The Human Stain

6 08 2008

Slave chamber

The Arab Slave Market, Stone Town, Zanzibar

I have never been to Auschwitz, Dachau or Buchenwald; never visited the Killing Fields of Cambodia or the genocide memorials in Rwanda. My omission has been neither through a lack of desire or squeamishness, but simply because my travels have yet to take me there.  Those I know who have been have said they were changed by the experience. I can’t imagine that anyone could remain unchanged after visiting any site of such epic barbarity, hatred and depravity.


For most of us, travel is an escape from the everyday norm. It is a diversion and distraction from the stresses of work and the tedium of laundry and shopping. Whether we’re lying on a beach, visiting ancient sights or hiking in the wilderness, travel provides us all with a much-needed break and revitalises our souls and our minds. But some travel transcends mere entertainment or relaxation, brings us face to face with our darkest side and becomes a life experience.


One of the greatest crimes against humanity is also one of the most ancient: slavery. Since the beginning of time, people have incarcerated others; traded, sold and transported them as possessions and dehumanised, mistreated, assaulted, tortured and murdered them. It is estimated that there are presently 27 million people in slavery throughout the world, more than at any other point in history. For many, the reality for those who are enslaved today is no less horrific than for those who crossed the Atlantic in their millions in centuries past.


In a small building in the centre of Stone Town, Zanzibar, sits the slave market through which an estimated one million African slaves passed on their way to the Middle East. Little still remains of the market today, except for a basement chamber in which the slaves were held before being sold and loaded onto dhows for the sea voyage to Arabia.


There is nothing even slightly commercial about the chamber. It is a sombre place accessed through a simple entrance, devoid of all tourist-trappings, as it should be. The ceiling is low and little light penetrates the small windows carved in the thick stone. When in use, there were no windows at all. No light. No air. No reprieve from stifling heat and humidity, from the crush of bodies, from illness and death. There are two chambers: one for men and one for women and children. From the walls and ceiling hang great iron chains and manacles.


There are no artist’s illustrations, scale models or animatronic figures to convey what things were like because they are not necessary.  There is nothing architecturally oppressive about these rooms, because the weight of history is sufficient. It requires little knowledge and no imagination to picture tired, hungry, terrified and ill humans pressed in; to hear their sobs and moans; to taste their fear, despondency and utter helplessness. To ache for the grotesque inhumanity and greed that led others to sail to these shores to steal the innocence of childhood, the sanctity of family, the essence of dignity and the very breath of life.


When the walls and ceiling press in too much, we are free to climb the stone steps and emerge into the blazing light of day. We can stand in silence and gaze at the clear blue sky, feel the refreshing breeze on our cheeks and sate our thirst on bottled water or Coke. Unlike those who preceded us, we can go home whenever we like, not be forever separated from our loved ones and transported to distant shores for a life of ritual abuse, brutal labour, cruel servitude and an untimely death.


When we have had enough we may leave the slave market forever, but I defy anyone to have the slave market forever leave them.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan




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