February 24, 2012

Slavery in Zanzibar

The second stop of my Africa trip was Zanzibar. This island had always existed as an exotic dream to me and my visit in no way dispelled its mystery. While there I became fascinated with the long-standing slave trade that made up such a central part of its commercial from a few years after Vasco de Gama’s visit in 1498 until the last slave trader, Teppu Tip, died in 1907. Dealing in human cargo was not outlawed on the island until 1873 when the Anglican bishop put his foot down and finally forced the Sultan to end the slave trade. Bishop Edward Steere then built his cathedral on the very site of the slave market, marking in blood red marble a circular spot right in front of the high altar where the Acacia tree had stood where the auctions were conducted for nearly a hundred years.

In the 40 years following the time when Sultan Al-Said moved his court from Oman to Zanzibar in 1833, over 300,000 human beings were sent as slaves to Arabia, Asia and Europe. The internecine battles of continental African tribes provided a steady flow of prisoners of war who were marched to the coast in chains and then sent to the Island. Islam prohibited selling Muslims as slaves, so the Arabian peninsula and beyond were built on black slave labor just the as the American South was. It was interesting to find that the United States of America was the first western nation to establish diplomatic relations with the Zanzibari Sultanate (1838). Perhaps they found they had certain economic systems in common.

You can visit several sites on Zanzibar related to the slave trade to gain a feel for this hideous institution. The Anglican church offers tours of the former slave corners still housed in the basement of the hostel on the cathedral grounds. A memorial also graces the grounds commemorating the 10s of thousands who passed through the market. On the north shore, you can visit the clandestine slave quarters and caves where the illegal slave trade continued from 1873 until 1906. And you can tour Teppu Tip’s ramshackle home and see the personal arrangements he made to keep the trade alive after its outlawing. Teppu Tip and other slave traders were Dr. David Livingstone’s guides into the African interior. But witnessing their practices converted Livingstone to a die-hard abolitionist.

As you walk the Stone Town waterfront in Zanzibar you can almost sense the way of life that dominated this island in the 1800s. Beautiful palaces, a bustling seaport filled with Arabian dhows, bazaars and markets filled with goods from around the world, harems for wives and concubines all paid for through the slave trade.

Slavery is now ended but enslavement for Africa seems to continue. Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and other East African nations represent economies beholden to the west which watch their wealth drawn from this periphery to the western economic core. The visible chains are gone, thank God, but the economic chains remain.