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The Swahili

ole timer Jan 31, 2015

  1. ole timer

    ole timer Forum Owner Forum Owner

    The Swahili is the name given to the coastal people who historically could be found as far North as Mogadishu (Somalia) and as far south as the Rovuma River (Mozambique). They share a common language, widely spoken by non-Swahilis, called Ki-Swahili, and enjoy a city-based fusion of African and Arab culture.

    "Men of greatest stature, who are pirates, inhabit the whole coast and at each place have set up chiefs."
    From Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, 100 AD.

    The contact between the East African coast and Arabia, Persia and even China, goes back long before Islam came in the 8th century. Greeks and Romans called the area Azania. The Arabs talk about the Land of Zanj. Arguably coastal Africans were closer to the people of Arabia and the Gulf of Persia than to African societies in the central interior.

    "From of old this country has not been subject to any foreign power. In fighting they use elephant tusks, ribs and wild cattle's horns as spears, and they have corselets and bows and arrows. They have twenty myriads of foot-soldiers. The Arabs are continually making raids on them."
    From Compendium of Knowledge, by Tuan Ch'eng-shih, 8th century.

    The Coast of East Africa has had a long history of trade, involving constant exchanges of ideas, style and commodities for well over two thousand years. Marriage between women of Africa and men of the Middle East created and cemented a rich Swahili culture, fusing urban and agricultural communities, rich in architecture, textiles, and food, as well as purchasing power
  2. ole timer

    ole timer Forum Owner Forum Owner

    Early Inhabitants

    "From of old this country has not been subject to any foreign power. In fighting they use elephant's tusks, ribs and wild cattle's horns as spears, and they have corselets and bows and arrows. They have twenty myriads of foot-soldiers. The Arabs are continually making raids on them."
    From Compendium of Knowledge by the Chinese scholar, Tuan Ch'eng-shih, 8th century.

    Listen to some information on the linguistic origins of the Swahili language

    Until quite recently, the history of the East Coast of Africa has been portrayed - by Europeans and Arabs alike - as one of Muslim-Arab domination, with the African people and rulers playing a passive role in the process. Some 19th century and early 20th century British writers were contemptuous of a culture they regarded as 'half-caste' or 'mongrel'.

    But oral and archaeological evidence suggests that Swahili society was both dynamic and coherent. The relationship between people on the African main land on the one hand, and those from Arabia and Persia on the other, was in fact, one of mutual dependence and benefit. Therefore it does not make sense to talk of the Arabs 'appearing' on the East African coast and 'taking over' African societies.

    The earliest description of the East Coast of Africa was written in the 2nd century AD. It comes from a sailor's guide, probably compiled in Alexandria (modern Egypt) in 100 AD by a Greek trader. It's called the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, and it vividly shows that routes along the coast of East Africa were, at the time of writing, well-sailed and yielding considerable trade. The tone of this document conveys respect for the people of the coast.

    "Two days' sail beyond the island lies the last mainland market town of Azania, which is called Rhapta, a name derived from the small sewn boats the people use. Here there is much ivory and tortoiseshell. Men of the greatest stature, who are pirates, inhabit the whole coast and at each place have set up chiefs."
    The Periplus of the Erithraean Sea.

    The principal town mentioned in the Periplus is Rhapta, believed by some to have been near Zanzibar and Dar Es Salaam, while recent scholarship has pointed to it being closer to the island of Lamu. Coins from Northern Africa and Persia, dating back to the 3rd century AD. have been found in Zanzibar and Northern Tanzania, suggesting a strong tradition of trade between the Mediterranean world and African world.
    Oral histories of the Swahili tend to start with the arrival of Muslims from either Arabia or the Persian Gulf. Archaeological evidence, in what is now southern Somalia, suggests that a mosque was built in the 8th century near Lamu. The absorption of Arabs into African coastal society seems to have been largely achieved without friction, with the odd exception of settlements like Kua.

    Learn more about Dialogue & Resistance.

    There is also another tradition, a very strong one, that the first Muslims came from Shiraz in Persia - they were known as Shirazis.

    "Then came Sultan Ali bin Selimani the Shirazi, that is, the Persian. He came with his ships, and brought his goods and his children. One child was called Fatima the daughter of Sultan Ali. We do not know the names of the other children. They came with Musa bin Amrani the Beduin.

    They disembarked at Kilwa, that is to say, they went to the headman of the country, the Elder Mrimba, and asked for a place in which to settle at Kisiwani. This they obtained. And they gave Mrimba presents of trade goods and beads. Sultan Ali married Mrimba's daughter. He lived on good terms with the people
  3. ole timer

    ole timer Forum Owner Forum Owner

    Coastal Trade

    The climate of the Indian Ocean dictated the pattern of trade between Africa and the near East. Traders from the near East could sail to the East Coast anytime between November and February when the winds blew West. There was then a small window of commercial opportunity between March and April. By April, the winds would start blowing East and the traders would depart once again.

    There is little information about patterns of trade off the East Coast of Africa before the advent of Islam. One of the earliest written sources is a first century manual for travelers, the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.

    Commodities referred to in the Periplus include, ivory, rhino horn, tortoise shell and coconut oil.

    Find out more about Swahili Early Inhabitants

    Ivory was a hugely sought after product. It was strong, easy to carve and both functional and decorative. Ivory could be regarded as the plastic of its day. After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and the division of his empire into three, we know there was an increase in ivory imports from Africa. This was because trade with India, the other main source of ivory, became subject to higher tariffs.

    The African coast of the Red Sea (in the North East) became staked out for delivery and consignment of elephant tusks. Gold from southern Africa was also much sought after in the Near East and in North Africa. Coins from Northern Africa and Persia, dating back to the 3rd century AD have been found in Zanzibar and Northern Tanzania, suggesting a strong tradition of trade between the Mediterranean world and the African world.

    Trade routes from East Africa went North as well as East. For example, the people of the Empire of Aksum traded with the people of the East Coast for gold. There is a vivid description of this in the 6th century account of the Greek merchant, Cosmas Indicopleustes.

    "They take with them to the mining district oxen, lumps of slate, and iron, and when they reach its neighbourhood they make a halt at a certain spot and form an encampment, which they fence round with a great hedge of thorn.

    Within this they live, and having slaughtered the oxen, cut them in pieces, and lay the pieces on the top of the thorns, along with the lumps of salt and the iron.

    Then come the natives bringing gold in nuggets like peas, called tancharas, and lay one or two or more of these upon what pleases them - the pieces of flesh or the salt or the iron, and then they retire to some distance off.

    Then the owner of the meat approaches and if he is satisfied he takes the gold away, and upon seeing this its owner comes and takes the flesh or the salt or the iron."
    Cosmas Indicopleustes in East African Coast, Select Documents.

    Among the expensive textiles imported, such as embroidered silks, blue cotton cloth was hugely prized. Blue dye was unknown in East Africa and the colour was regarded as having special powers. Blue cloth was unpicked and the prized strands were woven into white cloth.

    In the 19th century, the Sultans of the East Coast made themselves immensely rich through buying and selling slaves, playing off the French against the Portuguese.

    From 1834, the Portuguese were keen buyers of slaves after the Atlantic slave trade was closed down by the British.

    One of the key traders with whom they did business was the Swahili traveler and trader Tippu Tip. He made himself a hugely rich and influential man in the region. A ruthless and commercially clever man, he specialised in long and dangerous treks into the interior to buy and capture slaves to sell at the coast, and had the monopoly of trade across an enormous territory stretching back from the coast. The Zanzibar slave market was only closed down in 1873
  4. ole timer

    ole timer Forum Owner Forum Owner

    Garden Cities: Rise and Fall

    Swahili mosques and tombs before the 18th century had a style quite unique to the Swahili and independent of Arabia. Doors of houses were, and still are, ornately carved. There was a very large population of craftsmen, working in wood, stone and metal. The ruling classes (the Sultan, his family, and government officials) lived in large houses, some several stories high. Their plates were porcelain and came from China.

    One of the greatest cities was Kilwa. Situated on an island very close to the mainland, Kilwa had by the 13th century broken the hold that Mogadishu had on the gold trade. By the 14th century it was the most powerful city on the coast. The Moroccan scholar and writer, Ibn Battuta, describes the Sultan of Kilwa being both gracious and kind. He also describes him making regular raids into the interior and looting the settlements of people there. Kilwa is now in ruins.

    Early Times
    "Of the original people who built Kilwa Kisiwani, the first were of the Mtakata tribe, the second the people of Jasi from the Mranga tribe. Then came Mrimba and his people. This Mrimba was of the Machinga tribe and he settled at Kisiwani."
    Oral tradition.

    16th Century
    "The city comes down to the shore, and is entirely surrounded by a wall and towers, within which there are maybe 12,000 inhabitants. The country all round is very luxurious with many trees and gardens of all sorts of vegetables, citrons, lemons, and the best sweet oranges that were ever seen… The streets of the city are very narrow, as the houses are very high, of three and four stories, and one can run along the tops of them upon the terraces… and in the port there were many ships. A moor ruled over this city, who did not possess more country than the city itself."
    Gaspar Correa describing Vasco da Gama's arrival in Kilwa.

    17th Century
    "The woods are full of orange, lemon, citron, palm trees and of a large variety of good fruit trees. The islands grow millet, rice, and have large groves of sugarcane, but the islanders do not know what to do with it."
    Franciscan friar, Gaspar de Santo Berndino account on visiting in 1606.

    18th Century
    "We the King of Kilwa, Sultan Hasan son of Sultan Ibrahim son of Sultan Yusuf the Shirazi of Kilwa, give our word to M. Morice, a French National, that we will give him a thousand slaves annually at twenty piastres each and that he shall give the King a present of two piastres for each slaves. No other but he shall be allowed to trade for slaves…"
    Slave treaty between French trader and Sultan of Kilwa, dated 1776.

    19th Century
    "the town of Quiloa [Kilwa], [was] once a place of great importance, and the capital of an extensive kingdom, but is now a petty village. The greatness of Quiloa…was irrecoverably gone. The very touch of the Portuguese was death. It drooped never to recover…

    Like other cities then on this coast, said to be flourishing and populous, it sunk from civilization, wealth and power into insignificance, poverty and barbarism."
    James Prior, surgeon on the frigate Nisus, visiting Kilwa as part of a hydrographical survey of the western Indian Ocean.

    All excerpts from East African Coast, Selected Documents.

    The Portuguese came on the scene in 1498 when they sailed round the southern tip of Africa and went north up the East African coast. Just five years later, they began a relentless campaign to subjugate local rulers and take control of the trade in gold, textiles, spices and ivory. They did an immense amount of damage to some of these cities, pounding them with their guns to force their Sultans to give tributes to the King of Portugal. The first place to be attacked was Zanzibar in 1503; two years later Kilwa and Mombasa were attacked and looted.

    "Then everyone started to plunder the town and to search the houses, forcing open the doors with axes and iron bars…A large quantity of rich silk and gold embroidered clothes was seized, and carpets also; one of these was without equal for beauty, was sent to the King of Portugal together with many other valuables."
    Eye witness account of the sack of Mombasa by Francisco d'Almeida and Hans Mayr. Taken from East African, Coast, Selected Documents.

    Mombasa suffered the greatest damage as its Sultan refused to give in to the Portuguese. In 1599, the Portuguese completed their largest fortress in Mombasa, Fort Jesus, which still stands today
  5. ole timer

    ole timer Forum Owner Forum Owner

    Garden Cities: Good Living

    The Swahili coast was dotted about with around 40 cities, small to large in size, starting in the North with Mogadishu (which is now in the capital of Somalia) and ranging south to Sofala (in modern Mozambique). Each city was well supplied with fruit and vegetables from the cultivated areas within and without the city boundaries.

    The Moroccan scholar and traveler Ibn Battuta visited the coast in 1331. He described in detail the splendour of the Sultan parading through Mogadishu.

    "All the people walked barefoot, and there were raised over his head four canopies of coloured silk and on the top of each canopy was the figure of a bird in gold. His clothes that day were a robe of green Jerusalem stuff and underneath it fine loose robes of Egypt. He was dressed with wraps of silk and turbaned with a large turban. Before him drums and trumpets and pipes were played…"
    From Ibn Battuta in Black Africa, by Said Hamdun and Noel King.

    Ibn Battuta also remarks on the rich variety of food along the coast, noting how fat the people of Mogadishu were. He himself ate handsomely there, taking chicken, meat and fish and vegetables, with side dishes of bananas in milk and garnishes of pickled lemons, chilies and mangoes.

    On two separate occasions, the Portuguese traveler Vasco da Gama stopped along the coast and received food for his crew. From the King of Mombasa in 1498, he obtained oranges, lemons and sugar cane, along with a sheep. In 1499, from the gardens of Malindi, he received oranges again for his scurvy-ridden crew. But it was not until 1820 that intensive agricultural cultivation was practised. It was then that Sultan Seyyid Said set up large clove plantations in Zanzibar, using slave labour
  6. ole timer

    ole timer Forum Owner Forum Owner

    Dialogue and Resistance

    The Arabs asserted themselves first on the East Coast as traders and were in the main gladly met by people on the Coast and from the interior. Similarly, several waves of migration from Persia, notably in the 11th century, resulted in a fusion of culture and religion. But coastal settlements were always open to attack from people of the interior. Sometimes these attacks had been provoked by Swahili, like the Sultan of Kilwa, who under the banner of Holy War or jihad launched raids in search of cattle or slaves. Sometimes the settlement of Arabs led to friction as this oral history recounts:

    "The origin of Kua was that foreign Arabs came, and that when they arrived they came to the people who owned the town of Kua. These people were Shirazi, who had come long ago from Persia, and the Arabs asked for a place to build in; and they were given a site.

    The Arabs were given the north part of the first town here, which was called Mkokotoni. The Shirazi said to the Arabs: Let us join together, that is you build here, and we shall be here, and we shall be neighbours together...

    After a short time, when the Arabs had made themselves masters, they began to act wrongly, and first of all they cut off the hand of the chief of the builder so that he should not go elsewhere. The builder found himself in abject poverty and thought with bitter resentment of his work.

    Then the Arabs built a small prison cell under the Royal Palace and barred it up. Here the people suffered much trouble."
    History of Kua recited by Shaikh Mwinchande bin Juma, formerly Jumbe of Kua, to G.S.P. Freeman-Grenville in 1955.

    From the 15th century onwards, people on the East African coast were under commercial and political pressure from the Portuguese, as well as traders and rulers from the East. Many Coastal kingdoms were bullied by the Portuguese into paying regular tribute to the Portuguese crown and giving trading concessions.

    The King of Malindi submitted to the Portuguese early on; the King of Mombasa by contrast, refused, and Mombasa was turned into a fortified city under Portuguese control in 1599, when they built Fort Jesus.

    In 1631 there was further rebellion against the Portuguese; the catholic priest, Father Prior, and the Chaplain of Fort Jesus were killed on command of the Sultan of Mombasa for refusing to become Muslims.

    Listen to a walkabout through Fort Jesus Museum in Mombasa

    The East Coast of Africa was a complicated patchwork of power bases and alliances. Enemies could become friends overnight, concessions and compromises were made according to the rough and violent circumstances of the day.

    For example, the Zimba people from the interior were regarded by the Portuguese priest Father Joao dos Santos in the 16th century with terror - he even referred to them as cannibals. He happily however described their alliance with the Portuguese in order to beat the Turks. This incident lead the Portuguese to behead the Sultan of Lamu ostensibly for helping the Turks.

    In the 18th century the French surgeon, M. Morice became a dear and honoured friend of the Sultan of Kilwa who gave him land and exclusive buying rights in the slave trade.

    From the 1780's the Sultans of Oman reasserted their control over the east coast, moving their capital to Zanzibar in 1840. The Omanis were opposed by the Swahili rulers of the mainland and Zanzibar.

    "Few of us cared much about going to Oman, as the proud Omani ladies rather regarded Zanzibar women as uncivilised creatures…all the members of our family born in Oman thought themselves much better and of higher rank than any of their African relations. In their opinion we were somewhat like negroes…and our speaking any other language but Arabic, i.e. Kiswahili, was the greatest proof of barbarity in their eyes."
    Princess Salme, one of the daughters of Sultan Seyyid Said, quoted by Abdul Sheriff in Slaves, Spices and Ivory in Zanzibar.

    Listen to a dramatisation of Princess Salme, daughter of Sultan Seyyid Said

    In the 19th century, the east coast became the object of German imperial ambition. In 1885 Germany declared a protectorate over the mainland of Tanganyika, contracting out administration to a commercial company. A series of rebellions ensued throughout the next decade. As part of the same European 'scramble' for Africa, Britain declared Zanzibar a Protectorate seeking to rule indirectly through the Omani Arabs. Zanzibar's relationship with the mainland, on the one hand, and Arabia and Persia on the other, remained complex. The ties with the Persian Gulf and Arabia were finally severed in the 1964 revolution, resulting in the death and mass exodus of most of the old Arab ruling class
  7. ole timer

    ole timer Forum Owner Forum Owner

    The Swahili Timeline

    100 - First written eye witness account of East African Coast compiled.

    570 - Birth of Mohammed.

    610 - Mohammed called to be prophet.

    622 - AH - Anno Hegira: year zero in Muslim calendar, dating from flight of the Prophet Mohammed from Mecca to Medina.

    632 - Death of Prophet Mohammed.

    639 - Muslim invasion of Egypt under Amr Ibn al-As challenging Roman Byzantine rule.

    750 - Governing centre of Muslims moves from Mecca to Baghdad.

    8th Century - First Muslims on East Coast of Africa.

    10th Century - Persian sailor Buzurg ibn Shahriyar of Rahmhormuz writes his collection of sailors' tales.

    1009 - Destruction of Church of Holy Sepulchre Jerusalem.

    1062 - Famine in North Africa. Fatimid dynasty in decline.

    1086 - Almoravid Muslims invade and conquer southern Spain.

    Early 14th Century - collapse of Mongol Empire.

    1317 - Dongola Cathedral converted to Mosque.

    1324 - Mansa Musa Emperor of Mali begins magnificent pilgrimage.

    1348 - Black Death reaches Maghreb from Sicily and kills over quarter of population of North Africa.

    1453 - Ottoman Turks take Constantinople.

    1543 - Ethiopians defeat Muslim army of Kingdom of Adal with help of Portuguese.

    1599 - Fort Jesus built by Portuguese