Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Going back to the Slave Market in Zanzibar

A replica of the slaves awaiting sale at the Slave Market. Below the Anglican Church near the Slave Market.


Zanzibar is one beautiful place worth visiting any time of the year. First, because it is a beach town and then it has quite a number of fascinating things for a visitor to see and do. One of the towns in Zanzibar, which is by the way a semi-independent state, is Stone Town, where you come face to face with history.
A date with history
The buildings are a great number of years old and having been one of the entry points for the slave traders, you might consider stopping by at the Old Slave Market, where the market still stands side by side with the Anglican Cathedral Church of Christ.
Tourists take a solemn moment to remember the tortuous experience the slaves went through as they travelled from different parts of Africa and beyond, to be sold for little money and forced to labour in homes and farms of the wealthier citizens of the world.
During history classes, we were told of the dehumanising way the slaves were treated, as they were whipped and given little food and water on the journeys to the West.
Our guide mentions Tippu Tip as one of the prominent traders of the slave trade era. He explains that caravans started out from Bagamoyo on the mainland coast, travelling as far as 1,000 miles on foot to Lake Tanganyika, buying slaves from local rulers on the way, or, more cheaply, simply capturing them. In the compound of the slave market, representational figures of slaves are seen chained together.
A painful past
The guide says this is how slaves were sold to potential buyers, at this spot which retains the name of the Old Slave Market. When a slave fit the specifications of what a buyer was looking for, they would buy and own them.
This memorabilia of clasped slaves was constructed about 14 years ago (in 1998) though care was taken to use the original chains that were actually used on slaves in 1800. The slaves were shipped to this town in dhows from the mainland. Dhows were sailing vessels used by Arabs on the East African, Arabian, and Indian coasts, generally lateen-rigged on two or three masts.
The slaves were lined up in order of size at this market, tied to a tree and whipped as a way of finding out how manly and strong they were. And it was a painful test they underwent for if one wept then they would be considered weak, and fetch a lower price. So they were lined up from the smallest to the tallest and walked through the market, whilst their owner announced their price.
Prospective buyers had the liberty to inspect the physique, mouth, teeth and eyes of the slaves. But before they got exposed for this test they were kept down under, in the grimy slave chambers, where they were kept clasped in strong metallic chains which, still lie on what should have been sitting facilities for the slaves.
At the site’s noticeboard, in the compound is a writing: “During the slave trade, these two underground rooms were used to keep slaves, before being taken to the market for auctioning. “Originally, they were 15 chambers accessible but only two are accessible today. A small hut was on top and there was a big hole used as an entrance to the slave chambers. Slaves were kept in conditions so bad, so many died of suffocation and starvation. The amount was terrible,” the literature reads in part.
The larger chamber, according to the guide, would take in up to 80 slaves, while the smaller one accomodated 50. It is not as dark as the purpose for which they were built. There are three windows that let in light- two having been built for tourists’ viewing otherwise, it was only one window serving the slave chambers.
In these chambers are bitter memories from the past. Heat leaves you feeling like you are in sauna and under your feet, channels through which excrement would be cleared. But slave masters were wise and knew how to carry out slave trade.According to history, sometimes, they identified a potentially strong slave who they were sure would fetch them good money. So they would clean them and take them to the market in the late afternoon.
Historical literature further shows that men and boys had their skins oiled and females were dressed in nice clothes, sometimes even adorned with necklaces and bracelets.
That was years before Dr David Livingstone’s efforts to abolish this inhumane trade, which incidentally had been legalised, paid off. Through the church, there are two slave chambers which were classified according to gender, the large one for women and children and the smaller one for the men.
Even then, they were mischievous traders who, during the reign of the Omani Arabs in the early 19th century, would capture slaves already sold to the mainland and resell them at markets like the one in Stone Town.
But all this ended in 1873, when the slave market was closed by Sultan Barghash after missionaries bought the site and decided to build the Cathedral Church of Christ. Entrance to the site is $3 (approximately Shs75,00) and just adjacent to this historical site stands a modern day St Monica

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