killed, and the ivory saved. Conditions on the dhows to Zanzibar after the torturous walk to the coast were if possibly worse.

Crammed below decks on specially constructed bamboo shelves with about 1m of headroom. There was not enough room to sit, or to kneel or squat, just a crippling combination of the three. Sometimes slaves were closely packed in open boats, their bodies exposed day and night to the sea and the rain.

And in something that weirdly reminded me of modern-day advertising, once the slaves arrived in Zanzibar, they were cleaned, oiled, and dressed, the women adorned with jewellery and made up with henna and kohl. They were prettied up to hide the malnourishment, to fetch the best price.

Then, each afternoon, the slaves to be sold were lined up in order of height and paraded through the market. Prospective buyers would check their teeth and eyes, as farmers do today when buying livestock. The mind boggles at how cruel we can be.

Once sold, they boarded another ship bound for Oman or elsewhere. The lucky (?) ones went to work on the clove plantations in Zanzibar. And by some accounts, they had a marginally better life.

The slaves were relatively well treated when they arrived at their new homes. They were fed, housed and clothed, and given small plots of land, with time off to tend them. Young mothers were rarely separated from their children, and good slaves were often freed after a few years. Many took paid jobs, such as gardeners and farmers, for their previous masters: some even became leaders of slave caravans or masters of slave ships.

Anglican Cathedral of the Church of Christ

Today, on the site of the old slave market, looms the Anglican Cathedral of the Church of Christ whose altar sits on the site of the old whipping tree. There’s a story going around that former slaves helped build it under the direction of Bishop Edward Steere. He, apparently, once had to leave on business and when he came back, he found 12 pillars erected upside down. I was ready to believe it until I saw the same in the Catholic Cathedral… one has to wonder.

The man himself is buried behind the altar. I wonder at the priests who say mass there and how they feel about standing on his grave.

Livingstone cross in the Anglican Cathedral of the Church of Christ

Text under Livingstone cross in the Anglican Cathedral of the Church of Christ

There’s a hat-tip, too, to David Livingstone, who stayed in Zanzibar before leaving on his final expedition. His heart is buried under a tree in Zambia and some wood from that tree was fashioned into a cross which now hangs in the cathedral.

Slave market exhibit Zanzibar

Perhaps most upsetting of all was not the history of the atrocities and testimonies to man’s capacity for cruelty, but the fact that slavery, although illegal, is still thriving today. Some 21 to 36 million people worldwide are said to live in slavery, be it bonded labour, forced labour, child slavery, early/forced marriage, or descent-based slavery.

Just a few years ago, in 2017, the Irish Times reported on the Rooneys, a family of Irish Travellers in the UK who

…targeted homeless people and men with learning disabilities to work and live in squalid conditions for up to 26 years. Their offences were described in court as “chilling in their mercilessness”.

One man, who was exploited by the family for at least 12 years, was beaten by a “Rooney lynch mob” when a car he was driving ran out of petrol. By the time they were arrested, the family had spent £36,000 worth of this man’s income support and disability living allowance.

It’s sad to see how little we have learned.

Interesting reading


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