On Slavery

The Oral History of Abdallah Mohammed Kimbau October 1995

If you have visited Chole, then you may know that the slave market was just to the right of the landing stage, close to where there is now a primary school.

My name is Abdallah Mohammed Kimbau, and I was born here on Chole.  My grandfather was the first to be born here, and then my mother and then me.  To tell the truth, understanding history does not require that a person be old.  It is possible to be old and still not be knowledgeable, while a young person of eighteen or twenty years might know even more.  This is because some older individuals might not have been willing to ask their elders, “What happened there?” or “Up until when?” but a small child might go to his or her elders and then ask them, “What happened here?” or “What occurred here? How did it come about”, and then that child will understand.I am not an old person who knows a great deal, however, through asking, I have come to know.

I have learned about many things, which happened in the past ... especially concerning slavery.  Indeed, slavery was begun by Arabs during the reign of Abu Saidi [who reigned in Zanzibar in the 19th century].  Slavery had progressed until the point when it became a big business, and, here on Chole, a slave market was built and an auctioneer installed.  The market existed, although I was not born in time to see it personally.  But, at Mikindini, I saw with my own eyes a market which had been used for auctioning slaves - nothing else had been sold there except slaves.  It exists until today, although it is now being used for other kinds of business.

So things continued, and slaves were brought here.  Slavery was based on the use of force and on struggles and competition between people.  For example, I might leave here and go to a place like [the neighbouring island of] Juani.  When I reach Juani, I perhaps meet some children and steal them.  After stealing those children, I take them to the market and auction them off and people would buy them.  Yet, the government was there! It knew that people stole children, but the government didn't concern itself with such matters because the government itself was made up of Arabs, and indeed, they were the ones who had instituted slavery.

Time passes, and passes, and passes.  Finally the point comes when the Abu Saidi dynasty leaves [Mafia] and the Germans take over.  The Germans followed in the footsteps of the Arabs by not opposing slavery.  Thus slavery continued, and even people of my generation could meet people who had been bought as slaves.  I knew an old man who has since died who was bought in the market.  I asked him, “In your home area [on the mainland], did you know about slavery?”.  He said “No, at home I did not understand”.  I asked “Why?”, he replied “I stayed in a place with about ten other children.  When the slave raiders came my older companions ran away.  I alone remained and was carried off.  I was immediately put on board a vessel in the Rufiji where these things happened and when I reached [Mafia] I was sold.  I was still a small child and incapable of doing any work.  After being sold, and to tell the truth up until now, I still don't know the region where I’m from or who my father and mother were.  As a consequence, this had a very profound impact on me.  It was easier for those people who were older and understood where they came from”.

After being sold, a slave went to the master who could punish you to any degree he pleased.  The “big people” who were the owners and who had the financial means to buy slaves were a group called the MaShatiri.  Those who had the money to buy slaves would arrive at Chole’s market near the Customs House on the beach - the place where the hotel is being built.  A slave owner might have fifteen, twenty or thirty slaves.  The master would sit in his house, like this, with his arms crossed, and he would divide up the slaves whom he had been bought.  Some would he sent to Bweni, some to Juani, others to the Rufiji, but all to work on the master's farms.  These people didn't have permission to eat any of the produce that they had farmed.  Instead, they were required to bring it to their master and put it inside [his store rooms].  Everything they worked for was brought to the master.  They no longer had any authority over themselves: they were reduced to the work of being “sent”[1].

However there were differences between slave masters.  The richer masters had their slaves bring the crops they had farmed and place the crops in the master’s [store rooms].  They would work and eat ugali [corn meal] at the master’s home.  Those masters who weren’t as rich had their slaves work for them a certain number of days a week.  On the remaining days, the slaves would farm their own plots so that they could produce food to feed themselves.

Things continued and continued like this.  The arrogance increased until the point when, if a slave did anything wrong at all it was possible to butcher that slave and throw him or her away.  Yes, it is true!  Such things were done, but the government didn't care at all.  In the past, a person was treated as if he or she were some kind of insect - they thought slaves didn't have any more value than that!  If some kind of [government institution] had existed that was interested in defending people, it would have concerned itself with such cases.  Otherwise, it would have been impossible for people to have suffered this kind of oppression.  It even reached the point when people like the slave master known as Masunda forced a person to climb a coconut tree and shot him with bullets to see if he would fall out of the tree the way a monkey would - a person was forced to climb a tree and killed just to be experimented upon!

The government knew and saw this, but this was done by a master and so nothing was done to him.  [The wife of Masunda], a woman called Nunu, told her husband, “Bwana, I don’t know how a child lies within a woman's stomach: how does it lie?”.  Therefore a female slave who was pregnant was sought and brought to them.  She was made to lie down and was cut open in order to show Nunu the anatomy of a foetus.  This was done to a young woman!  The government knew, but didn’t do anything. I say a prayer that God lessen the punishment of those who did such things because, of course, God is punishing them for what they have done.  These things were not right!

It reached a point when a master who was going to Bweni which is at Ras Mkumbi on Mafia, had a slave bring him a donkey. The master climbed onto the donkey and rode to Bweni while the slave was forced to run along beside him all the way from Utende to Bweni! In addition, some slaves were given the work of cutting grass to feed the donkeys. Instead of the donkeys going out to graze, food was brought inside for them. This was unnecessary labour that was intended only to punish the slaves. These sorts of things continued.

It reached the point when the slave-owners would congregate at a given place, and the masters would climb on top of a platform to eat their food. Now, if I were a master, and this person here was a master and this one a master we would all be sitting together. I would have my slaves, that master would have his two slaves and that master his two slaves. As we sat on the platform, the slaves would be down below fighting each other with hippopotamus hide whips. After the fight, if my slaves had beaten those of another master, I would be victorious.

In all truth, these things ended immediately after the British arrived. The British didn’t agree with slavery. They issued an order that starting from that moment even the word “slavery” would no longer exist. But there were some slaves who hated the end of slavery. They thought, “Why remove it?” [speaking sarcastically], perhaps they felt it held benefits for them. Perhaps they didn’t care that they could be punished for nothing - it didn’t bother them. Of course, for many others, the end of slavery made them very happy because now they were free.

The major participants in the slave trade had been the MaShatiri, but it began with the Arabs. During the time of Abu Saidi’s reign, any master at all was like a king. It shows the abjectness of that period that any slave master could think of himself as a king. After all, wasn't he able to do anything he wanted and not be judged? Thus the situation, as I understand it, was that people were very oppressed and that this was unlawful. Towards the end of the time of slavery it was no longer even necessary to go steal people to be slaves over on the mainland. Let me use the example of my young relative Ahmed, who is sitting here next to me. At that time, if I were cunning, I would take Ahmed and tell him, “Grandchild, let’s go. We’re going for a visit”. So we would go to the home of a slave master.

We would be sitting on his porch, eating and drinking and I would go inside. I would tell the master, “I’ll sell this child to you”, and the master would buy him. I would myself sell my own grandchild and this master would buy him. Then I would tell my grandchild, “Wait here, I’m coming” but instead I would leave and go on my way. When this child decides to go, the master would inform him, “You can’t go out again. You’ve already been sold. Go into the courtyard and sweep”. The deed would already have been done. For some people, if they were reduced to selling their own children, it was because they needed food. Yet, a person’s own child! This person might think I have ten children or fifteen and so would take three children and sell them. Thus slavery occurred by many means. Slavery was not approved of by God - it was about oppression and force. Indeed, the point even came when our ancestors did it to get money.

Perhaps the problems we are experiencing today are retribution for this.  In other words, our elders did things which were inconceivable and outside of religion.  For in no religion is there anything about having slaves.  Therefore, it is possible, that this is their payment.  Perhaps the punishments we are experiencing today are payment for what our ancestors did.  May God relieve the punishment they are surely experiencing.  Indeed this is as I understand it.

[1] The KiSwahili word for slave “mtumwa” literally means a person who is able to be “sent” whether to do work or run errands.