By Maina Kiarie
Shimoni caves are located in Shimoni village, a sleepy fishing village about 75kms south of Mombasa near the Wasini Islands. Shimoni is along the Mombasa-Lungalunga road, in the heart of Digo land. In late 19th century, the Imperial British East Africa Company, the commercial company chartered by the British government to administer her sphere of influence in East Africa had its headquarters in Shimoni.
A cave is a natural opening in the ground, some part of which is in total darkness having extended beyond the zone of light and it is large enough for a human to enter. Caves are often found on hillsides or cliffs. Most caves are created when slowly-moving water dissolves or eats away at a rock, creating spaces, caverns and even tunnel-like passages.
The caves at Shimoni are limestone caves, several in number, once joined together and believed to extend some 5km inland. In Swahili, the word “Shimoni” means “the place of the hole”. Shimoni village derives its name from the presence of caves by the seashore formed by natural forces millions of years back. It is very dark inside the bat infested caves at Shimoni.
During the Indian Ocean trade centuries ago the caves today known as Shimoni caves were used by slave merchants as holding pens for slaves captured by slave hunters -both Arab ‘caravans’ and Africans- from the hinterland. The slaves-on-transit were shackled and then fastened on metal hooks on the cave walls to hinder their movement awaiting slave dhows to ship them to Zanzibar, the main slave market on the East African Coast. Slaves were used as porters of ivory from the hinterland to the coast for shipment.
From Zanzibar the slaves were shipped to Arabia, Yemen, Turkey, India and Persia. Driven by the sultanates of the Middle East slave trade in East Africa resulted in African slaves serving as sailors in Persia, pearl divers in the Gulf, soldiers in the Omani army, workers on the salt pans of Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), domestic slaves, and women as sex slaves.
In the caves can be found iron shackles on the walls, wooden crates likely used to transport slaves in, and old rusted pieces of chains. The metallic studs against which the slaves were held are now being swallowed by stalactites (a type of secondary mineral that hangs from the ceiling of limestone caves) and stalagmites (a type of secondary mineral that rises from the floor of a limestone cave) but some are still visible. They create a picture of what the conditions were like for the slaves held there.
It is also believed that before slave trade peaked at the East African coast in the 18th and 19th centuries Shimoni caves were used as kayas, religious shrines, by the locals and as a hiding place when attacked by warring communities.