Saturday, June 14, 2008

African Adventure: Slave Traders in Zanzibar

The slave trade on Zanzibar has a long history and started around the 9th century by the Persians and for centuries, until it was banned in 1873, Zanzibar was the main center for the slave trade between Africa and the east. Islamic countries forbid the enslavement of Muslims so they sort slaves in non-Muslim African countries such as the DRC (formally Zaire), Tanzania, and Uganda. The Persians occupied Zanzibar until the 14th Century after which the Portuguese had a string presence. The slave trade continued by the Portuguese for the next few centuries when beginning in the 16th Century, Oman Arabs took over Zanzibar after overthrowing the Portuguese. In the mid-19th Century the British had a strong presence making Zanzibar a British protectorate and finally brought to an end slavery on Zanzibar. Although formally banned in 1873 largely as a result of the work of British Missionaries and people such as explorer David Livingstone, it continued illegally on Zanzibar until around 1907.

We visited Zanzibar's former slave market and this is what we saw. The only structure left of the slave market are two underground slave chambers. Men, women and children were captured from various African countries and marched in chains around their necks to different ports on Tanzania's coast. They were usually made to carry ivory which was shipped to the east. On this journey many died from starvation and exhaustion. However, this was considered a weeding out process so only the strongest best slaves were for brought to market. Once they were shipped by boat to Zanzibar they were kept for 3-4 days in the chambers (see pics below) with up to 75 slaves in each chamber. Again, they were chained around the neck and many people died of suffocation, starvation, or disease in these terrible conditions. The survivors were brought out to the market area next to the chambers. The lucky ones were sold at auction, but most had to endure being whipped at a whipping post. Literally thousands died at the whipping post and again this was used as a weeding out process as the strongest ones would get the best price.

We went down into the slave chambers and it was difficult to imagine the atrocities, horror, blood shed and loss of human life that occurred on the very spot we stood. On the site of the whipping post and auction area now stands an Anglican church built just after the abolition of the slave trade. The church alter stands on the exact spot of the whipping post which is marked by a circular piece if marble. Again, its impossible to even imagine the terrible suffering and loss of life that occurred at that very spot (see pic below). The church is a beautiful building with a cross made from the wood of the tree under which David Livingstones body was found to acknowledge his role in bringing to light the atrocities of the slave trade in. In fact there is also a plaque dedicated to the British Navy and the sailors who lost their lives while bringing to an end the illegal slave trading after its official ban.

Outside the church is an art exhibit of a sculpture showing the lifeless faces of slaves in chains. In fact the chains are real chains that were actually used around the slaves necks. This was an eerie sight to see chains that were actually used to enslave human beings and shackle their dead bodies.

It's so shocking to think that human beings were hunted, put into chains, whipped to death, and bought and sold less than 100 years ago. Today we can look back and be shocked and think that as a species, human beings have evolved beyond this. But I sometimes wonder how far we really have progressed when I look at what has gone in places like the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Somalia, and what is going on now in Zimbabwe to name just a few countries.

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