By John Middleton
Who are the Swahili? Like any other peoples, they claim a particular identity, although one that has changed during their long history. They see it in ethnic terms, that of their believed place of origin. To understand this we need to know not only who they say they are and where they came from but also the roles they have played in the past and today.
Most African peoples are rural farmers, with their own indigenous religions, but the Swahili are urban dwellers with a Muslim and literate civilization. For centuries, they were merchants in the ancient commerce between the interior of Africa and the countries of the Indian Ocean, dealing mainly in ivory, gold, and slaves from Africa and in cloth and beads from Asia. To their ports came sailing ships from Arabia and India and foot caravans from the African interior. The British abolition of the export of slaves in 1873 and slavery itself in 1897 in Tanzania and 1907 in Kenya destroyed much of their former economy, and their role of wealthy merchants has been taken from them during the 20th century by international companies.
The Swahili merchants live in towns, many founded a thousand years ago. Other Swahili, farmers and fishermen, live in coastal villages. Each town is formed around its central mosque attended by the men (women may not enter mosques). The merchants' houses, set in narrow streets and often two or three stories high, are elaborately designed and furnished, and in the past were of great wealth and luxury, with many domestic slaves. Merchant families kept themselves ethnically "pure" by marrying only their own close kin, in expensive and elaborate weddings. With their present impoverishment most of the luxury and splendor have gone.
Swahili identity is unique, but it is not a single uniform one. They have never formed a single polity, but are a cluster of groups each with its own occupation, way of life, and ranked position. These groups include the descendants of the original merchants; of the Arab rulers of the Sultanate of Zanzibar who came in the early 18th century from Oman in Arabia to establish a colonial state; of later Arab colonists who came in the 19th and 20th centuries; and of the slaves (who number half the population). In time, the Arabs and the slaves adopted the Swahili language and became "Swahili" themselves, although the differences are always recognized. There are also many recent labor immigrants from the African interior but these are never considered to be Swahili.
The merchants originated on the African coast during the first millennium and speak an African language closely related to those of their non-Muslim African neighbors. Their name, "The People of the Coast", was given to them by the rulers of the Sultanate of Zanzibar, who looked down on the local inhabitants and gave them this derogatory name; the Swahili rarely use it themselves, preferring those of their particular towns.
As coastal merchants, the Swahili face both towards Africa and towards Arabia and Asia. Despite their pride in their own civilization, at various times they have claimed to have come from Arabia or Persia, even though historical, archaeological, and linguistic evidence show this to be unfounded. To do so distinguished them from their slaves; as merchants, to claim family ties with their Asian partners made good business sense (as did also their early adoption of Islam); the British colonial administrators of East Africa separated "Arabs" from "Natives" by giving the former legal and tax advantages, and for this reason also many Swahili claimed Arabian identity. Their sophisticated lifestyle and their being literate and Muslim gave credence to these claims despite their lacking any real foundation. Today the governments of Kenya and Tanzania regard the Swahili as former slave traders and thus only marginally "African."
Nonetheless, historical evidence shows clearly that the Swahili are "African" in origin, even though many aspects of their civilization have been borrowed from Arabia and even India. The Swahili see themselves as neither "African" nor "Asian," but as having their own unique civilization, different from both those of Arabia or of their African neighbors.