December 5, 2023

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Mangapwani: Stairway into the past world where slavery once thrived


Zanzibar is a must visit destination for many people who want to enjoy the white sandy beaches and explore the famous street food bazaar at Forodhani.

Zanzibar was also one the main slave markets on the eastern seaboard of Africa, sending millions of people across the Indian Ocean to the Arab peninsular kingdoms. But few venture into the past at the well preserved former slave markets.

The traditional dhows used by communities and fishermen led me to imagine days gone by when big wind-powered dhows with human cargo in their hulls sailed these same waters on a journey of no return.

Holding cell

Located 20 kilometres north of Zanzibar’s Stone Town, lies Mangapwani Coral Cavern, a large natural underground cave inside a coral reef, famous for holding slaves awaiting shipment.

Our guide Mohammed said the cave was owned by wealthy Middle Eastern landowner Hamed Salim el Hathy, who used slaves on his plantations in the Mangapwani area. Most of the foreigners living in the area then were the Shirazi people from Iran.


The cave has a natural spring with fresh water, making it ideal for hiding people. Today the roof of the cave has partly collapsed. However, there is still an almost 100-metre long stone staircase leading to the bottom of the cave, which now shelters a colony of bats.

When you get to the bottom of the cave, it is extremely dark, so the guide had to use a torch to lead the way. The temperatures were also quite high. and we were sweating profusely.

Next to the cave is the Zanzibar Slave Chamber, built near the entrance and connecting it to the beach. The chamber is three metres wide by 14 metres long and 3.5 metres deep. It is a square underground cell with a roof, and can easily be missed because it is shaded and hidden behind a small but dense cover of indigenous trees.

The slaves arrived here by boat from Bagamoyo, and were held 100 at a time, packed together in the sweltering coastal heat, waiting for days, for merchant ships to take them away to Omani slave markets and beyond.

Illicit trade

The atmosphere in the cave is stifling, and we could hardly be there for more than 30 minutes. Our guide said visitors with cardiac disease or breathing problems are either restricted from entry or advised not to spend much time inside the cave.

After the ruler of Zanzibar Sultan Barghash signed the Anglo–Zanzibari treaty officially abolishing the slave trade in 1873, the cave was used to hide slaves for what became an illicit trade that continued until 1905 before it was fully abolished.

Currently it is treated as a conservancy and entry is charged at Tsh3,000 ($1.3) for citizens, and $5 for a foreign adult and $3 for children.