The Swahili Coast and Indian Ocean Trade

The original inhabitants of the Swahili Coast were Bantu-speaking Africans, who had migrated east from the continent's interior. They eventually spread up and down the coast, trading with each other, with the people of the interior, and eventually people from other continents.

Swahili coast cultures are diverse African cultures, made up of a confluence of peoples. They are traders and farmers, cattle keepers, & fisher people who have moved and interacted across land and sea for centuries (see chronology table below), and importantly, before the rise of Islam in the late 8th century. Trade is not the only story to tell about the region. 


  1. Swahili means “people of the coast” in Arabic. The coast and its links with external cultures has been overemphasized at the expense of the role of inland populations. For a long time, racist perspectives believed that the uniqueness and cosmopolitan aspects of the Swahili were because the Swahili were Arab immigrants. New scholarship understands the Swahili as home to African populations and similarities between inland and coastal sites show that they were part of the same society. 
  2. A long history of trade of various luxury goods as well as enslaved peoples set the region at the center of global intercontinental networks, linking the Swahili coast to the Arabian peninsula, China, India, and Cambodia, among other places. In the 15th century, Europe – via the Portuguese intrusion and later the Dutch and British – entered this matrix as pirates and as authoritarians seeking trade monopoly because Europe had nothing of great value to trade.
  3. Trade allowed for rich cultural exchange that is evidenced in food, dress, architecture, language, and religion. The KiSwahili language is an archive that offers a rich entry point into study of the region, as it is a Bantu- (African) language to which other words in Arabic and other languages were added .
  4. The key characteristic features of the coastal settlements (e.g. building with coral rock from the Red Sea) developed around the 11th century. Archaeological evidence shows a more active interaction with the maritime world at that time.
  5. Many coastal Africans began identifying as Swahili in the 19th and 20th centuries, in the contexts of slavery and imperialism.  When discussing past groups, referring to Swahili (in the sense of ethnic identity) to past populations is anachronistic. This is a valuable lesson for students about the construction and fluidity of Swahili identity.

Unravelling the mystery of Arnhem Land’s ancient African coins
1000-year-old African coins found in Australia.

The five ancient coins, believed to have been minted in present-day Tanzania, date back to the 8th to 15th century AD. They were made of copper, silver, and gold and are thought to have been used as trade currency. The discovery of these coins on the remote and isolated Wessel Islands off the coast of Northern Territory in Australia has led to speculation that ancient East African traders may have reached the continent long before the arrival of Europeans.

The Kilwa Kisiwani with its ancient capital city located on the coast of present-day Tanzania in East Africa, was a powerful empire that controlled the trade of gold, ivory and other valuable goods from the African interior to the Indian Ocean.

The exact explanation for the presence of these coins remains a mystery, and further research and studies are needed to confirm their origin.

How did the five coins from distant Kilwa wind up in the isolated Wessel Islands? Was a shipwreck involved? Could it be that the Portuguese, who had looted Kilwa in 1505, reached the Australian shores with coins from East Africa in their possession? Or was it that Kilwan sailors, renowned as expert navigators all across the sea route between China and Africa, reached Australia? Did they trade with the Indigenous population? Or docked and left? Maybe some stayed.,Australia%20much%20earlier%20than%20thought.

The Red Sea to East Africa and the Arabian Sea: 1328 – 1330

The Sultan of Kilwa was called 'the generous' "on account of the multitude of his gifts and acts of generosity. He used to engage frequently in expeditions to the land of the Zinj people [villagers of the interior], raiding them and taking booty [slaves and other wealth]... He is a man of great humility; he sits with poor brethren, eats with them, and greatly respects men of religion and noble descent." [Gibb, vol. II, pp. 380 - 381]

Indian Ocean Trade Routes


Ancient Arab settlements of the Swahili coast

Often overlooked by visitors to East Africa, the coastal areas of southern Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and northern Mozambique boast several ruined and extant historical towns of significant cultural importance. Although some receive an increasing number of visitors - especially Stone Town in Zanzibar and Lamu in Kenya - most sites seldom see a single soul. Places like Kilwa Kivinje and Pemba in Tanzania are notable for their remote and isolated location, whilst the city of Mogadishu has been a no go area for years due to the ongoing Somali civil war. With his brief introduction to East Africas Shirazi and Omani mosques, forts and residences, Werner Hermans intends to make a broader public familiar with the presence of world class, African monuments in a part of the continent for which it's early history is commonly only associated with colonial influence.



More links on Coastal History of Africa

Ancient Arab settlements of the Swahili coast

Ancient Arab settlements of the Swahili coast
An introduction to East Africa’s Shirazi and Omani monuments
Ancient Arab settlements of the Swahili [...]
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