Establishment of Small City-States on Africa's East Coast

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Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the development of small city-states along Africa's East coast, the trade that sustained them, and their eventual downfall at the hands of European colonizers.

East African City-States

When was the last time you made a trade? Perhaps you traded some of your lunch with your friend for some of his, or perhaps you traded chores with your brother or sister. Either way, it likely made you both feel better; you got something you wanted for something you didn't, and they got the same. This is the basis of trade and how it creates wealth and prosperity. In fact, trade was so advantageous in the Indian Ocean during the Middle Ages that it fostered the growth of unique city-states along the East coast of Africa. In this lesson, we will explore the growth of those city-states and the factors which led to their decline.


One of the root causes of the growth of city-states in this part of Africa was the migration of the Bantu-speaking people from the Sahara and Sahel regions of Africa. Though historians differ on what exactly led to these peoples' migration south and east from their traditional region, it was likely climactic. For thousands of years, the Sahara has been slowly drying out, and desertification continues on the Sahara's Southern edge, making life increasingly difficult for those trying to eke out a living along the Southern border.

Bantu migration was in part due to climate and weather, likely because the Bantu were avid agriculturalists. When they had migrated south and east, they brought their farming practices with them. By 1000 C.E., they had developed bustling agricultural communities in the fertile strip of land along Africa's East coast. City-states developed all along the Eastern coast, from Mogadishu in the North to Mombasa, Zanzibar, and Sofala in the South. These city-states that developed were largely independent of one another and could grow unfettered due to the lack of strong African empires from the interior, such as those which dominated trade in North Africa and across the Sahara.

The growth of these communities coincided with their participation in trade and commerce across the Indian Ocean. Merchants and traders from India, China, Persia, and Arabia traveled around the Indian Ocean using the monsoon winds to push them seasonally from one coast to another. At first, these East African cities exported agricultural products and natural resources, such as gold and frankincense from the interior, ivory from the savannas, and other precious resources like sandalwood and spices. In time, East Africans also began producing goods specifically for trade, such as pottery, saddles, and other household goods.

The East African cities grew rich off this trade. Though many remained staunchly independent, some were willing and able to pay for expensive military expeditions to expand their small trading empires. For example, Kilwa, in the South, expanded southward in the 13th century and took control of several ports, including Sofala. By 1300, Kilwa was the richest and most powerful city-state along the coast.

A large part of this wealth, it should be noted, came not just from trading pottery and resources but from trading slaves. Slaves were routinely sold to traders by East African merchants, often prisoners of war or people from locally raided villages. These slaves often routinely ended up in either Persia or Arabia, where slaves were bought and put to work in rich households or conscripted into local armies. The amount of slaves taken and sold, however, was far smaller than the later slave trade involving British North America. For example, it's estimated that less than 1,000 slaves were taken from East Africa each year.

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