Zanzibar Slave Market memorial

History of the Zanzibar Slave Market and its Pervasive Effects of Loss of Culture and Tradition

The Zanzibar slave market is the last thing that comes to mind when one thinks of this island paradise. Yet, it can be found only a short distance from Zanzibar’s white palm-fringed beaches and luxury hotels. The slave market memorial serves as a sinister reminder of a very dark period for mankind.

For such a small island, Zanzibar (Uguja) has a lot of history. That is because of its position at the crossroads of Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Therefore, it has long been a centre that connects East Africa and the outside world. Once it was the centre of the Indian Ocean slave trade, dominated by Arab slave traders.

The slave trade shifted to East Africa after the British parliament voted to end the West African slave trade. Suddenly, East African captives became a sought-after commodity. Slaves were generally of different ethnicity, race, religion or nationality. The slave trade took these Africans away from their roots.

During this period, there was a conscious effort by the slave owners to remove the identity of the slaves.  Often they went on board a slave ship naked, with no belongings from their previous lives. Their customs, beliefs, songs, stories and language were all they carried with them.

Zanzibar Slave Market memorial
Dhows anchored in Zanzibar’s tranquil blue waters

History of Zanzibar

Early Trade Routes

Zanzibar has been inhabited for 20,000 years. Arab, Indian and Somali traders visited Zanzibar as early as the 1st century AD. They used the monsoon winds to sail across the Indian Ocean. Once there, they landed at the sheltered harbour located on the site where Stone Town is now situated. Stone Town had no lack of freshwater. It was, therefore, a good point from which to trade with towns on the Swahili Coast. 

Zanzibar Slave Market Memorial
The Kizimkazi Mosque is one of the oldest Islamic buildings on the East African coast

Zanzibar was also part of a major trade route from the Roman Empire to the Asian ports. Although the island did not have anything the traders wanted, it offered a good place from which to make contact and trade with the East Africans. 

Traders began to settle in small numbers on Zanzibar in the late 11th or 12th century, intermarrying with the indigenous Africans. They built garrisons on the island and brought the Islamic religion with them. As a result, the first mosque in the region was built by Yemenis. Through intermarrying, the Kiswahili language was born, which formed the foundation of present-day Swahili.

Portuguese Rule

Zanzibar’s spice trade history began at the end of the 15th century. This was when the first Portuguese traders brought nutmeg, cinnamon, and other spices with them from their colonies in India and South America. The plantations flourished in the ideal conditions of the Swahili Coast.

Zanzibar Slave Market memorial
Cloves turn bright red when ready for harvest

Around the year 1503, Zanzibar became part of the Portuguese Empire and remained in their charge for almost two centuries. During this period, African resources were exploited to the maximum. For example, slaves and ivory were exchanged for simple items such as mirrors.

Zanzibar Sultanate

The Arab slave trade predates Islam and lasted over a millennium.  In 1698, Zanzibar became a protectorate of Oman. By then, the slave and ivory trade and a plantation economy based on cloves were booming. A powerful and rich class of people emerged along the coast as a result of their participation in trade. Omani aristocrats seized the most fertile land and enslaved the African farmers who worked it.

The height of Arab rule was when Sultan al-Busaid moved his capital from Muscat in Oman to Stone Town in 1840. He established a ruling Arab elite and encouraged the development of clove plantations, using the island’s slave labour. By this time, Zanzibar was famous worldwide for its spices and its slaves. During the 19th century, it was described by one explorer as “the land of spices, a vile centre of slavery, and a place of origins of expeditions into the vast, mysterious continent”. The island embodied all of these things.

The Zanzibar Slave Market memorial
Sultan Sayyid Bhargash bin Said of Zanzibar

British Control

The British interest in Zanzibar was motivated by both commerce and the determination to end the slave trade.  Under strong British pressure, the slave trade was officially abolished in 1876, but slavery itself remained legal in Zanzibar until 1897. In 1890, Zanzibar became a British protectorate. The death of one sultan and the succession of another, of whom the British did not approve, later led to the Anglo-Zanzibar War in 1896, also known as the shortest war in history.

Zanzibar Slave Market memorial
The Sultan’s Palace after the war

The Zanzibar Slave Trade


Of all the forms of economic activity on Zanzibar, slavery was the most profitable. Therefore, around 40,000 to 50,000 slaves were taken to Zanzibar every year by overcrowded dhows from the Great Lakes. The vast majority of the black slaves on the island were either taken from East Africa or the descendants of slaves from East Africa.

The newly acquired slaves were often forced to carry ivory and other goods back to Bagamoyo. The name Bagamoyo is derived from the Kiswahili words bwaga moyo which means “lay down your heart”. This was the point at which slaves abandoned any remaining hope of freedom or escape.

By the mid-19th century, Zanzibar’s streets were teeming with slaves. About a third were brought in to work on the spice plantations of Zanzibar and Pemba. The rest were in transit to Persia, Arabia, the Ottoman Empire and Egypt. Plantation owners were keen to keep the ethnic groups apart. This gave them less opportunity to plot against their owners.

Loss of Identity

The slaves on a ship were not from one place or ethnic group. They were a mixed group, purchased from different places around the east coast of Africa. They had different cultures and spoke different languages.

The slave owners attempted to blot out the African identity of their slaves. They were often given new names and old customs were discouraged. Religion was a frequently-used tool used in the slave trade. Converted slaves were treated better and had less of a chance of being ransomed. However, this meant that they had to sacrifice their traditions and customs.

Zanzibar Slave Market memorial
The Zanzibar slave market

Slaves came to dominate the population, comprising about two-thirds of the island. The culture of slavery became so ingrained in society that the slaves who earned wages bought slaves or invested in slavery. Even though the slave trade was abolished in 1873, slavery as an institution persisted in Zanzibar until 1909.

The Zanzibar Slave Market

Although the slave trade took place all over the island, there were three major markets. The Stone Town slave market was infamous for being the most brutal.

Upon reaching Zanzibar, slaves were cleaned and had their bodies covered with coconut oil. They were forced to wear gold and silver bracelets bearing the name of the slave trader. At that point, the slaves were forced to walk in a line down the streets guarded by loyal slaves carrying swords or spears. The Stone Town slave market opened around four in the afternoon. The slaves were ordered in rows according to age, gender, suitability for employment or value.

Zanzibar Slave Market memorial
A buyer inspecting a slave’s teeth

Buyers would inspect their mouths and teeth and all their body parts. After this, they were made to walk or run to show that they had no defects. If the price was agreed to, they were stripped of their finery and delivered over to their future master.

Living Conditions

En Route

Captives were crammed into overcrowded dhows with nearly no food nor water. It was estimated by Dr Livingstone that for every 50 000 that arrived in Zanzibar, 80 000 died along the way. For those who made it, another ordeal awaited.

Zanzibar Slave Market Memorial: c
Slave cellars under St Monica’s hostel

The Slave Cellars

The Zanzibar slave market tour guides tell horror stories of these times. Next to the Zanzibar Slave Market Memorial are the old slave cellars beneath St Monica’s hostel. Slaves were kept there before being taken to the market for auction.

The cellars were nearly devoid of air and light, and new slaves were not given food for 3 days. This was to see if they were tough enough to survive. Upon release, they would be tied to a post and whipped in another test. The value of enslaved people in Zanzibar was often based on how much pain they could endure in that post.

 Zanzibar Slave Market Memorial:
The size of the cellars under St Monica’s hostel

Two of the 15 slave cellars are open for the public to see. The slave cellars consist of small spaces underground where up to 65 men, women, and children would be held for several days before the auction. There was originally only one small window at the end of the cellar; the others are a recent addition. There were no toilets and dead bodies were thrown in the opening in between the shelves.


If the slaves survived this treatment and were sold, they would likely be shipped off to various Arab countries. For those who were sold to the plantations, life was so harsh that about 30% of the male slaves died every year. This meant that another batch of slaves had to be imported.

The Omani Arabs who ruled Zanzibar were known to be violent and saw cruelty as a virtue. Visitors to Zanzibar often mentioned the “shocking brutality” with which the Arab masters treated their African slaves. Masters deliberately terrorised the enslaved people through whipping, family separation, and rape in attempts to control them. Because of this they were so cowed into submission that there was never a slave revolt attempted.

1964 Uprising

The 1964 mass killings in Zanzibar highlighted the lingering issues between the Arabs and Africans on the island. The cruelty with which the Arab masters treated their black slaves left behind a legacy of hate that exploded. At least 80 were killed and 200 were injured during the revolution (the majority were Arabs). Up to 20,000 civilians were killed in the aftermath.


Today, Stone Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Zanzibar Slave Market Memorial was unveiled in 1998 as a reminder of the sordid history of this island.


The Zanzibar Slave Market monument shows five slave figures chained together in a pit. The chains are real historical artefacts. There are men and women, young and old, with features that show a variety of tribal and ethnic backgrounds. The pit is in the same location where enslaved people were gathered to be sold.

The Zanzibar slave market memorial
The Zanzibar Slave Market monument was built by the Scandinavian artist Clara Sönäs

The Anglican Church

Close to this monument is an Anglican church that was built over the area where the slaves were brutalised. A circle of white stones at the altar marks the place where the whipping post once stood. An outer circle of red stones represents the bloodshed that took place. Copper panels behind the altar depict various Old Testament figures. The walls of the church are littered with memorial plaques to honour the missionaries who died while serving in Zanzibar.

Zanzibar Slave Market memorial
Anglican Church at the memorial site

Exhibition Centre

Outside the church is the Zanzibar Slave Market Memorial exhibition area. The ground floor of St Monica’s hostel houses this exhibition that gives a detailed history of the island’s slave history.

Zanzibar Slave Market memorial
Cyriani Asmani’s story

One of the most heartbreaking stories must be that of Cypriani Asmani who was a slave child in Zanzibar. When he was about 6 years old, he tried to run away. As a result, he was chained to a log that weighed more than 32 lbs for punishment. Consequently, Cypriani could only move about by carrying it on his head. He had been chained to the log for more than a year when a missionary rescued him in July 1895.

Relevance to the Present

In conclusion, the Zanzibar Slave Memorial serves as a reminder to the world that it needs to learn from its past. As a result of slavery, Africa was left impoverished by depopulation and the looting of gold, ivory and other resources.

With the guns brought to Africa, some kingdoms had an advantage over others and thrived on raiding for slaves. Existing alliances were destroyed for guns and riches. As a result, the negative impact on African societies can still be seen.

Today, the fracturing of identities and racism caused by slavery is a pervasive social problem. If not for slavery, Africans may have had a better chance at equality today. Consequently, they would not have lost their homelands, cultures and identities.  The long-term effects are still visible in how these people think, where they live, how much money they have, and even how they aspire to look.


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Grabmeier, J. 2010. Research Reveals Massive Extent of Slavery Between Muslims, Christians for Three Centuries. Ohio State University.

Ingrams, WH. 1967. Zanzibar, its history and its people. Routledge.

Natania Travel. 2020. The Slave Market on Zanzibar Island. Retrieved from:

Petterson, D. 2002 Revolution in Zanzibar: An American’s Cold War Tale. New York: Westview.

Port Cities Bristol. N.d. Bristol and Transatlantic Slavery. Retrieved from:

Rachael. 2017. Zanzibar Slave Market: A Solemn Piece of History. Retrieved from:

Sinclair, P, Abdurahman, J & Felix, C. 2006. The African Archaeology Network: Research in Progress. Der es Salaam University Press. 

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