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The Swahili community and maritime London

Sailors of the monsoons
City States of East Africa
Swahilis in the port of London
Carrying the Union flag
A Swahili translation of the full story
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City States of East Africa

Dhows at Tarut Island, Saudi Arabia.
View full size image Dhows at Tarut Island, Saudi Arabia. © NMM

Origin of Swahili

Arab and Persian sailors called at the coast of East Africa for ivory and slaves. The slaves were known as the Zanj or Zanji.

Between trading voyages, many Arabs took wives in East Africa. The children learnt the language of their mothers and borrowed words from their father's languages.

This new language was called Swahili (or Kiswahili), from the Arabic word 'Sahil', meaning coast. This early form of Swahili probably emerged around the Lamu Archipelago by 800AD.    

Dhow anchorage in Mombasa.
View full size image Dhow anchorage in Mombasa. © NMM

Adoption of Islam

By the 11th century the Swahili people had constructed a mosque at Manda (near Lamu), marking their adoption of Islam.

Ancient Chinese and Arab texts and modern archaeology support this theory. From the Lamu Archipelago the Swahili people (or Waswahili) sailed northwards and southwards, taking their language and religion with them.

Eventually the Swahili settlements stretched along the East African coast from Mogadishu in Somalia to Madagascar and Mozambique. 

Gold trade

Ruins of the walled city of Gedi, Kenya.
View full size image Ruins of the walled city of Gedi in Kenya that developed as a result of the Gold trade in Zimbabwe. © NMM

Separated by miles of land and water the Swahili developed self-sufficient and independent settlements. They called themselves:

  • Waamu, if from Lamu
  • Wamvita, if from Mombasa
  • Waunguja, if from Zanzibar
  • Wamanga, Arabs
  • Washirazi, Persians

Ruins of a house at Jumbe la Mtwana, Kenya.
View full size image Ruins of a house at Jumbe la Mtwana, Kenya. © NMM

By the 13th century the Swahili cities such as Kilwa in Tanzania controlled much of the gold trade from present-day Zimbabwe to the Middle East.

Ruins of a mosque on the beach at Jumbe la Mtwana, Kenya.
View full size imageRuins of a mosque on the beach at Jumbe la Mtwana, Kenya. © NMM
Other cities such as Malindi, Mombasa and Zanzibar were active in the ivory trade. In the early 15th century a large Chinese fleet visited East Africa and took two giraffes and Swahili ambassadors from Malindi to China.


Arrival of the Portuguese

Mombaza ca.1550.
View full size image Mombaza c.1550. © NMM
When the Portuguese arrived in East Africa at the end of the 15th century they found the Swahili to be an urbanised culture, with trading links stretching from the Red Sea and Persian Gulf to China. Mosques and tombs were decorated with Chinese porcelain, the rich wore robes of Indian cotton and Chinese silk, and the city of Kilwa even minted its own coins.

Over the next two centuries, with their bases at Malindi, Mombasa and Kilwa, the Portuguese employed Swahili seamen on their voyages around the Indian Ocean and beyond to Europe and even Brazil.

These East African seamen appear with the Portuguese in the art, literature and folklore of Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia and Japan.

Arrival of the English

View full size image Quiloa c.1550. © NMM
In 1589 the first English ship to sail into East African waters, the Edward Bonaventure, dropped anchor at Zanzibar. It remained there for three months waiting for the change in the monsoon winds before sailing to India.

By 1700 the Portuguese had been pushed out of most of the East African coast with the exception of Mozambique. They were replaced by the growing power of the Omanis based at Muscat.

· Image: Photograph. Inshore Dhows at Lamu, Kenya. By Clifford Pereira. August 1999.

A 'Jahazi' Dhow at Lamu, Kenya.
View full size imageA 'Jahazi' dhow at Lamu, Kenya. © NMM

There is evidence that East India Company ships sailed to India via the Comoro Islands. One of these ships, the Princess of Wales I called at Johanna (Anjuan) Island in 1733 on a voyage to India. A record of this stop-over has survived in the original journal.

The little influence of the Swahili language on English provides some evidence of the nature of the contact between these two cultures. English words such as safari, tank, cowrie and dhow illustrate the trading ties.


Bedroom in a 19th century Swahili house, Lamu, Kenya.
View full size imageBedroom in a 19th-century Swahili house, Lamu, Kenya. © NMM

Interior of a 19th century Swahili house, Lamu, Kenya
View full size imageInterior of a 19th-century Swahili house, Lamu, Kenya. © NMM


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