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Archaeology and Heritage of Slavery in Eastern Africa

Abstract and Keywords

Despite its long history in the region, slavery in Eastern Africa has attracted little archaeological attention. This deficit is partly due to the reticence of many Eastern Africans to discuss slavery, a historically painful topic. In addition, some archaeologists have expressed skepticism about the material visibility of the practice. That is, they question whether slavery can be archaeologically identified. Given these concerns, those archaeologists who have pursued the study of slavery in Eastern Africa tend to focus on the 18th and 19th centuries, when historical documentation of the practice is well established. Archaeologists in the region have considered slavery in a variety of settings—including not only plantations but also contexts of slaving and emancipation. Research in Eastern Africa has helped to challenge and complicate definitions of slavery rooted in American historical experience. Yet, perspectives on slavery from outside of the region continue to shape public memory in Eastern Africa; increased outside interest and investment in the heritage of slavery has begun to influence both memorialization and the practice of memory itself. For example, heritage funding from UNESCO is tied to particular expectations for how slavery is defined and what counts as heritage. In this context, archaeologists studying slavery in Eastern Africa grapple with their responsibilities to many different stakeholders and audiences. In particular, they continue to work to make slavery research and memorialization more meaningful to Eastern Africans themselves. In addition, researchers have begun to develop methodological tools to push the study of slavery in Eastern Africa to deeper time periods less undergirded by historical documents.

Keywords: archaeology, slavery, Eastern Africa, Swahili Coast, heritage, UNESCO, memory

History of Slavery in Eastern Africa

The Swahili Coast is a corridor that encompasses several offshore islands and runs from approximately Mogadishu, Somalia in the far north to coastal Mozambique in the south (see fig. 1). Historical records attest to the slave trade’s deep history in this region. In the 2nd century ad, for example, Greek documents described enslaved people as among the range of commodities exported from the coast.1 Despite this time depth, the Eastern Africa slave trade was integrated into the larger European-dominated Atlantic trade only in the 16th century, when Portugal established a series of colonial outposts on the coast. Portugal’s primary commercial ambition in the Indian Ocean region was to break Muslim–Italian domination of the spice trade originating in India. Consequently, the slave trade remained comparatively small and is only rarely mentioned in Portuguese documents.2 With Oman gaining colonial control of the Swahili Coast in the 1700s, the slave trade continued to expand. The export of enslaved captives from Eastern Africa to the Persian Gulf, to India, and to French plantations in Mauritius and Réunion intensified over the 18th century.

Archaeology and Heritage of Slavery in Eastern Africa

Figure 1. The Swahili Coast.

Map by Beth Wilkerson, GIS Center, DePauw University, adapted from Continent Areas and Lakes data from Esri® Data & Maps, 2013.

Sustained British contact with the Eastern African coast began only in the early 19th century; British abolitionists’ engagement in the area commenced almost as early. The Eastern African slave trade made a convenient target for Britain. Its comparatively small scale made it more manageable than the vast Atlantic trade, Britain itself was not implicated in the slave trade in Eastern Africa, and the abolition of slavery offered a useful pretext for colonialism.3 Through political coercion of the Omani Sultanate, the British secured the outlawing of the southern slave trade, which had extended to the Americas, in 1821. Though the export of captives from Mozambique to Madagascar and the Comoros continued in force throughout the 19th century, the Sultanate’s new legal restrictions on overseas slave exports were more economically devastating to traders farther north.4 West Africa’s typically higher prices for captives had bolstered the Eastern African market; the loss of such demand isolated much of Eastern Africa from the larger Atlantic trade and local slave prices plummeted.5 In 1847, the British compelled the Sultanate to outlaw the northern slave trade to Asia. Though not strictly enforced until the 1860s, this second decree prohibited all overseas slave exports. While some level of overseas slave trading nonetheless continued on the Swahili Coast, its scale was much diminished in the closing decades of the 19th century.6

The subsequent establishment of a thriving plantation economy in 19th-century Eastern Africa marked the convergence of three concurrent trends: a rising demand for commodities in regional and interregional markets, the presence of expanding state structures, and a surplus of enslaved labor linked to the demise of transcontinental slave trades. Impingements on external slave markets encouraged greater local use of slave labor.7 While the international trade of slaves became illegal under the Sultanate’s decrees, the international trade of items produced by enslaved workers, importantly, remained “legitimate.” Common commodities grown using enslaved labor included cloves (on Zanzibar and Pemba Islands), millet (in Malindi), and coconuts (in Mombasa), though more sporadic production of maize, rice, and sugarcane also occurred.8

Legal abolition in Eastern Africa began around the turn of the 20th century. An 1897 decree from the Omani Sultanate outlawed slavery on the islands of Zanzibar (also known as Unguja) and Pemba. In 1907, an ordinance from the British colonial government abolished slavery on Kenya’s mainland coast. In Tanzania (then German East Africa), slavery legally ended in 1922, shortly after Britain gained control of the region.9

Challenges Facing the Archaeology of Slavery in Eastern Africa

The practice of archaeology in Eastern Africa skews heavily toward the study of prehistory and human evolution. Yet, conversely, those few archaeologists who have researched slavery in the region tend to study only the recent past. That is, even though historical documents indicate a local slave trade nearly 2,000 years old, archaeologists focus nearly exclusively on the 18th and 19th centuries. The inattention to early periods is partly a consequence of concerns about material evidence; some researchers have expressed skepticism about whether one can identify the existence of slavery through material remains. After all, material signatures that may indicate slaving and slavery (like defensive architecture, razed settlements, and the introduction of foreign styles of artifacts) can also be explained by a variety of other circumstances.10 In addition, artifacts related to confinement, like shackles and chains, are rarely identified in archaeological contexts, even where historical documentation of slavery is strong.11 Thus, archaeologists tend to lack confidence that they can identify slavery in earlier periods less supported by historical documentation.

Even in the 18th and 19th centuries, archaeological research on slavery in the region is scattershot at best. The continued perceived shamefulness of slavery and slave ancestry in Eastern Africa discourages archaeological research on the topic, even in later periods. Slavery is a historically painful subject that many Eastern Africans avoid. Slave ancestry is typically not openly acknowledged. Rather, most descendants of enslaved people have long since adopted local ethnonyms and identities, both on the coast itself and in the coastal hinterland. Incorporation into hinterland communities primarily occurred through blood-brotherhood rituals or intermarriage.12 The Giriama, an indigenous hinterland ethnic group, grew from an estimated 5,000 individuals in the early 19th century to some 60,000 in 1890; this increase was due in large part to the incorporation of outsiders, including formerly enslaved individuals.13 On the Swahili Coast, integration occurred on a similarly large scale. In fact, so many formerly enslaved people and their descendants became Swahili in the first few decades of the 20th century that the identity itself started to develop an association with slave ancestry.14

With slave descendants’ integration, a regional amnesia about slavery has developed.15 Indeed, in the early 21st century, some Swahili Coast inhabitants have continued to insist that slavery never occurred there, despite a wealth of historical documentation to the contrary. Even in the hinterland, where residents are more likely to recognize the existence of the institution, slave ancestry is still considered shameful. Descent from enslaved peoples implies both newcomer status and low social position; such ancestry is thus rarely acknowledged. Where social memory of slavery does persist, it has developed more as a way of understanding current social inequity in Eastern Africa rather than as a simple reflection of past historical reality. Certainly, legacies of slavery persisted long beyond legal emancipation. For example, formerly enslaved people were far more likely to be ensnared by forced labor schemes under European colonialism.16 The continued political, social, and economic legacies of slavery in the 21st century are paired with strong aversion among many Eastern Africans to discussing the institution at all. Such reluctance has also complicated efforts to memorialize the region’s slave trade.

Despite these obstacles, the archaeology of slavery in Eastern Africa has made important contributions to building a more global understanding of the institution. For one, archaeologists in the region have developed a wide frame of study—from slaving to emancipation—that extends far beyond plantation contexts. In addition, studies in Eastern Africa have challenged the universality of definitions of slavery and resistance that are rooted in American historical experience.

Archaeologies of Slaving and Capture

The archaeology of slavery in the United States is highly developed and has contributed to nuanced understandings of enslaved people’s social organization, craft production, trade activity, religious expression, and resistance to coercion. However, most archaeologists focused on slavery in the United States have investigated plantation contexts. A wider frame of analysis allows us to consider slavery as a process that encompasses slaving and emancipation as well. Slaving and its effects on targeted communities have received increasing attention from archaeologists in West Africa. The study of runaway slave communities is particularly well-developed in Brazil, but also extends to the Caribbean and the North American mainland. Eastern Africa, however, remains unusual in its wide frame of research—encompassing slaving and capture, people’s lives under enslavement, and self-emancipated communities of formerly enslaved individuals.

In the region, the effects of slavery extended to populations other than the enslaved. For one, slaving also affected those who evaded capture. For example, in Tsavo, Kenya, some 95 miles (150 kilometers) inland from the coastal port of Mombasa, archaeological research has demonstrated changes to settlement patterns, trade, and diet linked to an increase in slave raiding. There, the use of fortified rockshelters at high elevations began approximately 300 years ago; this date importantly coincides with the integration of the Eastern Africa slave trade into European markets. Archaeological remains in the shelters demonstrate diminishing participation in the regional trade network. In addition, excavations at these rockshelters have shown that inhabitants had limited access to food resources. Foods consumed included hyraxes, frogs, and snails. Such animal remains were less typical at other contemporaneous sites in the region; they thus suggest food insecurity and the consumption of non-preferred animals. The shelters’ high elevation would have complicated the procurement of food. Their location must have offered considerable benefit to offset the difficulties inhabitants would have faced feeding themselves. Importantly, the elevated position of these sites afforded considerable defensive advantages against possible attack. The rockshelters also included an area for keeping goats or sheep. Hence, these lookouts would have helped inhabitants protect both their livestock and themselves from increased cattle rustling and slave raiding in the area.17

Other research has focused on the main caravan trade routes along which enslaved captives were transported. Some of these studies have demonstrated that the internationalization and subsequent acceleration of the slave and ivory trades in the 18th and 19th centuries had only limited effect on communities living along caravan trade routes or in interior trade hubs. In the Lower Pangani River Basin in northeastern Tanzania, the analysis of animal remains at the island settlement of Ngombezi suggests little change in diet after the village’s integration into the caravan trade network in the early 1800s. In addition, unlike Tsavo, there is scant evidence for food insecurity at Ngombezi; rather, most recovered cow bones were from individuals who were over three years old, while the majority of sheep and goat bones recovered were from individuals over two years old. This pattern suggests that Ngombezi residents had sufficiently stable food resources to raise their animals to maturity before slaughtering and consuming them.18

At Ujiji, a major port town on Lake Tanganyika, archaeological excavations revealed continuity in the local rouletted pottery that persisted from earlier time periods prior to the growth of the ivory and slave trades in the 19th century. Coastal Swahili people were distinguished from hinterland and interior groups in the 1800s by their use of rectilinear (rather than round) houses. While the remains of rectilinear houses and coastal-produced ceramics demonstrate a greater presence of Swahili traders in Ujiji in the 1800s, the overall material pattern is one of continuity not change. Locally made rouletted ceramics dominate both in the 19th century and in earlier periods. Indeed, even in areas with coastal-produced ceramics, few ceramics imported from elsewhere in the world were recovered. This material continuity suggests that the greater availability of imported items did not transform existing systems of authority. That is, authority in 19th-century Ujiji was not linked simply to greater access to or accumulation of foreign prestige goods.19

However, elsewhere on caravan routes, increasing abundance of imported items, especially European glass beads, attests to the potential transformative material effects of the trade in captives and ivory. Historical reconstructions of the Eastern African slave trade tend to emphasize the Lake Nyasa region of southern Tanzania and Malawi as the origin point for many of the enslaved captives imported to the Swahili Coast. While research at Tsavo, Ngombezi, and Ujiji reveals the narrowness of a view of the slave trade focused only on the Lake Nyasa region, the prominence of this southern caravan route is nonetheless clear. Excavations at the interior caravan settlements Mang’ua, Kikole, and Ruanda near Lake Nyasa all yielded imported trade goods, including pottery, glass beads, metal objects, and glass bottles. At Kikole, fragments of tuyeres used in iron working, as well as local pottery sherds, were mixed into the earth used to make 19th-century rectilinear houses. The use of these broken materials in house construction suggest they represent an earlier inhabitation of Kikole before the arrival of Swahili or Omani Arab traders in the caravan town, the subsequent influx of imported goods, and the construction of the rectilinear houses.20

Archaeology and Heritage of Slavery in Eastern Africa

Figure 2. Interior of Shimoni Cave, Kenya.

Photo by Maina Kiarie, 2011. Reproduction permission granted under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license, Wikimedia Commons.

While the study of slaving and the slave trade in the Eastern African interior continues to develop, archaeologists’ attempts to follow captives on their journeys to the coast have sometimes proven more difficult. Shimoni, in Kenya’s southern coast, is one of the most celebrated slave heritage sites in the country. Current oral histories widely attest to the use of local cave systems to conceal enslaved captives from British anti-slavery patrols; following their arrival from the interior, captives were reportedly held in the caves before they were boarded on overseas ships bound for Zanzibar or destinations further afield (see fig. 2). Moreover, archaeological investigations of the caves yielded evidence of iron fragments that may represent shackles or hooks used in the restraint of captives.21 However, Shimoni’s interpretation as a holding place for enslaved captives is widely contested by archaeologists. British efforts against the slave trade were focused on naval patrols at sea; thus, the underlying assumption that captives would have needed to be hidden itself may be wrong. In addition, the site’s later varied uses, including as a trash dumping ground, complicate the interpretation of recovered iron artifacts. Finally, the analysis of oral histories about Shimoni has shown that they only thoroughly coalesced around slavery with the 1980s release of the popular song “Shimoni” by Kenyan singer Roger Whittaker, which laments the suffering of the enslaved captives held there. Even in the early 21st century, variation in oral historical understandings of the cave has persisted, with some reporting that the caves were spiritually revered. Though enslaved captives certainly could have been hidden at Shimoni, the use of the site for this purpose likely would have been on a much smaller scale than has been claimed in the 21st century.22

Archaeologies of Enslavement and Emancipation

While transit sites for captives bound overseas have proven difficult to identify, archaeologists have been on firmer footing when studying the lives of enslaved people who remained on the Swahili Coast. Lamu, an offshore Indian Ocean island in Kenya’s north, even today maintains many houses made of coral that were first constructed in the 18th or early 19th centuries. Ethnoarchaeology is the study of modern living communities by archaeologists in an effort to gain greater insight into the workings and organization of past societies; often, ethnoarchaeological studies focus on descendant communities in order to better understand cultural legacies inherited from their ancestors. In the 1980s, an ethnoarchaeological study focused on the organization and use of space in coral-constructed houses in Lamu. The studied houses were first erected in the 1700s or 1800s, and they remained occupied. This ethnographic research, coupled with oral historical interviews and some excavation, suggested that the use of space in these houses was shaped by the social relationships of inhabitants. More specifically, enslaved people reportedly slept on the lower level of such houses, unlike the house owners. The restriction of enslaved people to these more public house areas reflected their low social position. Even in the 1980s, the lower level of such houses was linked to inferior social status. The descendants of house owners refrained from sleeping on the lower level of coral houses regardless of crowding on the upper level; the lower house level was instead used for storage, occupied by slave descendants, or rented to migrants from Kenya’s mainland.23

In Tanzania, the lives of the enslaved have been studied on the offshore islands of Zanzibar and its neighbor to the north, Pemba. At Mgoli, a 19th-century clove plantation on Pemba, excavations revealed a hard packed clove-drying floor made of stones and rubble next to the house of the plantation owners (see fig. 3). The drying of cloves was a critical time in the production of the commodity because of the financial risks associated with incorrect drying methods that could lead to crop loss. Immediately adjacent to the clove-drying floor, were the remains of a baraza, a long stone bench running along the front of the plantation owners’ house. Baraza were typical of coastal Eastern African houses even before the 19th century; they acted as a location of hospitality and socializing between men of higher social and economic status. The baraza’s spatial position adjacent to the clove-drying floor at Mgoli suggests supervision and monitoring of enslaved people as they worked; it also points to important social functions and effects. In particular, slave owners’ proximity to enslaved people as they labored would have accentuated a high social status by comparison. Yet, at the same time, the floor’s position ensured that slaves were visible. That is, the visibility of clove drying at Mgoli ensured that enslaved people were perceived as conspicuously necessary members of the plantation community.24

Archaeology and Heritage of Slavery in Eastern Africa

Figure 3. Excavation Unit A, Mgoli Plantation, Pemba, Tanzania.

Image courtesy of Sarah K. Croucher

Material culture at Mgoli and plantations surveyed on Zanzibar (Unguja) have not revealed any clear material markers of enslaved people. For example, enslaved workers on Pemba and Zanzibar tended to make and use pottery with typical coastal vessel forms and decorations. The overwhelming majority of local pottery recovered at Mgoli and historic plantations on Zanzibar was from carinated open bowls with rounded bases; a carination is a point of inflection on the side of the bowl after which the slope turns slightly inward prior to reaching the rim. This ceramic vessel shape is, even today, in common use on the Swahili Coast. These ceramics are homogenous along much of coastal Eastern Africa and, equally importantly, distinct from ceramics produced in more inland areas, including origin areas for enslaved captives. This material pattern suggests that enslaved potters adopted coastal production techniques and norms when making ceramics. The use of similar pottery forms by slave owners and enslaved people departs from material patterns observed elsewhere in the world; for example, the use of colonoware, a type of low-fired earthenware with some roots in Africa, defined slave habitation sites in much of colonial America and contrasted with the imported ceramics used by slave holders and other free individuals in the same regions.25 Imported ceramics were comparatively rare at Mgoli, constituting less than 10 percent of all pottery recovered at the site. Yet, in a survey of plantation-related sites on Zanzibar, imported pottery was ubiquitous, found at 63 of 64 identified sites, including sites reportedly only inhabited by enslaved workers.26 This diffusion of imported pottery across many types of sites suggests widespread access to these goods that crosscut social class. That is, enslaved people also used imported ceramics. Large bowls and platters were the most common types of imported ceramic vessel identified. In oral-historical interviews on Zanzibar and Pemba, residents noted that these types of dishes (often heirlooms) were still in use. Such dishes were typically brought out only for large celebrations like weddings in order to show neighborliness (in Swahili, ujirani); families who could not afford them would borrow large bowls and platters on special occasions. Such borrowing may explain the presence of imported pottery on such a wide variety of plantation-related sites.27

Eastern Africa is unique on the continent for the substantial attention that archaeologists have given to all temporal aspects of slavery, including slaving, enslavement on plantations, and (most unusually) contexts of self-emancipation. In Swahili, runaway slaves were known as watoro. As at Mgoli, analysis of the runaway slave settlements Koromio and Makoroboi in Kenya demonstrate the influence of coastal culture on formerly enslaved people. At these runaway slave settlements, archaeological remains indicate that houses were rectangular and wattle-and-daub (that is, earthen). In the coastal hinterland, where Koromio and Makoroboi are located, houses were more typically grass-thatched. The rectilinear ground plan of the houses is especially unusual for the area and strongly points to Swahili and Omani Arab cultural influence. These influences reflect watoro residents’ time in enslavement on the Swahili Coast. At Koromio, archaeobotanical remains of rice and the identification of a type of ceramic lid used in rice preparation (see fig. 4) also point to the continuation of coastal dietary practices by runaway slaves.28 Oral histories, however, suggest that these cultural markers of difference from their indigenous neighbors did not persist over the long term. Rather, many runaway slaves eventually adopted indigenous coastal hinterland identities through blood brotherhood or intermarriage.29

Archaeology and Heritage of Slavery in Eastern Africa

Figure 4. Swahili-style Cooking Lid, Koromio, Kenya.

Photo courtesy of the author.

In Tanzania, more attention has been paid to the cultural heritage that enslaved people would have carried with them from their natal homelands into enslavement and, later, self-emancipation. In Tanzania’s southern coastal hinterland, ceramic traditions, place names, and oral histories have been used to argue for the Matumbi people’s runaway slave heritage and their connection to the interior Lake Nyasa region. Various village names in the Matumbi Hills are identical or otherwise closely resemble village names in the Lake Nyasa area. In addition, the ribbed-motif pottery found in abundance during excavations in the Matumbi Hills was uncommon in neighboring locations; however, it closely resembles pottery traditions in northern Malawi and southern Tanzania, at the northern reaches of Lake Nyasa. Finally, oral histories in the Matumbi Hills emphasize a substantial in-migration of residents in the 18th and 19th centuries from the Lake Nyasa area. This region was a major source of enslaved captives in Eastern Africa. The Matumbi people likely represent a conglomeration of people of different origins, including runaway slaves. Some researchers have linked this heritage of resistance to Matumbi people’s central role in the Maji Maji rebellion in the early 20th century. Specifically, having overcome their enslavers once, Matumbi people may have been less willing to accept the oppression of German colonialism.30 In Kenya and Somalia, runaway slaves were often disproportionally affected by European forced labor schemes in the colonial, post-abolition period; heightened vulnerability to labor exploitation also may have fueled Matumbi people’s revolt.31

The Matumbi people’s apparent continuation of pottery traditions from their natal homelands departs from cultural patterns recorded elsewhere on the coast. For example, local pottery forms encountered on plantation sites in Zanzibar and Pemba are strongly homogenous, suggesting that enslaved potters adopted coastal vessel shape and decoration norms.32 Yet, the clear acceptance of some Swahili cultural practices by enslaved people does not preclude the possibility that other cultural practices from their homelands persisted. For example, at the runaway slave settlement Koromio, while house style and diet point to coastal cultural influence, the distribution of imported European glass beads varies significantly between the three houses excavated at the settlement. These distribution patterns cannot be explained solely through differences in market access or household wealth; rather, they likely also reflect varying norms of female beauty and adornment that may originate in runaway slaves’ various homelands.33

Amnesia and Memorialization of Slavery in Eastern Africa

Research in Eastern Africa has helped to challenge and complicate supposedly universal narratives about slavery, which are typically strongly shaped by American historical experience. However, these same persistent universalizing narratives have begun to shape both local memorialization and the practice of memory itself. Slavery remains a topic of little discussion by most Eastern Africans. Acknowledging slave ancestry has the potential to undercut an individual’s community standing and authority, and so such ancestry is generally disavowed.34 For the descendants of the enslaved, acknowledging that slavery happened also has the potential to shame the coastal communities in which many of them live.35

Such amnesia about slavery is not unique to Eastern Africa, having been encountered by archaeologists working elsewhere on the continent.36 Nonetheless, this reticence to discuss slavery has allowed western perspectives tied to international heritage funding to have outsized influence on how the history of slavery is memorialized and remembered. That is, these outside visions of slavery are influencing the presentation of slavery heritage at the expense of both local interpretations and past historical reality. In the most extreme examples of this trend, historical buildings unrelated to the slave trade or even post-dating abolition have been linked to slavery. For example, despite being built in the 1890s, the German customs house in Bagamoyo was tied to the transport of enslaved captives in a 2006 application to UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) for World Heritage Site status.37 In Zanzibar, many tourists continue to view the purported “slave chambers” in the basement of a hotel abutting the Anglican Cathedral Church of Christ (see fig. 5); however, this hotel building was originally a missionary hospital, constructed a quarter-century after the slave market at the site closed.38 An emphasis on the concealment of captives is further apparent in the commemoration of tunnels leading to the water in Zanzibar and the Shimoni cave system in southern Kenya as transit points for enslaved people; such supposed sites of concealment, however, are highly historically suspect since the British only ever conducted anti-slave trade raids in the Indian Ocean, and so concealment of slaves on land would have been unnecessary.39

Archaeology and Heritage of Slavery in Eastern Africa

Figure 5. Slave monument located adjacent to the Anglican Cathedral Church of Christ, Zanzibar.

Photo courtesy of Vito Cirielli.

The influence of outside perspectives in the memorialization of slavery is further apparent in how public historical narratives are shaped to align with western expectations. These expectations have supported racialized understandings of slavery where all slave owners were Arabs and all enslaved were Africans, which departs from the complexity of historical reality.40 At Bagamoyo, a gate through which captives are purported to have passed on their way to sea-going vessels has been fashioned as a “door of no return” after West Africa’s infamous Gorée.41 Given the decades of historical research that has established Gorée’s reputation as a major slave port is exaggerated, the similarity in heritage presentation at Bagamoyo is especially ironic.42

The power of outside narratives to shape Eastern Africa’s memorialization of slavery is rooted in global inequities. That is, most economic support for memorialization of the slave trade originates outside the region. The Slave Route Project of UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has been singularly powerful in shaping the development of slave-related heritage in Eastern Africa. For one, there has been a decided preference and push for the development of physical, above-ground heritage. In the Tanzanian interior, “Arab” style buildings and mango trees said to line the slave trade route (but likely planted in the German colonial period) have been emphasized in heritage preservation efforts at the expense of less tangible heritage.43 The language around the Slave Route Project also closely aligns with western tropes. For example, the Tanzanian World Heritage nomination for the interior settlement Ujiji used rhetoric similar to British abolitionists’ white-savior tropes in the 19th century.44

Competing Understandings of the Past

What has become very clear to those who study slave heritage in Eastern Africa is how the meaning of such heritage has changed through time and is still contested today. Nowhere is the changing meaning of slave heritage clearer than in the case of the Shimoni cave system. Located in southern coastal Kenya, Shimoni is widely associated with slavery by tourists and by Kenyans themselves (see fig. 6). Yet, as previously stated, its public association with slavery only developed in the late 20th century. Before the 1980s, written references cite the cave as a geological formation, a hiding place to evade Maasai raiders, and a den for leopards. Only with increased slavery-related tourism and the publication of the popular song linking Shimoni to the slave trade did a shared local understanding of Shimoni begin to coalesce.

Archaeology and Heritage of Slavery in Eastern Africa

Figure 6. Shimoni Cave Ticket Office, Photo by Nealoveselectricity, 2012.

Reproduction permission granted under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license, Wikimedia Commons

While researchers have shown how Eastern Africans’ understanding of slave-related heritage has shifted over time, it is equally clear what counts as heritage and how slavery is remembered are subjects of much continuing contestation. For example, in Pangani, Tanzania, the histories surrounding an old building used by the CCM (Chama Cha Mapinduzi) political party fell into two distinct camps. While many individuals of African descent indigenous to Pangani associated the building with slaving, those of Omani or other Middle Eastern descent did not. These varying histories of the building are rooted not just in the past, but in the present. That is, in these alternative versions of the building’s past, one may observe the stories that people tell themselves to make sense of current power relations.45

In finding a way forward in heritage management, Eastern Africans have begun to think more critically about slave-related heritage. Most importantly, heritage in the 21st century is recognized as more than just physical structures; heritage managers need to pay more mind to less visible archaeological remains as well as intangible aspects of heritage such as forced migrations and continuing patterns of social inclusion and exclusion.46 Much of the challenge will be how to develop heritage not just for international audiences, but also for local audiences. For example, near the Mgoli plantation site in Pemba, Tanzania, an identifying sign was erected in both English and Swahili which incorporated archaeological finds at the site and local oral histories about the brutality of its former owner (see fig. 7). In this way, the sign increased awareness of less visible heritage and oriented to its presentation to both local and foreign audiences.47 Legacies of slavery persist in Eastern Africa. They persist in the stories recounted to many children to warn against wandering too far afield and instill a distrust of strangers.48 These legacies are also present in continuing inequities faced by the descendants of enslaved people, including disproportionate landlessness and persistent political marginalization.49 In encouraging greater discussion of slavery by Eastern Africans themselves, heritage managers have an opportunity to move beyond preservation efforts narrowly focused on tourism development.

Archaeology and Heritage of Slavery in Eastern Africa

Figure 7. Information Board near Mgoli Plantation Site, Pemba, Tanzania; English text and Swahili text are on opposite sides of the board.

Photograph courtesy of Sarah K. Croucher.

Discussion of the Literature

The archaeology of slavery in Eastern Africa began only in the 1980s and is still very much in development. However, it has already made important contributions to a more global understanding of the institution. In particular, it has successfully challenged and complicated supposedly universal models of slavery and resistance that are rooted in American historical experience. Eastern Africa’s role as a corrective to such universalizing definitions was first established through historians. For example, historians reported that some enslaved, semi-independent, skilled craftsmen (called mafundi in Swahili) themselves owned slaves. A slave owning another slave both makes the definition of slavery in Eastern Africa more complex and adds greater nuance to our understanding of resistance. That is, historians have made clear that resistance to slavery on the Swahili Coast was not typically a rejection of slave-owners’ culture. Rather, enslaved people most often resisted their socially inferior position by seeking greater integration into coastal Swahili society.50 Archaeologists have expanded on these contributions to the global study of slavery by showing that it was indeed possible to reject one’s assigned social role as “slave” without also rejecting the broader cultural foundations of slave-owner society. For example, enslaved workers’ adherence to Swahili ceramic styles does not indicate an acceptance of their inferior position in Swahili social organization. Moreover, in the act of absconding, runaway slaves actively rejected their reduced social position; yet, these fugitives’ dietary practices and housing style signals strong coastal cultural influence in their settlements.

Moving forward, archaeologists also have begun efforts to study slavery in earlier time periods. Reticence to study slavery prior to the 18th century is rooted in evidentiary concerns; that is, archaeologists worry that they cannot identify slavery in earlier periods with less abundant historical documentation. The challenge of material identification can be addressed in two ways. First, archaeologists can move diachronically backwards—starting by studying slavery in periods with robust historical documentation to better establish associated patterns in the material record.51 Second, archaeologists can begin to approach slavery more as a process that played out over the large scale on a landscape level; for example, it affected patterns of migration, site abandonment, and settlement organization. Elsewhere on the continent, this larger-scale approach has been more effective than more narrow approaches focused on specific artifacts as markers of enslavement.52 Some of this landscape-level work has already been done in Eastern Africa. For example, landscape-level analysis has helped us better understand the strategies that people vulnerable to slaving used in Tsavo, Kenya and how the slave trade transformed trade routes in southern Tanzania.53 This landscape approach offers considerable promise to help us better understand the effects of slavery in earlier periods as well.

Archaeologists are also increasingly taking their responsibilities to many different audiences and stakeholders very seriously. Considering the colonialist heritage of archaeology in Eastern Africa and recognizing continuing power inequities in the field, archaeologists have begun work to incorporate more local perspectives on the history of slavery.54 The problem of local disengagement is particularly acute because of the perceived malignancy and power of knowledge about slave ancestry and the history of slavery in the region. Given the reticence that many Eastern Africans have about discussing slavery at all, one could reasonably question the utility of pursuing public research participation. Yet, the silence around the history of slavery in the region undergirds continuing legacies of the institution, including slave descendants’ political disenfranchisement and greater landlessness.55 Only by talking about slavery can these legacies begin to be remedied.

Primary Sources

Primary sources for the archaeology and heritage of slavery in Eastern Africa include artifact repositories as well as heritage sites themselves. Artifacts from archaeological sites discussed in this article are curated by the Kenya National Museums and the Tanzanian Department of Antiquities; however, artifacts may not be available for inspection without a research permit. Heritage sites related to slavery that are available for public tour include Bagamoyo, Ujiji, and Shimoni. Zanzibar’s Christ Church Cathedral, opened a slave trade heritage center in 2016.

Further Reading

Alexander, John. “Islam, Archaeology and Slavery in Africa.” World Archaeology 33, no. 1 (2001): 44–60.Find this resource:

    Biginagwa, Thomas J., and Bertram B. B. Mapunda. “The Kilwa-Nyasa Caravan Route: The Long Neglected Trading Corridor in Southern Tanzania.” In The Swahili World, edited by Stephanie Wynne-Jones and Adria LaViolette, 541–554. New York: Routledge, 2018.Find this resource:

      Croucher, Sarah K. Capitalism and Cloves: An Archaeology of Plantation Life on Nineteenth-Century Zanzibar. New York: Springer, 2015.Find this resource:

        Croucher, Sarah K. “Visible People, Invisible Slavery: Plantation Slavery in East Africa.” In The Archaeology of Slavery: A Comparative Approach to Captivity and Coercion, edited by Lydia Wilson Marshall, 347–374. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

          Glassman, Jonathon. “Racial Violence, Universal History, and Echoes of Abolition in Twentieth-Century Zanzibar.” In Abolitionism and Imperialism in Britain, Africa, and the Atlantic, edited by Derek R. Peterson, 175–206. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

            Kusimba, Chapurukha M. “Archaeology of Slavery in East Africa.” African Archaeological Review 21, no. 2 (2004): 59–88.Find this resource:

              Kusimba, Chapurukha M. “Slavery and Warfare in African Chiefdoms.” In The Archaeology of Warfare: Prehistories of Raiding and Conquest, edited by Elizabeth N. Arkush and Mark W. Allen, 214–249. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2006.Find this resource:

                Lane, Paul. “Slavery and Slave Trading in Eastern Africa: Exploring the Intersections of Historical Sources and Archaeological Evidence.” In Slavery in Africa: Archaeology and Memory, edited by Paul Lane and Kevin MacDonald, 281–314. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

                  Marshall, Lydia Wilson. “Marronage and the Politics of Memory: Fugitive Slaves, Interaction, and Integration in Nineteenth-Century Kenya.” In The Archaeology of Slavery: A Comparative Approach to Captivity and Coercion, edited by Lydia Wilson Marshall, 276–299. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

                    Walz, Jonathan R., and Steven A. Brandt. “Toward an Archaeology of the Other African Diaspora: The Slave Trade and Dispersed Africans in the Western Indian Ocean.” In African Re-genesis: Confronting Social Issues in the Diaspora, edited by Jay B. Haviser and Kevin C. MacDonald, 246–268. Walnut Creek, CA, Left Coast Press, 2006.Find this resource:

                      Wynne-Jones, Stephanie, and Martin Walsh, “Heritage, Tourism, and Slavery at Shimoni: Narrative and Metanarrative on the East African Coast.” History in Africa 37 (2010): 247–273.Find this resource:


                        (1.) Raymond Wendell Beachey, The Slave Trade of Eastern Africa: A Collection of Documents (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1976), 3.

                        (2.) Beachey, The Slave Trade of Eastern Africa, 7–8. Abdul M. H. Sheriff, Slaves, Spices and Ivory in Zanzibar: Integration of an East African Commercial Empire into the World Economy, 1770–1873 (London: James Currey, 1987), 15.

                        (3.) Moses D. E. Nwulia, Britain and Slavery in East Africa (Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1975).

                        (4.) Gwyn Campbell, “The East African Slave Trade, 1861–1895: The ‘Southern’ Complex,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 22, no. 1 (1989): 1–26.

                        (5.) Sheriff, Slaves, Spices and Ivory in Zanzibar, 48.

                        (6.) Frederick Cooper, Plantation Slavery on the East Coast of Africa (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977), 125.

                        (7.) Jonathon Glassman, Feasts and Riot: Revelry, Rebellion, and Popular Consciousness on the Swahili Coast, 1856–1888 (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1995), 81. Sheriff, Slaves, Spices and Ivory in Zanzibar, 60.

                        (8.) Frederick Cooper, Plantation Slavery on the East Coast of Africa, 181.

                        (9.) Lydia Wilson Marshall and Herman Kiriama, “The Legacy of Slavery on the Swahili Coast,” in The Swahili World, eds. Stephanie Wynne-Jones and Adria LaViolette (New York: Routledge, 2017), 566–576.

                        (10.) John Alexander, “Islam, Archaeology and Slavery in Africa,” World Archaeology 33, no. 1 (2001): 44–60.

                        (11.) Lydia Wilson Marshall, “Introduction: The Comparative Archaeology of Slavery,” in The Archaeology of Slavery: A Comparative Approach to Captivity and Coercion, ed. Lydia Wilson Marshall (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2015), 1–23.

                        (12.) Thomas J. Herlehy, “Ties That Bind: Palm Wine and Blood-Brotherhood at the Kenya Coast During the 19th Century,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 17, no. 2 (1984): 285–308. Lydia Wilson Marshall, “Marronage and the Politics of Memory: Fugitive Slaves, Interaction, and Integration in Nineteenth-Century Kenya,” in The Archaeology of Slavery: A Comparative Approach to Captivity and Coercion, ed. Lydia Wilson Marshall (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2015), 276–299.

                        (13.) Justin Willis and Suzanne Miers, “Becoming a Child of the House: Incorporation, Authority and Resistance in Giryama Society,” Journal of African History 38, no. 3 (1997): 479–496.

                        (14.) Jan-Georg Deutsch, Emancipation without Abolition in German East Africa, c. 1884–1914, (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2006), 231.

                        (15.) Jan-Georg Deutsch, “Memory, Oral History and the End of Slavery in Tanzania: Some Methodological Considerations,” in Slavery in Africa: Archaeology and Memory, eds. Paul Lane and Kevin MacDonald, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 343–360. Jonathan Walz, “Archaeologies of Disenchantment,” in Postcolonial Archaeologies in Africa, ed. Peter R. Schmidt, (Santa Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research Press, 2009), 21–38. Marshall, “Marronage and the Politics of Memory,” 279.

                        (16.) Marshall and Kiriama, “The Legacy of Slavery on the Swahili Coast,” 567.

                        (17.) Chapurukha Kusimba, “Archaeology of Slavery in East Africa,” African Archaeological Review 21, no. 2 (2004): 59–88.

                        (18.) Thomas J. Biginagwa, “Historical Archaeology of the 19th-Century Caravan Trade in North-Eastern Tanzania: A Zooarchaeological Perspective,” (PhD diss., University of York, 2012).

                        (19.) Stephanie Wynne-Jones, “Lines of Desire: Power and Materiality Along a Tanzanian Caravan Route,” Journal of World Prehistory 23, no. 4 (2010): 219–237.

                        (20.) Thomas J. Biginagwa and Betram B. B. Mapunda, “The Kilwa–Nyasa Caravan Route: The Long Neglected Trading Corridor in Southern Tanzania,” in The Swahili World, eds. Stephanie Wynne-Jones and Adria LaViolette (New York: Routledge, 2018), 541–554.

                        (21.) Herman Kiriama, “Archaeological Investigations of Shimoni Slave Caves,” in Slave Routes and Oral Tradition in Southeastern Africa, eds. Benigna Zimba, Edward Alpers, Allen Isaacman (Maputo, Mozambique: Filsom Entertainment, Lda, 2005), 157–169.

                        (22.) Stephanie Wynne-Jones and Martin Walsh, “Heritage, Tourism, and Slavery at Shimoni: Narrative and Metanarrative on the East African Coast,” History in Africa 37 (2010): 247–273. Stephanie Wynne-Jones. “Recovering and Remembering a Slave Route in Central Tanzania,” in Slavery in Africa: Archaeology and Memory, eds. Paul Lane and Kevin MacDonald, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 317–342. Herman Kiriama, “Memory, Identity and Heritage in the South Kenya Coast: Case of Shimoni Slave Caves,” Journal of African Cultural Heritage Studies 1, no. 1 (2017): 4–18. Paul Lane, “Slavery and Slave Trading in Eastern Africa: Exploring the Intersections of Historical Sources and Archaeological Evidence,” in Slavery in Africa: Archaeology and Memory, eds. Paul Lane and Kevin MacDonald, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 281–314.

                        (23.) Linda W. Donley, “Life in the Swahili Town House Reveals the Symbolic Meaning of Spaces and Artefact Assemblages,” African Archaeological Review 5 (1987): 181–192.

                        (25.) Croucher, Capitalism and Cloves, 214–215, 235–236.

                        (26.) Sarah K. Croucher, “Exchange Values: Commodities, Colonialism, and Identity on Nineteenth-Century Zanzibar,” in The Archaeology of Capitalism in Colonial Contexts, eds. Sarah K. Croucher and Lindsay Weiss, (New York: Springer, 2011), 165–191.

                        (27.) Croucher, Capitalism and Cloves, 201–203.

                        (28.) Lydia Wilson Marshall, “Spatiality and the Interpretation of Identity Formation: Fugitive Slave Community Creation in Nineteenth-Century Kenya,” African Archaeological Review 29, no. 4 (2012): 355–381.

                        (29.) Marshall, “Marronage and the Politics of Memory,” 290–292.

                        (30.) Bertram B. B. Mapunda, “Encounter with an ‘Injured Buffalo:’ Slavery and Colonial Emancipation in Tanzania,” Journal of African Diaspora Archaeology and Heritage 6, no. 1 (2017): 1–18.

                        (31.) Marshall and Kiriama, “The Legacy of Slavery on the Swahili Coast,” 567–569.

                        (32.) Croucher, Capitalism and Cloves, 232.

                        (33.) Lydia Wilson Marshall, “Consumer Choice and Beads in Fugitive Slave Villages in Nineteenth-Century Kenya,” International Journal of Historical Archaeology 23, no. 1 (2019): 103–128.

                        (34.) Marshall and Kiriama, “The Legacy of Slavery on the Swahili Coast,” 573.

                        (35.) Herman O. Kiriama. “Memory and Heritage: The Shimoni Slave Caves in Southern Kenya,” (PhD diss., Deakin University, 2009), 194.

                        (36.) Ann B. Stahl, “The Slave Trade as Practice and Memory: What Are the Issues for Archaeologists?” in Invisible Citizens: Captives and Their Consequences, ed. Catherine M. Cameron, (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2008).

                        (37.) Steven Fabian, “East Africa’s Gorée: Slave Trade and Slave Tourism in Bagamoyo, Tanzania,” Canadian Journal of African Studies 47, no. 1 (2013): 95–114.

                        (40.) Glassman, “Racial Violence, Universal History, and Echoes of Abolition in Twentieth-Century Zanzibar,” 178, 181.

                        (41.) Fabian, “East Africa’s Gorée,” 102.

                        (42.) Ibrahima Thiaw, “Slaves without Shackles: An Archaeology of Everyday Life on Gorée Island, Senegal,” in Slavery in Africa: Archaeology and Memory, eds. Paul Lane and Kevin MacDonald, (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 147–165.

                        (44.) Sarah Croucher, “Visible People, Invisible Slavery: Plantation Slavery in East Africa,” in The Archaeology of Slavery: A Comparative Approach to Captivity and Coercion, ed. Lydia Wilson Marshall (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2015), 347–374.

                        (45.) Walz, “Archaeologies of Disenchantment,”

                        (46.) Wynne-Jones and Walsh, “Heritage, Tourism, and Slavery at Shimoni,” 261–262.

                        (47.) Croucher, “Visible People, Invisible Slavery,” 365–367.

                        (48.) Chapurukha Kusimba, “Practicing Postcolonial Archaeology in Eastern Africa from the United States,” in Postcolonial Archaeologies in Africa, ed. Peter R. Schmidt (Santa Fe, NW: School for Advanced Research, 2009), 57–75.

                        (49.) Marshall and Kiriama, “The Legacy of Slavery on the Swahili Coast,” 567–570.

                        (50.) Jonathon Glassman, “The Bondsman’s New Clothes: The Contradictory Consciousness of Slave Resistance on the Swahili Coast,” Journal of African History 32, no. 2 (1991): 277–312.

                        (51.) Paul J. Lane and Kevin C. MacDonald, “Introduction: Slavery, Social Revolutions and Enduring Memories,” in Slavery in Africa: Archaeology and Memory, eds. Paul Lane and Kevin MacDonald, (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 1–22.

                        (52.) J. Cameron Monroe, “Cities, Slavery, and Rural Ambivalence in Precolonial Dahomey,” in The Archaeology of Slavery: A Comparative Approach to Captivity and Coercion, ed. Lydia Wilson Marshall (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2015), 192–214. Stahl, “The Slave Trade as Practice and Memory,” 38–39.

                        (54.) Kusimba, “Practicing Postcolonial Archaeology in Eastern Africa from the United States,” 73–74.

                        (55.) Marshall and Kiriama, “The Legacy of Slavery on the Swahili Coast,” 567–570.