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The Swahili

"As an introduction to how the history of an African society can be reconstructed from largely nonliterate sources, and to the Swahili in particular, . . . a model work."—International Journal of African Historical Studies

The Swahili
Reconstructing the History and Language of an African Society, 800-1500

Derek Nurse and Thomas Spear

1985 | 160 pages | Cloth $20.00 | Paper $26.50
African-American Studies/African Studies
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Table of Contents


1 Swahili and Their History
2 The African Background of Swahili
3 The Emergence of the Swahili-Speaking Peoples
4 Early Swahili Society, 800-1100
5 Rise of the Swahili Town-States, 1100-1500


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


The history of the Swahili has long been tangled in the web of their own and other people's perceptions and misperceptions of them. At its most extreme, they have been seen as cultural aliens, Caucasian Arabs who brought civilization to a primitive continent. Just as state formation across the continent was seen as the product of Hamitic (Caucasian) invaders from the north, so the Muslim trading towns of the eastern coast were seen as cultural transplants from the Arabian Peninsula. This view is not simply racist; it also implies an understanding of history that sees all cultural innovation in Africa as the result of diffusion of peoples and ideas from elsewhere, thus denying African historical actors roles in their own histories.

Our intention is to cut through this web by combining modern techniques of African historians with recent discoveries relating to the Swahili to portray their history. For all the interest in the Swahili language, few have attempted to reconstruct its historical development. Only recently have archaeologists turned their attention to the indigenous peoples of the coast and started to reconstruct the ways in which coastal towns and societies developed. Historians have tended to accept Swahili traditions pointing to Arabian origins at face value without seeking to discover what the traditions mean to the people who relate them. Finally, anthropologists have only recently started mapping the full dimensions of Swahili society and culture and the ways these relate to those of their neighbors.

This book has a message. We hope that it is argued convincingly and supported carefully, but lest it be misunderstood, let us briefly outline our argument here. Our basic point is that the Swahili are an African people, born of that continent and raised on it. This is not to say that they are the same as other African peoples, however, for in moving to the coast, participating in Indian Ocean trade, and living in towns their culture has developed historically in directions different from those of their immediate neighbors. It is also not to say that they have not borrowed freely from others. Arabs have been trading along the coast for a long time, and many have remained to settle and to become Swahili. They have influenced the development of coastal culture. But the influence has gone both ways, and the result has been a dynamic synthesis of African and Arabian ideas within an African historical and cultural context. The result has been neither African nor Arab but distinctly Swahili. It is this process we seek to trace.

The Swahili provide a laboratory unique in African history in the detail and the time depth over which we are able to use documentary, linguistic, archaeological, and traditional data, both to test the validity of each and to explore ways of combining them into a meaningful historical synthesis. We hope our attempt will be useful for other historians struggling with the implications of oral traditions, ethnographic data, or comparative linguistics in the more usual absence of supporting documentary or archaeological data and of absolute chronologies. Within the immense historical diversity and complexity of African societies, we all share the problems of method and of understanding.

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