Bagamoyo: Lay Down Your Heart


Recently I traveled to Bagamoyo, Tanzania for the purpose of writing an article for Fiesta.  It was a really beautiful city, very small and unassuming but it comes with a big history.  I found the buildings and the beach beautiful and I’m really glad that I got the opportunity to visit.  I thought I would post the article that will be published in the next issue of Fiesta. Enjoy!

Bagamoyo is a diminutive and quiet town just 50 km north of the bustling metropolitan that is Dar es Salaam.  However, this does not diminish the fact that it is one of the most historically significant places in all of East Africa and is the oldest town in Tanzania. Bagamoyo is also on the tentative list of World Heritage Sites due to the Slave and Ivory Trade Route that passed through the town.  This would add to Tanzania’s already impressive 7 World Heritage Sites, some of which include the N’Gorogoro Crater Conservation Area and Stone Town in Zanzibar.

With a population of only 40,000 people, there is no doubt that without the bustling fishing industry, Bagamoyo would have diminished at much more inclined pace than it has up to date.  Once you move away from the crowded beach and the bustling fish market, Bagamoyo is a sleepy town filled with crumbling buildings and empty streets.  However, one needs only wander around the town a short while to become immersed in the history and culture there.  The capital of German East Africa, it was also one of the most active slave ports throughout the late 19th century.  The word “Bagamoyo” is said to have two meanings; first, for the porters who rested in Bagamoyo before continuing on their journey, it is said to mean “lay down your burden and rest.”  The more poignant meaning has to do with the slave trade, and “Bagamoyo” is said to have the meaning of “crush your heart,” as Bagamoyo was often the last place Africans would see of their home before they were shipped off to be slaves.  Bagamoyo can often be seen as a place of memory for true human suffering and the humiliation brought upon the African people by the slave trade and the clear imposition of European colonialism.


Bagamoyo’s history has been influenced not only by Indian and Arab traders, but also by the German government and Christian missionaries.  Near the end of the 18th century Bagamoyo was chosen to be the final destination for the slave caravan of Arab slave traders and several Arab families settled in Bagamoyo.  The slave trade route began in Ujiji at the shores of Lake Tanganyika and ended inBagamoyo.  The slaves were kept imprisoned in town until they were brought to the slave market in Zanzibar where they would be sold and taken way, often to work manual labour jobs.  The main building of the slave camp is available to walk through, and the history in the walls of the house cannot be overlooked.  Built by the Germans that settled in Tanzania, the crumbling building made from coral and mud still stands, looking out across the harbour in an impressive but domineering fashion.  While the large building was mainly used as lodging for soldiers, there is a large outdoor courtyard where the slaves were kept while waiting to be taken to the slave market.  They were forced to sleep outside with the animals while chained to each other by the neck to prevent any means of escape.  One of the most poignant and horrifying things about this building is the small windows.  The outlines from the original large windows can still be seen, but these were filled in, leaving miniscule windows from which the slaves could not possibly hope to fit through. The building, even though it has not been used to hold slaves for upwards of 100 years still gives off an hopeless and eerie feeling as one walks around and imagines what it must have looked like while the slave trade was at its peak.

In 1873 the main slave market in Zanzibar was closed after 4 treaties were signed between Britain and the Sultan of Oman.  However, slave traders continued to smuggle slaves from Bagamoyo to Zanzibar.  British patrol ships were on guard for the specific purpose of freeing these slaves and bringing them to the Christian-Freedom Village in Bagamoyo.  In 1890 the Anti-Slavery Conference of Brussels was held, the outcome being that slaves were not only given rights but the right to claim their rights.  It was a triumphant step for human rights.  There is a small chapel named “Grotto” that was built by the Freedom Village in 1876.  Ransomed slaves would go there to give thanks. This chapel still stands today and is used specifically for the purposes of pilgrimages.  The slave trade would continue surreptitiously until the late 19th century.  The plight of slaves in Bagamoyo came to a metaphorical ending in 1974 when Maria Ernestina, the last known slave from Bagamoyo, died at the age of more than 100 years.  The slave trade has ended but the history will live on in the crumbling buildings and various museums.


Although Bagamoyo is nowhere near a busy city, the history is everywhere, and the various museums and cultural centres make for a fascinating visit.  Any Tanzanian should not pass up the opportunity to visit Bagamoyo and soak up the cultural significance and the great impact this town has had on making Tanzania what it is today.



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