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 fueled as much by trade in ivory and slaves as in benign commodities like spices and silk.
And 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.
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.
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.