The beach at Mangapwani in the NW of Zanzibar, where many slave dhows offloaded their cargoes.
Zanzibar, on the east coast of Africa, was the main entrepot for the slave trade which operated out of central Africa from time immemorial until the 5th April 1897, when Sultan Hamoud bin Muhammad partially abolished slavery in his domain. Even after 100 years, the visitor can still see enough of slavery’s traces to be able to reconstruct those traumatic times.
The Mbweni Ruins in the 19th Century
Mbweni School in 1875 - a painting by May Allen, a former Missionary.
A few years ago I decided to visit as many of the sites connected with slavery as possible, beginning at Mbweni Ruins Hotel, which lies in the grounds of the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa’s “freed slave village” at Mbweni, five miles south of the town of Zanzibar. This was a positive place to start. From 1864 onwards, the Anglican missionaries did their best to care for slaves who had been freed from dhows by British naval ships, who were often worse off than the captive slaves, having no food, shelter or clothing. So a village, two schools and a church were built at Mbweni. The ruins of the school for girls can still be visited in the grounds of Mbweni Ruins Hotel.
The Mbweni Ruins today
The crumbling golden walls of the lovely old school chapel were warm with early morning sunlight when my guide, Idi Mohammed, a forestry oficer who worked with Equator tours, arrived to take my father and myself off in search of former slave caves and chambers.
The Anglican Cathedral at Mkunazini, Zanzibar
Our first stop was at Mkunazini, in the Stone Town of Zanzibar, where the UMCA cathedral has been built on the site of the whipping post of the slave market which was abolished in 1873 by Sultan Barghash. A young guide showed us around. He told us that the Anglican Bishop Steere obtained the land and began to build immediately. Seven years later, in 1880, the Christ Church cathedral was completed. Bishop Steere, who died in 1882, is buried behind the altar, whose mosaics were donated by Caroline Thackeray, a missionary lady who lived at Mbweni for nearly 50 years, from 1877 until her death in 1826.
Caroline Thackeray at Mbweni
On the left hand side, near the altar, we admired a cross made of wood from the tree under which David Livingstone’s heart was buried, after his death at Chitambo in 1873. The atmosphere in the cathedral is serene, and I felt the presence of an unseen congregation, many of whom may have walked across Africa in fear and pain, to reach the coast and Zanzibar before reprieved and coming to this peaceful place.
My father and I walked out of the church into the strong sunlight, passing a tall date palm which must have been planted more than 50 years ago. We cricked our necks, admiring the tall slim steeple and strange barrel vault roof, which was the personal invention of Bishop Steere. On the tower was a clock, keeping Swahili time: this was donated by Sultan Barghash, in return for the honouring of his request that the top of the spire be kept below the height of the House of Wonders.
Slave chambers at Mkunazini
Surrounding the church are many buildings of the UMCA, including the Bishops’ house, the orphanage and a school. To the left of the Cathedral is the former UMCA hospital and St Monica’s guest house. Inside the hospital building is a flight of steps leading downwards to what appear to be slave chambers. They are open to public viewing; our guide went into graphic and patently innacurate details of the horrors which occurred in the past. There are two rooms, one supposedly for men and the other for women. There are small barred windows and concrete shelves.
Kilele Square, Zanzibar
We now drove westwards from the UMCA compound until we reached Kilele square, bordered by the Serena Inn and the Mambo Msiige building. This was the first Mission house of the UMCA, who sold it to the British Government for their Consulate in 1874, and moved to Mkunazini, as mentioned above. Kilele square is supposed to have been the site of the slave auction, before it was moved to Mkunazini. This seems likely, as it is at the outermost point of Shangani peninsula, right by the ocean, where slave dhows could have disembarked their cargoes. Today there is nothing to see except a peaceful square with a pretty garden.
Tumekuja School, formerly the French Mission in Zanzibar
We proceeded to the Tumekuja school nearby. This is not open to the public, as visitors would obviously disturb the scholars. However, Idi was able to get permission for us to go in and take a look. There are two buildings, comprising the French Mission, begun in Zanzibar in 1862. The one on the left was the former St Joseph’s convent and the one on the right was the French hospital, built in 1892.
Chambers below the old French Hospital
We were led down some steps below the hospital, into a double chamber with rounded ceilings where tradition says that slaves were imprisoned. They were very beautiful, the light coming through the tiny barred windows causing the lime walls to glow. But there was nothing on the bare floors and no mark or sign to tell the history of this hidden place. Below the older convent building, was another, square cellar.
From the Stone Town we now drove for 20 km, which took about 35 minutes, on the road which leads north along the west coast to Nungwi. We passed Maruhubi, Mtoni, Bububu, Kibweni and Chuini palaces. All except the first two of these were “summer palaces”, built by the various Sultans to provide an escape from the town in the dangerous hot months, when epidemics of cholera, plague and smallpox were commonplace. At Bungwini we took a left fork and wound our way slowly along a bumpy road to the ocean. Another left fork brought us to the Mangapwani cave - though there is no tradition that this was used to house slaves, it is well worth a visit.
A slave boy working on the plantation of a wealthy Arab, Hamed Salim el Harthy, discovered this cave while looking for a lost goat. There is a spring in the bottom of the cavern, about 500 feet below ground. The water is clear, sweet and cool and the nearby village still uses it today. Now there is a flight of steps and a rough pathway down to the pool. My father stayed at the foot of the steps and I climbed right down to the water and took a photograph of him looking very small, diminished by the distance between us.
Mangapwani Slave Chambers, Zanzibar
Emerging into the now blazing afternoon heat, we drove northwards for a few minutes, through thick and prickly scrub until we came to the Mangapwani slave chambers. This was the climax of our trip. This time, descending into two damp rectangular chambers, each below its own hipped coral roof, there was no doubt in my mind of the original purpose of these subterranean rooms. The hairs rose on the back of my neck when we descended the wide central steps, moving into a heavy atmosphere which was not caused by the gloom and decay alone. Ferns sprouted from the walls and light streamed downwards - which certainly was not the case in the days when the chambers were in use. They were covered by a locked wooden panel and the whole structure was hidden from view. The three small slits in each gable end provided the only light and air.
According to the guide books, the Mangapwani slave chambers were built by Mohammed bin Nassur al Alawi and were probably used after 1873, when in spite of the the Sultan’s Decree that the export of slaves from the mainland should cease, the trade continued. We took a narrow and precarious trail down to the beach below, where the captives must have landed after their hazardous sail from Bagamoyo, or Kilwa and Mikindani, further south. Some remained on the island, sold to clove plantation owners or used as domestic servants. The rest re-embarked for Arabia and Persia.
The sandy white beach was pristine, the sea a stunning array of turquoise shades. The contrast to the horrible prison was striking; we were silent and Idi’s face was sombre and still. Then he smiled slowly and called my attention to something on the cliff above our heads. “Look”, he said. “Orchids - Angraecum eburneum”. I couldn’t believe it; clinging in a narrow layer of humus on the rocky face were spray after spray of flowering plants.
Orchids sprouting from the cliffs at Mangapwani
Their waxy white petals and bright green lanceolate leaves sprouted in a glorious profusion. They reminded me of tears, the tears of the slaves who may also have raised their faces and smiled at this small miracle, a hundred years and more ago as they stumbled to or from the grim dhows. The salty scent of the ocean, borne on a light breeze, made me want to take a deep breath of air - I have rarely appreciated my freedom to do so as much as I did at that moment.