Swahili Culture & Commerce in East Africa During the Middle Ages

Instructor: Joshua Riddle

Joshua teaches pre-modern World History and has a Master of Arts degree in History.

Swahili Civilization flourished from around 11th-century CE to the 16th-century CE on the eastern coast of Africa. Commerce helped this culture to thrive, as well as the spread of Islam and the development of the Swahili language. We will focus on these factors in this lesson.

The Swahili Civilization: Culture through Commerce

When you think of African civilization, what typically comes to mind? Maybe you think of the pyramids of Egypt or the slave trade after Columbus' voyage to the Americas. Well, the history and culture of the continent are richer and more detailed than that. Indeed, societies flourished all across Africa in the ancient world.

Eastern Coast of Africa where Swahili is spoken. University of California - Language Materials Project
Swahili Area

One of these societies was the Swahili Civilization. It had its beginnings around the 8th-century CE, but it grew extensively during the ''medieval period,'' spanning the 11th- through the 15th-centuries. This growth was largely a result of the Indian Ocean Trading Network that brought in not just man-made riches, but also religious ideas, specifically Islam, which had a significant impact on the local culture. Furthermore, the development of the Swahili language gave a common cultural unity to the people.

The Indian Ocean Trading Network

Now, we can't really understand how Swahili civilization developed, without looking at the larger context of the trading network that developed, across the Indian Ocean. This trading network really took off in the early centuries CE as mariners started to understand how the monsoon winds blew. This really changed the game. Merchants now understood the predictable seasonal wind patterns and used this knowledge to their benefit. They could now confidently travel to ports all across the Indian Ocean, including those on the eastern coast of Africa.

From this interaction with Indian Ocean traders, eastern coastal villages rose to become prosperous, rich cities. Furthermore, there were now kings that ruled over these areas, as well as merchants who were among the elites of society. Clearly, trade spurred political and social development. However, these cities did not unite, and instead remained independent.

Gold Ingots
Gold Ingots_Image by Szaaman

What did traders want from the eastern coast of Africa? Well, those on the coast traded with people in the interior of the continent to bring Indian Ocean traders gold, ivory, quartz, and iron, just to name a few things. These merchants also took enslaved peoples to be bought and sold from an already-existing interior slave trade.

In exchange, Swahili cities received both material goods and cultural elements. Materially, merchants from the Indian Ocean exchanged porcelain and silk from China, and even cotton from the Indian subcontinent. Sometimes these merchants even decided to stay in eastern Africa, which contributed to a cultural mix of different peoples from India and the Middle East. Perhaps the biggest thing they received wasn't something tangible, though. The most important ''commodity'' was arguably religious, with the adoption of Islam.

Beginning in the fifteenth-century, trade began to change as Portuguese mariners traveled to Africa. These were the beginnings of the age of European exploration. As the centuries unfolded, Europeans came to hold much power in the continent. As a result, the rich cultures and histories of different African peoples, including the Swahili, was overtaken by European colonizers.

Common Cultural Elements: Language and Islam

So, then, what united these peoples and places? How can we say there was a Swahili ''civilization'' with all of this disunity? Well, it's important to remember that civilizations in the ancient world were not defined by political boundaries in the way we think of nations today. Instead, it's important to look at common cultural elements. The two most important ones to be aware of are the Swahili language, and the adoption of Islam.

Coin from Zanzibar, 1882 CE, with Swahili script
Swahili coin. Uploaded by user Thebluescat

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