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Kilwa

& the Swahili Coastal Trading States




Sailing on the Monsoon

The east coast of Africa faces the Indian Ocean.  Throughout the centuries, the ocean has connected Africa with Arabia, Persia, India, and even China.  As early as 100 AD, the Romans had heard of African ports far south of Egypt.

Sailors learned that they could use the seasonal winds known as monsoons to sail back and forth across the ocean.   Arab traders could pick up Chinese porcelain, cloves from Java, cinnamon from Ceylon, cotton and pepper from India, coffee from Arabia, then travel southwest along the African coast.  As they went, they stopped at a series of port cities and traded their goods for African gold, ivory, pearls, and slaves.  They sailed back northeast when the monsoon wind changed.

Indian Ocean trade map




Growth of Trade

The merchants in port cities acted as middlemen between foreign traders and inland Africans.  They prospered because of the profits of their sales. 

Chinese porcelain has been found as far inland as Zimbabwe, and an African giraffe was once brought to China as a gift for the emperor. 

As the demand for African gold increased, it became the most valuable trade item.  The inland empire of Zimbabwe was based on its gold mines.




City-State Government

The African trading ports competed with each other, but they had no interest in territorial conquest.  Their focus was on controlling the trade routes to the seaport, not the land.  Many of these ports developed a city-state form of government, an independent state made up of a city and its surrounding area.  Rulers became rich from taxes on the goods that passed through their port, and acted more as business managers than governors.

The picture at right shows an artist's reconstruction of the sultan's palace in Kilwa in the 1400's. 
 





Swahili Culture

The African coast was influenced by foreign culture as well as trade.  Traders from Arabia and Persia sometimes settled in the African trade cities, marrying local women. The language known as Swahili today is basically a Bantu African language, with many words added from Asian languages.

Many Swahili adopted Islam as their religion.  Mosques were constructed, and people prayed in Arabic.  Men wore long Arab robes, and women covered their hair in Muslim style. 

Farmers began to grow new food crops such as bananas, introduced from India.  Spicy dishes made with Arabian cumin and Indian curry became popular.
Architecture

Homes of the wealthy were built of coral plaster, a durable material that stays cool even in the hot sun.  Wealthy homes were several stories high, and had bathrooms with drains and overhead basins to flush toilets.  Acqueducts carried fresh water to homes and gardens.  Intricately carved wooden doors embellished the entry to homes.  Buildings such as the mosque at left, now in ruins, incorporated arches.



From Riches to Ruin

In 1498, the first European explorer arrived. His name was Vasco da Gama.  The king of Portugal wanted him to find a sea route to India. If they could bypass the Arab traders of the Middle East, the Portugese could profit from the Asian spice trade.
Da Gama was welcomed in Kilwa, and went on to find a route to India. 

Then in 1505 he returned. This time he attacked Kilwa and Mombasa with cannons.  He wanted to frighten the sultans into paying tribute to the king of Portugal. This is how an observer on the ship described the scene: "Then everyone started to plunder the town and to search the houses, forcing open the doors with axes and iron bars … A large quantity of rich silk and gold embroidered clothes was seized, and carpets also; one of these was without equal for beauty, and was sent to the King of Portugal together with many other valuables."

The cities were unable to defend themselves, and fell to the Portuguese.  As a result, the Swahili port cities soon declined, losing the profits of their ancient trade connections.



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