Zanzibar: A question of history, a question of Slavery
Zanzibar has become a must-see for tourists and record numbers are pouring into this small island off the East African coast. No doubt it’s a magic place. Stonetown is a UNESCO World Her- itage city, set beside an azure sea, surrounded by palm fringed beaches and finally at peace. It is a photographer’s paradise of coralline rock buildings towering over twisting alleyways. Somehow Zanzibar is a different Africa. It is tucked into the waist of the continent, only a part of Tanzania by a twist of history, not by popular choice. Its ancient history is tied to the sea faring people of the monsoons.
The streets of Stonetown twist and turn till you lose complete sense of where you are. The town is divided into mitaa which often reflect the communities that once occupied them: names such as Shangani, Malindi, Vuga and Darajani. High on the list of sights are the buildings that have their origin in the years of the great Omani sultan, Sultan Said bin Sultan and his son, Sultan Barghash. The Omanis had been involved with Zanzibar since the 1600s and the ties with Islam go back to the earliest days of the faith. Sultan Said would be the last sultan to rule both countries and he established the clove plantations on Zanzibar that brought both great wealth and widespread slavery to the island.
A top activity, as listed in the 2009 Zanzibar Bradt Travel Guide, is to visit places that record the history of slavery. One of these is the Anglican Cathedral. Zanzibar is a Muslim country with over 95 percent of the population of one million following Islam and the over fifty mosques in the town show its long influence. However, it has always been a city of religious tolerance and the Hindu temples and cathedrals attest to this.
Slavery was finally outlawed in 1873 with an Anglo-Zanzibar treaty. When the slave market was closed the Anglican Christian Mission was given the site by a local Hindu for the cathedral. There is more symbolism in that the location of the altar is the reputed site of the slave whipping post and the crucifix in the nave is made from the tree under which David Livingstone’s heart was buried in Zambia. There is a statue outside the Cathedral, a memorial to those thousands of slaves that were traded through Zanzibar. When you arrive you will be asked to pay a few US dollars to a guide and he will explain the horrors of slavery. The enthusiastic guide will take you to the building opposite the Cathedral, St Monica’s Guesthouse, and lead you to its cellar. The Bradt Guidebook is most eloquent:
‘Its basement provides one of Zanzibar’s simplest, but arguably most moving and evocative, reminders of the dehumanising horrors of the slave trade … (they were) crammed five deep on the narrow stone slabs and shackled with chains which still lie there today.’
Websites and blogs echo this story and they recount how people weep when they hear the graphic details of barbaric cruelty enacted in this basement.
However, it is not true; it is all a historical fabrication. The St Monica’s building was erected in 1905, more than twenty years after slave market was closed . The cellars were used by the mis- sionaries for cool storage of medicines.
Zanzibar did indeed become a large market place for slaves over several decades. David Liv- ingstone’s vivid accounts of the effects of slave raids into Africa’s heartland alerted the world to this ghastly trade.
Does it matter that there are some untruths in the telling of the stories of slavery? Prof. Abdul Sheriff, an expert on the conservation of Stone Town, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, says that slavery has become a product to sell to the tourists. But it goes further than that. The question of slavery, and who bears the guilt, has riven the island for fifty years. It split the population into racial lines and was a major cause of the genocide of 1964.
Zanzibar is an old socially inclusive Muslim state, with people from the many cultures of the Indian Ocean and most people were very mixed in their racial lineage. They were Zanzibaris. However, when democratic institutions were designed for Zanzibar in the late 1950s, the British encouraged parties to develop representing different interest blocks so there would be a choice in the elections. The parties that arose were loosely divided 50:50 on racial lines. Those of more Afri- can heritage, tied to a sense of African nationalism, felt more dispossessed of power and joined the Afro-Shirazi Party, the ASP. Those with more of a local Arab background tended to support the sta- tus quo, the Sultan as a figurehead and supported the Zanzibar Nationalist Party, the ZNP coalition.
The parties differentiated themselves. The ASP brought up the issue of slavery and the Arab involvement in the trade many generations in the past. They now cast the Zanzibari Arabs as sort of colonialists. Stories of terrible racial acts were spread around, and malicious rumours were started of what might follow if the ZNP won.
The hatred engendered would be visited on innocent people. Independence in December 1963 from British control was short-lived. In January 1964 a revolution resulted in the genocide of thou- sands of Zanzibari Arab people, Arab looking people, small merchants, land holders or any people that got in the way.
The successful revolutionaries, under Abeid Karume, who was originally from Malawi, or- ganised themselves into the Revolutionary Council and proceeded to abolish democracy and created a dictatorship. For those citizens who chose to stay in Zanzibar the quality of life became appalling. With help from the East Germans, a police state evolved. Spies, called ‘Volunteers’, abounded and land and property was nationalised. Ali Sultan Issa, a minister under President Karume, said in his memoirs, ‘I felt that the whole idea of the revolution had gone radically wrong, especially when we started to consume our own…..the country was run by the gun.’
President Nyerere of the newly united country, Tanzania, allegedly said, ‘If I could tow that island out into the middle of the Indian Ocean, I’d do it’.
Times have changed and a multi-party system is working again. However, the issue of, what I might call, ‘Arab guilt’ continues to play its part. In order to acquire legitimacy, the Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar has written into history the justification of the revolution or mapunduzi. It has portrayed the revolution as a great liberalising event that, in theory, gave the population a better life. The revolution is held of great historical importance. Every year on the 12 January they celebrate freedom from colonialism, freedom for Zanzibar. The more the reality of this purported ‘better life’ are revealed as hollow, the more they have to portray the time before the revolution as terrible and the influence of the Zanzibar Arabs as being of a ruthless and colonial nature. There are no facts to back up this allegation, apart from emphasising ancient history and that leads to the issue of slavery. Meanwhile, the genocide has never been acknowledged by the government. No mass graves are recognised to give people proper ceremony.
The beautiful Stonetown is slowly collapsing. After the 1964 revolution President Karume di- rected the nationalisation of property. The population doubled as people poured in from the country and the houses were not maintained. Stonetown was seen by the President as a ‘visible reminder of colonial inequalities’ and racial disparities and thus became the victim of ‘official neglect and visible decay.’ Even the Islamic waqf properties, houses of permanent charitable donation, were expropriated. Thousands of people fled the island during these years, leaving behind all they had.
Nowadays, the Aga Khan Cultural Services have a Historical Cities Support Program that is
active in Zanzibar and they have restored various sites and houses. However, this is a drop in the ocean. There are over 1,600 houses and 1,300 are indicated of significant architectural interest.
Over one hundred have already collapsed.
Charles Hiza of the Aga Khan’s Cultural program said, ‘We are losing what we had.’
Walk around the old town and you can see the decay everywhere. Some people say it is better to let a house collapse as then you can build a cement block house without restriction on the site. A sprinkling of houses is being developed as hotels but there is a limit to this. Currently Zanzibar’s UNESCO World Heritage status is being threatened by a huge proposed hotel development of the heritage Mambo Msiige site on the seafront.
And the island’s hopes and its problems seem to be tied up in what Stone Town stands for. It is the income stream from tourism and hotel development. Tourism is the country’s biggest money earner. With the new money stream come stories of corruption, of preferred access to prime sites, to east coast development. The tourists come for the history that is encapsulated in its stones, its wonderful doors, its vibrant taarab music, its colourful people and its superb beaches. And that history is the history of the Zanzibar Sultanate, of the heydays of a powerful trading nation open to peoples of east and west.
Many of the people who fled after 1964 are arriving back as tourists, some even to build new houses. They come to see the land where they grew up, to see where their grandparents are bur- ied and where their family houses still stand. Direct flights have started this year from Muscat in
Oman. Ironically, the new airport where these Zanzibaris land is named after the despotic President Abeid Karume.
There is sorrow that still haunts Zanzibaris across the world. And the people of the island are still coming to terms with the violent history: of the revolution and of slavery.
Anne Chappel. July 2010