Sailing across the azure ocean in a local dhow from the coastal edge of Zanzibar is the secluded Prison Island. From a distant, it creates an impression of being a luxurious isle surrounded by nature’s bounty; rich coral reefs, crystal clean water, lush green plantation and an artistically designed boardwalk. As you come closer, wade in the water and touch the sandy surface, the eyes glimmer and your intuition tells, here is a mysterious history to unfold.
Once a prison for the rebellious slaves and a quarantine for yellow fever patients, today the island is frequently visited by several tourists for its charming and mystical aura. The precious attractions of the tiny archipelago reveal an elusive tale and secretly whisper to the visitor what makes Prison Island alluring despite its nostalgic past.
Most locals in Zanzibar refer to the isle as Changuu, which is a local Swahili fish. To the others, especially the tourists the term ‘Prison Island’ creates an appeal and ravel the meaning hidden in its name, gives another reason to visit this popular attraction.
One of the most favourable ways to visit Prison Island, located 6 kilometres (approx) or 20 minutes from Zanzibar is via a local boat, otherwise known as a dhow. This delicate means of transportation is a wooden structure sailing on various shades of blue and gives you a view of anglers , waft of the cool breeze and the fresh scent of the ocean en route.
There are several stories that you might hear from the guide or the sailor. One of the popular tales is that the island was primarily meant to be a prison for slaves. However, it is astonishing to believe this as you traverse the shimmering sand of the isle and climb to the main site, you are welcomed to a luxurious site overlooking the ocean. The place looks more like a resort than a prison and this is one of the most remarkable transition; once a prison, the island is now has a world-class lodge. The site is admirable and intriguing.
As one moves ahead, the pathway leads to an interesting area where you will see several enormous tortoises in abundance. Slow in pace and admirable in age, the Aldabra giant tortoises were a gift to the island and are not the local species.
Lloyd Mathews, the British First Minister purchased Prison Island from two Arabs after Zanzibar was under the control of the British protectorate in October 1893. In the year 1919, the British governor of Seychelles sent four giant tortoises as a gift to Changuu from the Aldabra island. The breeding rate was high but the malicious acts of stealing by few people led to the rapid decline and towards the year 1996 there were only seven tortoises left from the earlier 100 in 1988. With combined efforts by the Zanzibar Government and the other international organizations, the island now manages to have a sizeable number of tortoises, some of which are over 100 years old. Visitors often love to feed them and admire the brown sanctuary in which the tortoises move carefree and share their home with few peacocks.
The isolated location of the Changuu is well appreciated by those who wish to spend some time in solitude. Strolling on the stony pathway under the shade of the large trees inhabited by vibrant birds and exotic creatures gives you a feel of absolute peace. While you enjoy your walk, a glimpse of the ancient architecture embellished with modern setting on the island sets your curious until you walk ahead to explore what is in there…
Changuu was an uninhabited island until 1860. Later, two Arabs showed interest to purchase the island from the sultan of Zanzibar and use it a prison for slaves who were shipped abroad or sold in the slave market. Lloyd Mathews purchased the island from these Arabs in the inception of the British rule with the intent of building a prison. In 1894, although cells were built to house criminals, the prison remained empty without fulfilling its purpose and no one was ever arrested. The architecture remains the same till date.
With no prisoners to stay, the island was uninhabited once again and only time would tell the reason to re-use the secluded land. In the 1920’s, Yellow Fever broke down in East Africa. The stone town of Zanzibar was the primary port and the British government was concerned of the risk of the epidemic spreading across the island. For this reason, Changuu was then converted to a quarantine station. The prison was a hospital and in 1923 was renamed as the Quarantine Island, where the sick were treated. Gradually the disease phased out and European and local families preferred visiting the island for holidays.The European Bungalow was built in the 1980’s to accommodate vacationers and pits that were earlier used for coral mining were converted into swimming pools.
Today, the architecture of the prison is intact; a large canopy in the centre surrounded by dark rooms guarded by wooden doors and steel bars. However, the relevance has evolved tremendously. Once a prison for slaves and a hospital for the yellow fever patients, today the prison area is converted into a restaurant, and the resort is re-designed with modern amenities.
Visitors may enjoy the view of the surrounding cells or take a table outside and admire the vast ocean. The structure is re-painted with pastel colours. You will feel warm, friendly and at peace until you re-collect scenes of the island’s past that camouflage in different time settings and give you a flashback of the history that took place here many years ago.
One of the most unforgettable attractions of the Prison Island is the boardwalk. Extending beyond the island and stretching towards the ocean, the walkway gives a spectacular view of the surrounding and as you look down, a wonderful surprise of vibrant starfish and other sea creatures is simply mesmerizing. The water is clear and truly admirable, yet water for use on the island is supplied through a pipeline from Zanzibar.
Few tourists stay back at Prison Island for activities like swimming or snorkeling in the blazing unadulterated waters. Some just extend their trip to to admire the nature’s bounty and spend time in absolute serenity. In any way, one has to board the dhow again and return back to reality! As one reflects on their trip, there is a feeling of joy for visiting this island and exploring the remains that have survived and significantly depict the history of the surreal Prison Island.