Swahili History

At the beginning of the first millenium CE, the discovery of the monsoon winds and the means to use them created a nautical revolution, allowing for major water crossings toward India and Ceylon. Trading between East Africa and the Persian Gulf intensified in the eighth century, but African relations with Islamic merchants were of a different nature to those of earlier times, since they settled in Africa, boosting urbanization. From the ninth century onward, Muslim geographers Buzurg b. Shahriyâr and al-Mas‘ûdî mention regular trade relations with East Africa, Zanzibar, Pemba and Sofala (Freeman-Grenville 1962: 9-17), while the most famous story of a Persian navigator is of course that of “Sindbâd the Sailor”, who supposedly reached the al-Qumr region, which includes the Comoros Islands and northern Madagascar, between 806-807. These sources indicate that as early as the ninth century, there were major shipping routes between Asia and Africa.

The transition between the eleventh and twelfth century was a period of change. A number of urban East African centers developed at this time as did architecture in stone, used for public buildings, mosques and enclosure walls. The Swahili city-states were established: Malindi and Mombasa were mentioned in 1154 by al-Idrîsî who spoke also of the island of Angazidja (Anjouan) and Sufala, the golden country. During the reign of Sulaymân b. al-Hasan, from 1178 to 1195, Kilwa made a fortune from the gold trade from Sofala. For this period, the major chronicles of Swahili city-states are precious tools for the archaeologist, the most famous being the Kilwa Chronicle (Freeman-Grenville 1962: 34-49).

A new balance of power developed in the thirteenth century. The Swahili coast was divided into several independent sultanates, including Kilwa, Mombasa, Malindi, Pate and Mogadishu. In 1212-1229, Yâqût noted the cities of Mogadishu, Merka and Malindi, but not until Ibn Battûta’s work of 1331 do we have a precise description of the cities on the eastern coast (Freeman-Grenville 1962: 27-32). Ibn Battûta noted that Mombasa was large, with wooden mosques. Kilwa was supposedly one of the most beautiful towns in the world with stone houses covered with palm-leaf roofs or makuti; only certain mosques and the palace had hard flat roofs. From the fourteenth to fifteenth century, Kilwa continued to hold the monopoly for gold, trading gold from Yufi, situated a one-month walk from the coast. Sofala, a vassal of Kilwa city, maintained commercial relations with the Shona kingdom of Great Zimbabwe; the rise of Great Zimbabwe was intimately linked to the trading of gold with Islamized peoples.

Vasco da Gama discovered the route to India and the East African coast in 1498. The European objective was to control eastern trade markets. They possessed two important technological advantages that ensured their domination of the Indian Ocean: the use of firearms and large, fast boats, caravels. The Portuguese built some fifty forts around the Indian Ocean, from Mozambique to Malacca, occupying the coasts of Kenya and Tanzania during the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Despite founding some trading posts, they quickly abandoned any attempt at political hegemony and were content keeping control of the sea routes. At the end of the seventeenth century the area saw significant conflict involving Portuguese and Omani forces. After the fall of Mombasa, the Imam of Oman sent governors and garrisons to large cities such as Pate, Lamu, Mombasa, Zanzibar and Kilwa. In 1828, an Omani garrison was installed at Fort Jesus and the Sultanate of Zanzibar was founded.

The Sultanate of Zanzibar required a lot of slaves to maintain its clove plantations, the main export product. Large caravans were organized by the Omanis who destroyed the indigenous populations’ economy and introduced firearms in exchange for slaves and ivory. These slave caravans were funded by wealthy Indian merchants, the banians. But the commercial force of the Sultanate of Zanzibar was also its weakness, its plundering economy being based solely on slavery and the export of tropical products such as ivory and cloves, the limited number of these products increasing the precariousness of the economic system. The direct slave trade brought about important social changes, with Swahilis using landward populations rather than venturing beyond the coastline. For the first time in the history of East Africa, Islam took root in the interior lands of Kenya and Tanzania, right up to the Great Lakes region. In 1876, the movement of slaves toward the coast was strictly prohibited. The prohibition of the slave trade and the development of steam navigation eventually destroyed the supremacy of the Omani fleet. The opening of the Suez Canal imposed one last blow on the Sultanate causing it to lose its primary markets. The last sultan, Sa‘îd Barghash, died in 1888 and Zanzibar became a British protectorate on 1 July 1890.

One territory, one population, one religion

Wa-swahili, or “shore people”, designates the inhabitants of the East African coastline, and signifies above all a culture with a common language, Kiswahili, and the same religion, Islam. Arab-Persian geographers referred to the inhabitants of the East African coast as the Zanj. The Portuguese also noticed a difference between continental Africans and the people of the coast, who in light of their religion and customs they equated with “Moors” or “Kaffirs”. It was at the beginning of the nineteenth century that the first use of the term “Swahili” appeared, with settlers trying to classify and differentiate the different populations of Africa. The Swahilis have defined themselves as such since the colonial period, but differentiate between themselves according to their region, island or town of origin. Despite some common ground, Swahili identity remains multiple, incorporating populations of diverse background, both Cushitic and Bantu.

Swahili culture extends from Mogadishu in Somalia, through Kenya, Tanzania, north Madagascar and Comoros, to the bay of Sofala in Mozambique. As well as religion and language, these coastal populations share the same social organization and architecture. More than 450 Swahili archaeological sites have been registered spread over 3,000 km of the coastline (Pradines 2004: 18-20). The lifestyles on the east coast, Comoros and Madagascar were homogenous due to the dissemination of new ideas and techniques by maritime travellers. Swahili culture reflects neither a specific ethnic group nor a particular nationality.

The Swahili civilization stands at the periphery of the Muslim and African worlds, resulting in the development of a unique coastal culture based on trade. In fact, its marginal position is linked to our vision of the Indian Ocean, which separates Africa, Arabia and Asia. But the ocean also provides a connection between these very different cultures: the Swahilis are thus dynamic players, equal to Arab, Persian and Indian traders. Swahili archaeology is at the crossroads of Islamic archaeology and African archaeology.

Tombs Kunduchi
Tombs Kunduchi

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