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.
IMPORTS AND EXPORTS
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
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
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
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."
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
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.
Hear Abdul Sheriff, historian and head of museums, introduce Tippu Tip's