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Preserving a Site of Conscience: Heritage Centre at the Site of the Former Slave Market and Preservation of Christ Church Cathedral, Zanzibar

In Zanzibar, the legacy of slavery has not gone away. The slave trade was abolished in Zanzibar in 1873. Ownership of slaves finally became illegal in colonial East Africa in 1922, still within living memory. Although now largely hidden, the legacy of slavery continues to affect society. It is a wound that has not yet healed.

To shed light on this legacy, there is a large project to create a Heritage and Education Centre at the site of the last slave market in East Africa, and preserve Christ Church Cathedral, which is the most visible marker at the site. Funded by the European Union and US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, the project commenced in October 2013 and is being led by World Monuments Fund Britain (WMFB). Importantly the Government of Zanzibar has also given a grant to the project. Zanzibar is 98% Muslim and the Government’s participation is a statement of its commitment to a diverse and inclusive society.

Part of the reason the history of the slave trade is still so troubling is because so many misconceptions about it persist. There is a myth that it was perpetrated by only one ethnicity and creed against another and this breeds mistrust and resentment between communities. The stigma attached to slavery is still present, perpetuating old resentments. In reality, all creeds and ethnicities were involved in the trade. African warlords captured prisoners in battles or raids, who were then sold to Arab and Swahili middlemen and taken to Zanzibar. Europeans, Indians, Arabs, and Africans (who were themselves often former slaves) bought and used slaves. Telling the story of slavery in an open and factual manner will help to correct some of the misconceptions about its history, and this is one of the main objectives of the project at the site of the former slave market. For the Anglican Diocese, the custodians of the site and a project partner, it is the heritage of all the people of Zanzibar and Tanzania.

Preservation work at Christ Church Cathedral is now close to completion. When WMFB first became involved at the site the Cathedral was in very poor condition. A large structural crack ran the length of the nave vault continuing down the west gable wall. Plaster on the exterior of the Cathedral was severely eroded in places, and the roof over the main vault was rotten, missing tiles and in danger of being blown away. A report written in 2009 by Christian Engineers in Development, a project partner, concluded that the building was in serious danger of collapse.

Conservation work at the Cathedral began shortly after the project commenced. The first task was to install a series of stainless steel rods underneath the barrel vault of the nave to tie the two walls together and stop them rotating outward any further. Next the team shifted attention to conservation of the rose window, which was the part of the cathedral in most urgent need of repair as well as the most delicate. The window is glazed with stained glass (the first in sub-Saharan Africa), which is still in good condition, but the structure holding the glass in place was severely eroded exposing interior stonework. A team of Zanzibar craftspeople led by master stone mason Tony Steel and mason Vuaa Khamis undertook conservation work, returning the window to its former glory.

When conservation work at the rose window was completed, the team moved to conservation of the exterior walls. Careful attention was paid to matching the original color of the plaster. Earth, which is a key component of the original plaster mix, was sourced from various places on the island until a close match was found. Conservation of historic plasters is a craft exercise, and care was taken to provide proper guidance and training for the team of stone masons. Repair work on the roof has also been completed.

A few of the older generation of Zanzibaris were interviewed as part of an initiative to record folk memories of slavery and its impact. The idea is to capture their memories before they disappear and preserve them in digital format. These interviews were recorded by Zanzibar Stone Town Heritage Society, a local NGO and project partner working in the field of heritage preservation, and will be included in the Heritage and Education Centre. School groups regularly visit the site and school children are a key target group of the project. At present very little information is available at the site, which compounds an equal lack of accurate information about slavery in text books. An exhibit is being created that will tell the story of the slave trade in East Africa. Comprised of 55 panels, with many images, and text in Swahili and English, it will provide a comprehensive introduction to the subject. An Education Room linked to the exhibit is also being created, which is targeted at younger children, and access to more detailed information about the slave trade will be possible for older students through a Research Room.

The site of the former slave market is also one of the most visited tourist destinations in Zanzibar. Tourism is now the largest sector of the Zanzibar economy. It is estimated that up to 70% of the population earns a living from tourism in some way. Improving the site as a tourist destination is an important goal of the project. Enhancing the experience of visitors, and providing them with more information and better facilities, contributes to Zanzibar as a destination, creating jobs and generating wealth, which in turn helps to tackle poverty.

An exhibition telling the story of the last slave market in Zanzibar and preservation at Christ Church Cathedral has been created by World Monuments Fund Britain and will tour the UK throughout the year.