Before visiting Zanzibar, an island off the main coast of Tanzania, I didn’t really know too much about it. It did seem to conjure up some images of beaches and spices, but beyond that, it was rather unknown to me. Looking online, I found that it is not an undiscovered place at all, but rather a pretty popular luxury vacation spot, with upscale beach resorts ringing the almost 2,500 square kilometer island. But, what interested me was the history, so we decided to stay two nights in Stone Town, or Zanzibar Town as the locals seemed to call it, before a night at the beach.
Although Zanzibar is now a part of Tanzania (as a semi-autonomous region joining with the mainland in 1964), it has a feeling as a distinct world. It is almost 99% Muslim, and has a history of being under the influence of the Sultanate of Oman from 1698 until the early 1800’s (the Sultanate of Oman having been asked by the locals to aid in driving out the Portuguese). When you are the there it definitely has a more Middle East or North African Arabic feel, both in its architecture and the local style of the people.
The Sultans controlling Zanzibar used it as a major port as part of exporting many goods from spices to ivory out of Africa. Unfortunately, this also extended to people, with Zanzibar being a major hub for slavery. As an American, I am much more familiar with the Eastern Slave Trade, but Zanzibar was a major hub of slave trade with the Middle East.
“In Stone Town, the oldest section of Zanzibar City, men, women, and children were squeezed into claustrophobic cells—two of which still exist—and left for days without food or water. Some were flayed at the whipping post to discover how much pain they could withstand, then priced according to their endurance and strength.
By the mid-1800s, 50,000 slaves were passing through Zanzibar each year. Many were captives of Tippu Tib, a notorious Arab slave trader and ivory merchant. Tib led huge expeditions, some 4,000 strong, into the African interior, where chiefs sold him their villagers for next to nothing. These Tib used to caravan ivory back to Zanzibar, then sold them in the slave market for large profits. In time Tib became one of the wealthiest men in Zanzibar, the owner of multiple plantations and 10,000 slaves.” (from National Geographic)
We also got to walk through the food market, which had a quite vibrant fish and seafood section, with the daily catch being fresh and ready for purchase.
Of course, the coast, with the Dhow boats and lively beaches was absolutely gorgeous. I’m just glad we got to know the history of Zanzibar beyond the white sands, water, and sun.