Cape Malays…

and their Heritage

Zanzibarian Muslims: Natal-End of Freed Slaves (1880 – 1900)

Posted by tahirfarrath on March 18, 2010

(History of Muslims in South Africa)

1880 – End of importation of freed slaves

Sporadic shiploads of ex-slaves from Zanzibar continued to arrive at Port Natal until 1880. However, by the end of that year importation of slaves from Zanzibar came to an end.

1899 – Land for Zanzibari Muslims at Kings Rest

Seven Muslim merchants from Durban formed theMohammedan Trust Kings Rest . The Deed of Transfer No 337/1899 shows that the land was officially transferred on March 22, 1899. Soon, thereafter, a small wood and iron masjid was constructed on this site where the Zanzibari community had settled. A madrasah and a cemetery were also provided by the Trust to the Zanzibaris. The first known imam of the Zanzibari masjid was Mustapha Osman who came from the Comoros Islands to Durban in the late 1880s. In 1916 the Juma Masjid Trust, Durban, took control of land, property and total maintenance of the Zanzibari settlement.

At present only the masjid remains on the Zanzibari settlement in Kings Rest. The whole of the Zanzibari community have been uprooted from their first settlement in Kings Rest because the area in which they lived was proclaimed for residence of the White community by the Group Areas Act, enforced by the South African Government. The Zanzibaris were then forced to settle in Chatsworth, Durban, an area proclaimed for the residence of the Indian community.

The Kings Rest Masjid was abandoned for fourteen long years as the doors were shut and the building began to decay. All that remained at the first Zanzibari settlement was the graveyard where the Muslims went to make du’d for their deceased. Themasjid and the cemetery remains under the control of the Juma Masjid Trust [Grey Street Masjid] who pay rates and taxes for the land.

But in 1973 Haji Eghsaan Aysen [d 1992], a tailor by profession, visited the Kings Rest cemetery on`Id day and was disturbed on seeing the masjid abandoned. With the assistance of some friends, Haji Aysen renovated the masjid fully with carpets, wudu facilities, toilets, etc and served as a sincere, dedicated imam of the Kings Rest Masjid until his death.


15 Responses to “Zanzibarian Muslims: Natal-End of Freed Slaves (1880 – 1900)”

  1. Sumayyah Ally said

    I am a descendant of the Zanzibari slaves. We have a community/base in Chatsworth Durban but many of us have moved to other provinces and other countries. We are still steadfast muslims and we maintain our Zanzibari cultural rituals. In the recent generations there have been many inter-racial marriages, however we make sure that our children are raised as muslims and speak our mother tongue which is called Makua which is a dialect of Swahili.

    The struggle in our community now is that many of the younger generation can barely speak the language and just converse in English, I think the onus is up to the parents to instill the culture and our values to them. As in any community there are the usual struggles i.e. poverty, drug abuse, domestic violence, teen pregnancy etc but I think if the youth knew our history and what a long way we have come and the things our forefathers had to endure they would see the light.

    Fortunately for me, my late grandfather (maternal) Haji Yusuf Mola who was a custodian of our culture and records of the Zanzibari people from the time we landed here in South Africa, he made sure that his children and grandchildren all had a good education and we still were made aware of our history, so as to not forget who we are. As much as some of us look African we are aware that we are different than the local black South African.

    I am so chaffed that I found information about my people, infact I would like to receive any further info that you may have regarding my people and if you require any info please feel free to contact me on the above email address.

    Most importantly is that we were so lucky that as a people we didnt end up somewhere else and we didnt end up giving up on our religion, I am most grateful to my ancestors for holding onto the faith and our culture.


    • Carina Wolmarans said

      Good day. I am doing research regarding the Zanzibari;s. Do any of your family members have any written records of the Zanzibari’s who lnaded up in Port Natal? I would like to contact a person who could assist me with information regarding certain families and family names such as Canthitoo and Baboo Gevernor.

  2. tahirfarrath said

    My dear Sister-in-Islaam,

    Al-Hamdu lil-Laah. Please share your stories with us. It keeps the home and camp fires burning. Storytelling helps us discover how we came to be, who we are as people, as families, and as sub-cultures within the larger society.

  3. Waseela Jooma said

    Asalamualaikum, its so good 2 read about our people, I’ve learnt so much and glad that I can pass this info 2 my kids. Shukran

  4. ra'eesah mackie said

    we would like to conduct research into the zanzibari people and kings rest. it would be appreciated if we could communicate with people who have knowledge about this topic.

    • Sumayyah Ally said

      Kindly email me on and let me know what information you require, so I could perhaps assist you and link you with some of the more enlightened elders of the community.

      • Muhammed Saleh said

        Sister Sumayyah Ally
        Assalam Alaikum

        Kindly contact me through my I have some questions to ask you on Zanzibari freed slaves!

  5. tahirfarrath said

    In the words of Saudi-based researcher, Sheikh Talieb Baker, “in many instances we are now more Malaysian than the Malaysians themselves”, but the acceptance of this community’s African roots is a rarity.

    East African Roots

    “The connection between Islam at the Cape and Islam in Eastern Africa has been to a large extent underplayed. These connections also played a major role in Cape Muslim identity. Through these connections, many religious traditions were either introduced or strengthened at the Cape. Even though these connections between East African Islam were not as strong as the connections between Malay-Indonesian Islam, one cannot disregard the impact they had on Cape Muslim identity,” Baker said in his masters thesis entitled Exploring the Foundations of an Islamic Identity in a Global Context: A Study of the Nature and Origins of Cape Muslim Identity.

    According to Baker, the Cape’s link to East Africa can be traced back as far as 1773 to the island of Johanna (Anjouan) in the Comoros. Research indicate that the revered Tuan Guru who came to the Cape in 1780, may well have been on a slave ship, acting as an interpreter, who stopped at this port seven years earlier. “According to James Armstrong, a historian of Cape slavery, on board the ship was an Arabic interpreter who might well have been Tuan Guru, as he clearly identified himself as the `oppressed Imam, Abdallah ibn al Mazlum Qadi Abd al Salam al Taduri, a Shafii by religious rite, and Ash’ari by conviction`. Interestingly, this is exactly the same way Tuan Guru identifies himself in his book, Ma`rifat al-Islām wa al-Imān.”
    Baker said this confirms Tuan Guru’s presence at the Cape long before 1780 as was speculated by Achmat Davids and others. “It also increases the likeness that the person leading the Mawlūd celebration in 1772 could have in fact been Tuan Guru, which was speculated by historians all along.”

    Travel also played an equal important role in establishing and strengthening these connections. He said this includes local Muslims traveling on boat or steamer to Saudi Arabia for haj, which stopped at main shipping ports along the African coast like Durban, Beira, Dares Salaam, Mombasa and Aden.

    In addition, high respected scholars and influential personalities also traveled to the Cape via East Africa. This includes the likes of Mirza Isfahani Abu Talib Ibn Muhammad Khan from Iran in 1799, Shaykh `Abdullah, son of `Abd al-`Aziz from Mecca in 1824, Sultan Abdullāh of Johanna in 1834), Abu Bakr Effendi of Turkey in 1862, Shaykh `Abdullāh Bakathir of Zanzibar in 1914. These personalities either spent some time at the Cape or settled here.
    The East African connection is further strengthened through the local scholars who travelled to Mecca via East Africa for religious purposes, such as studying Islam or performing pilgrimage. One such scholar especially stands out, is Muhammad Salieh Hendricks who travelled to Mecca in 1888 in pursuit of Islamic knowledge. Hendricks is hailed as an alim who played an instrumental role in establishing a strong and long standing connection between Zanzibar and the Cape.

    According to Baker, there are many common traditions shared by the Muslims of East Africa and the Muslims of the Cape, and even the Muslims of Southeast Asia. ”Thus we find that like the Cape Muslims, the Muslims in East Africa follow the Shafi`i Madh-hab for one, most likely influenced by the Ash`ari doctrine. They also adhered to similar cultural traditions, such as the celebration of the Mawlūd al-Nabi with recitations from the Mawlūd al-Barzanji, the Rātib al-Rifā`i (Ratiep) and the Rātib al-Haddād etc. Furthermore, they also enjoyed similar Sūfi traditions especially related to the Bā `Alawi, Qādiri, Shādhili and Rifā`i Sūfi Orders. These were among the most influential orders in East Africa, though there were others as well. It is interesting to note that these orders also played a similarly influential role at the Cape.”

  6. Sumayyah Ally said

    @Waseela Jooma we are infact related, my grandfather (maternal) is from the Jooma family but he used his mom’s surname Mola.

  7. Juma Kibacha said

    Assalaam aleikum brothers and sisters in Islam. It is only today when i came to know of the South African Zanzibaris. Being a Tanzanian(Zanzibar is a part of Tanzania) i feel so happy to be connected with you. Basing on the little history i read it appears u originated from the Makua tribe of either northen Mozambique or south-east Tanzania. Though my father is a northerner, he lives in a south-eastern coastal town called Lindi where i was born and grew up. My mother is from there. The former president of Tanzania, Benjamin Mkapa, is a Makua as well. Lindi, Kilwa and Mikindani ports, all in south-east Tanzania, grow in prosperity in the 19th century thanks to slave trade organized by the Zanzibar merchants of Arab (Oman) origin through Yao(a tribe in south-east Tanzania and southern Malawi) and Makua chiefs as middlemen. Today alot of Makua people/ex-slaves are found in Somalia, Reunion, Seychelles, Madagascar, Mafia island(Tanzania) and the Commoros. Am happy that u still maintain your ancient values and tradition and speak Swahili language as well. When u visit Tanzania you wont find yourself out of place. Am hoping to get some friends from SA’s Zanzibar. You’ve my email. Do you understand the meaning of the word Mola? Its God or Mungu in Swahili. Have nice time.

    • Sumayyah Ally said

      Wa alaikum salaam Juma.

      This is so interesting, well the information we got told by our elders is that our ancestors were taken from Zanzibar and somehow ended up in Nampula because the boat broke down or something to that effect and that’s where we started mixing Makuwa with Swahili so we kinda have our own dialect. While they were there some marriages took place, hence we have family in Mozambique but they speak very deep Makuwa. From there the same slaves were sent to Durban where they docked and lived in King’s Rest at the Bluff for many years even building a musjid and having a graveyard there.

      They were displaced from Kings Rest when the group areas act was passed during Apartheid and placed in Chatsworth an indian community. Prior to being placed there we were almost placed in the African townships i.e. Lamontville and Umlazi as we are african looking however the inhabitants of those townships refuse to let us stay there as we were islwana which loosly translates into creatures, because we had different features, culture and religion. The indian muslims in Chatsworth Durban accepted us on the fact that we were muslims, and till today we have been living harmoniously with them.

      On my mothers side of the family they are Zanzibari/Makuwa/indian mixtures and on my dad’s side of the family there is Malawian/Zanzibari and Indian mixtures. My paternal granny still has a sister in Zanzibar, she decided to go home to the motherland and live there and have a life there. As much as there are mixtures we still call ourselves AMAKUWA, and maintain the culture, because it is what differentiates us from others. As mentioned above the madhab majority of us follow is Shafi’ and we have ziyaraats were we are engaged in zikr the entire day and night. The lady folk still wear kanga/kisambi during family gatherings as much as we are a culturally aware people we tend to lean more on following the shariah.

      I don’t know the meaning of Mola, but my maternal grandfather’s surname is Jooma he somehow ended up with his mom’s surname which is Mola. My paternal side’s family are the Walljee’s my great grandfather being an Indian married to a Zanzibari woman and my father’s father was an Ally from Malawi. My aunts and uncles still speak Chechewa and Makuwa, my dad however can speak Urdu as well. So yep we really are a rainbow nation.

      When we were growing up during the apartheid era we were not classified as black or indian but as other asians, and personally I did not experience any discrimination because as much as we knew we were of a different religion made us kinda seem normal in an indian community. However with fellow africans we were called all sorts of derogatory names. After much intergration and interracial marriages we see ourselves as south africans, most of us have never even been to Zanzibar or Mozambique. SHOCKING HEY??

      As I’ve been mentioning that we are very big on deen, well as in any community you still get the social ills i.e. drinking, drug abuse, premarital sex, etc. but the biggest thing is if someone turns away from the deen the entire comminuty disowns you, aside from the fact that our ancestors held onto the deen under the circumstances there were in it unacceptable (acts) islamically and culturally. If you marry a person from a different culture even if you do nikah but if you do the unislamic or different cultural rituals its a BIG NO NO because you a MAKUWA and you shouldn’t compromise on your culture, interms of your identity there is no room for compromise.

      If you have any further stories, comments or questions I look forward to hearing them.

      Ma Salaam

  8. Fazel Hamid said

    I am an Indian Muslim decendent of the old Kingsrest / Bluff Community. My late grandfather was Sayed Omar Abaas (1949 passed away) and his father Sayed Omar Abaas Shah (late 1800’s early 1900’s passed away) . Both their graves / qabrs and our entire family graves are on the entrance on the L.H.S and R.H.S. when entering the cemetery.

    I am 43 years old now based in Jhb for the past 18 years but have visited & still regularly visit this institution as I have done since a little boy whilst Imam Ehsaan was Imaam & late Muhammad Bhai the Muazin. I have been told by my mum (now 73 years old) that my grand dad (Sayed omar Abaas) was one of the founding members of the Kingsrest Musjid, hence his Qabr, his fathers qabr / grave and our entire family qabrs / grave since then to date is at the entrance on both sides. My mum and grand parents lived at the corner of Bluff Road and what is now part of Edwin Swales Drive (the road island section as well was their land), all before my parents were relocated to Chatsworth, unit 3A, by the then group ares act.

    I would like to link up / communicate with individuals that have knowledge of such information as I over the years have seen many changes take place in Kingsrest, especially the sad demolition of the old Musjid but could not do much as I am based in Johannesburg for the past 18 years. I, however am willing to assist and be part of this institution, Insha Allah, Ameen.

    Allah Hafiz, Was Salaam
    Mohamed Fazel Hamid Osman

  9. tahirfarrath said

    Bisho Jarsa, an Ethiopian Slave, Who became a Teacher

    Sandra Rowoldt Shell
    University of Cape Town

    When Neville Alexander used to visit his maternal grandmother Bisho Jarsa as a boy, he never suspected the extraordinary story of how she had come from Ethiopia to the South African city of Port Elizabeth.

    Bisho was one of a group of Ethiopian slaves freed by a British warship in 1888 off the coast of Yemen, then taken round the African coast and placed in the care of missionaries in South Africa.

    “We were overawed in her presence and by the way she would mumble to herself in this language none of us understood,” recalls Mr Alexander, now 74.

    This was Ethiopia’s Oromo language, Bisho’s mother tongue, which she reverted to as she grew older.

    Mr Alexander, who was a political prisoner in the 1960s, sharing Robben Island with Nelson Mandela, is today one of South Africa’s most eminent educationists.

    He remembers his younger siblings asking their mother, Dimbiti: “What’s Ma talking about… what’s the matter with her? What’s she saying?”

    Their mother would respond: “Don’t worry about Ma… she’s just talking to God.”

    When he was in his late teens, his mother told him about his Ethiopian origins but Mr Alexander thinks even she may not have known all the details, which he only discovered when he was in his fifties.

    He found out that the freed Ethiopians had all been interviewed on their arrival in South Africa.

    The story began on 16 September 1888, when Commander Charles E Gissing, aboard the British gunship HMS Osprey, intercepted three dhows carrying Ethiopians to the slave markets in the Arabian port of Jeddah.

    Sold for maize

    Commander Gissing’s mission was part of British attempts to end the slave trade – a trade that London had supported until 1807, when it was abolished across the British Empire.

    All the 204 slaves freed by Commander Gissing were from the Oromo ethnic group and most were children.

    The Oromo, despite being the most populous of all Ethiopian groups, had long been dominated by the country’s Amhara and Tigrayan elites and were regularly used as slaves.

    Emperor Menelik II, who has been described as Ethiopia’s “greatest slave entrepreneur”, taxed the trade to pay for guns and ammunition as he battled for control of the whole country, which he ruled from 1889 to 1913.

    Bisho Jarsa was among the 183 children found on the dhows.

    She had been orphaned with her two brothers, as a result of the drought and disease that swept through Ethiopia in 1887, and left in the care of one of her father’s slaves.

    But the continuing threat of starvation resulted in Bisho being sold to slave merchants for a small quantity of maize.

    After a journey of six weeks, she reached the Red Sea, where she was put on board one of the Jeddah-bound dhows intercepted by HMS Osprey.

    Her first memory of the British was the sound of automatic gunfire blasting into the sails and rigging of the slave dhow while she huddled below deck with the other Oromo children.

    They all fully expected to be eaten as this is what the Arab slave traders had told them would happen if they were captured by the British.

    But Commander Gissing took the Oromo to Aden, where the British authorities had to decide what to do with the former slaves.

    The Muslim children were adopted by local families. The remaining children were placed in the care of a mission of the Free Church of Scotland – but the harsh climate took its toll and by the end of the year 11 had died.

    The missionaries sought an alternative home for them, eventually settling on another of the Church’s missions, the Lovedale Institution in South Africa’s Eastern Cape – on the other side of the continent.

    Bisho and the rest of the children reached Lovedale on 21 August 1890.

    The missionaries recorded detailed histories of the former slaves, educated them and baptised them into the Christian faith.

    Life was tough here too, however, and by 1903, at least another 18 of the children had died.

    In that year, the Lovedale authorities asked the survivors whether they would like to return to Ethiopia.

    Some opted to do so, but it was only after a protracted process, involving the intervention of German advisers to Emperor Menelik, that 17 former slaves sailed back to Ethiopia in 1909.

    If you know these people – the freed slaves who decided to return home in 1909 – please use the form below to let the author know:

    Aguchello Chabani
    Agude Bulcha
    Amanu Figgo
    Baki Malaka
    Berille Boko Grant
    Dinkitu Boensa
    Fayesse Gemo
    Fayissa Umbe
    Galgal Dikko
    Galgalli Shangalla
    Gamaches Garba
    Gutama Tarafo
    Hawe Sukute
    Liban Bultum
    Nagaro Chali
    Nuro Chabse
    Rufo Gangilla
    Tolassa Wayessa

    The rest had by this time married or found careers and opted to stay in South Africa.

    Bisho was trained for domestic service, but she must have shown signs of special talent, because she was one of only two of the Oromo girls who went on to train as a teacher.

    In 1902 she left Lovedale and found a position at a school in Cradock, then in 1911 she married Frederick Scheepers, a minister in the church.

    Mandela fascinated

    Frederick and Bisho Jarsa had a daughter, Dimbiti. Dimbiti married David Alexander, a carpenter, and one of their children, born on 22 October 1936, was Neville Alexander.

    By the 1950s and 60s he was a well-known political activist, who helped found the short-lived National Liberation Front.

    He was arrested and from 1964 until 1974 was jailed in the bleak prison on Robben Island.

    His fellow prisoners, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, were fascinated by his part-Ethiopian origins but at the time, he was not aware that his grandmother had been captured as a slave and so they could not draw any comparisons with their own fight against oppression.

    So what did he feel when he found out how is grandmother had ended up in South Africa?

    “It reinforced my sense of being an African in a fundamental way,” he told the BBC.

    Under apartheid, his family was classified as Coloured, or mixed-race, rather than African.

    “We always struggled against this nomenclature,” he said.

    He also noted that it explained why he had often been mistaken for an Ethiopian during his travels.

    The strongest parallel he can draw between his life and that of his grandmother is the role of schooling.

    “Her real liberation was not the British warship but the education she later received in South Africa,” he said.

    “Equally, while on Robben Island, we turned it into a university and ensured that all the prisoners learned to read and write, to prepare them for their future lives.”

  10. Juma Kibacha said

    Assalaam aleikum Summaya Thank you so much for the explanation you gave. I feel very much happy to know of your tradition and devotion to Islam. Originally, the island of Unguja (the capital of Z’bar Isles) was just inhabited by a few people, the Makunduchi. With the growth in trade between East Africa and Far East and Persia some few immigrants from the Mainland (Tanganyika/Tanzania) started to settle in there. By then, 14th century, Kilwa Island was the major East African coastal city state. It grew in prosperity as it controlled gold trade from Mwenemutapa (Zimbabwe) via Sofala (Beira) to Asia and Far East. When the Portuguese invaded, destroyed and colonized Sofala, Kilwa, Commoros, Mvita (Mombasa) and Z’bar from 1490s the Mombasa people had to ask the Al Mazrui clan from Oman for a help. The Arabs managed to expel the Europeans from East Africa to south of River Ruvuma (Tanzania-Mozambique border) in 1698. It was after that slave trade started in East Africa. It grew alongside the famous East African Long Distance Trade. The (East Africa’s) Northen route was operated by Kamba tribe of southern Kenya. The Central route was managed by Nyamwezi tribe of western Tanzania, hence many Zanzibaris of Congolese and interior Tanganyika/Tanzania decent. The southern route was under Yao tribe of south-east Tanzania and southern Malawi. The Yao captured slaves from Makua (a Mozambican tribe, originally), Mwera, Nyasa, Makonde tribes, etc. These were sent to Zanzibar via Mikindani port (near Mtwara, south-eastern Tanzania) and Lindi. The point am trying to say is that almost every Zanzibari originated from somewhere else, btn 2-3 centuries ago. I therefore assume u came from the Makua people and hence you retain your Mainland traditions. The Zanzibaris of Zanzibar tend to ignore any (African) cultural values from the Mainland. That being said i still maintain the Tanzanians would welcome you with open arms should u decide to come back home. We are, arguably, the most kind and hospitable African nation. We are multiracial as well. We’ve strong ties with Somali Bantu (taken to Somalia from our tribes during slavery) and people (mainly Makua, with similar stories to you, folks) from Madagascar, Seychelles, Mauritius and the Commoros. I would also like to talk to you in Swahili. Jazaikallah kheir

  11. Juma Kibacha said

    On name/language issues, Juma/Jooma means a week or friday in Swahili or friday in Arabic. I guess in your beautiful Zanzibari community you have names like Mlaponi, Mrekoni, Mrope, Mkulia, Henjewele, Mkapa, etc. These are typical Makua names. A day u visit Tanzania’s Makualand (Masasi, Ndanda, Mwena, etc) and Zanzibar you will have tears flowing down your cheeks. What a memory. In Tanzania we have a tribe called Ngoni based in Ruvuma (Songea) region. They were part of the Zulu tribe but had to run away, under their leader Zwangendaba, from the harsh treatment of Shaka in 1835. Hence you will find alot of people with names like Gama, Zulu, Mbano, Mhagama, Mpambalyoto, Zimanimoto, Mtazama, etc in that warriors’ tribe. We were also the headquarters for the southern Africa liberation struggles playing pivotal role in diplomatic and armed activities. There were military camps for ANC/PAC, ZANU/ZAPU, SWAPO and FRELIMO. Even Mandela’s first passport was given to him by President Nyerere. I’m happy with all these connections with South Africa. But now am even more happy knowing that we were also helping the Zanzibaris of SA from the clutches of Apartheid. Allah Akbar.

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