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East Africa and oceanic exchange networks between the first and fifteenth centuries

L’Afrique de l’Est et les réseaux d’échanges océaniques entre les Ier et XVe siècles
Philippe Beaujard
Cet article est une traduction de :
L’Afrique de l’Est et les réseaux d’échanges océaniques entre les Ier et XVe siècles [fr]

Résumés

L’Afrique de l’Est a été connectée à des réseaux d’échange océaniques depuis le IIe millénaire av. J.-C. et incluse dans un système-monde afro-eurasien où elle forma une périphérie depuis le début du premier millénaire de l’ère chrétienne, puis une semi-périphérie à partir du xe siècle. Comme le montrent les divers articles de ce numéro de la revue Afriques, la côte est-africaine – curieusement négligée par des ouvrages comme celui de K. Chaudhuri (1975) ou J. Abu-Lughod (1989) – a joué un rôle actif dans ce système, y compris après l’arrivée des Portugais au xvie siècle.

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Texte intégral

  • 1 N. BOIVIN et al., 2013.
  • 2 D. FULLER, 2003.
  • 3 D. GOMMERY et al., 2011; R. DEWAR et al., 2013. The data, however, remains debated.
  • 4 N. BOIVIN, D. FULLER, 2009 ; D. FULLER et al., 2011.

1Navigation in the Indian Ocean is undoubtedly as old as that in the Mediterranean, and East Africa was involved in commercial exchanges from a very early period, even if the contexts of these exchanges often remain ill-defined.1 It is known that African cultivated plants arrived in India as early as the 2nd millennium BC,2 and recent discoveries have shown that groups from the African coast may have reached Madagascar around the same period.3 Before states existed, coastal societies of modest size (hunter-gatherers, in the Malagasy case) played an important role in the creation of transcultural contacts across the Indian Ocean.4

  • 5 R. BLENCH, 2010.

2East Africa also received plants from India and Southeast Asia early on,5 while farmers speaking Bantu languages did not arrive on the East African coast until the first century AD – an arrival perhaps hastened by the development of overseas trading, and of trade between the inland and the coastal areas.

  • 6 L. CASSON, 1989. For a rereading and reinterpretation of the origins of the Periplus, see M.F. BOUS (...)
  • 7 P. BEAUJARD, 2012, vol. 1.
  • 8 Claude Allibert (in this issue) even suggests a knowledge of the Comoros and Madagascar by the Roma (...)
  • 9 M.C. HORTON, H.W. BROWN, N. MUDIDA, 1996.

3In the early Christian era, the text of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, written in Greek (Casson, 1989),6 shows that a pre-Swahili culture was being established as far off as Mozambique, at a time when a trade boom in the Indian Ocean was leading to an early type of globalization as well as to the inclusion of this ocean in what can be considered a unique Afro-Eurasian world-system.7 On the Tanzanian coast, the city of Rhapta – still imprecisely located and mentioned as a tributary of a king of Yemen – was, according to the Periplus, frequented by Arabs who mixed with Africans, and probably by Roman ships,8 even if archaeology does not yet provide proof of this. In Opone, in the Horn of Africa, the Periplus also points out that there were “slaves of the best kind,” “who were being taken to Egypt in increasing numbers,” and a “large quantity of turtle shells” – these slaves and turtles presumably came from the African coast further south, which proves that a slave trade already existed at the time. It should also be noted that Parthian, Sassanid, Ptolemaic, Roman, Axumite, and Byzantine coins have been discovered on the East African coast, in number and location (Zimbabwe, notably) that seem to make sense, even if they were never found in a clear stratigraphic context.9

  • 10 A. M. JUMA, 2004.

4Even before the Islamic period, the place occupied by the Lamu archipelago and Zanzibar was preeminent. Chinese sandstone, dating back to the 6th century, approximately,10 (the dating of this material remains to be confirmed) has thus been found in the site of Unguja Ukuu (Zanzibar): probably a remnant of trade between Sassanid Persia and China.

  • 11 M.C. HORTON, H.W. BROWN, N. MUDIDA, 1996; M.C. HORTON, 2001.
  • 12 However, despite the name “Zanj,” which first and foremost referred to the populations of East Afri (...)

5With the formation and interconnection of the Tang and Muslim empires, the 7th century witnessed a significant expansion of trade, by both land and sea, and a Swahili culture developed on the East African coast, where ruins of mosques dating from the 8th century11 were revealed by archaeological excavations. The Lamu archipelago (the sites of Shanga, Manda and Pate) and Pemba, acted as an interface between the oceanic networks and the interior of the continent. The Arab geographer Al-Masūdī (mid-10th century) mentions the travels of Omanis to Qanbalū (on Pemba), a place “inhabited by a mixed population of Muslims and Zanj idolaters.” He emphasizes the importance of ivory exports; the slave trade also seemed to flourish there – at least until 868, the date of the “Zanj revolt” in Iraq.12 Muslim networks transported African slaves all the way to Indonesia and China.

  • 13 M.C. HORTON, H.W. BROWN, N. MUDIDA, 1996.
  • 14 F. CHAMI, 1994.
  • 15 J.B. FLEISHER, S. WYNNE-JONES, 2011.

6The presence of ceramics known as Tana,13 or Triangular Incised Ware,14 from the Kenyan coast to Mozambique – and in southern Madagascar – reveals the growth of exchange networks. While Mark Horton has pointed out that this kind of pottery might have come from the proto-Swahili area (the Kenyan coast), this origin remains controversial; moreover, it seems debatable to link the diffusion of this pottery to that of language; the diffusion process may also reflect the expansion of “specific consumer practices” and new social structures.15

  • 16 P. SINCLAIR et al., 2012; M. WOOD, 2011; and this issue.
  • 17 « The Sea of the Zanj ends with the country of Sofala and al-Wakwak, which produces gold and many o (...)

7The importance of the coastline of present-day Mozambique, and of the Chibuene site in particular, is striking for this period. It could be related to the exploitation of metal resources – copper, then gold – and the demand for ivory. Marilee Wood notes the abundance of imported beads – probably from the Persian Gulf – via the Chibuene site; these beads were found as far away as Botswana, and are evidence of specific oceanic exchange networks.16 The first mention of gold mining can be found in Al-Masūdī, but it is most certainly even older.17

  • 18 See J.-C. DUCÈNE, in this issue.

8The Austronesians carried out voyages towards the western Indian Ocean, thus reaching the Comoros and Madagascar around the 7th or 8th century. These journeys were an important phase of the global growth of trade. A text by Al-Jahiz (9th century) mentions “naval attacks organized by the sovereign of az-Zābaj [Srīwijaya], capable of sending a thousand boats on a punitive expedition.” According to al-Sīrāfī – in a work previously called The Book of the Wonders of India18 –, in 945, the “people of Waqwaq” (who probably came from Sumatra, primarily to obtain slaves) attacked Qanbalū – in vain. Jean-Charles Ducène also points to another anecdote from al-Sīrāfī, reported in the encyclopedia of al-Umarī (14th century), according to which “it happened that the king of Sribuza [Srīwijaya] went to war against the rulers of Zanj/Zabag,” a country we can locate in East Africa.

  • 19 A. ROUGEULLE, 2004; M. REGERT et al., 2008.

9The disintegration of the Tang and Muslim empires in the 9th and 10th centuries led to a global retreat of the world-system and a reorganization of exchange networks to the benefit of Fatimid Egypt and the Red Sea in the Indian Ocean, diminishing the influence of the Persian Gulf. The Muslim port of Daybul (Sindh) and Gujarat acquired new importance in the Western Indian Ocean networks, whose impact on the East African coast is beginning to be better understood, as is shown in this issue by Jason Hawkes and Stephanie Wynne-Jones. The demand for East African products from these regions – particularly gold, but also ivory and copal – maintained activity on the Zanj coast and initiated expansion into the Comoros and Madagascar from the 9th-10th centuries. The East African coastline adopted the use of cut coral for construction – a technique originating from the Red Sea. Belonging to the tradition of Islamic coinage, tiny silver coins have been unearthed in Shanga, apparently in continuity with coins issued in Pemba, Zanzibar, Mafia and Kilwa. Influence from Fatimid Egypt and the city of Daybul has been proposed for these coins, but John Perkins (in this issue) points out that these coins also have local features, including rhythmic formulae, which are found in the Fatimid realm but at a later date – furthermore, in this case, the formulae are written on both sides of the coin. The Persian Gulf also retained a significant influence on the eastern shore of Africa, as shown by the Gulf ceramics found from Shanga to Chibuene and, conversely, by the African ceramics found at the Hadrami site of Sharma, that dates back to the 10th-12th century and was probably founded by Persians. Sharma has also yielded vast quantities of copal.19

10Hawkes and Wynne-Jones also note in this issue the probable presence of Indian merchants and craftsmen on the East African coast. Indeed, Indian pottery has been unearthed at some sites – such as Manda and Unguja Ukuu –, and an Indian influence is discernible at a site such as Shanga, at the turn of the 10th and 11th centuries, in bead-piercing and metallurgy; the coast has also yielded carnelian beads, from the 7th century onwards, which may have come from Gujarat.

  • 20 D. NURSE, T.J. HINNEBUSCH, 1993, p. 494.
  • 21 See C. ALLIBERT in this issue.

11African expansion towards the islands led to a separation of the Swahili and Comorian languages around the 9th century.20 In the Comoros, the meeting between Bantu and Austronesian speakers allowed a mixed culture to flourish; it was known as Dembeni, named after a site in Mayotte (8th-12th century) that is related to Madagascar, East Africa and the Persian Gulf.21 Claude Allibert, however, does not exclude a more ancient human presence in the Comoros and notes moreover that contacts with the Persian Gulf allowed the import of Islamic and Chinese ceramics from the end of the first millennium; he also mentions the presence of some Indian pottery.

  • 22 C. RADIMILAHY, 1998.
  • 23 Ibn Rusteh quoted by A. MIQUEL, t. II, 1975, p. 178.

12Archaeology and texts reveal contacts between Madagascar and the Muslim world in the 9th and 10th centuries. The site of Mahilaka (northwestern Madagascar) yielded ceramics imported from the Gulf – and Chinese pottery – in the deepest strata,22 and Ibn Rusteh reports the import in the Gulf of “what resembled ostrich eggs,” – a reference to the Aepyornis,23 a giant Malagasy bird also mentioned by Al-Sīrāfī. It is not insignificant that, in this period, the term “Waqwaq” mentioned in Arab-Persian works referred at once to some islands in Southeast Asia, Madagascar and the Sofala coast – which was evidence of the recognition of the expansion of Austronesian exchange networks and of the existence of a common culture.

13From the end of the 10th century, the Afro-Eurasian world-system experienced a new period of expansion, spurred by the reunification of China by the Song dynasty, and the activity of Indian states or merchants (Chola thalassocracy and guilds, Gujaratis...). This boom was also favored by a global rise in temperatures: what is known in Europe as the “Medieval Climatic Optimum,” a warming that was accompanied by an intensification of the monsoon system in the Indian Ocean. The advent of the 13th century marked a moment of crisis and restructuring, but the economy reached a peak in the first decades of the 14th century.

  • 24 R. POUWELS, 1987.
  • 25 É. VALLET, 2010.
  • 26 G. SCHEURS et al., 2011. On this point, Bing Zhao is very cautious (in this issue).
  • 27 See the special issue of Études Océan Indien devoted to the Vohemar site (n°46-47, 2011).

14Swahili culture developed fully during this period, particularly from the 13th century onwards, an expansion that is partly reflected in the Shirazi myth.24 Islam then progressed throughout the Indian Ocean. It consisted of different currents and its presence can now be found in East Africa, in sites of various sizes. For James Allen (1993) and John Middleton (1992), the royal Shirazi system developed a model in opposition to the “collective patriciate” (known as waungwana) of the Swahili city-states on the north coast, but the data available to us date essentially from recent periods – the 19th century, especially –, and one must be cautious of such historical interpretation. While the Red Sea appears preeminent in the western Indian Ocean trade, the relationship of the Persian Gulf with the Swahili coast were no less important. Egyptians and Yemenis were involved in trade exchanges: a black-on-yellow ceramic, characteristic of Yemen, thus appears from 1250 on the African coast, in the Comoros and Madagascar, revealing the new importance of Southwest Arabia under the Yemeni Rasūlid dynasty – whose role in commercial exchanges has been masterfully studied by Éric Vallet.25 At the same time as the Arab-Persians, Indians came to transact business on the African coasts and settled there. Around 1030, Al-Bīrūnī highlighted the importance of Somanāt (Gujarat) as a transit port for sailors navigating between Africa and the East. The Chinese – who were active in the Indian Ocean at the time of the Southern Song Dynasty, and then the Yuan – may have frequented the coast of Africa, and even Madagascar,26 probably from Java. East African populations and Arab merchants continued to migrate to the Comoros and the Malagasy coast, where new Austronesian migrants also arrived, thus contributing to the development of the city of Vohemar,27 in the northeast of the island, and to the formation of kingdoms that developed intensive rice cultivation.

  • 28 I. PIKIRAYI, 2001.
  • 29 M. WOOD, 2011; and this issue.
  • 30 See also P. ROBERTSHAW et al., 2010.

15The Swahili city-states relied on trade, but developed various crafts – especially in the textile industry – and agriculture as well. States also emerged in Southeast Africa – notably the kingdom of Mapungubwe (1220-1280), and later that of Great Zimbabwe28 –, in the Limpopo River region, in connection with gold mining and ivory exports, and the development of regional trade and livestock farming. Marilee Wood shows that the import of beads into this region again signals changes in oceanic networks, with assemblages that largely differ from those of the east coast further north.29 The beads of the Zhizo series (Schroda, Chibuene) came from the Persian Gulf; beads from Bambandyanalo (1010-1220), of the “Indo-Pacific” type, were probably imported from the Coromandel Coast, and possibly Southeast Asia (before the 13th century). The origin of Mapungubwe beads, as well as that of the “Great Zimbabwe series,” is still uncertain (perhaps Gujarati).30 From the 13th century onwards especially, the city-state of Kilwa controlled the gold trade, a control that gave it unprecedented bargaining power with foreign traders.

  • 31 J.B FLEISHER, 2003; J.B FLEISHER, S. WYNNE-JONES, 2011; B. ZHAO, 2012.

16Archaeology today allows a better understanding of East African societies. We are now interested not only in the Swahili “stone cities” but also in the villages built with plant materials and in the relations between the coast and the inland. Research is also attempting to better understand social changes, revealed for example by the evolution of pottery.31 However, it should be kept in mind that essential goods such as textiles or slaves are archaeologically invisible. Textiles played an important role in building customer networks that enabled trade between Swahili cities and the hinterland. Regarding slaves, various texts have taught us that a trade was carried on all along the coast, and later from the Comoros Islands and Madagascar.

17In the years 1320-1330, the world-system experienced a brutal decline, exacerbated by an episode of climatic cooling, before epidemics of plague coming from China swept over the Old World from 1346 onwards. The Swahili coast was also affected; Kilwa seems to have been depopulated during this period; the Great Mosque, which collapsed during the 14th century, was not rebuilt until the following century, and the palace of the Sultan – Husuni Kubwa – was abandoned before being completely finished.

  • 32 M.C. HORTON, J. MIDDLETON, 2000; T. VERNET, 2005.

18This recession lasted for six or seven decades, after which, at the end of the 14th century, production and trade increased again, prompted by the renewed strength and prosperity of China under the Ming dynasty, the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, the activity of Indian states that emerged after the collapse of the Sultanate of Delhi, by certain city-states (Malacca, Calicut, Ormuz...), and by a rapidly developing Europe. This new growth phase is also noticeable in East Africa. Generally speaking, we can note the development of Swahili cities, accompanied by social transformations which may have involved the Ibadites (in Pate), but especially the Hadramis, who represented Sunni Orthodox Islam.32 The two essential elements that founded the power of the “stone cities” – long-distance trade and Islam – were made evident, through the insertion of imported bowls and plates, mainly of Chinese origin, in the walls of mosques and tombs, in the 15th century.

  • 33 B. ZHAO, 2011.

19Chinese ships belonging to the large fleets launched into the Indian Ocean from 1403 onwards visited Mogadishu and Malindi, thereby contributing to the supply of the blue-and-white Chinese porcelain, now present in significant amounts in many cities on the East African coast, as well as in the Comoros and Madagascar. This pottery was also brought by Persians, Arabs and Indians, along with fabrics, Islamic ceramics, glass and agricultural products.33

20Regional mutations are discernible around the middle of the 15th century, initiated by an episode of global climatic cooling, correlated to a decrease in solar activity and the eruption of the Kuwae volcano in Vanuatu. Thus, in East Africa, the state of Great Zimbabwe started to decline – also for domestic reasons –, and this decline contributed to a weakening of the coastal town of Kilwa, from which cities further north – such as Mombasa, Malindi and Pate – benefited.

  • 34 T. VERNET, 2009.
  • 35 Langany: from the Persian lang, “stopping place of a caravan,” the final -ni representing the Swahi (...)

21A new flourishment is perceptible in the late 15th century, all around the Indian Ocean and as a result on the East African shore. Gold mining, generally controlled by sovereigns, was carried on in the states that succeeded Great Zimbabwe – Mutapa, Butua, Manica, for example. Ivory also remained a major export item, particularly coveted by the Gujaratis, whose rise in power in the oceanic trade networks became noticeable; the presence of Gujarati ships in the main ports of the East African coast is mentioned by Portuguese chronicles. The slave trade is only sporadically evoked in written sources after the 10th century, but it does not mean that it disappeared. During the first years of the 16th century, the Portuguese indicate that slaves from East Africa, but also from Madagascar, were transported to Arabia, India or East Asia.34 The rise of the culture of Swahili city-states led to an increasing integration of the peripheral regions of the African coast into the world-system. New coastal settlements appeared in the Comoros and Madagascar, in connection with the African coast: a stone architecture similar to that which can be seen in Swahili cities developed there – during the “classical” period of the Comoros and in towns of northwestern Madagascar. In this region, Mahilaka appears to have declined, but a new city was created in Langany, where caravans brought cattle and slaves from the Malagasy highlands.35

  • 36 É. VALLET, 2015.
  • 37 T. VERNET, 2005, p. 153; 2015.

22Swahili ships and merchants also crossed the oceans, but in small numbers, as did pilgrims and religious students. In the 14th century, Ibn Battūta (1341) met in Hili, on the Malabar coast, an ulama from Mogadishu who had spent fourteen years in Mecca and Medina, and sojourned in India and China. A century later, al-Maqrīzī met in Mecca a qadi from Lamu; moreover, according to the Kilwa Chronicle, various sultans of the city made the pilgrimage to Mecca – for example, Sultan Hasan bin Husain, in 1411 (which is confirmed by Arab sources) –, and an heir to the throne of Kilwa spent two years in Aden “studying spiritual science.”36 There is little data, however, concerning Swahili pilgrimages to Yemen and Hijāz, either because the sources are incomplete or because such trips to Arabia were not frequent. Regarding trade, the Persian Abd el-Razzaq, in 1441, mentioned the Zanj coast among the countries that sent traders and goods to Hormuz. Later, in the early 16th century, “the Sultan of Malindi, in 1515, requested authorization to send one of his ships to Goa,”37 and in the same year, the Portuguese Tome Pires reported the presence in Malacca of “people from Kilwa, Malindi, Mogadishu and Mombasa.” Among the masters of navigation of the “Indian Sea” in the late 15th century, the Arab pilot Ibn Mājid mentioned the Arabs, the people of Hormuz, the Indians of the west coast, the Chola (from southeastern India) and the Zanj (East Africans).

  • 38 Id., 2005.

23Contrary to what has often been written, the irruption of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean only disrupted the exchange networks for a short period of time. In East Africa, it did not contribute to the weakening of the culture of the Swahili city-states, but rather to a reconfiguration of the networks that benefited the Lamu archipelago, and especially the city of Pate, as the latter took advantage of its situation at the confluence of the Portuguese and Arabian spheres of interaction.38

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Notes

1 N. BOIVIN et al., 2013.

2 D. FULLER, 2003.

3 D. GOMMERY et al., 2011; R. DEWAR et al., 2013. The data, however, remains debated.

4 N. BOIVIN, D. FULLER, 2009 ; D. FULLER et al., 2011.

5 R. BLENCH, 2010.

6 L. CASSON, 1989. For a rereading and reinterpretation of the origins of the Periplus, see M.F. BOUSSAC et al., 2012.

7 P. BEAUJARD, 2012, vol. 1.

8 Claude Allibert (in this issue) even suggests a knowledge of the Comoros and Madagascar by the Roman world.

9 M.C. HORTON, H.W. BROWN, N. MUDIDA, 1996.

10 A. M. JUMA, 2004.

11 M.C. HORTON, H.W. BROWN, N. MUDIDA, 1996; M.C. HORTON, 2001.

12 However, despite the name “Zanj,” which first and foremost referred to the populations of East Africa (south of the Horn), not all the rebels were slaves from the Swahili coast (A. SHERIFF, 2005, p. 15-18).

13 M.C. HORTON, H.W. BROWN, N. MUDIDA, 1996.

14 F. CHAMI, 1994.

15 J.B. FLEISHER, S. WYNNE-JONES, 2011.

16 P. SINCLAIR et al., 2012; M. WOOD, 2011; and this issue.

17 « The Sea of the Zanj ends with the country of Sofala and al-Wakwak, which produces gold and many other wonderful things” (Masʿūdī, t. II, 1965, pp. 322-323).

18 See J.-C. DUCÈNE, in this issue.

19 A. ROUGEULLE, 2004; M. REGERT et al., 2008.

20 D. NURSE, T.J. HINNEBUSCH, 1993, p. 494.

21 See C. ALLIBERT in this issue.

22 C. RADIMILAHY, 1998.

23 Ibn Rusteh quoted by A. MIQUEL, t. II, 1975, p. 178.

24 R. POUWELS, 1987.

25 É. VALLET, 2010.

26 G. SCHEURS et al., 2011. On this point, Bing Zhao is very cautious (in this issue).

27 See the special issue of Études Océan Indien devoted to the Vohemar site (n°46-47, 2011).

28 I. PIKIRAYI, 2001.

29 M. WOOD, 2011; and this issue.

30 See also P. ROBERTSHAW et al., 2010.

31 J.B FLEISHER, 2003; J.B FLEISHER, S. WYNNE-JONES, 2011; B. ZHAO, 2012.

32 M.C. HORTON, J. MIDDLETON, 2000; T. VERNET, 2005.

33 B. ZHAO, 2011.

34 T. VERNET, 2009.

35 Langany: from the Persian lang, “stopping place of a caravan,” the final -ni representing the Swahili locative.

36 É. VALLET, 2015.

37 T. VERNET, 2005, p. 153; 2015.

38 Id., 2005.

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Philippe Beaujard, « East Africa and oceanic exchange networks between the first and fifteenth centuries »Afriques [En ligne], 06 | 2015, mis en ligne le 25 décembre 2015, consulté le 11 mai 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/afriques/3097 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/afriques.3097

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Philippe Beaujard

Research director at the CNRS, Institut des mondes africains (IMAF)

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