We visited the old slave market in Zanzibar. It pushed the intellectual understanding I already had, and broke my emotional naitivity.
Zanzibar was the center of the African slave trade on the Indian Ocean, collecting millions of people from East-Central Africa and sending 80% of them to the Middle East. It stands in parallel to the Atlantic slave trade, which sent countless numbers to the Americas.
There is now a large Angelican church that stands on the site of the former slave market, and a small museum that testifies to the pain that was the slave trade. Small, dark chambers remain where the slaves were held, 50 to 80 to a room with a latrine pit for 3-5 days a time without food or water until they were taken into the market to be sold. Men, women and children who spoke different dialects were thrown together with little understanding of what would happen to them next, and treated as entirely disposable. I cannot even begin to imagine the physical and emotional abuse that they experienced. Any nativity I once had about why they didn’t simply run away or fight for their freedom has been supplanted by compassion.
The main altar of the church sits on top of what was known as the “weeping tree” (or “whipping tree”), where slaves were whipped to punish them or demonstrate their resilience before being sold. I’m not a religious person, but I felt compelled to kneel before the altar and give thanks to Dr. Livingstone and so many unnamed Africans and unsung heroes who took up the cause of resistance.
Few, if any escape responsibility. The slave trade here was fueled by a demand from Arabs in the Middle East and India (as the Atlantic trade was fueled by demand from the Americas), serviced by Africans who used the profits to wage war amongst themselves, and enabled by Europeans who favored its role in the ivory and spice trade over taking a stand against it. The British started the Atlantic slave trade, and eventually led the charge to abolish it not only there but on the Indian Ocean. It was they who took up the cause to marshall the political and military resources to compel the Arab rulers of Zanzibar to abolish it.
In this day and age where I hear so many well-intentioned people speak of how awful colonialism was, and of how important it is that we use our privilege to empower disenfranchised people to lead the fight against it, I’m also reminded of how important it is for all of us to act our conscience, no matter our gender or race or place of origin, and to take a stand for what we believe in. I appreciate more than ever the nuance of how the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and also how some of the hardest fights are won by those who act with good intentions against the popular opinion and advice of their time.
Today, I’m grateful for Dr. Livingstone, who did what he could to make the world a better place. And with the strength of the African people, whose intergenerational trauma is beyond what most of us can possibly imagine.