Sunday, January 12, 2020

What Your Grandmother's Piano Had to Do With Slavery in Zanzibar

In Victorian America, having a piano in your home was a sign of being cultured, sophisticated, and educated. Ironically, the story behind those pianos was one of slavery, oppression, and death.

"By 1900 more than half of the world's pianos were made in the United States. In 1910, piano production in the United States was growing at a rate six times faster than the population." (1) Yet before the advent of plastic, what was essential for piano production? Ivory. Ivory from East African elephants.

Just over 100 years ago, there existed a unique connection between Victorian New England and Zanzibar, which is a large inhabited island just off the coast of what is now known as Tanzania. America wanted ivory. Africa had elephants. And the port where thousands of tusks funneled through was on the island of Zanzibar.

Most of that ivory ended up in Connecticut, at a manufacturing village appropriately called "Ivoryton," which milled an estimated 100,000 elephant tusks before 1929. At the industry's height, over 350,000 pianos were sold each year. (2)

I've lived in Tanzania for sixteen years, and visited Zanzibar many times, and I never knew this until I recently explored the new museum attached to David Livingstone's church. I knew that Zanzibar was home to a massive slave industry in the 19th century; I knew that missionary David Livingstone was instrumental in ending that slave trade. Many times, I have visited the church he had built on the site of the slave market, with the altar placed strategically on the spot where slaves had been tied up and whipped.

But all this time, I didn't know there was a connection between East African slavery and America, because most American slaves came from West Africa. (East African slaves were usually sent to Arab countries and colonial British plantations.) Yet the Connecticut ivory industry fueled a large part of East African slavery. Each of those 100 pound tusks had to be carried, by hand, for hundreds of miles from the African interior. The journey was so grueling, and the slave drivers so cruel, that David Livingstone once estimated that 5 slaves died for every tusk.

We all know about slaves coming out of Africa. What I have also recently learned, both through reading about the rubber trade in Congo and now the ivory trade in Tanzania, was that hundreds of thousands of Africans were enslaved in their own homeland. Though it is certainly fair to say that most of these people were captured, owned, and sold by their fellow Africans, it was the the insatiable desire for Africa's resources by Europeans and Americans that fueled the demand for doing business in human souls.

I imagine early 20th century Americans, gathering around their new pianos in their prim and proper Victorian parlors, gaily singing Christmas carols while the snow silently falls outside. It's the quintessential American picture, is it not?

Yet what was the cost of that picture-perfect scene? I haven't mentioned the mass destruction and near extinction of African elephants--which is a tragedy in and of itself. But even more tragic was that those pianos were built on the backs of suffering and death of countless African men, women, and children.

Did average Americans know this at the time? Probably not. But thinking about this tragedy made me contemplate what this generation of Americans does know. We've all heard the reports, right? Our cocoa and coffee harvested by children in developing countries, the profit from the tantalum in our cell phones used to fuel civil wars in Africa, designer clothes created by near-slave-like conditions in Bangladesh or India. So many of the comforts around us were built on the backs of someone else's suffering. 

What do we do about it? I hear you asking. And honestly, I don't know. The problem is incredibly complicated. I don't have answers.

Yet, knowing these things is still good for our souls. This knowledge should humble us, convict us, make us wiser. It should help us to be more careful in what we buy. More aware. More generous. More grateful.

The Anglican church in Zanzibar which was inspired by David Livingstone's fight to end slavery on the island. The church is built on the site of the main slave market.

Under the church, two holding chambers have been preserved. Each of these chambers would hold up to 50 slaves at a time, waiting for sale.




"This crucifix [is] made from the wood of the tree under which Dr. Livingstone died at Chitambo village, Ilala, Zambia in 1873, and under which his heart [is] buried."


My sources for this article came from the museum at Livingstone's church, as well as these two sites:


All pictures by Gil Medina.

1 comment:

LadyNextDoor said...

Very informative , and guessing that most people have never given much thought about the connection between piano keys and ivory. It is sad that for many years we have enjoyed the sounds from the piano keys, and never given thought to the suffering of the ones who made that possible. I grew up in Connecticut, and have been to the Ivoryton Playhouse....and never knew the connection of how that town got it's name. Thanks so much for enlightening us as to this and the many other areas where others suffer while producing items we enjoy today!
God bless you and your family....and prayers for your upcoming move back to the states this summer.
Judy Anders