Zanzibar: Slaves, Spices and White Sands

This island has a long and wealthy history. It was formerly a country in its own right and for a long time run by the Sultans of Oman and later the British Empire. I believe the Portuguese were the first “outside visitors” who tried to take over the place. As my guide put it, there were “misunderstandings” between the natives and the Portuguese, and then there were no more Portuguese on the island. Still, they were here long enough (or someone was) to introduce spices from Indonesia. The center of the island is still used today as plantation land for cloves, coffee, chocolate, vanilla, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric, pineapples, citrus and rice. I went on a “spice tour” and saw these in the wild, which was pretty neat. There were more plants in season (in fruit?) than when I was in Indonesia.

Another part of Zanzibar’s history is its use as a slaving port. Unlucky people from the interior of Africa who were either prisoners of war or just in the wrong village at the wrong time when slavers came got carted off, put on boats and sold in the market at Zanzibar, sometimes put to work on local plantations or sent over the sea. It is a sad thing. The old slave market is now holy ground as the Anglican church was built there by permission of the Muslim Omani Sultan when slavery was ended. The church alter is right in front of the place where many slaves were tied to a tree and whipped (there is a disk of marble of a different color where the tree used to be), and the marble floor is red-veined to symbolize the blood cost paid on that spot. Below the church are two small rooms where far too many slaves were kept at once if they arrived when the market was closed. Many slaves died there, waiting, overheated, malnourished and I would guess, despondent.

After I got back from the spice tour, I met up with Abni, a young fellow that asked me if I would hire him for a tour. He taught me how to tell an Arabian Zanzibar door from an Indian one, and showed me the old fort, some of the historical buildings around town, and we went to the Anglican church. Mostly, we just walked around Stone Town, and that was quite pleasant. Later, I ran into some other folks from the spice tour and we had dinner together. They were engineers for Airbus and we had a great time talking about engineering change orders, specifications and risk management, believe it or not. Turns out we were all in careers that required precision and responsibility, and it was nice to swap stories.

After dinner, I wasn’t feeling so great on returning to the hotel, so I took some herbal supplements, forced myself to drink yet more water, and went to sleep. I woke up early to go scuba diving. That’s where the “white sands” part of this post comes in. After two transports, one of which was over dirt track in the back of a covered truck, I eventually got to the Mnemba Atoll beach on the other side of this island. Wow. The tide was low, and the fine white beach seemed to go on for pristine miles in either direction. There were these fast, nearly transparent white crabs running down the beach as we walked to the boat. I wish I’d had my camera, but I didn’t want it on the bottom of the Indian Ocean, so I left it at the dive shop for later. One young fellow brought his SLR camera, but it nearly ended up in the drink when our boat rolled into a big wave.

Yet again, I had the unusual sight of rain on the ocean as seen from underneath. It rained and rained last night, and rained on us as we went out this morning, and as we came back in the afternoon. It rained on me as I floated on the surface, waiting for the boat to retrieve us after dive one. Given the rain, I thought maybe our diving wouldn’t be any good. I think it was less good than it might have been, but it was still just fine. The sea was rough, but there wasn’t much surge so I wasn’t sick. We saw a sleeping turtle under a coral cove, a few large (~ 1 foot long) lionfish, and several eels. One was black with many tiny white spots, three others were black with tiny golden spots, and these were each maybe 6” thick and I assume 3-4 feet long. We also saw four white eels together (these were a bit smaller, maybe 2” in diameter and a 2-3 feet long), and I had never seen any white ones before. It seemed odd to see them together, but it was very pretty to look at them in the white sand with the white rocks. The best things I saw, I think, were the octopi. On the first dive, we saw a rather large one. His tentacles were about as thick as my arm. My divemaster, Saidi, got him out of his coral grotto and he released some ink and moved around. He hung back on the sand for a while before returning to his grotto, so we could see him in full. We also saw two smaller octopi on the second dive (all of these were purple colored), but they were still pretty big. Oh – hey – I saw another sea cucumber. This one was very large, maybe the size of two fat loaves of bread stuck together on the ends. He was white mostly with some black markings. I was the one who found it, which is always kind of neat.

In Zanzibar, it was my turn to help another diver. A chance for karmic payback of my Indonesia debt! My assigned diving buddy, Tonio from Portugal, had his own gear but it had been five years since his last dive. He had a hard time getting the air out of his jacket on the first dive and I had to pull the back-stopper for him so he would not float to the top. Then on the second dive, his weight belt was twisted up and kept coming loose. I tried to help him but the thing came off in my hands and he immediately began to shoot upward! Ack! Still, I got him before he rose too far, and I held him while Saidi took the weights off the belt and put them into Tonio’s pockets. After that, he was fine, though clearly embarrassed. Later I told him if he’d seen me with Made in Indonesia last month, he would not be feeling so bad. Somehow, I must be improving in my diving because I had more air than my fellow tourist divers at the end of both dives, despite the excitement with the weights, and they were all sent up ten minutes earlier. When our dives were over, because the tide had come in, we got to take the boat all the way to the dive shop and skip the dirt road. I left my wetsuit on, grabbed my camera from the shop and went into the water to shoot some pictures. If you still don’t think Zanzibar is gorgeous, then I am doing a really lousy job.

Upon return to the hotel, I felt like I was still on the boat. Dizzy, tired, coughing and swaying a little, even. I drank a lot of water and some juice tonight, and ate some beef for supper, then medicated again. I sure hope I am able to “get up and go” soon. I don’t want to be sick on safari.

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2 Responses to Zanzibar: Slaves, Spices and White Sands

  1. d says:

    Wow, how deep were you when his weight belt came off? Were there healthy corals. I googled pictures of the beaches in Zanzibar and they were beautiful. Good luck on Safari!


    • Fortunately, we were over a sandy patch so we didn’t have to worry about hurting any coral while we fixed up Tonio. Just as well since I ended up kneeling on the sea bottom. We were probably only 40 feet down – it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. After that, as we went on, yes there were plenty of healthy corals and in fact one of the biggest brain corals I have seen (standing alone, looking like a big boulder). I think it was probably six feet tall and 5 feet on each side.

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