East African Coastal Historical Towns. Asiatic or African?
Jacob L. Kimaryo*
The East African coast is dotted with ruined and extant historical towns of significant cultural importance. Albeit the builders and inhabitants of these towns are known to have been the Swahili, who these historic people were in terms of their origin has been a matter of serious debate since the beginning of the 20th century. So far two perspectives have emerged out of this debate, which respectively advocate for Asiatic and African ancestries of the historic Swahili.
This paper makes a critical review of the two perspectives about the founders and dwellers of East African coastal historical towns. The review shows that the Asiatic perspective is based on the colonial deliberate falsification of African history, and to certain extents limited historical understanding about the East African coast. The African perspective on the contrary, is founded on credible evidence from historical records and recent archaeological findings and interpretations. The evidence strongly suggests that historical Swahili people are descendants of Bantu and Cushitic speaking people who settled along the East African coast in the first millennium. These Africans are believed to have attained a common cultural and linguistic base hence became Swahili per se around the 11th century through the medium of Islam. This cultural and linguistic transformation is believed to have originated in Shungwaya alias Shirazi in the northern coast of Kenya from where it spread southwards to the rest of the East African coast. To conclude, the review shows that although some non-Africans particularly Arabs and Persians were absorbed into Swahili population over the different historical epochs of the East African coast, historic Swahili people remained decidedly African in ancestry and culture.
The East African coast which stretches more than a thousand kilometres from the northern end of Kenya to the southern end of Tanzania, is dotted with ruined and extant historical towns of significant cultural importance. The builders and inhabitants of these towns have generally been referred to as the Swahili (SÃk, 1970; Sutton, 1992; Allen, 1982, 1993; Fage, 1995; Horton, 1996; Romero, 1997; Chami, 1998; etc.). However, what constitutes this population group in terms of origin thus ethnic composition in different historical epochs of the East African coast has so far been a matter of serious debate since the beginning of the 20th century. Out of this debate, two perspectives about the identity of historic Swahili have emerged which advocate for Asiatic and African ancestries respectively. This paper which is based on an ongoing research project financed by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), makes a critical review of the two perspectives about the founders and dwellers of East African coastal historical towns. It is expected that the review would contribute to more understanding about the realisation and evolution of Swahili as a cultural population group and builders of East African coastal historical towns.
Asiatic Perspective: Swahili as Predominantly Asiatic
Proponents of this view, e.g. Coupland (1956), Hollingsworth (1951), Kickman (1963, 1974), Chittick (1965, 1984), etc., see the historical Swahili as consisting of people of Arabic and Persian origin and from intermarriages between the Asians and African women.
Coupland (1956) portrayed the whole of historic East African coast as a colony of immigrants from the Middle East. Coupland further observed that, indigenous inhabitants of the region were relegated to the roles of wives and slaves for the immigrants. Earlier, Hollingsworth (1951) had alleged an existence of a Persian or Arab-Persian Empire called Zenj Empire along the East African coast before the 15th century. Accordingly, he argued that civilization that took place in the region during that time was inherent in the Asian settlers. Coupland and Hollingsworth observations were based purely on historical and cultural narratives and assumptions.
The Asiatic perspective was supported further by Kirkman (1963, 1964), and Chittick (1965, 1984). Kirkman (1963) in correlating physical evidence from his archaeological excavations in Gedi and other sites of historical towns along the Kenyan coast with cultural and historical narratives concluded that the sites were Arabic colonial settlements. A year later, James Kirkman in his Men and Monuments on the East African Coast, reiterated the Asiatic view as thus:
The historical monuments of East Africa belong, not to the Africans but to Arabs and Arabised Persians, mixed in blood with the African but in culture utterly apart from the Africans who surround them. (Kirkman, 1964)
A similar historical interpretation was suggested by Neville Chittick in his archaeological works in Kilwa Kisiwani (Chittick, 1965) and Manda in the Lamu archipelago (Chittick, 1984).
In Kilwa Kisiwani, Chittick implied Asiatic connection of the townsâ€™ inhabitants from the names of a number of Kilwa rulers engraved on excavated locally minted coins. On the basis of dynastic history, he claimed that the rulers were from a Persian city called Shiraz. To Chittick, Kilwa Kisiwani was a Persian colonial settlement. He argued that the Persians had a period of settlement in southern Somalia before they landed in Kilwa Kisiwani (Horton, 1996). It is important to note here that for some unknown reasons, Chittick in his later two volumes work on Kilwa (Chittick, 1974) avoided association of the townsâ€™ population with Persians. Instead he advanced the townâ€™s population as an amalgamation of Arabs and Africans by which albeit the latter constituted the greater part of the amalgam, they were however absorbed into the society as wives, slaves or otherwise (ibid:245). In Manda, Chittick revived his old idea of colonisers from Shiraz in Persia. That he did on the basis of mainly excavated imported pottery. He modified the idea a little bit by arguing that, the initial point of settlement of the Shiraz Persians was not southern Somalia as earlier contended but the Lamu archipelago (Chittick, 1984; Horton, 1996).
Chittickâ€™s position and perhaps that of Hollingsworth on the origin of historic Swahili could have been partly influenced by the Kilwa Chronicles. The latter is a controversial compilation in Arabic language of what was essentially an oral-historical composition about Kilwa from its foundation to about 1550 when the compilation was made. According to the compilation, the founders of Kilwa originated from Shiraz in the land of Persia. They arrived in Kilwa in a ship led by Ali bin al-Hasan one of sons of the sultan of Shiraz. The story goes on to suggest that in addition to the ship that landed in Kilwa there were six other ships each led by one of five other sons of the sultan and himself. Five of the ships landed in different points along the East African coast including Mombasa, Pemba, and perhaps Shanga. The last ship landed in the Comoro islands. Interestingly, the chronicles gave the reason for the immigration of the whole sultanate to East Africa as being a bad dream the sultan had which he claimed to have correctly interpreted as a prophecy of destruction of his country. From the Kilwa Chronicles therefore, most of the early urban civilisations that sprang along the East African coast before about the 16th century were a result of the immigrants from Shiraz in Persia.
The Asiatic perspective about historical Swahili people has also been defended linguistically. Most such defences have been centred round a popular assumption that earlier Swahili language was an ancient mixture of Arabic and Bantu languages (see Horton, 1996).
African Perspective: Swahili as Predominantly African
By denying Africans any significant link with historic Swahili people, the Asiatic perspective implies that Africans per se had little to do if any with the evolution of historical towns in their own region. This contradicts sharply with records of ancient travellers and geographers who visited the East African coast and recent archaeological findings. For example, during his visit to Mombasa and Kilwa in 1331, Ibn Battuta, a famous Moroccan traveller, described Kilwa as a large city along the coast whose inhabitants were black meaning Africans (see Sutton, 1990:81). Ibn Battuta went even further to mentioning that the inhabitants had tattoos on their faces, a facial feature which is common in a number of Bantu speaking tribes including the Makonde who resides in the area around Tanzania and Mozambique border which is within very close proximity of Kilwa. Some Chinese descriptions of inhabitants of early settlements along the East African coast also indicate strongly that the inhabitants were Africans (see Allen, 1993:21-26).
Perhaps the most interesting and credible evidence against the Asiatic view is founded in findings from recent archaeological surveys and excavations. For instance, an archaeological interpretation based on recent archaeological excavations on the Kenyan north coast suggests that historic Swahili were offspring of a Pastoral-Cushitic group from the Rift Valley and northern part of Kenya (see Horton, 1984, 1987, 1990; Abungu, 1989, 1994). On the basis of excavated cattle and camel bones, Horton (1984, 1987) argued that the Pastoral-Cushitic people founded a number of settlements in the northern coast of Kenya between the 8th and 10th century. He envisaged that the settlements were market centres that provided opportunity for the African inhabitants to come into contact with foreign traders. The contact is believed to have resulted in increased knowledge about trade to the inhabitants and some inter-marriages. According to Horton, the early coastal Cushitic settlements were the origin of Swahili urbanisation. From the Kenyan northern coast, it spread southwards to the rest of the East African coast through Cushitic immigrants or influence.
There is reasonable consensus that some early coastal settlements along the northern coast of Kenya were of Pastoral-Cushitic origin. However, the theory that there were these settlements that provided the beginning of Swahili urbanisation for the whole East African coast has been questioned and even refuted all together (see Chami, 1998; Haaland, 1994; Schmidt, 1994; etc.). Chami (1998) using materials from recent archaeological surveys and excavations in the central coast of Tanzania asserted the existence of Bantu settlements along the coast as early as the first five centuries of the first millennium. He continued that the Bantu settlements evolved between the 6th and 10th century with changing trading opportunities, new technologies, and population growth giving rise to a new form of coastal urbanisation that spread to the northern and southern coasts of East Africa. According to Chami therefore, the early urbanisation along the Kenyan northern coast was influenced by the Bantu urbanisation in the central coast of Tanzania during the second half of the first millennium.
The findings from recent archaeological excavations indeed suggest that the inhabitants of early settlements along the East African coast during the first millennium were Africans. However, what have remained unresolved are the conflicting claims about where the early African urbanisation along the East African coast started and its subsequent spreading to other parts of the coast. The main argument so far has been on whether it originated in the northern Kenyan coast or the central Tanzanian coast by Cushitic and Bantu speaking people respectively. My belief is that such point of influence is unlikely to have existed at that stage of the urbanisation of the East African coast. In other words, African settlements that existed along the East African coast before about 10th century are likely to have evolved independently involving different Bantu and Cushitic groups that had no common cultural or linguistic bases. It is this lack of common cultural tradition that the African settlers of the early settlements along the East African coast are not classified as Swahili but rather the precedents of Swahili people.
If as it is now indicated that Swahili people are descendants of the Africans who settled along the East African coast in the first millennium, the question then is how and when did this process of metamorphosis from non-Swahili to Swahili took place? How did the identity of Swahili people evolve over different historical epochs of the East African coast? Why were the African roots of Swahili people suppressed by the proponents of the Asiatic perspective? These crucial questions about the builders of East African coastal historical towns would be addressed in the proceeding sections of this paper.
Realisation and Evolution of Swahili Identity
As indicated elsewhere, e.g. Allen (1993), Chami (1998), etc; pre-Swahili settlements attained a common cultural and linguistic base hence became Swahili per se with the spread of Islam. There is some archaeological evidence that suggests existence of some Muslim population along the East African coast by the 8th century. Horton (1996:419-421) in his recent archaeological surveys and excavation of Shanga in the Lamu archipelago unveiled a small mosque built at the town centre during the late 8th century with capacity of accommodating only a fraction of the town population. Albeit each generation replaced the mosque with a building a little larger thus indicating a growing Muslim population, the latter still represented a small portion of the overall town population. Horton drew a logical conclusion that only a small number of Shanga inhabitants were Muslim by the 8th century and that the few Muslims seem to have been local traders who converted through contact with overseas merchants. It is very likely that such small groups of local Muslims existed in other towns along the East African coast during that time as well. That, however, does not in strict terms make the towns Muslim.
It was from the 11th century onwards, when Islam was introduced in full-scale and consolidated along the East African coast (Allen, 1993; Romero, 1997; etc.). It is strongly believed that the first propagators of Islam were a group of citizens of Great Shungwaya, a ruined settlement opposite Pate Island in Kenya on the northern coast (ibid; Horton, 1996). According to Allen (1993), the Shungwaya alias Shirazi propagators became Muslim converts after had spent some time in the Muslim world especially Shiraz in Persia under the Buwayhid rule. On their return home, they spread their new faith in their homeland and the region as a whole. While the Shungwaya Muslims could have been inspired with Shiraz Shiite Islam and particularly the Buwayhid court, on returning home did not adopt Shiite Islam wholesale. Instead they modified the Middle Eastern Islam to suit the society of Great Shungwaya and other Eastern African coastal settlements resulting in an East African variant of Islam or what is known as the Shirazi Islam.
Naturally, the northern coast was the first to adopt Islam under the influence of the Shungwaya Muslims. Islam provided the medium to the different African communities to build up a common cultural tradition and language known as Swahili. By the beginning of the 14th century, Islam and the inherent Swahili cultural package had spread all over the East African coast. This point of maturity of Swahili culture and language, is confirmed by the earlier mentioned Ibn Battuta who during his visit to the East African coast in the early 1330s referred to the coast as Sawahil country (Allen, 1993:138; Chami, 1998). The early Swahili people were known as Shirazi Swahili on the virtue of their association with Shirazi Islam and traditions.
Albeit Shirazi Islam originated in northern coast, it was, however, in the southern coast where it survived and flourished. In the northern coast, Shirazi Islamic system was interrupted almost as soon as it was adopted, by what is known as the Waungwana system (see Horton, 1996; Allen, 1993). For example, while the Shirazi Islamic system became dominant in Mombasa, Zanzibar, Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara, in Lamu the Waungwana system replaced it almost totally.
The ethnic composition of Swahili people has changed considerably over time. The early Swahili population comprised mainly of Africans and perhaps some few mixed people from short-term sexual relations between African women and foreign traders (see Romero, 1997:3). The population grew by natural increase and absorption of mainly non-Swahili African immigrants until the beginning of 14th century, after which time significant numbers of non-African immigrants started getting absorbed. Absorbed non-Africans were mainly Arabs from Oman. Some Persians were also absorbed but were relatively few in numbers until an influx of them into Zanzibar in the 18th and 19th century (see Allen, 1993:118). Some Indian immigrants were also absorbed during the 19th and 20th century particularly in Zanzibar and Mombasa. Nevertheless, despite this absorption over time of non-African immigrants, Swahili people have remained decidedly African in ancestry and culture.
So far, I have treated the African ancestry of Swahili people without specification into tribes. Prior to the 17th century, such specification could only be guessed. This is because nothing much is known about African tribes along the East African coast before this time due to the fact that tribes in the region before then did not exist as significant social units (see Allen, 1993:82). Specifications that have been attempted prior to the 17thcentury have been through relating recent tribal traditions along the coast to those of pre 17th century Swahili and pre-Swahili Africans. It is in this way Allen (1993) for example, associated Segeju and Katwa tribes with the inhabitants of Great Shungwaya hence implying that early Swahili population particularly in the northern coast could have comprised people or descendants from the two tribes. More reliable African tribal specification of the Swahili people could only be made from the 17th century onwards following the evolution of tribal consciousness.
Prejudice and Limited Historical Understanding
At this juncture, one would wonder why the proponents of the Asiatic perspective fell short of recognising the African roots of the Swahili people. To the largest extent, the reason could be considered a matter of mere prejudice and perhaps limited historical understanding of the East African coastal settlements.
The prejudicial background of the Asiatic perspective is rooted in the perception of Africa by Western imperialists, colonialists and even neo-colonialists who came to the continent during the 19th and 20th century. Most of the imperialists and colonialists came to Africa with the conviction that the continent was far behind human progress and had therefore no urban civilisation past. Simple arguments like absence of well articulated social structures consisting lets say nobility, bourgeoisie, peasantry and proletariat, were used to rationalise their position. Accordingly, any remains of such civilisations whenever encountered were simply attributed to some non-African groups which were deemed to be superior to Africans (see Allen, 1993). This falsification of African history was embraced in the colonial doctrine with the purpose for stripping Africans their confidence so as to make them vulnerable to colonial patronisation and control.
Precursors of the Asiatic perspective most of whom being Westerners themselves, either shared the above colonial perception of Africa or were influenced by it. Accordingly, their efforts were more or less geared towards only providing evidence in support of the perception. It is not surprising therefore that they received greatest intellectual respectability from colonial administrations in East Africa. Some of their works were even adopted by colonial governments as standard history textbooks for schools (see ibid). Neither is it surprising that archaeological excavations and interpretations by some of the precursors, e.g. Chittick (1965, 1984), deliberately focused only on imported materials. Furthermore, other non-Africans like Arabs and Persians seized the opportunity provided by the colonial attitude to elevate their status along the East African coast through fabricating stories and exaggerating their contribution to the coastal civilisation.
Prejudice that denies Africans ties to their own historical urban spatial forms has been observed elsewhere, e.g. Elleh (1997). Elleh questions the rationality of associating Egyptian pyramids with Arabs whilst there is reasonable evidence that their construction took place long before the Arabic migration into Northern Africa. It is also only after highly publicised evidence from some recent archaeological works like those by Reisner and Freidrich Hinkel that Sudanâ€™s Nubian historical towns along the Nile, e.g. Gebel Barkal and Meroe, were recognised as having African origins. The archaeological findings in Sudan and particularly contents of tombs, paintings and engravings in building structures suggested firmly that the rulers – pharaohs of the ancient Sudanese towns, like Taharka, were Africans. Hitherto these findings, the Sudanese towns despite their geographical location were unquestionably taken to be Arabic. Even the ruins of the large stone built complex of Great Zimbabwe in the heart of the African continent had until recently been regarded as Phoenician (Allen, 1993).
Limited historical understanding has been argued by some more moderate critics of the Asiatic perspective, e.g. Sutton (1990), as being the cause of its shortcoming. Lack of adequate and appropriate archaeological data during the largest part of the last century, about historical settlements along the East African coast has particularly been cited. But again, while this could have been so, one has to however realise as indicated earlier the contribution of prejudice to the situation. According to Sutton (1990), in addition to limited historical knowledge, the Asiatic perspective was also influenced by tendency of some modern time Swahili people of associating their family trees to imaginary Arabic ancestors. Sutton observes that as follows:
The misapprehension that the Swahili and their cultural history are Arab or â€˜half Arabâ€™ is based on a shallow historical understanding. The claims of many Swahili families, for reasons of prestige within Muslim society, to a distant Arab origin have encouraged an exaggerated notion of Arab settlement of the coast in earlier centuries. The contacts and variety of influences deriving from them are undeniable; yet the Swahili remain an East African people. (Sutton, 1990:60)
This paper has provided a concise review of the Asiatic and African perspectives about the origins of historic Swahili people hence the builders of East African coastal historical towns. Specifically, the review has shown that the Asiatic perspective is based on the colonial deliberate falsification of African history, and to certain extents limited historical understanding about the East African coast. The African perspective on the contrary, is founded on credible evidence from historical records and recent archaeological findings and interpretations. The evidence strongly suggests that historical Swahili people are descendants of Bantu and Cushitic speaking people who settled along the East African coast in the first millennium. These Africans are believed to have attained a common cultural and linguistic base hence became Swahili per se around the 11th century through the medium of Islam. This cultural and linguistic transformation is believed to have originated in Shungwaya alias Shirazi in the northern coast of Kenya from where it spread southwards to the rest of the East African coast. To conclude, the review has shown that although some non-Africans particularly Arabs and Persians were absorbed into Swahili population over different historical epochs of the East African coast, historic Swahili people remained decidedly African in ancestry and culture.
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Cited as “EAST AFRICAN COASTAL HISTORICAL TOWNS” This Paper Was Presented to the Conference: U-landsforskning 2000, January 13-15, 2000, University of GÃ¶teborg, GÃ¶teborg, Sweden
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*Dr Jacob Kimaryo is currently a Principal Consultant, Urban Research and Training Consultancy Ltd, Unit 2C, Waverley House, 10 Joiner Street, Sheffield, S3 8GW, United Kingdom. E-mail: m2jk at urban-research.net