UAE-led team makes groundbreaking discoveries in Zanzibar's Stone Town

Archaeologists shed light on Portuguese legacy of cultural site and its Gulf links

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Archaeologists working on a UAE-led heritage project have revealed more striking finds in Zanzibar’s famous Stone Town.

The team at the Unesco World Heritage site in Tanzania uncovered a 16th-century Portuguese trading base that is believed to have housed precious cargo such as ivory, spices and ceramics.

They also found more evidence for the existence of a major Portuguese colonial-era church that was established in the early 17th century and unearthed a cemetery under its nave with at least 18 skeletons. It is thought many more were buried here as the graves were reused.

The latest finds follow the discovery — announced in September — of an original settlement at the site that dates back to the 11th century. This proved that Stone Town — previously thought to be an 18th century Omani Arab urban area — was actually established much earlier by local Swahili people.

But the second part of their work completed in summer focused on the Portuguese legacy at Zanzibar and how interconnected it was with life across the Indian Ocean and into the Gulf.

“Portuguese colonial cemeteries have not received much attention from archaeologists so we are doing something exciting and new,” said Prof Tim Power of United Arab Emirates University (UAEU).

“We have small skeletons, which are children or babies, so there is a human element to this. Mothers may have buried children and the photographs of the infant burials are quite moving.”

DNA and strontium isotope testing will be conducted on bone samples in an attempt to determine who these people were.

A multicultural community

“We have every reason to believe this will demonstrate a cosmopolitan community drawn from Africa, Asia and Europe,” said Prof Power. “The Portuguese colonial cemetery at Zanzibar thus presents us with a fascinating microhistory of the early modern Indian Ocean world."

The heritage project in Zanzibar, which started this year, is a collaboration between UAEU, New York University Abu Dhabi, the Royal Agricultural University in the UK and the Department of Antiquities in Zanzibar to explore links across the Indian Ocean.

Stone Town started as a small fishing village but grew rapidly on the back of trade networks that developed across the ocean. It came under Portuguese, Omani and European influence with the Portuguese era starting in the 16th century and lasting for about 200 years.

The Portuguese made Stone Town a crucial East African base to keep an iron grip on its lucrative trade network of slaves and spices, prevent “piracy”, safeguard shipping routes linking their Indian Ocean empire to their homeland and as a base for missionary churches.

East Africa was a source of slaves, gold, ivory and ebony, prized pearls came from the Gulf and ceramic and silk from Asia. The trading station uncovered this summer was a type of fortified warehouse with accommodation that offered Portuguese merchants with these types of goods a safe haven for the night.

Mombassa, just to the north, became the main Portuguese centre along the East African coast at this time but Zanzibar was an important part of that.

“They needed stations they could call at, refuel and replenish and sleep in safety with their cargoes,” said Prof Power.

The Portuguese also exploited slave labour from East Africa to establish a network of forts from the coast across the Indian Ocean to the Gulf to protect shipping routes from attack.

“But it was done on the cheap,” said Prof Power. “They were heavily dependent on slave labour from East Africa to build the [forts] and heavily dependent on locally recruited troops to man them. These forts, including those in modern-day UAE, were manned by locals ... with one or two Portuguese officers.”

Fresh insight into historic church

Trenches dug in Stone Town’s old fort also yielded more details about a major Portuguese-era Augustinian church first identified in 2017 and previously only known about in historical documents.

“The Portuguese period in East Africa has been much neglected by historians,” said Prof Mark Horton of the Royal Agricultural University’s cultural heritage institute.

“Our discoveries in Zanzibar of a massive Portuguese church in the remains of the fort is a really significant discovery.

“It is one of the largest Portuguese churches in East Africa. Only a handful of these churches are known about.”

It is believed that two of the walls of the church were later used by Omani Arabs to build the fort walls, underlining how so many layers of history exist at the site. The work of the UAE-led team, which aims to return for more digging next year, also shows how the Portuguese oversaw a type of colonial cosmopolitanism, with trade taking place between people from East Africa and the Gulf.

Modern-day UAE also underwent a century of Portuguese rule from the 16th to 17th century so the Zanzibar dig shows how interconnected people were then.

“This is really exciting stuff,” said Prof Power. “These regions were interacting with each other. We have a [Portuguese] fort in Fujairah near Bidya where there is a famous early mosque.

“So people from each region were settling and living with people from the other region. It is remarkable to think these regions were in contact with and relevant to each other 500 years ago.”

Updated: October 20, 2022, 3:54 AM