PortCities London

The Swahili community and maritime London

Sailors of the monsoons

East African trading posts

Photograph of the model of a mtepe.
View full size image Photograph of the model of a Mtepe. © NMM
For over two thousand years there have been references to trading posts along the East Coast of Africa. A Greek document from the middle of the first century AD mentions the monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean and a trading post called Raphta.

Cloth was imported to this trading post, which may have been located around the Lamu Archipelago. The people of this area had wooden boats that were sewn together. These sewn boats - or Mtepe - with their square sails existed along the East African coast into the 19th century.

Arrival of the Indonesians

Indonesian outriggers, Bali, Indonesia.
View full size imageIndonesian outriggers, Bali, Indonesia. © NMM
At some point during the early part of the first millennium, one or more groups of Indonesians sailed across the Indian Ocean to East Africa, the Comoro Islands and Madagascar.

These seafarers brought with them plants such as banana, sweet potato, coconut and rice. They also brought the outrigger canoe. Indeed today the Malagasy language of Madagascar is more closely related to the languages of Indonesia and the Pacific than Africa.

The Swahili seamen

Model of a Dau la Utango/Lamu Dhow.
View full size imageModel of a Dau la Utango/Lamu Dhow. © NMM
Three factors led to the development of the Swahili as skilled seamen:

  • the coast of East Africa features many creeks and islands that offer sheltered harbours
  • the reefs abound with fish and the tropical mainland was heavily populated and thick with wildlife (a source of enslaved people and ivory that attracted Arab and Persian traders)
  • the dry Northeast monsoons blowing from december to march ensured a slack period in farming in East Africa that coincided with the trading period during which the dhows would arrive from the Middle East.

Over time the Swahili sailors developed their own version of the Arab sailboats and sailed the entire Indian Ocean.


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