Who were the pioneers who opened up the trade routes that criss cross the seas and deep into the interior from the ancient ports of Zanzibar and Mombasa? We don’t know who these intrepid sailors must have been, making their profit from rich Roman’s wives seeking Indian silks and spices, but the African continent’s eastern shores were known to traders at the very beginning of the Common Era (CE).
Azania is the name that has been applied to various parts of southeastern tropical Africa. In the Roman period and perhaps earlier, the toponym referred to a portion of the Southeast African coast extending from Kenya, to perhaps as far south as Tanzania. Azania was known to the Chinese as Zésàn (澤散) by the 3rd century. Even China’s most famous explorer, Zheng He only reached Malindi a few decades before Da Gama’s voyage in 1497.
East African coastal cities participated in a larger Afro-Asian trade network a thousand years before Vasco Da Gama peeked around the Cape of Good Hope to find the way to sail to India. Gujarati traders were already criss-crossing the ocean for biashara with the Swahili Coast of Eastern Africa. As far back as the 3rd c. CE, the banana, domesticated in India, came to Madagascar (and thence to the African continent) as part of the broad Afro-Asian/Indian Ocean trading community.(1) By the 13th Century, Africa was well integrated in the global trading pattern.
Trade flourished in the Indian Ocean as East Africa, India, Southeast Asia, China, the Spice Islands participated in a thriving commercial network that encompassed both overland and maritime routes. Asian and Arab sailors mastered the monsoon wind patterns of the Indian Ocean to capitalize on commercial opportunities.
History has finally found a name for one them, present at the dawn of the age of colonization – Kanji Malam – the merchant sailor from the ancient port of Mandvi on the coast of the Indian state of Gujarat who showed Da Gama how to cross the ocean to India from Malindi on the Kenyan coast. These hazy but deep links of trading history are captured here by the Friends of Mombasa.
East Africa was part and parcel of the trade and served as “cross cultural agents” in the global commercial networks of that era. The Swahili Coast is the best known of these multicultural trading societies.
The Coast of East Africa has had a long history of trade, involving constant exchanges of ideas, style and commodities for well over two thousand years. Marriage between women of Africa and men of the East created and cemented a rich Swahili culture, fusing urban and agricultural communities, rich in architecture, textiles, and food, as well as purchasing power.(2)
Further inland, the Kamba, of what is now Kenya, and the Nyamwezi of erstwhile Tangayika, formed the trader’s networks that linked the ports of the Swahili Coast to the wealth of the heart of Africa.(Roberts, 1970; Cummings, 1975) Copper from Katanga vied with ivory and gold to pay for the textiles and metals. Caravan routes laid down in centuries past are reflected in the roads and rails of today.
The pioneers of all the major routes were African traders. Nyamwezi caravans from central Tanzania, reaching the coast about 1800, developed the most important route from their homeland to Bagamoyo on the mainland directly opposite Zanzibar. Kamba ivory traders from central Kenya opened a route that ended at Mombasa. Eventually, this route crossed Kamba and Maasai country, branching east towards Uganda and north to Lake Turkana. The oldest route stretched from Yao country to Kilwa. (3)
With the Global North’s industrialization of the slave trade and colonization came the top down administration of the formal economy, as the need for manual labour spelt the beginning of the end of these ancient caravans of trade.
You may also enjoy The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean World.