The Swahili States


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Basil Davidson on the Swahili States--This one we watch in class
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The Swahili States--Arab or African?--This one is optional, though it raises interesting questions
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East African coastal cities participated in a larger Afro-Asian trade network.
As far back as the 3rd c. CE, the banana, domesticated in India, came to Madagascar
(and thence to the African continent) as part of the broad Afro-Asian/Indian Ocean trading community.
Some agrohistorians speculate that the banana originated in New Guinea and diffused to India.
In any case, traditional agriculturalists in present-day East Africa
cultivate this vitamin-and mineral-rich crop
( Fields, et al. 373)
In the 8th century CE, goods and Islam found their way to Mogadishu in the North,
Sofala in the South, and the coastal cities in between.

In the 13th century, trade flourished in the Indian Ocean as East Africa, India, Southeast Asia, China, the Spice Islands participated in a thriving commercial network that encompassed both overland and maritime routes. Asian and Arab sailors mastered the monsoon wind patterns of the Indian Ocean to capitalize on commercial the opportunities. East Africa was part and parcel of the trade and served as "cross cultural agents" in the global commercial networks of that era.

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In the 6th - 8th centuries CE, and again in the 14th century, East Africa was a player in Indian Ocean trade that included the Arab states of the Red Sea/Persian Gulf, India, Southeast Asia, and China. In the 8th century, the center of Islam moved to Baghdad, integrating the Persian Gulf (and with it, East Africa) into pre-existing trade patterns. Shi'ite refugees from the predominantly Sunni empire fled to and settled in coastal Africa, inter-marrying with Bantu-speaking indigenous peoples. As Arab trade with the area flourished, East Africa appeared in Islamic chronicles as the "Land of Zenj (or Zanj)" or Land of the Blacks (Shillington 124).

image source < Shillington 124
Archaeological excavations confirm the integration of the coastal, Swahili towns into an intra-African network of trade as well as the larger Indian Ocean commerce. The presence of a large cohort of coastal Arabs contributed to the emergence of Kiswahili as a lingua franca that blended a Bantu base with, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu elements. The word 'swahili' comes from the Arab word 'sahel' or 'sahil,' meaning coast or shore, hence Swahili refers to the people of the coast (Shillington 128).

image source < Shillington 126 >

Muslim elites in the Swahili States, contemporaneous with the flourishing of Mali and Songhay, brought gold, ivory, rhino horn, and slaves from their hinterlands to trade for spices, silk, porcelain, etc. of the flourishing Indian Ocean network.

image source < History: General >
By the 13th century, much of Africa was a full partner in global trading patterns. East Africa exported primarily raw materials and imported manufactured or luxury goods. African ivory demanded a high price in China, as African elephants' tusks were considered a finer quality and texture of ivory than those of India. African slaves were sold and worked as galley slaves, domestic servants, and wherever hard labor was needed in the World of Islam. African slaves in Basra staged a rebellion against their owners as early as the 9th century (Shillington 127). The map (left) is hard to read; see below for one that shows only the maritime route.

(Bulliet et. al., 441)

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The trade goods, as indicated above, included:
From China to Africa--porcelain, silk
From the Moluccas (Spice Islands) to Africa--cinnamon, cloves, mace, nutmeg, cowrie shells
From India to Africa--pepper, textiles, opium, incense
From Africa to China--ivory, rhino horn, gold, slaves
From the Arab world* to Africa and elsewhere--horses, incense, Islam
From Europe to Asia via Swahili States (before advent of Portuguese)
--specie (gold from Africa, then silver and gold from New World
(all of the products above were expensive in Europe)

*(Arabs or Muslims were the main agents of trade, both on the Silk Road and the Indian Ocean)

When the Pax Mongolica collapsed in the 14th century, the overland, caravan routes known collectively as the Silk Road, disintegrated, making goods such as spices, textiles, gold, ivory, slaves, and the like more expensive. The fragmentation of the Mongol khanates made the Indian Ocean more important to the various trading partners. Indian and Arab dhows took advantage of the summer and winter monsoons to sail West (India to Arabia/Red Sea or East Africa, December - March) or East (East Africa or Arabia/Red Sea, April - August.)

The word "dhow" comes from the Swahili language of Africa's East coast (Bulliet, et. al. 440). The distinctive features of the Arab and Indian dhows which plied the Indian Ocean, Arabian and Red Seas lay in their triangular (lateen) sails; the planks of their hulls were sewn rather than nailed together. Thus, a dhow was more flexible in high seas than a ship fastened togther with nails. By the 13th century, the pilot steered the dhow with a rudder situated at the stern of the ship.


In India, Chinese junks picked up the goods for transport to ports in China. East Africa's contribution to the Indian Ocean trade consisted of gold, ivory, and other exotica. Chinese junks were major players in the Indian Ocean/East African commercial network until later Ming emperors halted the voyages of Zheng He's famous Treasure Ships in the 15th century, leaving domination of the trade to the Arabs/Muslims until the advent of the Portuguese.

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As in West Africa, cowrie shells, brought to East Africa via the Indian Ocean trade, served as a major medium of exchange.

By the middle of the 13th century, archaeologists have determined, about thirty or forty city states dotted the coast of East Africa; excavations revealed glass beads, Chinese porcelain, and other goods from the ports of Asia. The indefatigable traveler and chronicler, Ibn Battuta, visted several of the Swahili states on his epic 14th century trip. He described Mogadishu (in present day Somalia) as an important commercial center, and
Kilwa as "one of the most beautiful and well-constructed towns in the world"
(Bulliet, et. al. 440).
He was especially impressed that the inhabitants of East Africa, at least the urban elites, were devout Muslims. The ruins of Kilwa's great mosque can still be seen. Arab visitors, notably Ibn Battuta (14th c) and al-Masudi (10th c) commented on the "elegant language" of the people of Zanj, that their holy men call upon their followers to "please God...and to be obedient..."
(Shillington 128).

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By the 14th century, the Swahili cities contained structures built of coral that included mosques, palaces, commercial and civic buildings in a style and culture that combined indigenous African with Arab components as well.

Kilwa's wealth, like that of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay, rested on gold and trade. On the eve of the arrival of the Portuguese in the late 15th century, Kilwa merchants exported a ton of gold a year. Again as in West Africa, Kilwa imported gold from its hinterland, notably the mysterious area known as Great Zimbabwe, near the Zambezi river. From the African interior, slaves, ivory, ebony, and other products (powdered rhinocerous horn was valued as an aphrodisiac in Ming China) wended their way to the coast for export.

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Kilwa, between Mogadishu in the North and Sofala in the South was the premier Swahili state;
its coral stone buildings, Muslim elites, and wealth impressed Vasco da Gama.
On his second voyage, da Gama plundered the city.
Historian Basil Davidson describes
Portuguese destruction
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When the Portuguese arrived in the Indian Ocean (Dias, da Gama) in the very late 15th century, they had no previous knowledge of the thriving, wealthy Swahili economy and society of East Africa. Motivated by a desire to bypass the Ottoman/North African monopoly on the spice trade of the Mediterranean, armed with muskets, enriched by the gold from El Mina in West Africa, and driven by a crusading zeal to destroy Islam wherever and whenever they found it, the Portuguese systematically attacked and sacked Kilwa, Mombasa, and others of the Swahili states (Shillington 134). They couldn't believe that non-Christian Africans founded and developed economies, societies, and cultures of such wealth and sophistication. They justified their destruction of them in the 16th and 17th centuries, as doing God's work. In the notorious "Pilgrim Ship" incident on his second voyage, da Gama captured a ship of 400 Muslims (including 50 women) making the Hajj to Mecca and burned it, killing all on board.

On African Kingdoms, "The Swahili States"

The cities that comprised the Swahili States of the 15th century lie in present day Kenya, Tanzania, and Somalia.
A glance at 2011 newspaper confirms that these three nations, and much of southern Africa,
are wracked by a drought that has brought demographic catastrophe to the area and
ferocious warfare to Sudan; images of refugees from drought- and famine-stricken lands
provide eloquent testimony to this humanitarian disaster,
as well as evidence of systemic global climate change.

As you saw on the [ Zones ] page traditional tribal cultures struggle with the forces of modernization. The government of Tanzania has worked to foster a single national language (Kiswahili) and universal primary and elementary education. The school at Karatou, near Arusha, is a stark contrast to Castilleja.


While Kiswahili is the primary language, English is required and becomes the language of instruction in high school, if a child is lucky enough to pass the national exams. These children have walked to school and are studying for the exam, scheduled for September.





Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe, re-discovered in 1871 by Karl Mauch, lay far enough inland to retain its African essence and not to convert to Islam as was the case of the coastal Swahili states. The archaeological record defines Great Zimbabwe's heyday from the late 13th to the late 15th centuries. Great Zimbabwe itself, founded and inhabited by the Bantu-speaking Shona people, became the center of a large, prosperous state. The word 'zimbabwe' (from which the modern nation takes its name) literally means stone buildings; stone works--now gigantic stone ruins--comprised a vast 60 acre site with massive walls thirty-two feet in height and seventeen feet thick (Craig, et. al. 512). Much about Great Zimbabwe remains a mystery: its rise coincided with the thriving gold trade which flowed down the Zambezi to Kilwa or Sofala; its decline and fall may have come from overpopulation, deforestation, scarcity of salt, and destruction of the local habitat.

The massive stone ruins of Great Zimbabwe still impress and mystify tourists.

(Craig, et. al. 513)

To learn more about "The Mystery of Great Zimbabwe," visit

Great Zimbabwe

For impressive graphics of Great Zimbabwe's ruins, visit

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The Mutapa State

In the middle of the 15th c, as problems spread unsolved in Great Zimbabwe, legend and Shona oral tradition recount how Nyatsimbe Mutota, went North from Great Zimbabwe in quest of new sources of salt, fertile land, forests, etc., as well as convenient access to the the Zambezi River and the coastal Swahili states. Taking the title Mwene (or Munhu) Mutapa (Conqueror, Master Pillager, Lord of the Plunderers) Mutota and his son conquered the pastoral and agriculturalists of the area. The Mutapa rulers discovered their own sources of alluvial goldand set about replacing Great Zimbabwe as the major commercial center of the area. They even avoided conquest and destruction by the marauding Portuguese (Shillington 152-153).

The Mutapa rulers lucked out in the sense that the Kalahari protected them from invasion from the West, the Inyanga Mountains performed the same service on the East; the tsetse fly helped as well. Legend also attests to the valor of Mwene Mutapa's female army of bodyguards in fending off rivals and the Portuguese.

For more on the Mutapa State, visit

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background: Garlake, Peter. The Kingdoms of Africa. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1990, 83.

kente cloth line--

Bulliet, Richard, et. al. The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

Callahan, Brian. "Early African History through the Era of the Slave Trade." University of Virginia, 1998.

Craig, Albert, et. al. The Heritage of World Civilizations, 5th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Fields, Lanny, et. al. The Global Past. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998.

Katz, Saville.

The Perry-Casta–eda Library Map Collection. The University of Texas at Austin

Pilgrim, John. "Journeys of Ibn Battuta.'' Horace Mann Middle School.

Shell Horizons, Inc.

Shillington, Kevin. History of Africa. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

"Zimbabwe." Action for Southern Africa, Scottish Section, 1999.


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