Tracking Robert Keable in Zanzibar

Tracking Robert Keable in Zanzibar

February 25, 2023

In my book Utterly Immoral I write about Robert Keable’s time in Zanzibar. He arrived on the island at the beginning of January 1912 taking up the post of vice-principle of St. Andrew’s College.

Keable – newly priested, having just finished a one-year curacy in Bradford – had joined the Universities Mission of Central Africa (UMCA), an organisation he had campaigned for ever since he heard Frank Weston, Bishop of Zanzibar, call for volunteers in a major speech at Cambridge.

I confess that I did not feel it was necessary to visit Zanzibar before publishing my book on Robert Keable’s life. I knew there would be no records relevant to his time on the island so did my own research in the UK. I read Keable’s own account – City of Dawn; inspected the papers of the UMCA, (which merged with the Society of the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts [USPG] in 1965) held in Oxford; and read widely about the UMCA and Frank Weston.

However, I have always had a burning desire to try and retrace the steps of Keable and this year I finally had a chance to visit Zanzibar and to see for myself the stamp the UMCA had left on the island. 

Universities Mission to Central Africa

David Livingstone was the driving force behind the setting up of the UMCA. With the support of Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and Dublin universities he raised enough money to try and establish a mission in Central Africa and with the added aim to oppose the slave trade. Originally the plan was for the mission to be based on the mainland of Africa but after a series of misadventures the decision was taken by Bishop Tozer, in 1864, to relocate the mission’s base to the small Eastern African island of Zanzibar. It was here, in the capital Stone Town,  that they rented the first floor of a two-story building from the Sultan and later acquired the site of the main slave market in order to build the Anglican Cathedral. In Mbweni down the coast from Stone Town they established a settlement for released slaves and the mission school was moved from the centre of town to Kiungani.

By the time Keable arrived on the island the UMCA was well established. Christ Church Cathedral catered for the Anglican population on the island with some accommodation for UMCA members nearby. However, the main centres were outside of town, split along gender lines. The former slave village in Mbweni was, according to Keable, ‘the centre of the working of the Sisterhood’ with a girl’s boarding school surrounded by a Christian village. At Kiungani was St Andrew’s College now a boy’s seminary with, ‘eighty odd lads’ – the ‘pick of the mainland schools … mostly the sons of heathen parents, drawn from scattered villages, who made their own stand at twelve or thirteen years when they were baptized, and who came … any time between that age and twenty.’ Keable moved into the college, having a small room on the first floor overlooking the Indian Ocean.

The legacy of the UMCA in Zanzibar

Reading about the many activities of the UMCA on Zanzibar, just over 100 years ago, I did expect there would be a significant Christian population on the island today. There is not.  According to a US government estimate 99% of the 1.3 million inhabitants of the island are Muslim. This contrasts with an estimated 63% of the population of Tanzania as a whole, including Zanzibar, identifying as Christian.

One reason for the small numbers of Christians on the island today is because both the UMCA and the Catholic mission, led by Spiritans, never tried to convert the local population. Both the UMCA and Catholic missions were supported by the Sultan – who rented them buildings in Stone Town and allowed them to buy land. Therefore they both saw Zanzibar as their base for missionary work on the mainland and would not have wanted to upset the Sultan by trying to convert the local Muslims to christianity. 

Keable wrote about looking for a good location for a new UMCA school when he was on the island but found the village that had been earmarked already had a good local school. He pointed out ‘it would be bad policy to put one of our all too few teachers down here when there are fifty villages around without a school at all; and yet it would have been an ideal centre.’ He added that it seemed odd that although Zanzibar was a British protectorate the government schools, since they were nominally controlled by the Sultan, taught the Koran daily.

By Keable’s time there were in fact just ten mission schools on the island and these were catering for students who were not born on the island. The Arab and Muslim population of Zanzibar showed no sign of accepting these schools and nearly all the student population were actually children from the mainland.

The UMCA stopped their work in Zanzibar in the early 1960s. Following independence there was a violent revolution which resulted in the murder of many Asians and Arabs. The, by then, very small European and American population fled the island.  Land was nationalised and the buildings of UMCA quickly fell into disrepair. The magnificent Christ Church Cathedral was hardly used and by the beginning of the twentieth century was in danger of collapse. Thankfully, in 2013, the EU stepped in and helped fund the necessary renovations and to also create a heritage centre commemorating the abolition of slavery.

My search

The aim of my visit to Zanzibar – as well as wanting a great holiday on a beautiful tropical island – was to find the buildings that my grandfather had worked in and visited. The obvious first stop was the cathedral. Keable described his first visit to the site on the Mkunazini Road.

It was the slave-market, and it is now a kind of square, planted between the houses with trumpet-shaped hibiscus, rich-scented frangipanni, and great red acacia trees. The cathedral is on the left; and right in front are in front are two parallel rows of buildings, connected by an overhead veranda, which house the priests in charge. The big red roofed ladies mission house is beyond, rising above a thatched, white-walled printing establishment. The hospital, looking above all things cool and clean, is to the right; and far ahead, across the glint of water in a creek, rise the tiers of brown thatched hut-roofs and tall green cocoa palms which make up the native town. It is very hot and beautiful…


The big change today is that the creek – a river that split the town in half has now gone; drained and redirected in the 1930s. But there still remains a clear divide between the old Stone Town barely changed from Keable’s day, and the new town where most of the population live, no longer full of brown thatched huts instead a typical modern African suburb.

The square in front of the cathedral, in spite of the recent renovations, is in many ways unchanged from Keable’s day. The red-roofed ladies’ mission is now a school, and a grand acacia tree offers shade.

Keable’s description of the cathedral is brief:

… one slips gratefully into the cathedral which is admirably proportioned in general effect and rather like a big college chapel. Here is the grave of that great scholar and gentlemen who came here to the teaching of slave children ABC and the keeping of petty accounts, but who lived to guild an altar upon the very spot where he had seen the children bought, and at it to ordain them; and before that altar, in that cool and holy sanctuary, it is not hard to pray.

A typical ‘big college chapel’ seems a little begrudging since the building still dominates the Stone Town skyline but I suppose it would not be out of place in leafy Cambridge. Inside it is simply decorated – with the wooden-panelled chancel topped by small arched windows. Tall pillars – some accidentally placed upside down when the bishop/architect Edward Steere was away, support the roof.  It is Bishop Steere who was buried behind the altar.

The altar was placed on the site of the whipping post in the slave market. Ali, our walking tour guide, explained that slaves were whipped with stinging branches to test their strength with the ones who did not cry out fetching a higher price.

We could not actually visit the cathedral the day we arrived, but instead had to buy tickets to the heritage centre where entry to the cathedral is a side event to seeing the slave heritage site. The two slave storage areas underneath the entrance of the cathedral are a shocking reminder of the appalling practice and there is an excellent exhibition detailing the story of slavery in Zanzibar. One takes pride in the role Livingstone and the members of the UMCA took in helping to end slavery in the area, before one remembers that the British were heavily involved in kidnapping, transporting, using, and ill-treating slaves for two or more hundred years.

One other building in Stone Town I was intrigued to find was the original two storey building the UMCA first rented from the Sultan when Bishop Tozer arrived on the island in 1864. Ali, our guide, knew the site, next to the Palace of Wonders near Forodhani Park. The building now closed and disused once housed weapons for the British soldiers on the island on the ground floor with UMCA offices above.

The first UMCA school outside of Stone Town was built on land bought a couple of kilometres down the coast at Kuingani. It was here that Keable lived in a small room on the second floor. There was a photograph of the building at the slave museum but no one we spoke to knew where it was.

So, on our last day in Stone Town, we decided to go and look for St John’s Church, another UMCA church. All the guide books agreed that the St John’s Church was near the Mbweni ruins at the Protea Hotel but when we arrived we discovered the hotel had recently changed hands, and name – now the Jungle Paradise Beach Resort and Spa. Walking towards the reception the ruins of the old slave village were all around. The remains of the old village church, with four strong walls but no roof stood alone. Inside three steps which would have led up to altar. Further along we came to the main school building. Stairs took us up to the first floor which stretched ahead of us with a series of decaying rooms, all empty but presumably where the school classrooms and dormitories once were.

William Makepeace Thackeray’s cousin, Caroline, ran the school for many years must have been a successful fundraiser since the building work was extensive. In amongst the ruins tall palm trees leant this way and that and a couple of the rooms of the school had recently been used perhaps as a shops shops, judging by the furniture left behind. From the ruined school the gardens planted with exotic plants (one sign claimed a bush had made its way from America) sloped down towards the sea, beside which a small swimming pool and stilted restaurant would later make us feel welcome.

First, we returned to the reception where one of the men thought he knew where the church was and, since he was about to walk home for lunch, offered to take us there. The walk back up took us pass some grand houses including the UAE consulate built like a mini–White House, complete with a high security fence and promise of cameras.

Through the trees we saw the high belltower of the church, four stories high, and as we followed the road round the red roofed stone and coral church came in to view. There were no windows just slits in the wall to allow the breeze in. As we walked around the church there came a shout of hello from an outbuilding, and an elderly man appeared fastening his belt. (A man appearing pulling up their trousers was a typical occurrence for us when visiting remote buildings in Zanzibar!)

Peter carried his 84 years well. He wore a Zanzibar football shirt from the 2005-2006 season and the now fastened long shorts, or short trousers. He explained he was the grandson of a slave, rescued by the UMCA aged 18. His father had trained to be a priest and became the first black bishop on Zanzibar. Peter had gone to the school in Kiungani, then called St Paul’s from the age of 4 to 8.  He acted as our guide first showing us around the ramshackle cemetary. He stopped at his father’s grave for a photograph and then pointed out other graves of UMCA members including Caroline Thackeray’s who had done so much to grow the UMCA girl's school and village nearby.

As Peter told us the story of his life, with so many of his family having died – including brothers, sisters, his wife and children – it was difficult to keep up. He told us about each death matter-of-factly although his voice cracked and he choked up a little when he told of the death of his daughter – who apologised to him on her death bed for converting to become a Muslim.

The church itself was lovely. The wooden carved doors, like so many in Stone Town, told their own story. Arabic writing welcomed us to the house of God, a carved snake reminding us of a Moses’ story which I hadn’t known. Inside was simplicity itself, save for a magnificent marble altar which had been imported by Caroline Thackeray and moved from the Mbweni chapel to St John’s at some stage. In the chancel above the altar was a semi-circular ceiling of stone with 30 or more carved grooves like the rippled sand at low tide. The Makuti thatched ceiling was supported by six stone arches.

As we left the church, we asked Peter again if he knew where the Kuingani school was, and he suggested we turn towards the sea at the Al Rahama hospital. Needing a taxi to travel back to Stone Town we realised we would have to search for it another day.

From Stone Town we went to Jambiani and stayed for ten days at the magnificent Loft. From there we made a number of daytrips around the island, visiting ruined Arab palaces; a spice farm; the Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park; and a sandbank off Fumba.  

Ten days later we drove back towards the airport in our hired car to have one more attempt at finding Keable’s college at Kuingani. Keable had described it in his book, City of Dawn, along with a photograph:

If you resolutely turn your back upon the city and follow a highly dignified road (first with the native town on the left and the grounds of the Sports Club on your right), and if you then take a sharp turn by an Ascari box across a sandy spit of land fringed with ‘rain trees’, which clumsy scuttling land crabs love by day and fireflies by night, until your path (having now lost the greater part of its claim to respectability) rises rapidly to a big square house 50 yards from the sea in a Grove of palm trees and a plantation of rich flowering shrubs, you will arrive at Kiungani. The walls are very thick, of coral stone and whitewash within and without; the floors are all cement and very uneven; and my room is small but lofty, like the rest all stone and whitewash, and with two windows looking due West over 30 miles of straight to where the hills of Africa proper guard the heart of Livingstone and the grave of Mackenzie somewhere in the land for which they died.

We are in a Bay, the city round the headland to the north. We see her lights at night, and those of Mbweni, a Christian village at the centre of the working of the Sisterhood, round the other horn on the south.

The college itself is a big square-built building of two stories with a straight front pierced with rather small windows. Going through a doorway in the centre one finds oneself in an ancient school with the library to the right, storerooms to the left and a passage straight in front. A staircase from this passage leads to the European rooms on the first floor, with boys’ dormitories above, and thence to the flat cement roof; but, beyond the passage there is a quadrangle, cloistered, and crossed with cloisters in addition. Above the cross cloisters all senior students’ studies. going straight forward you pass through the opposite side of this court, comprising vestries, a little medicine room, and so on, two another larger court with the school room on the right, and various classrooms, dormitories, and a dining hall on the left. the north side of the first quadrangle is taken up by the Chapel, the South by the refectory – a long airy room. It is all very convenient, spacious, clean, and cool as it can be –which is not saying much! and there is a lovely hibiscus in the first court which makes a glorious patch of Crimson against the greenery behind.

The Chapel is a lofty well-proportioned rectangular building in a rather curious half Arab style which is very hard to describe. Still, it's windows from within or rather like somewhat wide lancets, and there is a small clerestory above; The roof is flat, and the whole is built of loose white cement material pleasantly around in appearance, and cool.

Our search took a while. As luck would have it Google Maps had two Al Rahama hospitals listed south of Stone Town. We went in search near the first one listed and walked along the shore looking up at the cliffs for sight of a ruin. At a local hotel the old man behind the bar made it clear we were in the wrong location and we set off again in the car. Turning off the main road opposite the hospital we followed the road down to the sea and parked the car beside the gate leading down to St Paul’s School. With no sign of ruins in sight we walked through the gate and asked a couple sitting nearby if they knew where the ruins to St Andrew’s College might be. The lady immediately shouted down towards the school and a figure appeared. ‘He is the headmaster,’ we were told.

So, we walked down towards the school and were greeted warmly by the headmaster who was only too pleased to be able to show us the ruins of St Andrew’s College. The school was in full session with three mixed classes having lessons. The headmaster led us round the back of the school and sure enough there they were. The site was in far worse condition than I had expected and it would have been very hard to work out what had been where even with Keable’s detailed description. But the occasional wall stretched up three stories and the chapel – although closed and with windows bricked up – still stood. It looked too dangerous to try and go in among the ruins so instead we skirted out way round until we reached the cemetery.

Keable had described it briefly.

Just outside my window with the crosses of the little cemetery, overhung by a big acacia which was just in a blaze of scarlet, and walled in by sweet frangipanni. Each cross has its own story, mostly of the days when death was very busy among the workers here, and it is a very sacred spot. Most of these passed through no little sorrow and they died far from the homeland that is extraordinary dear to us – or at least to me.

Standing by the cemetery looking first towards the ruined school and then out towards the sea I knew I had found where my grandfather had lived for so many months!