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Sail to the Swahili Coast


What do you know about the Swahili culture? Did you know that the popular phrase from The Lion King, hakuna matata (meaning no worries), is actually from the Swahili language? But more than that mere pop-culture reference, let us delve into the history of the Swahili people, immersing in the deep cultural influence and economic trade that led to its cosmopolitan nature.

So, who are the Swahili people?

They are a group of people along the east coast of Africa - strategically located for maritime trade from Mogadishu (Somalia) in the North to the Rovuma River (Mozambique) in the South. They speak Kiswahili, which adopted Arabic vocabulary and the grammar and syntax of the Bantu language. While they share a common heritage and language, the Swahili do not form a political territory and are spread across separate city-states. Their language and culture still survive in Africa today from their history of trade, which brought about an exchange in goods, as well as ideas and cultures. 

Swahili Trade: Blow Wind Blow

  Map of Almeida route in Africa, 1505.    By Walrasiad 2010 (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Map of Almeida route in Africa, 1505. By Walrasiad 2010 (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Several Swahili cities along the east coast of Africa were involved in the thriving Indian Ocean Trade which peaked between the 11th and 16th centuries CE. The Swahili Coast was where a complex trading community was established along the eastern African coast from Somalia to Tanzania. The trading pattern between Africa and the near East was established around the monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean, which allowed for regular and predictable sailing schedules (as mentioned in this Crash Course video!). The regular trade winds were significant as it allowed goods to arrive on time in good condition and led to the flourishing of trade between the Swahili coastal cities and the rest of Middle East and Asia.

Furthermore, the deep harbours along the east African coast allowed a sustainable and profitable fishing and shipping industry and the coastal plain of East Africa was a fertile avenue for growing coconut palms, fruit trees, spices and mangrove. This gave the Swahili people the resources to trade. From here, it is evident that the environment impacted Swahili culture in a positive manner as its ability to trade was enhanced. Recorded in a first century manual for traders - the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, commodities such as ivory were recorded to be traded. Ivory was highly sought after as it was sturdy, easy to carve, practical and could be displayed. The Swahili cities also mined and exported metals like gold to the Middle East and iron to India to make steel weapons. The profits from trade significantly contributed to the prosperity of the kingdom of Great Zimbabwe - a city-state along the Swahili coast which operated many mines.

Apart from their exports, Swahili towns also imported goods from the Persian Gulf including “Islamic and Chinese ceramics, glass, metalwork and even carved stones for their mosques and cemeteries”. The discovery of these artifacts reveals the intercultural exchanges that occurred between the Swahili coast and the rest of the Indian Ocean region. 

Kilwa Kisiwani

Kilwa Kisiwani was the largest town on the Swahili coast and was the most prominent of the thirty-five Swahili Coast trading communities on the Indian Ocean. The site of Kilwa is north of the island of Kilwa Kisiwani about 2 km off the coast of Tanzania. Two archeological evidences that exemplify the presence of trade in Kilwa are the discovery of porcelain wares and coins scattered along the Swahili coast.

The presence of trade with countries as far away as China is backed by the discovery of Chinese coins from Swahili coastal areas. Archaeological expeditions at Kilwa discovered numerous Chinese goods, including several Chinese coins.

  Sherds made of stoneware, earthenware, porcelain.  By MacGregor 2010, from British Museum online collection. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Sherds made of stoneware, earthenware, porcelain. By MacGregor 2010, from British Museum online collection. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

These broken pieces of pots (pictured above) were discovered along the coasts of Kilwa Kisiwani. As the British Museum describes, "the pale green porcelain pieces are from China, the dark green and blue pieces come from the Persian Gulf and the brown unglazed pieces were made in East Africa." This diversity in the artifacts' origins reflect a vast trade network that extended across the Indian Ocean, revealing the advancements made by the Swahili city-states.

The More We Trade, The More We Share Our Cultures

Consequently, the prosperous maritime trade described above cemented the rich Swahili culture, which wove together African and Arabian influences. The cross-cultural exchanges through trade led to intermarriages and the adoption of foreign cultural practices. Swahili people identified with the Muslim religion and the five fundamental pillars of faith to Islam. For them, Islam is not merely a religion, it is a way of life.  More importantly, Islam was probably adopted to help in trade relations with the Middle East and also to prevent African merchants from being subdued by other Muslims. Islam is not only a form of religion, but also a form of livelihood.

  Carved door in Stone Town - the historic part of Zanzibar City.  By Eirik Newth 2004, via Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-2.0.

Carved door in Stone Town - the historic part of Zanzibar City. By Eirik Newth 2004, via Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-2.0.

The influences of Islam is seen as shown in this picture where Islamic calligraphy left its traces on architectures like this carved door at Zanzibar, situated on the Swahili Coast. 

Islam was present in Eastern Africa while Prophet Muhammad was still alive but it was only after his death that Islam got to the part of Eastern Africa which is now known as the Swahili Coast. The arrival of Islam influenced the cultural experience of the people in terms of marriage, kinship, inheritance, and succession. Despite the initial conflict in these areas between the African norms and the Islamic rules, Swahili later experienced a gradual change that aligned itself to the Islamic rules.


Decline of Kilwa: Crumbles and Shambles

The prosperity of the Kilwa port city lasted until the last decades of the 14th century, when the Black Death emerged and greatly hindered the progress of international trade. The dominance of the Swahili coastal towns over maritime trade ceased with the arrival of the Portuguese, who shifted the direction of international trade towards western Europe and the Mediterranean.

In Conclusion: Significance to History

The impact of the Indian Ocean Trade was significant to the development of the Swahili communities as it brought them prosperity and an exchange of ideas which profoundly shaped the Swahili culture and language up to this day. This can be seen through the spread of Islam and the Arabian and Persian influences in Swahili culture. The presence of trade along the Swahili coast brought about a cluster of inhabitants with different languages and culture. Through frequent interaction and exchange of artifacts with the kilwa coins, a common language emerged and it led to the flourishing of Swahili coastal cities. The strategic geographical location of the Swahili city-states along the coast attracted merchants and led international maritime trade to prosper. Trade had a paramount impact on the creation of city-states along the Swahili coast. It generated wealth through taxations, import and export duties and port fees but most significantly, it created an avenue for people of diverse races, religions and culture from all over the world to come together and established a new community that shared a common language and lasted for several centuries. That is the power of trade.

Furthermore, the Swahili coastal cities are significant because they follow the trend of great ancient civilizations being built and developed along water bodies, like the Indus Valley and Egyptian civilizations. The Swahili towns thrived because their proximity to the Indian Ocean provided a strategic location for maritime trade. One difference however is that the Indus Valley and Egyptian civilizations also benefited from the fertile plains of their rivers which provided abundant crops, whereas this was not as significant for the Swahili communities. Nonetheless, the rivers in the Indus Valley and Egyptian civilizations similarly provided a channel for the transportation of goods, like the Indian Ocean did for Swahili trade.

Additionally, from another viewpoint, John Green mentioned in the Indian Ocean Trade Crash Course that “reliance upon trade makes [one] especially vulnerable to the peaks and troughs of the global economy”. Sadly, this was exactly the case for Swahili culture. After being weakened by the epidemic outbreak of the Black Death, this meant the demise of the Swahili trading industry. The fact that these cities are not as formidable anymore demonstrates that “trade can be a pretty weak foundation on which to build a polity, even a small one.”