Zanzibar: Spices and slaves

Zanzibar is a small, oval island about 16 miles into the Indian Ocean, east of its home country of Tanzania.

It is the birthplace of Freddie Mercury, a fact more interesting to visitors than to locals, perhaps because the Queen lead singer with a four-octave range pretty much grew up in India and Great Britain. Or perhaps it’s because he died of AIDS at age 45, a fact not always mentioned when tour guides stop by the Stone Town home of his early childhood.

Zanzibar is also known as a spice island, although only one spice — cloves — is exported, since much of the rest of the world can grow its own spices.

Zanzibar has another heritage: for hundreds of years, well into the 19th century, Zanzibar was a large slave port. What Ghana and the Gold Coast were to the American slave trade, Zanzibar — particularly the old town of Stone Town — was to the Arab slave trade. The Arab slave trade, which pre-dated Islam, supplied kidnapped black labor for the use of Indian Ocean economies ranging from ivory to agriculture.

Much of the slave trade took place in a market that today is marked by a somber, partly below-ground sculpture of several chained men, women and children waiting to be sold. A few yards away is a museum dedicated to telling the story of the slave trade.

The museum is informative and well done. Most arresting, though, is the visit to the dark, windowless, airless, underground chambers where slaves were stored before they were sold.

Today, even with relative ease of movement, a dozen or so tourists will spend scant time in the stuffy, claustrophobic space where hundreds of slaves were crammed in so tightly that mothers and children had to struggle just to breathe. Nonetheless, the stillness and the stench were broken by the cries of young ones and the sounds of their mothers’ futile attempts to comfort them.

Above ground, the men were paraded before prospective buyers, chained and then whipped. The purpose was to see how much pain each man could endure while being tortured. Those who lasted the longest before screaming were deemed the strongest, fetching the highest price as they were purchased to undertake the most arduous tasks.

Today, the former market area is dominated by the Anglican Cathedral Church of Christ, an anomaly in that Zanzibar is about 98 percent Muslim. Nonetheless, the weekly day off is still Sunday, a throwback to the days when Christians were more prominent. No one seems to mind or even notice. Apparently, they didn’t get the memo about slaughtering infidels.

There is, in fact, a mosque just outside the walls of the Anglican Church. Our tour group is told that religious leaders of the two houses of worship have worked out a schedule so that their bells and chimes don’t interfere with each other.

Imagine that.

The day we visited the church, a small choir of men and women were rehearsing. A note said they were preparing for a multi-country tour. A collection box asked for donations to help fund the trip.

Their voices were pure, passionate and sweet, and the sound easily filled the church, spilling out the open windows onto the former slave market.

Some believe that no sound disappears, that all sounds drift upward, forever filling infinite space. If so, it’s not hard to imagine the peaceful songs of the choir rising ever upward, until they can perhaps intertwine with and soothe the tortured cries of the men who felt the lash just outside the door, and the wailing of mothers unable to comfort their crying children in the prison cells below.


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