26 January 2012

May peace prevail

To better understand the history of the island, we were keen to visit the site of Zanzibar's slave market. We were motivated to bear witness, in some small way, to the most egregious wrong of Africa's past. Zanzibar was East Africa's main slave-trading port. In the mid-19th century as many as 50,000 slaves passed through the Stone Town slave market annually. It is a horrific number to contemplate.

The Anglican bishop, Edward Steere, came to Zanzibar to champion freedom for slaves as part of the anti-slavery movement that ultimately led to abolition in 1873.  Bishop Steere brought many former slaves under his protection.  He spearheaded the plan to build Christ Church Cathedral on the site of the slave market with the labour of freed slaves.  It was meant to be a symbol of a new covenant, one in which peace might prevail over pain. 

Today, two of the dark cramped chambers used to house slaves before their sale are still intact.  It was a gruesome place to behold.  As many as 80 men would be packed into the chamber we entered.  A hundred women and children would be held in the adjoining chamber.  

We learned that the slaves were often oiled and clothed and the women were displayed in jewelry to make them more appealing to buyers. But they were just as frequently whipped with the stinging tails of stingrays. If they did not cry out in pain, they fetched a higher price.  Those who were too weak or sick were thrown down a well and drowned.  It is possible to see where the whipping pole stood, for it is marked with a marble disk in front of the altar.

The church has one modern relic.  It is a small crucifix said to be made of wood from the tree under which David Livingstone, the first abolitionist, died in Zambia. Even as he was dying, Livingstone made a plea for the end of slavery.  He died of malaria about a month before the abolition of slavery.

The most moving feature of the site is the memorial to African slaves. The figures are linked together with actual iron collars and chains that the slavers used to transport slaves overland from their village homes on the continent. See more information about this historic site.

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