East African City-states

East African City-states
East African City-states

The Bantu migration from the central Sahara, perhaps the defining event in the history of Africa south of the Sahara, brought people to the region of East Africa as the nucleus of the emerging city-states. From the 10th century, Arab traders noticed the importance of such settlements to their trade.

From the onset the city-states were fiercely independent, and no East African empires emerged in the way that Ghana, Mali, and Songhai did in the west. As Richard Hooker wrote in Civilizations in Africa: The Swahili Kingdoms: “The major Swahili city-states were Mogadishu, Barawa, Mombasa (Kenya), Gedi, Pate, Malindi, Zanzibar, Kilwa, and Sofala in the far south.

These city-states were Muslim and cosmopolitan and they were all politically independent of one another; nothing like a Swahili empire or hegemony was formed around any of these city-states. In fact they were more like competitive companies or corporations each vying for the lion’s share of African trade.”

However while the Arabs provided much of the impetus for economic and cultural development, the original settlements were definitely rooted among Africans. Joseph E. Harris writes in Africans and Their History that “the most important pre-Islamic commercial town on the coast seems to have been Rhapta, about which little is known except that it was the center for the export of ivory that Arab merchants controlled. Rhapta was probably located on the northern coast of Tanganyika [now Tanzania].”

The culture of the region became increasingly diverse, as Persians and Indians would join the Bantu Africans and the Arabs in the city-states. When Idi Amin Dada drove the Indians from what is now Uganda during his rule (1971–79), he was ending an Indian presence in his country that had its roots in the first traders from India hundreds of years before.

Kilwa ruins located in Tanzania

While ivory, sandalwood, and gold were important exports, tragically the largest part of the economy was the slave trade. Zanzibar and Mombasa became the eastern terminus points for slaves the Arabs took out of Africa for shipment to Arabia and Yemen.

Kilwa emerged by the 12th century as perhaps the most powerful of the city-states, containing a mosque made from coral. The great Arab traveler Ibn Batuta stopped in Kilwa in 1331. It was ruled, as Harris notes, by the Shirazis, who had originally left the Persian city of Shiraz and intermarried with the Bantu population. Kilwa spread its influence south into the region of Zimbabwe and became a decisive factor in the trade in southern Africa as well.

Symbolic of the wide-ranging trade was the voyage from Malindi to China in 1414. On that trip, the ruler of the city-state of Malindi sent a live giraffe to the Ming emperor of China, Emperor Yongle (Yunglo). It was the early 15th century that saw the great Ming dynasty exploring fleets sailing from China, perhaps even as far as the Americas, under Admiral Zheng He.

Admiral Zheng would ultimately make seven historic expeditions from 1405 to 1433. The Chinese fleets made several stops on the East African coasts, making the Swahili city states part of a vast panoceanic trading economy. Trade was determined by the prevailing winds of the monsoon seasons. From November to March, Arabs, Indians, and Persians would sail south toward the Swahili coast and make their return voyages north between July and September.

The Indian Ocean trade would be monopolized by Arabs until the arrival of the Portuguese in 1498. It would mark the beginning of the end of the prosperous East African city-states. Mocambique, spelled also as Mozambique, would not be free from Portugal’s imperial rule until 1975.