Stairs of the Omani Slave holding Cells

 Omani Zanzibari Sultanate

 ©Kathleen Cohen

CSU WorldImages

  This image depicts the stairs leading into a slave holding cell from early Oman culture; the slaves were kept in these underground caves. Stone town is known for many of these underground caves. The stairs lead down into a cave that would be sealed by stone. Princess Omani was actually the daughter of one of the slaves kept in similar caves; Princess Omani’s mother was in fact a slave of the Arab ruling class. The stairs were actually made of cobblestone and mud brick clay, and the decent down these stair was a rocky slope downward into a dark musky cave. It is important to understand that in the context of the Arab Slave Trade, the term Arab represents a culture as opposed to a specific race. Many of the “Arab” slave traders such as Tippu Tip and others were indistinguishable from the “Africans” whom they enslaved and sold. All of the main racial groups in Zanzibar were involved in the slave trade in some way or other. Europeans used slaves in their plantations in the Indian Ocean islands, Arabs were the main traders, and African rulers sold prisoners taken in battle.   Although best known today as an island paradise, there are many prominent reminders of Zanzibar’s dark history in the slave trade around Stone Town and across the island. The market where slaves were confined in dark, airless, underground chambers before being sold still contains the chains bolted to the concrete. A moving memorial now stands where the market once was, reminding visitors and locals alike, of the atrocities committed on that very spot centuries before. Nearby, the Anglican Church contains a wooden cross carved from the tree under which the famous explorer and abolitionist David Livingstone’s heart was buried in Zambia. Along the island’s coast, several old limestone holding cells where slaves were hidden from crusading British abolitionists still exist. Once slavery was banned, the use of the chambers increased. Some still contain etchings and final messages left by slaves awaiting their sale and transport to a foreign land.   In 1822, the Omani Arabs signed the Moresby Treaty which made the sale of slaves to Christian’s illegal and provided other restrictions. Unfortunately, these restrictions were essentially ignored, and the trade continued to thrive. Then, in 1873 under the threat of bombardment by the British navy, Sultan Barghash was forced to sign an edict making the sea-borne slave trade illegal, and the slave market in Zanzibar was finally closed. Although, slaving was now officially illegal, it continued on the mainland of Tanzania until the defeat of the Germans in the First World War and Britain took over as the colonial power. The holding cells were since then abandoned by the Arabs, and stairs to the holding cells fell into ruin.