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Slavery Day in Zanzibar: Is It a Big Deal?

Slavery left a profound psychological impact on both enslaved individuals and their descendants.

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The Anglican Bishops’ proposal and subsequent assent by Zanzibar President Ali Hassan Mwinyi to designate June 6 as a day of remembrance of slavery is highly welcomed.

Historians reckon that between 26 and 30 million men, women and children were trafficked as enslaved people out of tropical Africa, by land and by sea in the period between 1,300 years from 600 to 900 AD. 

This historical tragedy flowed in three directions: north across the great African Deserts, east over the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, and west beyond the Atlantic Ocean to America. Also, 14 to 16 million enslaved people were taken north across the Sahara, and east to the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. 

However, these numbers are thought by some scholars to underestimate the magnitude of the entire African slave trade. For instance, historian David Hackett Fischer argues in his 2022 book titled African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals that parts of the African slave trade were much older than the Atlantic slave trade.

Also, slave trade researchers David Eltis and David Richardson write in their 2010 monumental chronicle Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade that the transatlantic slave trade persisted for 366 years and resulted in the forced deportation of 12.5 million Africans to the New World. 

Captives were carried from tropical Africa to the Mediterranean and Mesopotamian regions for at least five thousand years. The sheer scale of the slave trade serves as a stark reminder of the magnitude of historical injustices and human exploitation that the African continent has suffered.

The historical continuity of slavery, spanning thousands of years, reflects systemic and deeply entrenched patterns of exploitation and oppression. While the formal abolition of slavery occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries, echoes of this dehumanising practice persisted and resurfaced in later periods, including the late 20th and 21st centuries.

Slavery in East Africa

East Africa has historically practised slavery as a component of its social structure, but trading began when Arab raiders arrived in the 9th century, bringing Africans to marketplaces in Mesopotamia, India, Persia, and Arabia. 

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The slave trade was a booming industry in the 19th century, and Arab slave traders arranged frequent and large-scale deportations with the aid of nearby tribes like the Nyamwezi, who served as their reliable allies. The most famous Arab trader was Hemedi bin Muhammad el Marjebi, or Tippu Tip, born in Zanzibar. 

At the age of 18, Tippu Tip started trading enslaved people and ivory between coastal towns and the interior. By 1880, he had established a sizable commercial empire spanning the Upper Congo, Lake Tanganyika, and Bagamoyo on the coast, from which enslaved people were sent to Zanzibar for trade.

The history of the slave trade in Zanzibar can be traced back to the establishment of the Omani Zanzibar Sultanate between 1810 and 1840.

While trade had reached deep into the interior of East Africa for centuries from the Swahili settlements on the coast, its intensity remained low until the late 18th century. The rapid expansion of demand for tropical goods and labour to produce them increased this intensity throughout the region. 

The Oman sultanate in Zanzibar became the agent for increase. Large trade caravans left from the coast with the intent to bring back ever more amounts of ivory and, increasingly, slave captives on plantations on the East African Coast, on islands in the Indian Ocean, and even further away. 

It involved communities in East Africa’s interior trading relations with traders from coastal communities, Britain, France, Germany and the United States. In A New History of Tanzania, published in 2017,  historians Isaria N. Kimambo, Gregory H. Maddox, and Salvatory S. Nyanto advance an argument that Oman had offered military assistance to communities on the East African Coast and offshore islands to drive the Portuguese out of East Africa at the end of the 17th century. 

The Imam of Oman appointed Arab governors to represent him in the essential towns and islands. Only after Seyyid Said, also known as Said bin Sultan, came to power in 1806 did Oman start asserting her lordship over the East African Coast more effectively. 

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By then, the coastal areas where the Omani ruler had significant influence were Kilwa Kisiwani and Mafia. Seyyid Said came to power in Oman with the help of the British East India Company (BEIC), which was then based in Bombay.

In 1840, when the Imam of Oman shifted his capital to Zanzibar, the islands were integrated into the world economic system. This ruler intensified the agricultural system of large plantations. 

By the mid-nineteenth century, the demand for enslaved people had increased not only for export but also for internal use, following the establishment of clove and coconut plantations in Zanzibar, which required massive labour power. At this time, many enslaved people worked in clove and coconut plantations owned by Arabs and some Africans scattered on the islands.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the enslaved people in Zanzibar were divided into three categories: plantation (shamba) enslaved people, who devoted most of their time to coconut and clove plantations; domestic (household) enslaved people, who worked full-time in the houses of their owners, as personal attendants of the master; suria, who were legally the secondary slave wives of the master; and skilled workers, for example, masons, carpenters, coolies and daily labourers.

Evidence in the Zanzibar Archives shows that about 8,213 enslaved people were freed in the 1860s. These included enslaved people who were unlawfully held by British Indian subjects who were emancipated at the consulate. However, no compensation was paid to any enslaver, as they had held them illegally.

Between 1874 and 1876, 1,380 more enslaved people were registered for emancipation. This brings the total number of enslaved people freed in the 1860s and 1870s to 9,593, of whom 75 per cent were emancipated from the Indians, and the rest were captured by British anti-slavery naval patrol

Chilling effects

The profound repercussions of Zanzibar’s slave trade on Tanganyika, now Mainland Tanzania, and the rest of East Africa can be encapsulated in the subjugation of diverse subsistence economies in the hinterland to the capitalist framework or global commerce. This had multifaceted economic, social, and political ramifications for Tanzanian societies.

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Economically, individuals from various inland regions were either conscripted as porters to transport ivory to the coastal areas or forcibly taken to Zanzibar and Pemba as enslaved labour to cater to the demands of the capitalist market. 

Instead of focusing on producing for their own sustenance in their native regions, they were compelled to serve the needs of the capitalist economy. This led to a workforce drain from traditional economies in the hinterland, particularly areas bordering the coast, as they became primary food suppliers to Zanzibar, Pemba, plantation labourers, and the affluent merchant classes in urban centres.

For instance, regions like Usambara became major sorghum exporters, Uzigua specialised in millet and rice production, and many coastal communities became food producers for export to Zanzibar and coastal ports. 

Meanwhile, areas near trading hubs and caravan routes in the interior were tasked with supplying food to resident coastal traders and passing caravans, necessitating increased agricultural output. This, in turn, led to the utilisation of enslaved people for farming purposes and the heightened intensification of slave trade, raiding, and slavery within the interior regions.

The intensification of the slave trade and raiding spurred by the demand for labour also saw the emergence of powerful warlords who exploited this trade for wealth and arms, leading to significant political transformations. 

Additionally, the influx of Africans from diverse inland regions into coastal towns and islands like Zanzibar and Pemba as enslaved people resulted in a more extensive and more ethnically diverse population in these areas than previously observed.

This means that the biggest slave market in East Africa was in Zanzibar Island, but the primary sources of enslaved people were Tanganyika and other parts of East Africa.

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Slavery led to the fragmentation and disruption of social structures within the Zanzibar community. Families were torn apart as individuals were forcibly separated from their loved ones and communities. 

This resulted in a loss of cultural heritage, traditions, and identities as generations of enslaved individuals were deprived of their ancestral roots and practices. Economically, the economy of Zanzibar became heavily reliant on the slave trade, with enslaved labour forming a crucial component of various industries such as agriculture, domestic service, and construction. 

This dependency on enslaved labour had long-lasting effects on the economic development of Zanzibar, perpetuating exploitative labour practices and hindering the emergence of more sustainable and equitable economic structures. 

The legacy of slavery left a profound psychological impact on both enslaved individuals and their descendants. The trauma of forced servitude, violence, and exploitation reverberated through generations, influencing perceptions of self-worth, identity, and social cohesion within the Zanzibar community.

Such a legacy lives on today as contemporary slavery and human trafficking persist. Zanzibar is a notable transit and destination for trafficked victims of labour exploitation and servitudes in hospitality sector, and sexual exploitation with a vast supply chain from different regions of Tanzania mainland, such as Mtwara, Tanga, Bagamoyo, Singida, just to mention but a few.

The new era

In the early nineteenth century, the British began to pressure Seyyid Said, Sultan of Zanzibar, to confine the slave trade to the islands. The question could be asked as to why the Sultan accepted the British demand for the abolition of the slave trade, considering that this trade was very lucrative to the Arab State not only in Zanzibar but also in Oman. 

Slavery researcher and historian Saada Omar Wahab offers two explanations in her insightful essay titled Emancipation and Post-emancipation in Zanzibar. Wahab contends that Seyyid Said originated from the Busaidi dynasty of Oman and owed his position to the British who helped him and his dynasty against the Mazrui family, the former rulers of Mombasa. 

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Secondly, Seyyid Said had a farsighted approach and had observed the expansion of Europeans in different parts of the world. To secure his position, Seyyid Said entered into good relations with the British in the early 1800s. His relations with the British were friendly, and they ensured security for him and his territories. 

Therefore, he was obliged to support the British anti-slave trade campaigns. In 1822, the British concluded the first treaty, the Moresby Treaty, to suppress the slave trade with Sultan Said of Zanzibar. 

In the treaty, the Sultan agreed to proscribe and stop the sale of enslaved people to any Christian nation. He allowed British warships to seize all Arab vessels carrying enslaved people to the south of the East African coast. The treaty and subsequent enforcement marked the end of the traditional slave trading in Zanzibar.


The June 6th remembrance, or Siku ya Utumwa, as the day is known in Kiswahili, should serve as a way for Zanzibar to reflect on the slave trade, remember those who lost their lives, and educate future generations about the importance of tolerance, unity, and preventing such atrocities from happening again. 

It should be a day of remembrance, educating the general public on both ancient and modern-day slavery, its lasting effects on human dignity, and a commitment to building a peaceful and united Zanzibar. 

Also, considering the history, this date must be commemorated in Tanganyika as it’s impossible to separate Zanzibar slavery from Tanganyika. Zanzibar and Tanganyika should designate funds to the Anti-trafficking Fund as established under section 25 of the Anti-trafficking in Persons Act No.6/2008. 

These funds should specifically be for raising awareness about slavery and the slave legacy in both Tanzania and Zanzibar. This is important as it will enable the millennials to understand the history of these two great countries, their dark past and the efforts taken to rebuild them.

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It will also help them understand the contemporary forms of slavery-human trafficking and be conversant with modern traps used by traffickers to enslave the young generation. These efforts must be holistic and inclusive so that civil society organisations, academic institutions, the press, research institutions and state agencies are all engaged in this critical campaign.

Also, an apology from the bishops isn’t enough. The British government has to apologise and give reparations for all the suffering and economic retardation of the Tanzanian people. Also, this annual event should be funded to ensure healing, reconciliation, and awareness that will prevent future atrocities.
Edwin Mugambila is the CEO of Tanzania Relief Initiatives, serving as the director of the Tanzania Network Against Human Trafficking. He can be reached at or on X as @geneuineMuga. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Chanzo. If you are interested in publishing in this space, please contact our editors at

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2 Responses

  1. period between 1,300 years from 600 to 900 AD.

    I don’t understand that phrase …. is it 600bc to 900ad ??

  2. “June 6 as a day of remembrance of slavery”
    Only to be observed in Zanzibar? Why? Slavery is a global phenomenon. Large part of it was in North and South America. Then why talk of Zanzibar in isolation?

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