The Story of Africa


- Early inhabitants


- Coastal trade


- Garden cities


- Dialogue and resistence

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.

The myth of Arab domination

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.

Early seafarers' account: the Periplus

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.

Coastal settlement

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.

Persian contact

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."
- Excerpt from The Ancient History of Kilwa Kisiwani. Taken from East African Coast, Select Documents.


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