East Africa

Beginning in at least the seventh century, the inhabitants of the East African coast (Bantu- and Cushitic-speaking groups) created a cosmopolitan culture along the Swahili coast that was deeply involved in trade with the Indian Ocean world, and particularly the Persian Gulf. The name Swahili, from the Arabic word sahil meaning shore, was later applied to the nearly forty trading towns, mostly concentrated in Tanzania and Kenya, that developed along this coast. Persian, Arab, Indian and Chinese merchants made their way to towns on Zanzibar and Pemba islands, to Shanga, Manda, Pate and Malindi (Kenya), Mogadishu (Somalia) and to Kilwa (Tanzania), using the force of the monsoon in their search for profits. The seasonal trade winds enabled them to carry goods from East Africa to South Asia—and points in between—from April to September and then return between November and February. The ships' captains and crews found a ready home in the cosmopolitan, Islamic, world of the East African coast, and were hosted by the maritime communities in the ports that dotted the coastlines of the Indian Ocean.

These seafaring and trading networks helped create and disseminate new languages, ideas, syncretic religious practices, technologies, people and goods carried from the Swahili Coast to southern Arabia, southern Iran and Pakistan, and western India. Africans—as sailors, merchants and captives—became part of each of these coastlines, developing communities of their own. Language became a powerful indicator of the extent to which peoples were intermingled not only on the coasts but also deep into the interior. By the 19th century, Swahili had become the lingua franca as far inland as the Central African Lake District and parts of eastern Congo.

East Africans who arrived in the Indian subcontinent aboard the ubiquitous dhows almost always stopped in Yemen before continuing on to South Asia, where they disembarked at the western Indian ports of Kutch, Surat and, later, Bombay. Others carried on to Madras on the eastern side of India, Colombo and Galle in Sri Lanka—from where other ships transported them to the Far East.

The demand for slave labor at times drew fierce competition between Arabs and East Indians. Such rivalry accelerated with the arrival of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean region in the late 15th century and led to increased kidnappings of Africans from the interior of the continent (extending west of Lake Tanganyika), with ever-greater numbers of men, women and children being dispersed across the Indian Ocean world.


The presence of Ethiopians, or Abyssinians, across the Indian Ocean world appears early in the archival and archeological record. The anonymous first-century Greek author of the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea notes commercial contact between East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian subcontinent. Trade, however, was often mixed with imperial expansion. During the fourth century armies from Ethiopia invaded the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula and occupied Yemen from 335 to 370.

The Persian and Byzantine historians Muhammed ibn Jariri al-Tabari and Procopius of Caesarea indicate that between 532 and 535 the Ethiopian general Abraha al-Ashram, a Christian, seized the throne of the Himyarite kingdom and ruled as the king of Saba for some 35 years. His sons by a Yemeni woman ensured that an African presence in Arabia remained following his death in 570.

The archeological record verifies that commercial contacts between Ethiopia and South Asia had been well established in the ancient world. Indian figurines were imported into Ethiopia as early as the third century BCE; and during the first century CE the Roman observer Pliny the Elder described Barygasa (Baruch) in Gujarat, on the western coast of India, as an Ethiopian town. More than 100 gold coins dating to approximately 230 found in Dabra Damo, northern Ethiopia, have been identified as Kushana (from the Kush region between Pakistan and Afghanistan).

Many of the captives in Ethiopia were Oromo, who filled the markets at Gondar and Gallabar in the northwest. Oromo chiefs often acted as dealers, supplying Christian Oromo to Muslim markets. During the 16th century, a Dutch traveler noted that enslaved Christian Ethiopians could be recognized by the cross-shaped marks on their faces—burns made upon baptism to forever mark their religious identity, if not faith. Up to 500 Oromo were reportedly sold in a single day at Gallabar alone.

Another observer, the Italian traveler Ludovico di Varthema—the first non-Muslim European to enter Mecca—noted at the turn of the 16th century how Ethiopian soldiers were taken by the "Moors" (i.e., Muslims) to Zeila on the Gulf of Aden and from there "carried into Persia, Arabia Felix [southern Arabia] and to Mecca, Cairo and into India." Some of these Ethiopians were paid mercenaries, but most were slave-soldiers being transported as a military force by Arabs to various parts of the Indian Ocean.

Over the course of many centuries Ethiopians would appear repeatedly in the historical record. Some were quite notable: in the seventh century, Bilal ibn Rabah, the son of an enslaved Abyssinian woman and Islam's first muezzin (the person who calls Muslims to prayer); in the 14th century, Bava Gor, a merchant in the agate trade and a highly venerated Sufi pir (Muslim spiritual master); and in the early 17th century, Malik Ambar, a Muslim general in India's Deccan, under whose command were nearly 8,000 soldiers, including several thousand fellow Habshi. In 1530, during the Portuguese occupation, Sayf al-Mulk Miftah, the governor of Daman on the coast of Ahmednagar in western India, was described as an Ethiopian who commanded a force of 4,000 Habshi soldiers. In addition to serving in military roles, Ethiopians continued to trade directly with outlying ports in the Indian Ocean. In the 16th century, the Portuguese traveler Tomé Pires noted that Ethiopian merchants were trading as far away as Malacca in Malaysia.

Ethiopians were also part of crews that crisscrossed the Indian Ocean. Some navigated between Hormuz in southern Iran and Goa and Bengal in India, while others sailed to Malaysia, and a few went to China and Japan with the Portuguese. Along the western coast of India, Ethiopians built a chain of fortifications, controlling sea access from Daman, in the north, down to the island of Janjira, south of Bombay. There, beginning in the early 17th century, Habshi sailors turned rulers established a royal lineage that reigned for nearly 300 years.

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Sustained commercial contact between Muslim Arabs and Persians down to Tanzania and the island of Zanzibar began in the 10th century (although there is evidence of long distance trade at Unguja Ukuu, a site on the southern tip of the island, from at least the 6th century). With greater commercial contact came religious conversion to Islam. As elsewhere in East Africa, Muslim conversion among Africans grew first along the trade routes, followed by urban centers, and only much later in the countryside. Merchants and later sultans and lower-level sheiks along the East African coast were instrumental in spreading Islam through their financial support for the construction of mosques and Muslim scholarship. They lent their support both for the prestige increasingly associated with patronizing Islamic religious institutions and scholarship and to deepen commercial contacts with Muslims in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. In exchange for imports such as cotton cloth from India, cowry shells from the Maldives, and Chinese porcelain, East Africans exported gold, ivory, coconut oil, mangrove poles (for construction), and enslaved men, women and children.

For centuries slave trading thrived along the East African coast. However, during the 19th century Zanzibar became the principal port along the coast for the mass distribution of captive Africans from the interior. Most came from the area of Lake Nyasa (today Lake Malawi). Arab and Swahili traders descended into this region, traveling down the Shire River, kidnapping or purchasing men, women and children who had been captured through war and raiding. People from dozens of ethnicities were then brought to Zanzibar, Kilwa and Pemba where they awaited transport.

Precise numbers are not known, but there are some indications. For instance, in 1830, the sultan of Zanzibar claimed dues on approximately 37,000 enslaved men, women and children. As late as 1859 approximately 20,000 people were being funneled through the island. They were then shipped to the island of Socotra and to Aden in Yemen before being taken to ports across the Arabian Sea, landing in Sindh (Pakistan) and Gujarat (India). Thousands of Indian merchants and their kin eventually settled in East Africa, some becoming large slaveholders. Following a tradition of enslavement among Hindus going back 4,000 years, Bania Indians (Hindus of the largely merchant caste) and Gujarati traders in Zanzibar reportedly owned some 6,000 Africans.

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Cairo was a major crossroad for Muslim West Africans on their way to Mecca to perform the hajj (pilgrimage). Perhaps the most famous pilgrim was the 14th-century emperor of Mali, Mansa Musa. In 1324, with an entourage said to be of 60,000 people—including 20,000 enslaved subjects—dozens of camels laden with gold dust, drums beating, and in full regalia, the emperor journeyed to Arabia, passing through Egypt. According to chroniclers, while in Cairo, Mansa Musa infused so much gold into the local economy through his purchases and gift-giving that the price of gold was devalued in the city for years thereafter. On his way back from the hajj, the emperor brought back some of the leading artists, scholars and architects of the Muslim world. Mansa Musa's journey made a lasting impression; more than 50 years later, in their Atlas Catalán, two Mallorcan Sephardic Jews, Abraham Cresques and his son Jehuda, vividly depicted the West African emperor seated on a throne with a gold orb in one hand and a staff in the other.

But Cairo was also one of the starting points of the dispersion of Africans. The largest city in Africa at the time, its slave markets were among the largest in the continent, surpassing Zanzibar's. For centuries, caravans of several thousand men, women and children from Dar-Fur (Darfur, Sudan) regularly arrived in the city. From there many captives were sent to the Maghreb in the western part of North Africa, across the Mediterranean, and to Ottoman Turkey. Many, however, remained in Egypt, where they served in military capacities.

Sub-Saharan African captives were introduced into Egypt in 870 by the Tulunid ruler Ahmed ibn Tulun, who held upward of 24,000 white and 45,000 black slaves. None of the Africans reached the highest echelons of power, but in the next century a Nubian eunuch, Abu 'l-Misk Kafur, briefly ruled Egypt on behalf of the Ilkshidid dynasty (935-969). The Ilkshidid ruler Muhammed ibn Tughi had bought Kafur and, recognizing his talents and loyalty, gave him increasing and substantial administrative and military authority. Among Kafur's special tasks was serving as tutor to Tughi's two sons. When Tughi died in 946, Kafur became regent to each of the sons. After the death of one son, he assumed the position of de facto ruler but died less than three years later.

The succeeding Fatimid dynasty, which ruled Egypt from 969 to 1171, continued the tradition of drawing on soldiers from sub-Saharan Africa. The Fatimids raised several black battalions. But in 1146 some 500 enslaved Africans mounted on the Arabian horses under their care briefly fled for their freedom. The rebels even set up their own state on the Lower Nile until they were crushed by military force.

Sub-Saharan Africans continued to arrive in Cairo. In the 1570s a Frenchman visiting Egypt found "many thousands" in the slave market; in the 1660s another European eyewitness reported seeing between 800 and 1,000 Africans for sale; and in 1796 a British traveler reported up to 5,000 Africans being transported up from Dar Fur. The slave trade continued until the end of the 19th century.

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Madagascar and the Mascarenes

The slave trade across the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Indian subcontinent accelerated from the 18th through the 19th centuries because of a combination of factors: more efficiently organized states in East Africa that had an active interest in promoting it; the transportation of people from Mozambique to Brazil by the Portuguese; the establishment by Omani Arabs of plantations at Zanzibar and Pemba; and the introduction of African captives into the island of Madagascar by the French.

People from Madagascar and those sent there from continental Africa were transported to southern Iran during the 19th century. A sizable black population formed at Hormuz, comprising Malagasy and mainland Africans who fused cultures and traditions into a unique culture of their own.

During the second half of the 17th century, European colonial powers established labor-intensive plantations in the Mascarenes, an archipelago to the east of Madagascar. Rival Portuguese, Dutch, British and French colonizers fought for control. Ultimately, the French took hold of the archipelago, including Ile de France (Mauritius)—whose first two successful settlers were maroons who survived the initial Dutch efforts at settlement—Ile Bourbon (Reunion) and Sechelles (the Seychelles). French victory, and the subsequent development of plantation agriculture requiring extensive labor, prompted the introduction of men and women from East Africa (via Kilwa in Tanzania), who were joined by indentured servants from Asia to work on the sugar and coffee plantations that greatly enriched the French and their Indian Ocean trading partners.

As the plantation system grew in the Mascarenes, the character of these islands began to more closely resemble the distant islands of the West Indies than the islands of the Indian Ocean, prompting some scholars to describe them as a "second Caribbean." Today fully one-fifth of all Mauritians (approximately 200,000 out of a total population of 1 million) are estimated to be of African descent.

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