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date: 16 December 2017

The Swahili in the African and Indian Ocean Worlds to c. 1500

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History. Please check back later for the full article.

The East African coast is an interface between the continental world of Africa and the maritime world of the Indian Ocean, and the monsoons provide a convenient wind system to link them. It was inhabited by a littoral society that was best placed to play a leading role in economic, social, and cultural interaction, including intermarriage, between the two worlds. Its history goes back at least to the beginning of the Contemporary Era, and it can be termed Swahili from the beginning of the second millennium, when this branch of the Bantu languages spread down the coast to give it linguistic unity. Its speakers were organized in a series of city-states from southern Somalia to northern Mozambique, and when there was a major upturn in international trade between the Islamic empires of the Middle East and China from the 8th century, they were integrated into the wider Indian Ocean world. Islam spread with that trade, and mosques became a prominent part of the archaeological remains along the Swahili coast. The citizens spoke an elegant language that was further embellished through its interactions with Arabic and other Indian Ocean languages and literature. In the process, the Swahili became thoroughly cosmopolitan, belying the futile debate of whether they are “oriental” or “African,” which are two sides of their coin. This civilization was partially disrupted in the 16th century by the entry of the Portuguese, who tried to divert the spice trade to their channel around the Cape of Good Hope, but it revived during the 18th and 19th centuries.