The stain of Slavery in Stonetown, Zanzibar

I walk into a light, bright, white wooden building, sunfilled with soaring ceilings, in Stonetown, Zanzibar. It is now seemingly an art market for tourists, but was previously a hostel and orphanage.

Zanzibar slave history hostel
Zanzibar slave history hostel

However a quick walk down the steps into the cellar and a different history emerges. Here is one of the few remaining pieces of physical evidence of the slave trade that prospered in Zanzibar, particularly in the 1800’s. Although the building is more recent, these cellars were reputed to be used as holding pens for slaves on ‘market day'; from here they could be quickly dragged up into the slave market directly overhead and sold. The cellars are low, dark and claustrophobic, and contain examples of the chains that were used to tether the slaves.

The slave trade was reputedly started by the Portuguese and then grew further when Zanzibar came under the control of the Sultanate of Oman in 1698. Initially slaves were captured or purchased from deep in the African mainland, chained together and forced to carry ivory to the coast, and then those that survived were transferred to Zanzibar to be either put to work in the spice plantations or sold. From Zanzibar most slaves were shipped to the Middle East, with some also going to the former french colonies of Reunion, Mauritius, Seychelles and Madagascar, or to North America.

Zanzibar slave history sculpture
Zanzibar slave history sculpture

In the words of Unesco, Zanzibar has great symbolic importance in the suppression of slavery, since it was one of the main slave-trading ports in East Africa and also the base from which its opponents, such as the renowned explorer David Livingstone, conducted their campaign against slavery. By the mid 1800s, the European influence was returning to the region and it was Livingstone, who based himself in Zanzibar between expeditions, who led the campaign. Another key opponent was Edward Steere, third bishop of Zanzibar (1874-82). Slavery was finally outlawed in 1877, although it continued illegally for some decades afterwards. To celebrate, the Anglican Bishop Steere built a cathedral (completed 1887) on what used to be the island’s largest slave market, apparently positioning the altar over the exact location of the whipping post. The Cathedral also has a timber cross carved from a branch of the tree that once hung over Livingstone’s heart, where it is buried at Chitambo, Zambia.

In the Cathedral courtyard there is now a graphic modern sculpture, by the Scandinavian artist Clara Sornas, of five slaves with chains around their necks, standing in a pit in the ground. Slightly larger than life, the slaves’ expressions convey a sense of sadness and futility. In a strange way I found this sculpture more moving and more confronting than the actual records of slavery, probably because there is so little physical evidence of the slave trade remaining in Zanzibar. I asked my guide Mohammed what he thought of his city forefathers being involved in the slave trade and he answered “its OK, it was a different time, it has nothing to do with us today. On Zanzibar we did not supply the slaves, we just supplied the market place.”

Zanzibar slave history sculpture
Zanzibar slave history sculpture