Slave Trade History


Under the Oman Arab rule in the 19th century, Zanzibar gradually built her transit trade from economic foundations achieved in the later part of the 18th century.  From early decades of the 19th century, Said bin Sultan (ruler of Zanzibar 1804 – 1856) moved his Capital from Muscat Oman to Zanzibar and encouraged among other things a broad range of commerce in the region, slave trade was part of the Zanzibar commerce.

Slaves on a ship
Slaves on a ship

Slaves were obtained from the open market and about half of them were formerly captured from the mainland. They were transited at coastal ports such as Kilwa, Kaole, Bagamoyo and Pangani (on the mainland coastline) before being packed on board the dhows to Zanzibar.

Most slaves were procured in the region around Lake Nyasa. The journey down to the coast caused much suffering to slaves, some died of exhaustion, disease, malnourishment, and whoever attempted to escape was shot. Bigger external demands for slaves and also ivory, as higher prices for slaves, offered in the coastal ports enticed the coastal traders to vehemently search the interior.

Perhaps a good example is Tipp Tip,  a notorious slave trader who made his career with slaves and ivory as far as the Congo.

Tipp Tip

Having purchased slaves in Zanzibar, Arab dealers repacked them for a long voyage to the northern ports of the Indian Ocean. During the opening years of the century, annual import to Zanzibar is estimated to be about 15,500 slaves; just over 60% of these were re-exported to Arabia, Persia, Egypt and other eastern countries in the northern ports of the Indian Ocean where there was a demand for slave labour.

The Zanzibar port competed with other slave trade centres on the eastern coast of Africa such as Kilwa in Tanzania Mainland and Quelimane in Mozambique. From the middle part of the 19th; century however, Zanzibar became the hub of all the important trade in Eastern Africa, superseding all other centres and turned into a major slave trade centre for the whole region of Eastern Africa.

Slave Market Zanzibar
Slave Market Zanzibar

A large open slave market that developed at Mkunazini in the Zanzibar town was the greatest distribution centre for slave in East Africa. The slaves were received here from various parts of Eastern and central  Africa, auctioned and flicked through before dealers bought them. It is estimated that a well-attached market comprised a source of slaves for most Zanzibar plantation labour. The slaves did the chores. The site of the former slave market is reputed to be the last open slave market in East Africa and the world as a whole.

Slavery here was largely Arab and African controlled and not linked with the slave trade which took people to the USA and Caribbean. Not all slaves were treated badly, But Sir Bartle Frere wrote of Zanzibar:

That slave market where I saw the slaves lying in dozens and scores, some of them chained, and all of them bearing on their faces and emaciated limbs the stamp of servitude”. The Anglican Bishop Edward Steere  added,

“There were the rows of men,women and children sitting and standing, the salesmen and purchasers passing in and out among  them, and bandying their filthy jokes about them, and worse scenes still going on in all the huts around”

Bishop Edward Steere 1874-1882

The overseas slave trade and slavery final ceased in the 1889s, when Zanzibar fell under the British Protectorate and Germans established their colonial administration on the Cost of Tanganyika, and controlled towns, villages, and small riverside outlets which had previously functioned as departure points for slave shipments from the Mainland to Zanzibar. In 1897, Slavery as an institution was burned in Zanzibar.