Christ Church Cathedral in Stone Town, Zanzibar was built by British missionaries in 1879 on the site of the last permanent slave market in East Africa. It is of international significance.
The slave market was closed in 1873. Following mounting pressure to abolish the East African slave trade, the Universities Mission to Central Africa (UMCA) purchased the site and built the cathedral under the inspirational leadership of the abolitionist Bishop Steere. Known as the ‘Slave Market Church’, it was designed by C. Forster Hayward with the high altar positioned over the whipping post.
Over the years the tropical climate took its toll on the building. The cathedral was in danger of collapse with a crack running the entire length of the building and water pouring through the roof. In 2013, the Anglican Diocese of Zanzibar and the Zanzibar Government asked World Monuments Fund Britain (WMFB) for help. With the aid of a grant of €743,000 from the European Union, a visionary project commenced to conserve the cathedral and create a heritage centre to commemorate the abolition of slavery. A skilled local team was used working with an experienced building conservator and the Zanzibar Stone Town Heritage Society (ZSTHS).
The most urgent structural repairs were completed in February 2014. Ten stainless steel rods were installed across the cathedral vault to tie the walls together. Exterior work commenced on the severely-damaged
west gable wall to grout, pin and re-plaster large structural cracks. Stained glass is rare in Africa. The cathedral’s original rose window was carefully conserved to repair cracked tracery and deteriorating plaster. The roof was rebuilt, plaster repairs carried out on the apse parapet and limewash used to restore the external fabric of the building.
The team discovered that the apse parapet was originally finished with white ‘Neeru’ plaster made from crushed marble dust, so the original finish was reinstated. The organ loft ceiling was built using boriti timber mangrove poles. New boriti were inserted, plaster ribs remoulded and small stones inset into the ceiling to restore the original decorative finish.
Providing training for craftspeople was a crucial part of the project leaving a legacy of skills to be deployed on other historic buildings in Stone Town along with an ambitious job creation programme. The project also funded a timber conservation course for craftspeople and gave students the opportunity to attend a Heritage Management course at the University of Dar es Salaam.
Today the ZSTHS is flourishing bringing real economic, social, cultural and environmental benefits to one of the world’s poorest nations.
The Heritage Centre has provided a wonderful opportunity to tell the poignant story of the East African slave trade in an unbiased and factual way, and to promote reconciliation, diversity and tolerance.