The hot air seems to evaporate the history, the narrow streets seem to envelope the dark secret and the veiled women seem to keep it hush hush. Tourists walking in pairs with cameras in hand give a sense that all is well in the East African island archipelago. Walking the streets and admiring the rustic feel of Zanzibar’s Stone Town, I spot a tall gothic style Church stack in the middle of the town which seem to let out the secret. After spotting a museum sign board at the Church entance, I drag my friend in, not knowing what we are getting into. Once inside, I am partly relieved because besides the language, the Church is what I could most identify with in the predominantly Muslim Country.
The Church standing next to a Mosque in perfect architectural harmony
Entrace at the Church/slave exhibit
The tour guide gives us a brief on what to expect and when the word slavery drops, I am slightly taken aback and pay close attention. I knew that the land boasts of spices and great beauty, but seemed to have forgotten that slavery in Zanzibar ended in the 1900s- a fact I learned long ago in Primary School. We are led into an underground cave-like structure that seem to close in on us. The cold and darkness seep into my soul and I drag my feet that now seem like logs, as I make my around the dungeon. Enclosed almost underground, the dungeon is subdivided into small cellars. My head is almost touching the roof making me think that I have been buried while standing.
Slave chambers where men, women and children were crammed before sold off
We stop in one of the cellars and the tour guide explains to us in Swahili that this is one of the slave chambers where chained men, women and children were stowed and crammed for days, waiting to be auctioned at the slave market run by Arab traders. There were no toilets and they had to defecate were they slept, literally. Food and water were not provided, and some fell ill and some died. I linger in one of the cellars and their echoes seem to call on to me. As we exit the slave chambers, the wind outside carries the slaves’ whispers to the Indian Ocean, to freedom, and leaves from nearby trees fall from the weight of sadness.
One of the slave chambers with real chain left behind by the captured slaves
We quietly follow the guide, all heavy from the cruelty witnessed in the dungeon. We make entrance into the Anglican Cathedral which we now learn is called Christ Church, standing tall where one of Africa’s largest slave market used to be. Its expanse forces one to shrink inward and the art bedazzles one right from the start. The distance from the heavy door to the altar is like a pilgrimage, every step forcing you to confession, even for sins you haven’t committed yet. Once we reach the altar, we learn that a grave sin was once committed upon the very place we stood. We were standing at the exact spot of the main ‘whipping post’ where slaves would be thrashed with a stinging branch to test their mettle. Those who did not cry or faint fetched a higher price.
At the Church’s altar where the ‘whipping post’ stood
Had I been here at the altar where I stand 200 years ago, I would be among the women, men and children shipped from Kenya, Congo, Tanganyika and elsewhere from the inland. I would be sold like commodity to work in Zanzibar spice farms or shipped abroad. We learnt that the slave market would be opened at around four in the afternoon. The people to be sold were lined in rows according to age or gender, suitability for employments or perceived value. Buyers made detailed inspections of eyes and teeth, and intrusive examinations were carried out on women.
A slave memorial outside the Church depicting captured slaves bearing the actual chains used
As we navigate the Church, a lightness returns when I learn that its construction was intended to celebrate the end of slavery. Following efforts by the Anglican Church and devout Christians like David Livingstone, slave trade in Zanzibar came to an end. The Church was built in seven years by former slaves in need work, and was opened on the Christmas of 1879. The Church was based on a vision of Bishop Edward Steere, who actively contributed to its design. When the Cathedral was almost completed, he died of a heart attack and was buried behind the altar. Inside the Church, there is a cross that was made from the wood of the tree that grows on the place where David Livingstone’s heart was buried.
Bishop Edward Steere, builder of Christ Church. Part of the tablet reads, ‘…the friend of slaves. As great missionary and traveler and above all as pioneer interpreter of East African languages especially Swahili…’
Touring the Church, I saw that although Christianity was used falsely as a pretext for propagating slavery, it has also been the main driving force in the abolishment of slavery. Christianity was the voice of the slaves. Its ideals ensured that true followers spearheaded the abolition of slavery, and true to that, the campaign for abolition of slavery was led by devout Christians like William Wilberforce.
Christianity also points to God’s plan for slaves and Africans in general. Even in great persecution, the resilience in Africans could not make them turn away from God, their only Master. That’s why most members of the Anglican Church in Zanzibar and in Africa trace their roots to their slave descendants who were part of the Church. In fact, services at Christ Church are still held in Swahili and English. As I exit the Church, I turn back and get a last glance of the symbol of emancipation and not only am I proud to be African, but more proud to be a Christian.
Photo credits: Mulyale Mutisya
Read: Additional resources on Christianity’s role in the abolishment of slavery