Kwasi Konadu

East Africa and the Indian Ocean World

African History 360Kwasi KonaduComment

The Indian Ocean world was the center of an early global economy and Africa was a key player in it. Africa’s place in the vast Indian Ocean trading network stretched from northeast Africa, along the Swahili coast and its offshore islands, and flowed into present-day Mozambique. There are no precise dates for its beginnings, but eyewitnesses observed this network some 2,000 years ago may have been latecomers. Be that as it may, this much is known with more certainty. Through inland-coastal commerce, east African societies composed of pastoralists who herded cattle and goat, farmers who produced grains, root crops, and vegetables, hunters who exploited available game, including elephant for meat and their ivory. Seashell, gold, copper, timber, limestone, and other resources were equally exploited in the hinterlands and for coastal markets. These peoples built walled cities and homes with indoor plumbing. Taking advantage of the Indian Ocean seasonal monsoon winds and ocean currents, these hinterland and coastal societies, including islands such as Kilwa and Zanzibar, thrived in a commercial network connected to peoples and places in and around the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, South Asia, and as far as China. In the fourteenth century, Ibn Battuta traveled along the east African coast and its offshore islands, describing several the coastal settlements from Mogadishu to Mombasa a century before the Portuguese disrupted this network.

I took ship at Aden, and after four days at sea reached Zayla [Zeila, on the African coast], the town of the Berberah, who are [an African] people. Their land is a desert extending for two months' journey from Zayla to Maqdashaw [Mogadishu]. Zayla is a large city with a great bazaar, but it is the dirtiest, most abominable, and most stinking town in the world. The reason for the stench is the quantity of its fish and the blood of the camels that they slaughter in the streets. When we got there, we chose to spend the night at sea, in spite of its extreme roughness, rather than in the town, because of its filth.

On leaving Zayla we sailed for fifteen days and came to Maqdasha [Mogadishu], which is an enormous town. Its inhabitants are merchants and have many camels, of which they slaughter hundreds every day [for food]. When a vessel reaches the port, it is met by sumbuqs, which are small boats, in each of which are a number of young men, each carrying a covered dish containing food.[1] He presents this to one of the merchants on the ship saying "This is my guest," and all the others do the same. Each merchant on disembarking goes only to the house of the young man who is his host, except those who have made frequent journeys to the town and know its people well; these live where they please. The host then sells his goods for him and buys for him, and if anyone buys anything from him at too low a price, or sells to him in the absence of his host, the sale is regarded by them as invalid. This practice is of great advantage to them.

We stayed there [in Mogadishu] three days, food being brought to us three times a day, and on the fourth, a Friday, the qadi and one of the wazirs brought me a set of garments.[2] We then went to the mosque and prayed behind the [sultan's] screen. When the Shaykh came out I greeted him and he bade me welcome[3]. He put on his sandals, ordering the qadi and myself to do the same, and set out for his palace on foot. All the other people walked barefooted. Over his head were carried four canopies of coloured silk, each surmounted by a golden bird. After the palace ceremonies were over, all those present saluted and retired.

I embarked at Maqdashaw [Mogadishu] for the Sawahil [Swahili] country, with the object of visiting the town of Kulwa [Kilwa] in the land of the Zanj.[4]

We came to Mambasa [Mombasa], a large island two days' journey by sea from the Sawihil country. It possesses no territory on the mainland. They have fruit trees on the island, but no cereals, which have to be brought to them from the Sawahil. Their food consists chiefly of bananas and fish. The inhabitants are pious, honorable, and upright, and they have well-built wooden mosques.

We stayed one night in this island [Mombasa], and then pursued our journey to Kulwa, which is a large town on the coast. The majority of its inhabitants are Zanj, jet-black in color, and with tattoo marks on their faces. I was told by a merchant that the town of Sufala [Sofala] lies a fortnight's journey [south] from Kulwa and that gold dust is brought to Sufala from Yufi in the country of the Limis, which is a month's journey distant from it. Kulwa is a very fine and substantially built town, and all its buildings are of wood. Its inhabitants are constantly engaged in military expeditions, for their country is contiguous to the [non-Christian and non-Islamic] Zanj.

The sultan at the time of my visit was Abu'l-Muzaffar Hasan, who was noted for his gifts and generosity. He used to devote the fifth part of the booty made on his expeditions to pious and charitable purposes, as is prescribed in the Koran [Qur’an], and I have seen him give the clothes off his back to a mendicant who asked him for them. When this liberal and virtuous sultan died, he was succeeded by his brother Dawud, who was at the opposite pole from him in this respect. Whenever a petitioner came to him, he would say, "He who gave is dead, and left nothing behind him to be given." Visitors would stay at his court for months on end, and finally he would make them some small gift, so that at last people gave up going to his gate.

From Kulwa we sailed to Dhafari [Dhofar], at the extremity of Yemen [near the border with Oman]. Thoroughbred horses are exported from here to India, the passage taking a month with a favoring wind. Dhafari is a month's journey from 'Aden across the desert, and is situated in a desolate locality without villages or dependencies. Its market is one of the dirtiest in the world and the most pestered by flies because of the quantity of fruit and fish sold there. Most of the fish are of the kind called sardines, which are extremely fat in that country. A curious fact is that these sardines are the sole food of their beasts and flocks, a thing that I have seen nowhere else. Most of the sellers [in the market] are female slaves, who wear black garments. The inhabitants cultivate millet and irrigate it from very deep wells, the water from which is raised in a large bucket drawn up by a number of ropes attached to the waists of slaves. Their principal food is rice imported from India.

Its population consists of merchants who live entirely on trade. When a vessel arrives, they take the master, captain and writer in procession to the sultan's palace and entertain the entire ship's company for three days in order to gain the goodwill of the shipmasters. Another curious thing is that its people closely resemble the people of Northwest Africa in their customs….

[1] sumbuq is a type of dhow, a small Arabian boat.

[2] qadi is a judge of the Shari’a court; Shari’a is the canon law of Islam. A wazir is a high-ranking official or minister.

[3] Shaykh or Sheikh is an honorific title, leader or head of an Arab or Muslim community.

[4] Zanj is an imprecise term used by Arab-Muslim geographers to refer to Africans of the Swahili coast in particular and Bantu-speaking peoples in general.

Sources: Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325-1354, ed. and trans., H. A. R. Gibb (New York: Robert M. McBride & Co., 1919), 110-114. See also Medieval Sourcebook: Ibn Battuta: Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354 (