Thursday, January 27, 2011

Zanzibar: “The Magic Island & its Ghosts “ by ANON

I was awakened very suddenly in the early hours of the morning. I sat up in bed and saw a tall figure standing nearby, looking eastward, dressed in a light brown burnoose with its hood up, concealing the face. I tried to call out but my tongue clove to the roof of my mouth and my limbs were paralysed with fear. The apparition slowly disappeared: but looking down the room, there it was again, standing in the same way looking to the east. Again it gave way to-nothing and vanished and only then was I able to move."

This experience was described to friends by Dr Spurrier, a respected British medical doctor who was staying at Dunga Palace in December 1895. Dunga has a strong reputation for being haunted. One apparition which has frequently been seen is that of an Arab lady walking through the long rooms at dead of night, followed by a black dog. Also, the sounds of rattling chains and of heavy objects being moved about are said to have been heard.

The Lord of Dunga, Mohammed bin Ahmed el Alawi, was descended from a line of rulers who may have begun with Hasan bin Abubakar, a Persian of the 13th century who is mentioned in the Kilwa Chronicles. His descendant, Queen Fatuma, married an Arab from the Hadramaut, called Alawi.
She had a palace on the site of the present day House of Wonders, next to the Old Fort, in the Stone Town. Her son Hasan became King around 1828 and when the Omani Sultan Said took control of Zanzibar, Hasan had to move to Bweni, near Dunga, where he was allowed to rule on condition that he gave half of the taxes he collected to Seyyid Said.

Mohammed inherited from his brother Hasan in 1845 and was made of stern stuff. He used the local people's unpaid labour to build the palace, which took about 10 years. He lived there until he died in 1865. His 15 year old son Ahmed was recognised as a ruler in his place and moved to live in the Stone Town of Zanzibar, where he shortly died of smallpox, in rather suspicious circumstances.

A friend of mine, Yoland Brown, was born and brought up in Zanzibar. She lived in the Mambo Msiige building, just to the south of the Serena Inn, when she was a child. Her father, William Frederick Waddington, was the Port Officer in Zanzibar from 1946 to 1958. The Mambo Msiige building was built around 1847 by a prominent Arab and its name means, "Don't copy me, friend"! In 1864 it was rented and later sold by Sultan Majid to the UMCA, the Universities' Mission to Central Africa. They sold it in turn to the British Foreign Office in 1874 when it became the residence of the British representative to Zanzibar, the first of whom was John Kirk. From 1918 to 1924, the building accommodated the European Hospital, which was set up to take care of casualties of the First World War.

After this, the house was occupied by Government Offices. Yoland's mother, Dorothy Betty Waddington, was Tourist Information Officer in Zanzibar because of her knowledge of Swahili and her tremendous interest and consequent knowledge of the people and customs. She never found any bones in the garden! However, she did see a ghost, twice, of an Arab gentleman who appeared at the side of the bed. The first time he looked quite benign and she woke her husband who said, "go back to sleep -he has been here before"!

The second time the man appeared at the bottom of the bed and had a very malevolent look - Betty did not wake her husband again, in case she got another flea in her ear. By coincidence, she happened to be visiting the palace a few days later and told the Sultana about her experience. The Royal Personage was not the least bit surprised and said there was a little girl who walked down a particular passage in the palace and everyone had seen her. The Sultana said Yoland's mother should speak to the ghost and not be frightened, but he never appeared again.

At Mbweni Ruins, just five miles south of the Stone Town, the ghost of Caroline Thackeray, a spinster lady who lived in Zanzibar for 49 years, is said to walk near the ruins of the school for freed slaves where she was headmistress. She retired to Sir John Kirk's house in the neighbourhood, and died there in 1926 at the age of 83. She is buried at St John's Church nearby. There is now a hotel in the grounds of the ruins and none of the staff will go near the ruins at night.

One night, my children and I were staying at Mbweni, before the hotel was opened. We saw a light shining in one of the windows of the Industrial Wing of the ruins. After a certain amount of daring and cajoling, we took a torch and made our way inside the tall walls and up the collapsing stairs, only to find that our "ghost" was just the full moon, shining with amazing brightness, right through two windows opposite each other.

Recently, an askari reported seeing the figure of a tall Arab man, standing under a large mango tree below this wing above the beach, gazing out to sea; he slowly dissolved into nothing. A few days later, the askari, an old man, died of a heart attack. The Arab man has also been seen by others. There was an Arab mansion on the site of the school when the Universities' Mission to Central Africa purchased Mbweni Point shamba, to build a village for freed slaves, in 1871. This mansion was incorporated into the school but became dilapidated with the rest. The ruins are being restored with a view to returning them to their former state. Hopefully then the ghosts may disappear!

In 1885, Seyyida Salme, a daughter of the founder of the Albusaid Sultans, Seyyid Said, who had eloped and married a German trader, Heinrich Ruete in 1866, returned to her homeland to try to force a reconciliation with her family. Her efforts were hopeless but while in Zanzibar she visited her birthplace, Mtoni Palace. She was deeply shocked by the ruin and decay into which the lovely old buildings had fallen.

As her children ran about, laughing and chattering with the accompanying German officers, Salme went into a kind of trance from which she could see the figures of the former inhabitants coming forward from every slanting door and collapsing heap of beams. For a while she was transported from the depressing present and her mind lived the beautiful years of her youth.

This kind of experience happens to all of us quite often in Zanzibar, where the past seems to melt into the present and the dead seem to move freely amongst the living, sometimes leaving a cool breath of air and a scent of spices as they pass.
Zanzibar is truly named "The Magic Islands".


  1. Apparently the Mambo Msiige building has been provisionally sold to a hotel chain, the Kempinski group. They are majority owned by Crown Property Bureau of Thailand.
    Previously it housed the Govt. Depts: the offices of the Registrar General, WAKF and Trust committee, Zanzibar Shipping Corporation and the Ministry of Finance’s Audit department.