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Pemba Spices – A Dark History

A sombre look into the history of Pemba's spice trade

Those of you who have been lucky enough to have visited Pemba Island in Zanzibar may well have taken advantage of the opportunity to buy fresh spices such as the cloves that you see drying by the roadside, however did you know of the connection between these delightful spicey buds and one of the worst atrocities known to mankind between the late 18th and early 19th centuries?

During this period there was a rapid expansion in the slave trade and many slaves were taken to Pemba Island to work alongside local slaves in the production of spices, ultimately forming part of the slave train moving spices across mainland Africa and other destinations.

The Department of Museums and Antiquities in Zanzibar have recognised two important sites related to the slave trade in Pemba, both secret hideaways for people trying to avoid capture by the slave traders. These are of interest to Kwanini Foundation as they both lie within the region of Makangale, part of our area of community operations.

The first is on the edge of the village of Kijijini, the home of Sele’s school and farm and the Kijijini community hall, which are sponsored by donations given to the Kwanini Foundation. This is a small cave with two low entrances where remnants of pots and other cooking utensils from the period were discovered. There is also a small hole in the roof about six metres above ground level where supposedly people would jump down into the darked cave to avoid capture. Today it is a natural playground for the local children and the darker cavern is heavily populated by small cave bats from which the locals collect the guano for fertilising crops.
The second site is on the edge of the beach at Manta Resort which is not only the base of the Kwanini Foundation but also it is on the edge of the Kwanini Marine Protected Area. This is more of an overhang than a deep cave but thick brushwood in front would have made an excellent short-term hiding place. The cave is too light for bats, but it does have families of vervet monkeys living in the trees around it.

For those of you planning a visit to Pemba, take a day out in Unguja en-route and visit the slave museum. It is a true record of the history of the slave trade told from a place where slaves were held awaiting transportation and tells a chilling story of the sufferings these islanders lived through in the past.