Zanzibar – The Last Slave Market

The allure of Zanzibar, its multicultural, decaying opulence harking back to an affluent past, is derived from its history of thriving commerce in the Indian ocean. It is sobering to consider, however, that the affluence was fuelled as much by trade in ivory and slaves as in benign commodities like spices and silk.

As is the fact that it was the last place on earth where human beings were bought and sold like cattle nearly half a century after the practice was banned in the rest of the world and on the West coast of Africa.

'Memory for the Slaves" by Scandinavian artist Claera Sornas
‘Memory for the Slaves” by Scandinavian artist Clara Sornas

Traders from every resident ethnicity profited from the slave trade, with the tacit connivance of Indian authorities (under the aegis of the East India Company) which held jurisdiction over Zanzibar at the time. Even while back home, British citizens influenced by the horrific accounts of evangelist missionaries, mounted pressure on their government to crack down on the Sultan.

It was a Scottish doctor and botanist John Kirk, one of Dr. David Livingstone’s companions on his earliest expeditions, who initiated the slow process to end slavery for good. His rise from lowly functionary to British Consul of Zanzibar, his patient collating of data against the trade, his use of trickery, persuasion and force to influence the Sultan and Arab traders (and his bosses), and his final and single handed pursuit of slavers on the island as well as on the mainland, is an inspiring story that is strangely less talked about than the lesser pursuits of his more famous, and missionary, compatriot! I for one had never heard of him before.

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Today, the Anglican Cathedral Christ Church occupies the site of the infamous market, with its high altar positioned over the spot where the slave whipping post once stood. A cross to the right of the altar is said to have been carved out of wood from the mpundu tree from Ilala in Zambia, under which Dr. Livingstone’s heart was interred by his two loyal attendants.

The cramped, claustrophobic dungeons where hundreds of slaves were held for days – perhaps months – under appalling conditions, are accessed through the museum next door. Outside, five bronze sculptures in a concrete pit, fettered together with chains from the original market, recreate the scene of a human auction. A powerful monument to the memory and inhumanity of a dark past.

The ending of slavery marked the beginning of the downward spiral of Zanzibar. And ironically, opened the doors for the mad ‘scramble for Africa‘ by imperialist powers.



  • Anglican Christ Church, Zanzibar, under scaffolding.
  • A plaque on the floor marks the spot of the whipping post.
  • The grave of Bishop Edward Steele.
  • The cross said to be carved out of wood from the tree under
  • The depressing slave holding area below ground.

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on

34 thoughts on “Zanzibar – The Last Slave Market

  1. We have been inside the underground cells where slaves were kept in Zanzibar before they were shipped out. I think everyone who has stood in that space could feel the misery and despair of the poor wretches who passed through there.

    1. True Debra. It is all the more incomprehensible to me how those who put them there could have been impervious to it.

  2. Thanks for sharing, it is sad and sick to know what human beings do to other human beings and in some way or the other such activities, slavery in different forms, continue.

  3. That is a different angle to Zanzibar, which always conjures up images of an exotic peaceful land. Glad that it was half a century ago.

    1. No, not at all. And in every such instance it is the people who watched and kept silent that are the equally culpable.

  4. The museum was closed when we were there. Without John Kirk’s pressure to bring this insidious practice to an end, no telling how long it would have continued. I remember how moved I felt when I saw the pit with the slaves. Zanzibar’s dark past.

  5. I went to the site of a slave market and to the ‘Door of no return’ in Ghana, desperately sad places that show the appalling history of the way so called humans treated others.

  6. So intense but beautifully written, Madhu! The part about John Kirk gave me good chills repeatedly as I read. 🙂

  7. Thinking about the slaves in Zanzibar and the horrific conditions they endured made me feel as though I were suffocating. Their story needs to be retold again and again. Thank you for telling it, Madhu.

  8. A fascinating island. If you read Rodney’s account in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, he sites a different reason for the slave trade being stopped.

  9. Very nicely done, Madhu. Slavery—such an ancient concept. Such an inhumane human concept. I understand why people did it, I just don’t understand how they could.
    Also…I’ve been wanting to get to Zanzibar for decades now. And was thinking of this summer! Are you there now?

  10. Thanks for sharing this sobering post. Man’s inhumanity to man never ceases to amaze me. I hope to visit Zanzibar someday.

  11. Dear Madhu, the sculpture of the chained salves in the pit is very moving. I’m afraid there are places today where people–particularly women–are still bought and sold like cattle, married off as children against their will, or kept as prisoners in their own homes, here in the United States and elsewhere. The world has come a long way, but we still have far to go. Thank you for speaking out.

  12. This was a fascinating post Madhu. I’ve been to Bagamoyo, on the east coast of Tanzania. It was here that the slaves, after having rounded up from the whole eastern region of Africa, were gathered to be shipped first to Zanzibar and then to the rest of the world. Zanzibar has held a fascination for e ever since.
    I’m glad that slavery has ended, but unfortunately what has not ended is man’s cruelty to man. We just see it in other forms, or it has gone underground. It breaks my heart.

  13. Nice read. I like the video format you have introduced, Madhu.
    Perhaps you could include a note on Dr Livingstone, as he springs up from nowhere in the essay?
    Much love.

  14. This reminds me of my very sobering visit to the slave “castles” in Ghana. I know very little about Zanzibar in spite of my time in nearby Tanzania, and your post was wonderfully informative. Thanks!

  15. The glimpse of lives that were probably worse than death gave me goosebumps. It was wonderful to see this side of the story through your eyes. Thank you for sharing 🙂

  16. Slavery in modern times, is alive & kicking in India. It is just delicately termed,”Bonded Labour!” Very moving pictorial post, Madhu…….

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