Monday, 9 November 2009

Slavery

The following morning, just after breakfast, we came face to face with slavery. Next to the hostel, the holding cells for the slaves that were brought to the slave market are still in existence. Walk down a few stairs and you can enter the two small, dank stone rooms that have a single slit of light for a window. Around the edge of the room is a ledge where up to 70 slaves shackled together would sit or lie. In the centre was a trench where they would urinate and defecate and hope that the tide would be high enough that day to wash it away (at the time of the slave trade the building we were in would have been close to the shore). It was hot and stale down there when we visited the holding cells with a guide; add to that the body heat of up to 70 slaves, (some undoubtedly suffering with fever) and the stench of shit and it doesn’t make for particularly pleasant atmosphere. Only one in five of the slaves housed in the holding cells where we stood survived; they were sold at a premium as they were deemed strong for having survived.

The slave trade in Zanzibar was run by Arabs and the Portuguese who’d ship slaves to the Middle East or India. They were clever in their dealings with slaves, understanding that by splitting slaves from their tribes and shackling members of different tribes together they would be less likely to be able to communicate with one another, reducing the chance of them being able to create an uprising against them. Slaves were dragged from their villages and made to walk ridiculous distances without food or water to the coast where they would be picked up by boat and brought to Zanzibar. Those that were weak were left to die (weak slaves wouldn’t make much money at the market anyway); those that tried to rebel were whipped and beaten. At the market, buyers would choose their slaves and they would again be shipped to the buyer’s homeland.

An English bishop came to Zanzibar at the time of the slave trade and would buy slaves with his own money to set them free. When the slave trade was abolished, he arranged for a cathedral to be built on the site of the slave market: an alter now stands where the whipping post for slaves once stood.

It was a short but moving tour around the old slave market. Our guide on a number of occasions said how glad he was not to have been born in the era of the slave trade. I found it deeply uncomfortable sitting there in my white skin in front of a black man as he discussed the terrible treatment of his ancestors at the hands of the whites and the Arabs. Slavery may have been abolished two hundred years ago but even so, when you come face to face with it, it’s very hard not to feel an underlying sense of guilt.

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