Blog Post

Significance of Christ Church Cathedral and the Slave Trade

The history of the slave trade would not be complete without some account of the work done by early Christian missions established on the islands of Zanzibar. The missions played an important role in the struggle against the slave trade and in speeding up the emancipation process.

John Kirk, the British Consul General in Zanzibar, pressed the Sultan of Zanzibar, Barghash bin Said (r. 1870–1888), to sign the treaty abolishing the slave trade. Under Kirk’s pledge of British protection for the sultan and his kingdom against other European powers, and on his intimation that if the sultan defied him, British warships would receive an order to attack, the sultan agreed to sign the unpopular treaty on June 6, 1873, officially closing the slave market.

The site of the former slave market, then an open area surrounded by small huts, was bought on September 5, 1873, by an English missionary from the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa, the Reverend Arthur Nugent West, with part of the site being given by a Hindu merchant, Mr. Jairam Senji. The foundation stone for the cathedral was laid on Christmas Day, 1873, and construction was completed on the same day seven years later.

Christ Church was designed by C. F. Hayward, who was a friend of Bishop Edward Steere, the man responsible for building the cathedral. Hayward sent the blueprints from England but never saw the building he planned. The name Christ Church was chosen for the first permanent church of the mission as a dedication to St. Augustine, the first archbishop at the Church of Christ Cathedral in Canterbury.

The “Slave market church” grew steadily, and in 1877 Christmas services were held in the roofless church. The roof produced its own problems for a bishop who was not a trained builder. A wooden roof would be eaten by termites, a metal roof would be too hot. bishop Steere resolved to use local resources and mixed pounded coral with cement, sheeted with zinc.

The cathedral is a working building with daily services, serving the Anglican Communion in Zanzibar. It still bears witness to the truths that guided its founders. But it also has many items of historic and religious interest. The high altar is positioned on the exact spot previously occupied by the slave whipping post. The cluster of mission buildings at the Mkunazini compound includes a storied hospital building (now St. Monica Hostel) that still has an underground room that was once used to house slaves before they were taken to the market. In 1997, slave statues were erected in the compound to commemorate the centenary celebration for the abolition of the slave trade.

In 1979 Christ Church Cathedral was gazetted by the Zanzibar Government for permanent preservation under Ancient Monuments Preservation Decree of 1927 (Cap 102).

Aged 140 years now, the cathedral building has started to show serious signs of deterioration, which need to be addressed urgently through a thorough and carefully planned restoration program that is currently underway with the support of WMF.