Shimoni caves stark reminder of slave trade at Mombasa's Coast

Story by MAZERA NDURYA Publication Date: 2/24/2007, The shackles that dot the famous Shimoni caves on the Mombasa South Coast are a stark reminder of the human trafficking that thrived up to the mid-19th century.

Tied firmly, the metallic studs now being swallowed up by stalactites and stalagmites conjure up memories of the horror that slaves from the interior of East Africa went through. Although spurned and castigated for the atrocities that the victims went through at the hands of the raiders, traders and finally the masters, Shimoni, an important tourist haven and a bubbling fishing village, is a direct beneficiary of the business.

According to the National Museums of Kenya which has conducted extensive research and archaeological work on the subject, Shimoni developed to what it is today from the influx of interior residents running away from the slave hunters.

Shimoni derives its name from the presence of caves by the seashore formed by natural forces millions of years back. The head of the coastal archaeology, Mr Herman Kiriama, in his report after the excavation and research in the area, says the caves were used as places of confinement before shipment to the biggest slave market in Zanzibar.

"In order to hinder their movements, the slaves had to be shackled and then fastened on the hooks attached to the cave walls. Excavation in the cave compartment recovered several iron fragments - implements that had a bent front and another long part with holes," he says.

"These, we suspect, may have been used as neck shackles, with the holes used in tying an individual to the iron hooks on the walls."

Vanga was also one of the main transit centres because of its proximity to Pemba, near the Kenya-Tanzania border. "Slave trade was mostly active in the Kenyan coast where it was both a consumer and supplier of the major slave market in Zanzibar," he adds.

Stories abound of the gross mistreatment of the slaves whose lives were never valued. According to the stories and accounts, shackled slaves would easily be thrown into the shark-infested sea when ships carrying the human merchandise were being pursued by those enforcing the ban on the trade.

Equally shocking was the practice used during the transportation of the slaves by big dhows that sailed into Zanzibar. In case of strong waves and unstable conditions in the sea, the slaves were sacrificed by being thrown into the sea in case the ship was overwhelmed by weight. Cases of ships capsizing because of the condition of the sea were also common because the vessels were crude.

It was very difficult for the shackled slaves to swim and most of those who were cast into the deep sea drowned. The delicate situation of the travel mode before the invention of the modern ships could best be exemplified by the capsizing of the Chinese ship off the Lamu archipelago in the 16th century where those who managed to swim to safety were assimilated into the local community.

The Chinese survivors who later converted to Islam and intermarried with the locals, produced descendants with Chinese features and generated a lot of interest among Chinese scholars and historians. One of the descendants, Mr Mwamaka Sheriff, has benefited from the Chinese-Swahili connection and is studying medicine in China on a Chinese government scholarship.

Plans are now under way to excavate the wrecked ship to allow more studies and research and unearth more information on the crew and trace the relatives of those who died.

Although slave trade is a historical fact with clear evidence of plantations along the Kenyan coast that benefited from the labour, it is a very sensitive issue because some of the masters married women slaves. The offspring who took the names of their fathers became part of the Afro-Arab families.

Vile as the whole slave phenomenon may have been, there is now a new dimension to it contained in a presentation that Mr Kiriama gave to a group of tour operators titled, Slave Trade and Slavery Heritage in Kenya: Implications for Tourism.

"The story that details the trade from the manner in which they were sourced, transported through specified routes that have become a gem to the holding grounds and eventual shipment has now generated some interest," Mr Kiriama says.

"Tour operators are trying to re-establish the slave caravan routes, for example Machakos, Kitui, Kibwezi and Mariakani. The main caravan towns were Kibwezi, Mtito Andei, Kitui and Machakos while Vanga, Shimoni, Lamu and Takaungu were the slave ports and hideouts."

In Lamu town, for instance, the inhabitants served as middlemen between the Arabs and Indians and the African interior. The thriving seaport increased the demand for food, a situation that led to rich merchants to start owning land where they established plantations using slave labour. "Some of these plantations had more than 500 salves each," he adds.

These, Mr Kiriama says in his presentation, have become points of interest that the operators want to market for the special class of tour adventurers. Likewise, he says, sites and monuments linked to slave trade have become interesting historical sites that attract thousands of tourists.

These sites include Fort Jesus (Mombasa), Gede (Malindi), Jumba la Mtwana (Kilifi), Rabai (Kilifi) where freed slaves were settled and the Shimoni caves (Kwale).>p>