OPINION: Exploring Durban’s slave connection

By Catherine and Michael Greenham Time of article published Feb 5, 2019

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DURBAN - “We stood on Durban Bluff at a spot which is lonely, wild and which hides in its primitive depths a curious and unique colony unknown to the average South African.”

This comes from an article, “The Ex-Slave Colony on Durban Bluff”, written by Basil Fuller, probably circa 1950, as part of his “Discovering South Africa” series, available at the Killie Campbell Africana Library.

“Slitting my eyes against the sun, I saw a number of shacks at intervals along the slope of the valley. Some of these huts were built of wood, others of corrugated iron. Here, long, long ago came Mozambican slaves freed by British warships. I knew that few of the liberated slaves remained but I hoped to meet some and see their descendants who number about 250 persons. Locals call them the people from Zanzibar.”

Eventually, Fuller’s guide led him to an incredibly old woman inside one of the huts. “She is called Barbara Mole,” announced the guide. “She was rescued by a British warship.”

“The old woman wore on her head a white scarf. This was knotted at the back but the ends were drawn forward to fall over her shoulders. Her face was deeply lined but her features were excellent, and there was an intelligent gleam in her eyes which did not reveal her true age.”

Fuller went on to record Barbara’s story as told by the interpreter. “One day, many years ago, Arab slavers raided Barbara’s home in Mozambique.

“When the fighting was over the slavers roped their captives and drove them to the coast. Here they were dragged into the hold of a dhow which set sail for slave markets in the north.

“So closely were the slaves packed together that they soon died at the rate of 10 a day. Then, one morning, the dhow was stopped and boarded by a British warship. Barbara does not remember the subsequent events in great detail, but she recalls arriving in Durban and ultimately reaching her present home upon the Bluff.”

Although Barbara was from Mozambique, she was first taken to Zanzibar, the land of spices and slavery. It was the Africa Great Lakes’ main slave-trading port, and in the 19th century as many as 50000 human beings were passing through it each year. David Livingstone, the British explorer and missionary, estimated that 80000 Africans died annually before ever reaching the island.

It was during these times that operators like Tippu Tip emerged. He was the most notorious slaver on the African East Coast. He was also a trader, plantation owner and even a governor.

It is important to understand that in the context of the Arab slave trade, the term Arab represents a culture as opposed to a specific race. Many of the “Arab” slave traders such as Tippu Tip and others were indistinguishable from the “Africans” whom they enslaved and sold. All of the main racial groups in Zanzibar were involved in the slave trade, in one way or another.

It is also important to understand that the British had played a major role in the slave trade throughout the world for centuries, profiting at every turn. The Slave Abolition Act in 1833 abolished slavery throughout the British Empire. As enthusiastically as the British had promoted the trade, they now turned against it, setting up naval patrols to intercept slavers and free their pitiful cargo.

It was at the slave market in Zanzibar that Barbara found herself. Here, slaves were brought from dark, airless, underground chambers, sold, and then placed in holding cells awaiting transportation by dhow. Around March 10, 1874, the dhow carrying Barbara and her fellow slaves quietly slipped out of Zanzibar.

According to Basil Fuller, “on March 13, 1874, Captain Foot of HMS Daphne suddenly commanded a change in course. He had sighted an Arab dhow which he suspected of carrying slaves. Overhauling the strange vessel which was in a hopelessly unseaworthy condition, the captain despatched a boarding party which released 225 slaves.”

But the freed slaves were still not out of danger. On the return trip to Zanzibar, the HMS Daphne was hit by a cyclone causing more suffering and delays which led to a further 31 slaves dying before they could be hospitalised ashore. The survivors could not be returned to their homes as they would still be regarded as slaves and would be taken into captivity once more.

A solution was eventually found. In need of labour, Natal was keen to accept some of the freed slaves. According to Professor Brian Kearney in his Alas Poor Little Colony, “about 80 of the freed slaves (were sent) to Port Natal on a mail steamer under Captain Elton”. One of them was Barbara Mole.

Professor Kearney states how “these people included both Muslims and Christians. The Muslims were looked after by the Juma Musjid Trust and some later settled in Clairwood where they erected a prominent mosque. The Christians were mainly Catholics and with the complete support of Bishop Jolivet, they were settled around a mission station by Fathers Sabon and Baudry.” The objective was to give “each family a small plot of land on which to build a hut and grow their own food”. In 1880, a church was built and the mission was named St Francis Xavier. The Bluff was now their home.

As happy as their time there may have been, nothing lasts forever. Both the Catholic Mission and the Zanzibaris, as they had become known, were affected by the promulgation of the Group Areas Act of 1957.

That part of the Bluff was to be for whites only. By 1960, all those Catholic Zanzibaris on the Catholic Mission lands were removed and settled mainly in Glebelands and uMlazi. The Kings Rest area which had accommodated the Muslim Zanzibaris suffered the same fate, except that people were sent to Chatsworth. The last of their Bluff homesteads were demolished in the early 1960s. Their communities were lost, as were their identities.

It was also in the 1960s that many communities in Zanzibar were lost. Zanzibar had abolished trading in slaves in 1876 but it was only in 1897 that slavery as an institution was abolished, and even for some years after that it still continued in secret.

Zanzibar became a British Protectorate in 1890, and apart from the 36-hour Anglo-Zanzibar War, life had carried on as normal.

It was in Zanzibar that a boy by the name of Farrokh Bulsara was born in 1946, the son of Parsi parents who practised the Zoroastrian religion.

Farrokh started taking piano lessons at age 7, living an idyllic existence in Zanzibar’s Stone Town, a dreamy, warm and hedonistic life on an exotic spice island. Princess Margaret made an official visit there in 1956.

But it was in the early 1960s that the winds of change were blowing across Africa. In Zanzibar these winds would soon be roaring “Uhuru!” The British ended the Protectorate and made provision for full self-government with Zanzibar as an independent country under the sultan but within the Commonwealth. However, just a month later, on January 12, 1964, Sultan Jamshid bin Abdullah was deposed during the Zanzibar Revolution. The sultanate was replaced by the People’s Republic of Zanzibar and Pemba, a socialist government led by the Afro-Shirazi Party. In the process, a bloodbath took place in which thousands of Arabs and Indians were killed.

The Bulsara family left the island and fled to the UK. Young Farrokh went on to study art in London but his real love was music. After several failed attempts in various bands he teamed up with guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor and later bassist John Deacon. Queen was the name given to the new band and, at that point, Farrokh, now the band’s lead vocalist, changed his name to Freddie Mercury.

Mercury did not often speak publicly about his upbringing in Zanzibar, but that did not stop Zanzibar from quickly claiming one of the world’s biggest rock stars, known for his flamboyant stage persona and four-octave vocal range, as one of their own.

A tourist trade has grown around the Zanzibar-Mercury connection.

Today, Queen fans can take tours of his childhood haunts, including his home, his family’s place of worship and the court where his father worked. There is also a Freddie Mercury restaurant and gift shop.

More problematic for many Zanzibaris is Mercury’s bisexuality. Islam is the predominant religion on the archipelago and gay sex was made illegal in 2004. There was outrage from one Muslim group in 2006 when it was rumoured gay tourists were making their way to the island for a beach party to mark Mercury’s 60th birthday.

A moving memorial now stands where the market once was, reminding visitors and locals of the atrocities once committed there. Along the island’s coast, several old limestone holding cells where slaves were hidden from British anti-slavery forces still stand. The Zanzibari land on the Bluff still remains a contentious issue. The forebears of today’s Zanzibaris may once have broken free from slavery as Barbara Mole did, but freedom is often incomplete and comes at a price.

The Zanzibaris took their customs and religion with them when they left Mozambique. They did the same when they were thrown off the Bluff but, after 60 years of absence, there could be no returning for the vast majority. Because today if any are still alive, they will be grandparents and great-grandparents by now with homes, responsibilities and family networks elsewhere.

Their stories may still be told, but their old way of life has gone forever. It exists only in the mists of time.

Catherine Greenham is a teacher and published author of the novel Rebellion. Michael Greenham is a chartered accountant and lecturer.

- THE MERCURY 

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