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The Anglican Church and the slave market: a page of dark history in Stone Town

14 Apr

The Cathedral Church of Christ, also called the Cathedral of the Universities Mission in Central Africa (UMCA), is near the junction of Creek Road and Sultan Ahmed Mugheiri Road on the eastern side of Stone Town. It stands on the site of the slave market, used in the 18th and 19th centuries when Zanzibar was a large slaving centre.

A group of UMCA missionaries had originally come to east Africa in 1861, following the call of the explorer David Livingstone to oppose the slave trade and spread Christianity across Africa. In 1864 they settled in Zanzibar, after a number of earlier sites proved unsuccessful. When the slave market was closed by Sultan Barghash in 1873 the missionaries bought the site and almost immediately started building the cathedral.

Some adjoining land was donated to the mission by a wealthy Indian merchant called Jairam Senji. Today, nothing of the old slave market. When the first service was held in the cathedral, on Christmas Day 1877, the roof was not finished. It was finally completed in 1880. Tradition has it that the cathedral’s altar stands on the site of a tree to which the slaves were tied and then whipped to show their strength and hardiness.

Those who cried out the least during the whipping were considered the strongest, and sold for higher prices. The man who was the force and inspiration behind the building of the cathedral was Bishop Edward Steere, who was Bishop of Zanzibar from 1874 to 1882. (He was also the first compiler of an English–Swahili dictionary, using the Roman alphabet; until then Swahili had been written using Arabic script.) He trained local people as masons and used coral stone and cement for building materials. Sultan Barghash is reputed to have asked Bishop Steere not to build the cathedral tower higher than the House of Wonders. When the bishop agreed, the sultan presented the cathedral with its clock. The tower was finished in 1883.

The legacy of David Livingstone lives on in the cathedral: a window is dedicated to his memory, and the church’s crucifix is made from the tree that marked the place where his heart was buried at the village of Chitambo, Zambia. The mosaic decorations on the altar were given to the cathedral by Miss Caroline Thackeray (a cousin of the English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray), who was a teacher at the mission here from 1877 to 1902.

Behind the altar is the bishop’s throne and 12 other seats for the canons. They are decorated with copper panels from Zambia and show the names of several biblical figures, written in Swahili. The window behind the altar has been decorated with pictures of African saints, from Egypt, Carthage and Ethiopia.

Around the church are many plaques, dedicated to the memory of missionaries who died here, and to the sailors and airmen who were killed in action during the East Africa Campaign of World War I. Outside the cathedral, in a small garden next to the school, is a sculpture of four slaves chained in a pit – an understated yet powerfully emotive work of art that is well worth seeing.

St Monica’s Hostel:  This is an impressive old stone building in its own right. Apart from its hostel accommodation and its gallery and craft shop, its basement provides one of Zanzibar’s simplest, but arguably most moving and evocative, reminders of the dehumanizing horrors of the slave trade. A stone staircase leads down from the entrance hallway to what is reputed to be the dungeon where slaves were kept before being taken to market.

The dank rooms – more like tombs – are cramped and airless, with low doorways and tiny windows. Even today it’s a somber place – but imagine it crowded with slaves in their hundreds, men, women and children together, sick and exhausted after their grueling sea voyage, crammed five deep on the narrow stone slabs and shackled with chains which still lie there today.

The room on the right hand was for women and children only. The window in the middle has the original size of those times; the ones on the sides have been enlarged to give more clarity. There were about 70 women and children in that room. In the men’s room there were about 50. There was no sewage, all the grey water would be washed away by high tides only. The chain would be for several slaves at a time, around the neck of the first one, then a space and around the neck of the second one and so on.