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The Swahili coast (500 A.D.-1498)

Arab geographers knew the coast of East Africa as the land of Zinj, a word referring to the black coloured natives' skin. Around the year 500 A.D., the first Arab traders docked at this corner of the Indian Ocean and launched their long colonization process during which they introduced their culture, their mosques, their religion, their bazaars, ...

From the 9th century, cities like Pate, Lamu and Malindi were founded, giving rise to a new civlization which was Bantu-Arab in origin but developed its own personality, including a new language. Swahili or Kiswahili was born as a blend of the Bantu grammar and the Arab vocabulary, and was initially written with Arab characters. The word 'Swahili' appears to be a derivation of the plural of the Arab term 'Sahel', meaning 'coast'. Centuries later, adapted to the Latin alphabet, it would become the most widespread language in East Africa.

Traders found here fertile grounds for their business, exploiting the wealth of this virgin territory. It was then when the Arabs started organising their caravans to the inner lands, where they captured natives to be sold as slaves, giving birth to a form of trade that would thrive for centuries. The routes so defined by the Arab tradesmen would remain as the only paths inland, that would even be used by the first European explorers who would arrive hundreds of years later.

The maritime routes of this nascent commerce linked the East African coast with the Indies. Textiles and other manufactured products brought by sailors from the Arab countries, from India or China were exchanged for iron, ivory, gold or slaves, promoting this region to a flourishing development that would persist without interference until the arrival of the Portuguese ships. These commercial flows were also used by the Persians, who arrived in the coast pushed by the monsoon winds in their lateen 'dhows'. In the 14th century, the Persian traders founded the city of Mombasa. The Chinese and the Malaysians visited these shores as well, using the routes established in this golden age of East africa.

The slave trade was the cause of the dissemination of African natives throughout the Indian Ocean shoreline and its areas of influence. In Mesopotamia and even in South China there were African slaves since 800 years ago. On the other hand, the presence of the new settlers left a perdurable trace in the Kenyan coast: today, some 40,000 descendants of those first Arab traders still inhabit this region. Conversely, the influence of the East Indies was scarcely significant in those days, regardless the fact that over the past two thousand years there were small settlings in the coast. Currently, most of the Kenyan Indian community, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Goans, has its origin in the days of the British East Africa, hundreds of years later.


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Cradle of Mankind
First migrations
Swahili coast
Portuguese empire
Omani domination
Mountains of the Moon
Inland peoples
Kenya exploration
Partition of East Africa
Protectorates & Lunatic Express
Settlers, hunters & sportsmen
African nationalism
Mau-Mau & end of the Colony
Uhuru, Jamhuri, Harambee
End of a century
Moi's decline & Constitution