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by Cynthia Vukets on January 5, 2010

And other stories of the Zanzibari slave trade . . . . Our guide, Nicholas, leads us down a set of stairs into a stone chamber the size of a closet. One candle is burning, but doesn’t throw enough light for us to see into the two holding cells on either side.

This single candle was the only thing illuminating the slave pits below St Monica's Cathedral in Stone Town

This single candle was the only thing illuminating the slave pits below St Monica's Cathedral in Stone Town

“Just wait here,” says Nicholas, as he gently pushes us through the door into the women and children’s chamber. I stand there, trying to look through the gloom. I take a small step to my right and for a split second am more scared than I have ever been in my life. I bumped into a set of chains hanging from the wall and the sound stopped my heart. I couldn’t think. I was as if I’d been transported into another world. All of a sudden, the stories Nicholas and other Zanzibari people had told us about slave trading became all too real.

This chain was used to shackle 10 people in an underground cavern

This chain was used to shackle 10 people in an underground cavern

The slave trade was technically abolished in Zanzibar in 1873, when the British threatened to bomb the island. But men, women and children from East Africa and Angola continued to be trafficked through Zanzibar to the Middle East. Nicholas tells us business was booming and at the market in Stone Town prospective buyers could cut deals such as “buy four adults and get one child free or buy five and take two children.” The chambers beneath St Monica’s were used as holding pits, and ensured sellers got the best value for their captives.

People would be thrown into the pits – about 100 women and children in a 15 x 30 foot space – and left for three days. If they survived, they’d fetch a much higher price. The room has a wide stone bench around all the walls. I assume some people would sit there and others on the floor, but Nicholas sets me straight by explaining that the “floor” was actually the toilet and that high tide would rush into the caverns and “flush” the waste away. But high tide wasn’t every day.

 

Mangapwani caves, where hundreds of slaves were held before being smuggled onto waiting ships

Mangapwani caves, where hundreds of slaves were held before being smuggled onto waiting ships

About 20 km from Stone Town, we visit the Mangapwani cave. Climbing down the damp stairs, we nearly trip over the foot-long millipedes clinging to the mossy walls. Villagers now use the spring at the bottom of this cave for water, but the space used to be a hiding place for captured slaves after abolition. One tunnel leads all the way to town, says our guide, and another leads out to the sea. So people could be smuggled all the way onto a waiting ship without ever seeing daylight.

 

Beautiful island, ugly history.