It is in this town that the first Church in East Africa was built. It on this town’s port that East Africa’s colonial explorers, including John Speke and Henry Morton Stanley, first landed in the 18th century. This was one of the first towns along the East African coast where Arab traders from Oman and Persia settled.
It is here that German imperialists built their centre of colonial rule for Tanganyika until their empire fell after the First World War. And, it is in this town that the last stop for slave trade caravans from all over East Africa was located; offering room for the largest slave markets before the slaves were finally sold off to Zanzibar, the Arabian and Indian worlds.
Such is the heritage that this non-assuming sun-lit breezy town posses; encompassing the history of all East African peoples.
It sits 70 kilometres above Tanzania’s capital, Dar-es-Salaam, along the Indian Ocean shore. The drive up the coast is a near-scenery-panorama-experience, with growth expanses of palm trees and glimpses of the sea on the right hand side flooding your view in bright and yet friendly sunlight.
13th Century Tombs
At the Eastern end of the town, stands a unique burial site, dating back to as far as the 13th century in a town called Kaole. Tourist guides at the site say the graves are of Arabian traders who had settled in the town around the year 1200. An ancient mosque also stands in the graves’ midst.
The look on the tomb’s faces is antique indeed. Large grey rocks, which look like coral rocks at the sea, are piled together and stuck together with some sort of concrete. Guides say this ancient architecture was so strong hence why the tombs have lasted this long, and is also a representation of the migrant Arabs’ culture.
There are distinct features on the graves that distinguish women’s tombs from men’s. Some tombs have special ornamental symbols and utensils which, legend has it, are used for one spiritual reason or other. A well whose water has not been changed for over 200 years, and yet remains fresh according to the guides, also complements the grave yard. It’s said that the well has supernatural powers and many a pilgrim trek to the well for a drop of the healing water.
Just when you think the surprises at the grave yard are through, you are shown a giant tree trunk, heavily laden with tree branches and foliage, which is said to be 500 years old. Fine, it is a widely stretching trunk, with more than a metre in width, but the duration of 500 years for any tree is a hard feat to fathom.
On the way back from Kaole to Bagamoyo, is a school campus which was used to train guerrillas for the FRELIMO movement, of which, Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, was a member.
The remains of the German garrisons and forts were undergoing reconstruction work, and were thus out of bounds with photos strictly forbidden. However, the buildings’ discoloured and peeling walls gave off the signs of a place that was once grand in its day. In one of the forts where entrance was secured after bribing a construction worker, the entire structure had been evicted, with only a 19th century cupboard inside. One of the forts was built by migrant Arabs but was captured by the Germans.
On a map at a fort called The Caravan Serai, trade routes from as far as Central Uganda, Western Tanzania, and Kenya as well, connect and converge at Bagamoyo, making it the one point that united East Africa’s wing of the evil trade.
It details the great kings of the 18th century; of Buganda’s Kabaka Mutesa I and Nyamwezi’s Mirambo empires as some of the greatest slave providers in the trade. Photos of former Emperors ruling over Bagamoyo who were also massive slave dealers, like Tip Tip, are plastered on the walls. The slaves were raided from as far as Congo and Burundi then the trek began from Ujiji at Lake Tanganyika, before meeting the trek from Buganda at Tabora in Central Tanzania. A further route from Kenya met the main route later on before finally arriving at Bagamoyo.
This fort, the Serai Caravan was the largest slave market. A large sculpture of a slave carrying an elephant’s task is raised at the front. Bagamoyo’s name is literally translated from Kiswahili to mean ‘lay down your heart’ as a result of the depth of the suffering that slaves witnessed as they were bundled onto ships; losing all hope of ever returning home.
East Africa’s oldest church
It’s simply a tall pale-white pillar block that’s still standing, of the original structure. Built in 1872, it was the first church to be constructed on mainland East Africa. Its construction was supervised by slave trade abolitionist, David Livingston, on land given to him by the natives.
Although the most of the building was destroyed about 80 years ago to allow for the construction of an even bigger church, the section at the entrance was preserved as a souvenir. Inside the pillars are two statues of the Virgin Mary, from the original church. They however look cracked and worn, like a piece of wood infested by termites. When David Livingston died, his body spent a night in the church en-route England.
By the church’s side is a museum detailing a series of slavery experiences. It used to be a rehabilitation ground for freed slaves, built by Livingston. In this museum, just like at the Serai Caravan, bondage apparatus like chains and whips are on display.
It’s however important to note that there are schools of thought that dispute whether David Livingstone built the church or if he ever lived in Bagamoyo.
The town has gone to great lengths to retain its valuable ancient look, especially in tourism attractions. It has maintained the Stone-Walk series of roads that navigate through its centre, just like it did scores of years ago.
That same friendliness that endeared Arab and other settlers to converge on the town centuries ago is very much still alive. Even with the limited use of English, natives in the town will get out of their way to communicate with a foreigner, and not with intentions to fleece you.
Bagamoyo is arguably the one East African town whose heritage includes signatures from the entire East African region and beyond. Its tales of slavery make it a living museum of the effects of slavery as a large number of its natives now are descendants of freed slaves. The town busks in the radiance of its sunlight, not frowning about its cruel past, but as a town that is glad to have made it this far.