East Africa’s ancient trade links with the Gulf explored at NYUAD talk
Standing in the ruins of a once-magnificent Islamic palace on Kilwa, a tropical island off the Tanzanian coast, the Arabist and writer Tim Mackintosh-Smith pondered the adventures of his hero, the 14th-century Muslim traveller Ibn Battuta of Tangier, and a cosmopolitan Indian Ocean culture that was once held together by trade, the monsoon and Islam.
Sitting 1,800 nautical miles from Oman and 3,000 from Sri Lanka, the palace was built by the fourth ruler in a dynasty whose origins lay in Yemen and it functioned as an entrepôt for the goods traded between South and Southeast Asia, the Gulf, China and the African interior.
Slaves and ivory, tortoiseshell and hardwoods, animal skins and gold flowed out of Africa while lustre-ware ceramics, date syrup and glass beads were brought out of the Gulf, and fine porcelains, spices, cottons and silks travelled west.
The lifeblood of this trade was what Mackintosh-Smith describes as “that great biannual rhythm of the ocean, the mawasim – the Arabic ‘season’ for sailing, the English ‘monsoon’”, the currents and winds that cross the Indian Ocean, alternately flowing from the northeast and the southwest and reversing with the seasons.
However, as the University of Bristol’s Mark Horton will explain in Travelling to the Land of the Zanj, a forthcoming talk at New York University Abu Dhabi, the Indian Ocean trade was already many centuries-old by the time Ibn Battuta ventured down the East African coast in 1330.
“People were sailing down to East Africa from Southern Arabia and the Red Sea as early as the first century AD, but there’s very little archaeological evidence from this period,” says the archaeology professor. “At the time, ivory and tortoiseshell were two of the most valued commodities that emerged from East Africa and these made their way to the markets of Southern Arabia, Greece and Rome.”
For the ancient Greeks and Romans, the coastline that would later be called the Swahili Coast was Azania, a semi-mythical El Dorado of luxury goods whose name, Horton believes, provided Zanj with one of its etymological roots.
“The land of the Zanj is the name that the early Arab seafarers gave to the stretch of East African coast between Somalia and Tanzania that also included offshore islands such as Zanzibar, Pemba and the Comoros,” he explains.
“In Arabic, the word ‘zanj’ can mean black and is believed to be a reference to the people who lived along the 2-3,000 kilometre coastline and with whom the early Arab merchants traded,” he says.
“So perhaps ‘zanj’ derives from ‘Azania’ and maybe the Arabic term comes from the original classical name and the word zanj was then used for black because it was already associated with East Africa.”
Horton began excavating in East Africa in 1980 and has been working in the Zanzibar archipelago since 1984, but archaeology buffs and lovers of British TV programmes such as Time Team and Coast are more likely to associate the 60-year-old with very English stories and histories.
But it is maritime archaeology, the Indian Ocean trade and the early Islamic sites of East Africa that have always been Horton’s passion. “I was always interested in trade but in the 1980s that wasn’t very fashionable and the Indian Ocean was also deeply unfashionable as a place to study,” Horton admits.
“As far as everyone was concerned back then, the Indian Ocean only started to get interesting with the arrival of the Portuguese and the Dutch and there was very little interest in long-distance trade networks and how the Gulf participated in those,” he says.
Recently, however, the Indian Ocean world has become a major focus for study across a range of academic disciplines, and it was thanks to a recent conference at NYUAD that sought to investigate the Gulf in terms of its global connections, that Horton was invited to give this public talk.
The trade that now flows across the Indian Ocean has replaced tortoiseshell and ivory with copper and iron ore, and fine silks and ceramics with cheap electrical goods, but the underlying fundamentals remain the same. Raw materials are still exchanged for manufactured goods.
“When I started work in the 1980s everyone talked about globalisation as a result of European expansion – you know, 1492 and 1498 in the Indian Ocean,” Horton says. “But now we realise globalisation is a much longer process that goes back, not just to the medieval period, but into the ancient world as well, and that these global networks existed in very much the same way as modern networks exist.”
• Professor Mark Horton’s talk, Travelling to the Land of the Zanj, takes place at NYUAD on Thursday at 6:30pm. To register, visit www.nyuad.edu/en
Nick Leech is a feature writer at The National.