St John’s Anglican Church, Mbweni, Zanzibar

Knowing I had a thing about cemeteries, the lovely Bulu made a detour and took us to St John’s Anglican Church in Mbweni. As with most churches these days outside of mass/service times, the church itself was closed.

St John's Anglican Church in Mbweni

Inside of St John's Anglican Church in Mbweni

I couldn’t quite angle my camera to catch the

[…] marble altar inlaid with colorful mother-of-pearl shell and and the wooden chair made for Bishop Tozer by the sailors of the HMS London, the British naval ship famous for its slave-dhow captures.

Wikipedia has a list of rescues dating back to the 1800s – isn’t the Internet a wonderful thing? Sailors from the HMS London are buried over on Chapwani Island. But back to St John’s and the adjacent cemetery.

The church was first opened in 1882 by UMCA missionaries and consecrated in 1904. The first African deacon of the UMCA, John Swedi, was one of the first five slave boys to be freed and taken in by Bishop Tozer at the mission. His direct descendant, Peter Sudi, is the church sexton. I can’t quite get my head around the fact that in the neighbourhood live direct descendants of former slaves… and yes, in the States, too. I know. Visiting the Slave Market in Stone Town made that abstraction all the more real.

Cemetery at St John's Anglican Church in Mbweni

Grave at St John's Anglican Church in Mbweni

The graves are old. Nature has taken its course and the inscriptions were very difficult to read. I only found out later that William Makepeace Thackery‘s (author of Vanity Fair) cousin Caroline is buried there. She came out from Brighton, UK in her early thirties and was principal of the girl’s school in Mbweni in the late 1800s. She died on 30 January 1926. What must her life have been like? Thackery himself seems like he was a nasty piece of work – there’s a fascinating piece in The Independent from a good few years back on a biography of him. I can find little about Caroline, other than she bought her house in Mbewi from Sir John Kirk, British consul-general in Zanzibar from 1873 to 1887 He’d come to Africa as part of Livingstone’s Zambezi expedition in the 1850s as a medical officer.

As consul-general he was very active in the suppression of the slave trade and is often regarded as the ‘power behind the throne’ during the rule of his close friend Sultan Barghash. The house was built as a gift from the sultan and was used by Kirk and his family as a country retreat.

When he left Zanzibar in 1887, he sold his house to Caroline, who opened the grounds for an annual garden party. I like the sound of her. By all accounts, she lived there till she died, some 24 years after retiring as principal of the girl’s school.

The school was a large square building, based around a central courtyard. The headmistress from 1877 until 1902 was Caroline Thackeray (a cousin of the English novelist William Thackeray). The school educated orphaned girls who had been freed from captured slave-dhows, and daughters of freed slaves who lived at the mission, each with their own house and small garden. Most of the girls were trained as teachers, and were taught reading, writing, arithmetic, geography and sewing. In 1877, Caroline Thackeray paid for the construction of an industrial wing, wherein her less academically inclined pupils were given vocational training in basketry, stitching, laundry and cooking.

One of the oldest graves there is of Rehema Mambutina, a freed slave who died in 1888. Without Peter Sudi though, it was hard to make sense of any of it. But Joe Ombour, in an article in 2010, did have Sudi with him and if you’re interested, it’s an account worth reading.

Back to the UMCA: Universities’ Mission to Central Africa, NOT to be confused with the Texas-based UCMA, a mistake that cost me some reading time.

The Universities’ Mission to Central Africa (c.1857 – 1965) was a missionary society established by members of the Anglican Church within the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, and Dublin [presumably, Trinity College]. […] Founded in response to a plea by David Livingstone, the society established the mission stations that grew to be the bishoprics of Zanzibar and Nyasaland (later Malawi), and pioneered the training of black African priests.

When he came back from African in 1857, Livingstone must have gone on the University circuit. His talks inspired a few people and UMCA was born. Its first bishop, Charles Mackenzie, headed up the Zambezi towards modern-day Malawi in 1861. His errand was doomed to fail, as he did, from Malaria just a year later. He was succeeded by Bishop Tozer, who relocated the show to Zanzibar in 1864 where the mission concentrated on caring for and educating children freed from slavery. It was the UMCA that established the settlement of Mbweni as a place where released slaves could live. Fast forward to 1965 when it merged with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, a UK-based organisation operating today as the United Society. It once included John Wesley on its ministerial list, before, of course, he went on to found the Methodist church. Presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the United Society

is devoted to increasing local churches’ capacity to be agents of positive change in the communities that they serve.

Isn’t that a novel concept – agents of positive change… we could do with some of that, this side of the world.







@ 2024 Mary Murphy