Prison Island (Changuu Island)

Quick facts:

Address: Zanzibar

Access: By boat

Attractions: Aldabra giant tortoise, old prison ruins, beach & peacocks

Activities: History, swimming, walk, snorkeling

Accommodation: Available in Zanzibar

Best time to visit: All year round

The prison island was uninhabited until the 1860s when it was gifted to two Arab slave owners by the first Sultan of Zanzibar, Majid bin Said. These owners turned the island into a prison for their rebellious slaves

Prison Island is a small island found along the Indian Ocean in Zanzibar. This beautiful island is also known as Changuu, which is the name of a popular fish found in the surrounding sea

Albeit its beauty, this island has a dark past. Around the 1860s, the island was gifted to two Arab slave owners by the first Sultan of Zanzibar, Majid bin Said, who used it as a prison for rebellious slaves. At the time, Zanzibar was one of the largest slave markets in the world. Fast forward, in 1873 Sultan Seyyid Barghash agreed to a treaty that banned slavery in Zanzibar due to pressure from the British, who had already abolished slavery in the UK in 1807. However, with the exports of ivory and cloves, the island continued to thrive commercially. As a result, the British became interested in Zanzibar, and in 1890, under the Heligoland-Zanzibar treaty between Germany and the UK, Zanzibar became a British protectorate allowing Britain to have control over its defense and foreign affairs while allowing the island to govern itself. The treaty resulted in the appointment of a British First Minister, Lloyd Mathews, in October 1891

In 1893, Lloyd acquired the island with plans to build a prison. The construction of the prison was completed in 1894 although it was never used and remained empty. The main reason was a concern about disease outbreaks that may affect Zanzibar, which was the main port of East Africa at the time. Instead, the island became a quarantine island for British territories in East Africa, and in 1923 it was officially renamed to Quarantine Island. The buildings were then converted into a hospital where patients were observed for 1-2 weeks before being allowed to leave

In 1919, the British governor of Seychelles gifted four Aldabra giant tortoises to the prison island. The tortoises thrived and by 1955 their population had increased up to 200. Due to the stealing of the tortoises for meat and as pets, their number was greatly hampered to only seven (7) by 1996. Massive efforts have since been made by the government and other stakeholders and their number has been increasing over time

Prison Island is a small island found along the Indian Ocean in Zanzibar. This beautiful island is also known as Changuu, which is the name of a popular fish found in the surrounding sea

Albeit its beauty, this island has a dark past. Around the 1860s, the island was gifted to two Arab slave owners by the first Sultan of Zanzibar, Majid bin Said, who used it as a prison for rebellious slaves. At the time, Zanzibar was one of the largest slave markets in the world. Fast forward, in 1873 Sultan Seyyid Barghash agreed to a treaty that banned slavery in Zanzibar due to pressure from the British, who had already abolished slavery in the UK in 1807. However, with the exports of ivory and cloves, the island continued to thrive commercially. As a result, the British became interested in Zanzibar, and in 1890, under the Heligoland-Zanzibar treaty between Germany and the UK, Zanzibar became a British protectorate allowing Britain to have control over its defense and foreign affairs while allowing the island to govern itself. The treaty resulted in the appointment of a British First Minister, Lloyd Mathews, in October 1891

In 1893, Lloyd acquired the island with plans to build a prison. The construction of the prison was completed in 1894 although it was never used and remained empty. The main reason was a concern about disease outbreaks that may affect Zanzibar, which was the main port of East Africa at the time. Instead, the island became a quarantine island for British territories in East Africa, and in 1923 it was officially renamed to Quarantine Island. The buildings were then converted into a hospital where patients were observed for 1-2 weeks before being allowed to leave

In 1919, the British governor of Seychelles gifted four Aldabra giant tortoises to the prison island. The tortoises thrived and by 1955 their population had increased up to 200. Due to the stealing of the tortoises for meat and as pets, their number was greatly hampered to only seven (7) by 1996. Massive efforts have since been made by the government and other stakeholders and their number has been increasing over time

Currently, the island is a popular tourist destination and home to the Aldabra giant tortoise. These tortoises weigh an average of 200 kg and are said to live for more more than 100 years

Interesting facts about the Changuu (prison) island

  • Its original name is Changuu Island. The name “Prison Island” is derived from its intended purpose as a prison for rebellious slaves in the 1860s
  • It is home to a population of giant Aldabra tortoises which were introduced in 1919 from the island of Aldabra in Seychelles. Visitors can interact with the tortoises, feed them, and even learn about their conservation efforts
  • The island is also a home to a colony of beautiful peacocks
  • In its early years, the only freshwater on the island was rainwater stored in underground tanks. This forced the number of visitors to the island to be limited when the island was not used for quarantine between December and March

Getting to Changuu (prison) island

Located around 5-6 km northwest of Stone Town, Prison Island can be accessed by boat, with the journey typically lasting around 30 minutes. It is important to note that the waters can be rough sometimes, so be prepared. Unfortunately, there is no public ferry service available. If you are traveling independently, you will need to rent a motorized dhow, a traditional sailing boat with a slim hull, from Stone Town’s harbor. The cost for this can be negotiated with the local sailors

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