National Musuems of Kenya curator, Patrick Ambungu, who is in charge of Shimoni and Wasini areas, which are rich heritage sites, backs this narrative. Abungu explains that after the Arabs invaded the island from Migombani in Tanzania, they dominated the locals and sold them off as slaves before occupying the area.
“There is a possibility many of the original inhabitants were sold as slaves. This place was during the slave trade inhabited by the Arabs who had permanent homes at Zanzibar,” he explains.
Mr Abungu’s observation that the inhabitants were sold as slaves is backed by the existence of some prison-like structures just next to the shoreline near a mosque that was constructed in 1700. The mosque’s blue and while glittering walls belies its age and continues to attract locals for prayers every time its loud speakers blare.
Although some ancient structures belong to this epoch, they are all unsuitable for human habitation. Some of the roofless buildings have however been reclaimed by fishermen who store their nets during the day after a long night in the Indian Ocean waters looking for fish.
The ancient buildings that have no roof are located just next to the waterline and overlooks Shimoni mainland, which was appropriately named so because of its natural caves. It was in these caves that slaves captured from the hinterland were held captive; waiting for ships from Zanzibar to ferry them to international slaves market in Middle East, Far East and European markets. Owing to its proximity to Zanzibar, as it is only three hours away by boat, Wasini, became a base for notorious slave masters.
They would lock up all the slaves they captured in Shimoni and then retreat to Wasini to await the arrival of their merchant ship from Zanzibar. Since the caves were quite secure, the slave traders would lock them up at Shimoni and ride to Wasini where they had their own settlement. Any slaves who tried to escape from Shimoni were brought to Wasini, and locked up in the prison.
Remnants of the prison are still evident in the island where rusted pieces of iron that acted as handcuffs are still cemented to the walls. Some of the residential buildings are suspected to have acted as warehouses for storing cloves for the onward journey to other international markets. It was impossible to escape from the island that is eight kilometres long and four kilometres wide as its land is made up of coral stones that are very sharp and inhibits any movement on bare foot.
The island’s fortunes just like all other coastal settlements that served as slave market started dwindling after Britain successfully campaigned for the abolition of slave trade. Even after the slave trade was abolished, Wasini, which would later be claimed by the Germans after the partition of Africa in the 1880s, remained part of Tanzania until it was violently taken over by Britain.
During the Second World War, some of the residents recall how most of its buildings were demolished after the British who were based at Shimoni bombarded it. Some old ordinances used during this war, Bakari explains, have been discovered in the island and serve as a reminder of when it was part of German East Africa.
However, the island became part of Kenya’s territory after independence in 1963 and some residents recount how the islands history has been haunting them to date. Abdurahim Said, a resident of Wasini says that for a long time, the Government treated the inhabitants of Wasini suspiciously. “Getting a national identity card for us has not been easy because an applicant has to produce an affidavit and proof that he or she is truly a Kenyan. We have suffered,” Said observes.
While in the past the inhabitants of Wasini mainly resided in Pemba and occasionally visited Wasini, currently the island’s 3,000 residents have migrated to Mombasa. “The development of this place has stagnated. Most of the people reside in Mombasa Old Town and only come here to visit.