Swahili, slavery, socialism and superstition – III

Not so long ago, one of the world’s great slave bazaars flourished here.  Stone Town was East Africa’s main port for the slave market between Africa and Asia (including the Middle East).  It is estimated that in the mid-19th century as many as 50,000 slaves were exported every year from here.

(Daily Times, 6 March 2013)

 My Malawi bus trip aborted, I returned to my motel in Dares Salam and began to plan my next destination.  Air travel is generally very expensive in Africa.  Direct flights are few; most flights in sub-Saharan Africa are routed through Nairobi, Addis Ababa or Johannesburg.

I remember meeting a Sudanese diplomat a few years ago who told me that when he and a few of his colleagues were declared persona non grata and expelled from the Central African Republic (CAR), the only way for them to return to Sudan was to fly via Paris.  There were no direct flights or even one through another African country.  Sudan and CAR share a long border but it was inaccessible by road.  It is sometimes cheaper and often quicker to fly from one African country to another via a European hub, such as London, Paris, Rome, Brussels or Frankfurt.

So, a flight to Malawi ruled out, I bought a reasonably priced ticket to Johannesburg and availed of the extra few days to catch up on reading, sampling the excellent food (kebabs and naan especially) and listening to the chatter in the motel lobby.

The motel provided free breakfast to its customers.  The breakfast was very basic, the option of buying anything was not available, and the waitress believed in making haste slowly. She served with a totally expressionless face, almost like a robot.  Breakfast over, the little restaurant would be empty for the rest of the day. 

One morning, as I was watching television in the lounge after breakfast, I could see through the glass partition the three Tanzanians of Indian origin, who I have mentioned earlier, engaged in a very animated conversation with two European women in the empty restaurant.  When they emerged, they told me that the two women were sisters from Switzerland who were trying to convince them of the superiority of Christianity.  In the event, the sisters had bitten far more than they could chew. 

As in all arguments involving faith, whether Islam or Christianity won the day on this occasion probably depends on which side you asked.  I later had a very brief chat with one of the sisters myself and found her to be polite, not very knowledgeable but very certain about the superiority of her own Christian faith to anyone else’s.  From my experience, any time spent discussing religion with missionaries and “born-agains” of any sort (and that most certainly includes Muslim Tableeghis) is a sheer waste of time.  So, leaving her to look for the next soul that needed to be “saved”, I moved on.

Any trip to these parts would be incomplete without a visit to Zanzibar, just over an hour away from Dares Salam by fast ferry.  As my ferry left port on a rainy morning heading into a stormy sea, fishermen were already out, keeping their little boats precariously above water, often disappearing from view behind a surging wave.  Under the merger agreement with Tanzania, Zanzibar enjoys a degree of autonomy, which includes its own border controls.  So, as one arrives here from Dares Salam, the passport is inspected and stamped by “Zanzibar immigration” on payment of a fee.  However, the “immigration” procedure is cursory and quick, more symbol than substance.

The name Zanzibar is associated with Swahili, Stone Town, slavery and scenery.  Considered the birthplace of Swahili, this small island has historically been a melting pot of many cultures – African, Indian, Arab and Persian.  Besides the fine beaches, its main tourist attraction is Stone Town, the “capital” of this 1,500 sq km territory. It is a small medieval city, with narrow alleyways, mosques, old palaces with ornate roofs and huge brass-studded wooden doors, and a noisy, bustling bazaar, where lots of fish and spices are bought and sold.  Small wonder that Zanzibar is very popular holiday destination for Europeans and South Africans.

There is a bit more to Zanzibar, though.  And this bit is a testament to the inhumanity of man to man.  Not so long ago, one of the world’s great slave bazaars flourished here.  Stone Town was East Africa’s main port for the slave market between Africa and Asia (including the Middle East).  It is estimated that in the mid-19th century as many as 50,000 slaves were exported every year from here.

The most notorious merchant of human misery was a man known as Tippu Tib, who was of mixed Omani and African descent.  He led large expeditions to the interior of the continent, where African chiefs sold to him men and women of their villages. Tib then used them to carry ivory to Zanzibar, where he sold his captives in the great slave bazaar of Stone Town and the ivory elsewhere.  According to a report in the Guardian, the Ethiopian academic Mekuria Bulcha estimates that mostly Arab traders sold 17 million Africans to the Middle East and Asia between the sixth and twentieth centuries.

I visited an old church in the centre of Stone Town, the Anglican Cathedral Church of Christ.  Standing on the very ground where the great slave bazaar once thrived, it commemorates the history of slavery and pays homage to the man who made the greatest contribution to its abolition in 1873, the Scottish explorer and missionary David Livingstone.  Where the whipping tree once stood is now the altar of the church.  Slaves were tied to the tree and whipped to test their strength and resilience.  If they did not cry, they fetched a higher price.

It was in Stone Town that the shortest recorded war in history took place.  To show their disapproval of the succession of Sultan Khalid bin Barghash upon the death of the pro-British Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini two days earlier, ships of the Royal Navy bombarded the Beit al Hukum Palace on the morning of August 27, 1896.  A ceasefire was arranged a mere 38 minutes later.

Zanzibar gained independence from Great Britain on December 10, 1963 as a constitutional monarchy. A month later, the government was overthrown in a bloodbath.  Africans had revolted against the entrenched Omani Arab dominated socio-economic and political order from which they were permanently excluded.  A “people’s republic” was proclaimed. Up to 20,000 Arabs and Indians were killed and thousands more were expelled in an exercise in ethnic cleansing.

(To be concluded)

By Razi Azmi


This entry was posted in Travelogues. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Swahili, slavery, socialism and superstition – III

  1. Javed Agha says:

    Thanks for giving details on Zanzibar. I did not know that so many slaves were exported from this little island. Who dominates the island now. Arabs or Africans? How about posting atleast one picture with each article. I am sure you must be having a lot of pictures of the places you visit.

  2. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    Respected Razi Azmi Sahib, thank you for this detailed history of slave trading. The irony of it all that the followers of Islam and that too Arabs whose Prophet had proscribed slavery were the worst offenders.
    Thank you again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *