The Swahili Sailors: The Moorish Traders of the Eastern Seas

Swahili Sailors in Early China

ln 1331 a very famous scholar and world traveler from the City of Fez, Morocco traveled down the east coast of Africa. This traveler’s name was Ibn Battuta. Ibn Battuta left in his memoir descriptions of all the foreign cities he visited all over the world.

When he went to East Africa he visited the famous city of Kilwa. Ibn Battuta described Kilwa as “one of the most beautiful and well constructed towns in the world.” In the city of Kilwa government officials, teachers and accomplished business men greeted Ibn Battuta.

The people of Kilwa are generally called “Swahili”. Today, as in the past, the Swahili people mainly reside in East Africa. The name “Swahili” comes from the Arabic term “Sahel” or “Swahil”. These words mean “shore” or “coastline”. Since they resided along the coastal areas these east African peoples called themselves “Swahili” meaning “people of the coastline”.

The period when the Swahili people initially occupied East Africa goes back more than 2000 years. Initially small groups coming from other parts of Africa began to settle in the area. These groups established small villages along this east coast area. Because of its close proximity, these peoples took to the ocean. Due to their frequent contact with the Indian Ocean their ocean navigational capabilities and ship sailing skills evolved to a high level. Soon the Swahili people were able to voyage for long distances and for extended periods across the Indian Ocean.

The Swahili eventually made contact with other countries along the Indian Ocean. Swahili sailors were able to reach Arabia, India, Indonesia and even China. Strong trade links were established between East Africa and these other nations. The Swahili became very wealthy due to these trade links. Between the 10th to the 15th century more than 30 trading-cities or trading~empires developed along the east coast of Africa. These cities existed in the areas which today are called Kenya, Tanzania and the island of Zanzibar.

During the peak period of this commerce, on any given day, Swahili sailors could be seen loading their large ships with gold, iron, ivory and coconuts, and unloading from them textiles and jewelry from India and exquisite porcelain from China. The Swahili also saw ships from China and other nations pulling into their harbors. These ships were making frequent stops at Lamu, Malindi, Mombosa and other trading city-states along the east African coast. These cities had developed into affluent thriving cosmopolitan cultures due to this trade. East African ivory was in high demand during this period and this ivory found its way into India, the Persian Gulf and China. South African gold was also in high demand.

Three major items used in East African trade. Ivory, gold and salt. African elephant tusks were the source of most of Asia’s ivory. Gold coins were much sought after in North Africa and cylinders of salt were in demand in South Africa.

In 1500 the Portuguese sailed to East Africa for the first time. This expedition was under the command of Pedro Alvares Cabral. When the Portuguese saw the Swahili they were astonished. One sailor on the ship wrote:

“ln this land there are rich merchants and there is much gold and sliver and amber and pearls. Those of the land wear clothes of fine cotton and of silk and many fine things, and they are blackmen. The liveliest and most prosperous city in all of East Africa during this period was the island of Kilwa. The island essential1y functioned like that of a market middleman. The Kilwa rulers controlled the exchange of goods between inner Africa and other nations along the Indian Ocean. This middleman role made the Kilwa rulers some of the wealthiest individuals on the entire continent. In 196l Nevill Chitic unearthed the mosque and pa1ace of the last Kilwa ruler. This structure is called the “Husuni Kubwa”. It was the largest domestic residence in all of East Africa. The palace had wel1 over 100 rooms, with galleries, patios, and separate sections for residential and commercial purposes.”

The citizens of Kilwa possessed very lavish, modern looking homes on the is1and. Some of their homes were actually two to three stories high. Many of them contained rugs from Persia, jewelry from India, spices from Southeast Asia and bowls from China. The Swahili made their homes out of the most available materials: namely, mangrove poles and coral. The main building material was a coarse vesicular coral broken into irregular blocks. When this coral is initially taken from the reef it is very soft and easily cut. As it is exposed to weather and rain, though, it starts to harden and become more durable. This need for the coral to weather meant buildings were often erected in stages over several years. The houses often had very impressive entrances. They usually had large arched doorways which led to private courtyards. A wide raised bank usually ran around three sides of the courtyard and provided space to sit. In this space visitors could be received and business transactions could be conducted. Usually a large narrow reception room, with wide doors and long windows, faced onto the court. Private rooms, often beautifully decorated, led off the reception rooms.

When we look at the documents and sources on Swahili or East African trade we find early Arab writings mentioning a few details here and there about the Swahili traders. We find them mentioned in such sources as the Muruj al-Dhahab, an Arab historical encyclopedia. We also have the archaeological evidence from various Asian countries, information from the Swahili oral and religious traditions and modern research now being conducted in this field.

When researching about East Africa the source most often cited is the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. This is the earliest detailed account about Swahili trade. This book was written around the first century by a Greek ship captain living in Egypt. It discusses Swahili imports and exports, their habits and hospitality and many things about their skills and interest.

One of the biggest misconceptions people have about Africa is the belief that in the past Africans never ventured outside their homeland. This belief has proven to be a myth because in ancient times it was a generally held view amongst the Swahili that all male children were born sailors. When we look at the Swahili religious practices we find that early in their history the Swahili accepted Islam. This faith became their dominant religion. Islam also helped develop them as a mercantile sea-faring people because the pursuit of trade, commerce and traveling to distant lands are highly encouraged in the Islamic faith. “Go in quest of knowledge, even unto China.” was a popular saying of Mohammed, the founding prophet of Islam. Other sayings of his include “Travel for vigor and profit”, and “The timid merchant gains nothing but disappointment while the bold one makes a living.”

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