The Swahili Coast, an 1,800-mile stretch of Kenyan and Tanzanian coastline, has been the site of cultural and commercial exchanges between East Africa and the outside world - particularly the Middle East, Asia, and Europe - since at least the 2nd century A.D.
The earliest coastal communities practiced ironworking, and were mainly subsistence farmers and river fishers, who supplemented their economy with hunting, keeping livestock, fishing in the ocean, and trading with outsiders. Between 500 and 800 A.D. they shifted to a sea-based trading economy and began to migrate south by ship. In the following centuries, trade in goods from the African interior, such as gold, ivory, and slaves stimulated the development of market towns such as Mogadishu, Shanga, Kilwa, and Mombasa. By around the 9th century A.D., Africans, Arabs, and Persians who lived and traded on the coast had developed a lingua franca, Swahili, or Kiswahili, a language based on the Bantu language Sabaki that uses Arab and Persian loan words. They had also developed the distinctive Swahili culture, characterized by the almost universal practice of Islam, as well as by Arabic and Asian-influenced art and architectural styles.
The arrival of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in 1498 signaled a new era of foreign rule on the Swahili Coast. By this time Mombasa was the dominant Swahili power, so control over this city meant control over the coastal region. Portugal, seeking to monopolize trade throughout the Indian Ocean trade, built Fort Jesus in Mombasa, and also set up a customs house on Pate Island. The Portuguese were finally pushed out of power on the Swahili Coast in 1698 by combined forces from Oman and Pate, though the Portuguese remained in Mozambique until the late 20th century.
The imam (religious leader) of Oman then sought control of the coast, but matters closer to home drew his attention. It was instead the Mazrui clan of Mombasa (whose ancestors came from Omani long before) who gained predominance in the region. They were in turn driven out of the city in 1837 by Omani forces. The sultan of Oman then moved his capital to Zanzibar and established a commercial empire, bringing renewed prosperity to the coast.
The sultan then expanded his trading empire, sending caravans into the African interior to trade firearms for gold, ivory, and slaves. The slave trade on the East African coast had persisted for centuries, but it intensified during the early 19th century in order to meet the labor demands on French plantations on Réunion and Mauritius, as well as on the sultan's plantations on Zanzibar. Tippu Tip, one of the most powerful slave traders in Central and east Africa during that time, was hired by the sultan to raid villages in the Central African interior and sell the captives to American and European merchants at the Zanzibari slave market. By the late 19th century, pressure from the British had forced an end to the slave trade, and the Swahili Coast was exporting a variety of spices and other tropical crops.
Following the Scramble for Africa of the late 19th century, during which the European powers divided East Africa among themselves, the hegemony of the sultan in Zanzibar gave way to European overrule. The colonial powers began to control trade in the interior, bypassing the Swahili middlemen. Today Dar es Salaam and Mombasa are the biggest port cities on the Swahili Coast; both have been significantly transformed by industrial development as well as by the migration of upcountry Africans. Smaller Swahili towns, however, such as Pate in Kenya, retain much of their traditional culture. For these towns, beachfront tourism has become an important economic component.
Source: Microsoft Encarta Africana. ©1999 Microsoft Corporation. Used with permission.