The Dark History of Stone Town’s Anglican Christ Church Cathedral

Stone Town is located on the west coast of the Zanzibar Archipelago. Historically, its geographical location, natural  harbour and temperate climate gave the town an economic advantage as a bustling trading center.

While Zanzibar is most well known for its spice trade, it once also played a large part in a darker, more disturbing business: slavery. Hang on tight, while I give you the Coles’ Notes version of Zanzibari history. It’s a lot to take in.

The slave trade in this region reaches as far back as the 1st Century AD. Sailing vessels from the kingdom of Sheba (southern Arabia) brought beads and Chinese silks to Zanzibar, and took back gold, indigo, spices, ivory and slaves.

In 1498, Portuguese explorer, Vasco de Gama arrived in Zanzibar, which brought European influences to the region. Only a few short years later, Zanzibar became part of the Portuguese Empire. Gold, ivory, ebony and slaves from the interior were sent to Portuguese colonies, as well as to Portugal itself. Portuguese rule lasted about 200 years, but it wasn’t without turmoil.

There were numerous clashes between the Portuguese and Omani Arabs over the years as they struggled for power over the region. The Omani Arabs attacked Zanzibar Island in 1652, and by 1698, the island came under control of the Sultanate of Oman.

Meanwhile, the slave trade in Zanzibar continued to thrive. In 1811, Said bin Sultan opened a slave market in the Shangani region of Stone Town. Over the next 60 years, the market traded approximately one million lives.

Slaves taken from mainland East Africa were brought to Stone Town to be sold at the market. The journey from the mainland was so grueling that it’s believed that only one in five survived the trip. About one third of these slaves remained in Zanzibar to work in the plantations, while the rest were sent overseas to Asia and the Persian Gulf.

Clove production in Zanzibar, which began sometime between 1800-1828, further increased the need for slave labour. Cloves were a high maintenance crop, but also very lucrative. In fact, Said bin Sultan relocated his court from Muscat to Stone Town just to maintain his monopoly over the market.

In 1834, slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire, followed by the French Dominions around 1848. Around the 1850s-60s, David Livingstone, a Scottish missionary who made several expeditions to Africa, denounced slavery in several speeches and in his written works. This brought more widespread attention to the inhumane practice.

Stone town’s slave market moved from its former location in Kelele Square, Shangani to its present location in the 1860s. In 1873, under pressure from the British, Sultan Barghash signed a decree to abolish the slave trade in all of his dominions, including Zanzibar. This move also signaled the closure of the slave markets. However, the slave trade still continued quietly for many years afterward.

Later that same year, the foundation stone was laid down for the Anglican Christ Church Cathedral in Stone Town. The church was built at the site of the old slave market (the second location, that is).

This is where my husband and I learned about the darker side of Stone Town’s history.

christ church exterior, stone town

As an aside, our visit to Zanzibar was in 2013. As you can see from the photo of the church exterior, it was in desperate need of a good cleaning and some preservation work. Many of the buildings in Stone Town, including Christ Church, were constructed from coral stone. Unfortunately it doesn’t hold up well, and therefore, many buildings in Stone Town are in great need of conservation. Since our visit, the World Monuments Fund undertook conservation efforts on the building, which were completed in October 2015. You can see more recent photos here. The difference is really astonishing.

Construction of the church began in 1873-4 and took about ten years to complete. It was based on designs by Edward Steere, the third Anglican bishop of Zanzibar. The church was built on the former site of the slave market to commemorate the end of slavery.

stone town anglican church former slave market sign

The first part of our tour took us down into the dimly lit basement of the adjacent hostel, St. Monica’s. There were two rooms, both with low ceilings and raised sections along the walls. We were told that this was where the slaves were chained up while awaiting auction. Men and women were separated, hence the two rooms. Our guide told us that at times, there were so many people chained up in these cramped conditions (sometimes 75 at a time) that they would suffocate from lack of air.

Room where slaves were kept before auction Christ Church stone town

The imagery was horrifying; the space cloying, hot, and oppressive.

basement under st. monica's in stone town

But.

As I was conducting my research for this blog post, I came across some conflicting information. Some visitors had posted on other travel sites that these two rooms never actually held slaves. That, in fact they had been built long after the slave trade ended. The tour, and the stories, they said, were based on lies and fabrications. But were they?

slave chamber sign stone town

So I dug some more. Most internet resources were from other travellers, who referred to these rooms as legitimate slave storage rooms prior to going to market. Because that’s what they were told. Heck, that’s what we were told, and it was believable. Why would tour guides lie about such a horrible history?

I found nothing in reliable sources to discredit the belief that the rooms were once used to hold slaves.

I also found nothing in reliable sources to support it.

Eventually, 14 clicks-deep into Google, I came across a more reliable reference to the slave rooms. It’s from an unpublished paper written by Dr. Louise Rolingher, from the University of Alberta, of all places. The paper is on slavery and its contested history, and is well worth a read. In the paper, she refers to an article by historian Jan Georg Deutsch for the 2007 ZIFF Conference, which mentioned these specific chambers. Deutsch noted that the rooms were built long after abolition, and therefore never actually held slaves.

So why would they lie? One word: tourism. Actually two words: dark tourism. There’s a whole tourism genre that seeks out the creepy, seedy, unsavoury locations in the world. Tourism is Zanzibar’s second largest industry, and playing up these stories increases tourism revenues.

Unfortunately, the embellishments and exaggerations cheapen the true history that was once all too real. And I’m still torn as to what to believe, because it certainly seems plausible that these rooms were once used for such a nefarious reason. If anyone has more detailed evidence leaning one way or the other, please share!

After the slave chamber tour, we entered the Anglican Christ Church Cathedral itself.

interior of anglican christ church stone town

One little factoid about the church made me smile. While Edward Steere was overseeing construction of the church, he had columns brought in to represent the twelve apostles.

Unfortunately, they were installed upside down. He decided to leave them that way.

upside down columns interior of anglican christ church stone town

The altar is supposedly on the spot where the original whipping post was located. You can see a round tile on the floor in front of the altar marking the spot:

Anglican Christ Church stone town altar

The whipping post was used to test the strength of the slaves; those that took longer to cry out fetched a higher price. The red flooring around the circle symbolizes the blood that was shed.

Edward Steere, the designer of the church, is buried behind the altar. He died just two years before the church reached completion.

This crucifix was made out of wood from the tree that David Livingstone died under. He died in 1873, just a few months before the sultan signed the treaty abolishing slavery. Dr. Livingstone’s heart was buried beneath the tree, located in Zambia.

Livingstones cross anglican christ church stone town

Outside of the church is a memorial sculpture. Entitled “Memory for the Slaves,” the concrete figures are chained together using authentic slave shackles:

memory for the slaves memorial stone town

Along with the conservation efforts on the Anglican Christ Church Cathedral, a new exhibit recently opened: a slave trade heritage center. It was created to commemorate the abolition of slavery and educate people about its history. Hopefully this new facility can tell the story of slavery in a sensitive, historically-based manner and separate facts from the growing fiction.

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