For many of us, the mere mention of Zanzibar conjures colorful images of a far-off, mysterious and exotic land. Now a part of the East African nation of Tanzania, Zanzibar is a fascinating blend of cultures, resulting from many centuries of Arab trade and other foreign influences. Zanzibar actually consists of two main islands, Pemba and Unguja, along with a sprinkling of about 50 smaller islands.
One of these, a 50-acre coral rag island known as Chumbe, lies smack in a major shipping route, the Zanzibar Channel between the islands and the mainland. The island is about eight miles southwest of Zanzibar’s capital, Stone Town on Unguja Island. A lighthouse was built on Chumbe in 1904, during the period when Zanzibar was a British protectorate and the Sultan of Zanzibar ruled locally. Today, the century-old lighthouse is the only one in the country that is still fully maintained, stands watch over a unique privately established and managed marine park.
The lighthouse tower, made of coral rock, stands about 112 feet high. A keepers’ cottage was built nearby and a mosque that was constructed for the early Indian light keepers still stands. An original 500mm (fourth order) Fresnel lens remains in use and the active light still serves as the chief navigational aid for the traditional dhows that ply the channel. Arab sailors in the Indian Ocean have used these low-sided ships with graceful triangular “lateen” sails for centuries.
In its early days as a staffed station, Chumbe Lighthouse played a role in a major naval episode. In August 1914, the Koenigsberg, a German heavily armed cruiser, took shelter in the Rufiji River delta. As the crew was preparing to leave the area, the captain received word that a British cruiser, the HMS Pegasus, was anchored up the coast near Zanzibar. Early in the morning of September 20, the Koenigsberg attacked the British vessel. It was reported that the Indian lighthouse keepers at Chumbe must have seen the German vessel before the attack, but that they failed to sound an alarm out of fear for their lives. The outgunned Pegasus sank after 45 minutes of fighting with the loss of 38 lives. Nearly a year later the Koenigsberg was sunk by the Royal Navy in the Rufiji River.
In March 1926, the light was converted to acetylene gas operation and it still runs on that system today, with an automatic sun valve that turns the light on at night. A news account at the time of the conversion reported, “His Highness the Sultan opened the new AGA light on Saturday, 13th March, 1926. His Highness went there by H.H.S. Cupid... Tea was served in the saloon en voyage. In a speech addressed to His Highness, Captain Charlewood said that Chumbe was the first lighthouse to be converted to the AGA system, the principal advantages of which were economy of consumption and the dispensation with skilled keepers. The Government now had seven years experience with AGA lights, having installed one in a new lighthouse in Pungume in March 1919. The success with which Pungume had been run or rather had run itself, as it only had to be visited once in three months and the supply of dissolved acetylene renewed only every six months, had led the Government to decide to adopt the same type of light in all the lighthouses of Zanzibar.”
The light continued to operate but the unattended buildings fell to ruin during the next few decades. In the 1990s, a small company called Chumbe Island Coral Park Ltd. (CHICOP) leased the island and developed it as the first marine park in Tanzania, with a coral reef sanctuary and protected forest area. It’s also believed to be the first and only private marine park in the world. The long-abandoned keepers’ cottage was converted into a visitors’ center for the park, with a new domed palm-thatched roof added to the building. The center houses a restaurant as well as exhibits on the local environment. Seven bungalows were added to provide accommodations for visitors. The small and elaborate mosque built for lighthouse keepers is still used daily by the Muslims on the island staff.
Visitors to Chumbe take part in activities like snorkeling in one of the world’s most beautiful shallow coral reefs, swimming, underwater photography and hiking the forest trails. And everyone gets to climb the 131 stairs to the top of the lighthouse, which doubles as an observation tower. The island itself and the surrounding reefs are host to a multitude of creatures, including the rare tree-climbing coconut crab and more than 60 species of birds.
In addition to the bungalows that provide overnight accommodations for up to 14 guests, day trips are offered for up to 12 visitors. Profits from the tourism operations are reinvested in conservation area management and free island excursions for local school children, who are invited to Chumbe for daytrips.
Seven former fishermen serve as park rangers and guides, and more than 50 volunteers from several countries have also provided valuable professional support over the years. CHICOP has received a number of awards from various organizations, including an Outstanding Environmental Achievement Award from the United Nations. This year, the company became a finalist for the World Legacy Award issued by National Geographic Traveler and Conservation International.
CHICOP manages Chumbe Lighthouse, which is still owned by the Zanzibar Port Corporation. The park rangers on Chumbe are occasionally contacted from the Port signal station and asked to climb the lighthouse to relight the flame using matches. There has been some speculation that the Zanzibar Port Corporation will replace the old gas-powered lighting system with a modern solar-powered light, but CHICOP’s management would prefer that the older technology be left in place in the interest of historic preservation.
The tower was painted two years ago using Norwegian funds, and some minor repairs were done. Sibylle Riedmiller of CHICOP says that there are no present plans for a complete restoration, “unless a donor agency takes interest and offers funding.” But Riedmiller says that the lighthouse is structurally sound and not in desperate need of further repairs. A celebration of the centennial of the lighthouse is planned for August 22, and the president of Zanzibar will visit Chumbe Island for the event.
For more information on the Chumbe Island Coral Park, visit their web site at www.chumbeisland.com or write to P.O. Box 3203, Zanzibar/Tanzania, or call +255-(0) 24-2231040.
This story appeared in the
Aug/Sep 2004 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
All contents copyright © 1995-2023 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.