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Oral Historiography and the Shirazi of the East African Coast*

  • Randall L. Pouwels (a1)

“Settlements of foreign, predominantly Semitic, peoples”

Strandes' gambit concerning ‘Muslim Civilization’ of the east coast of Africa is a familiar one to many Africanists. Persians and Arabs, so the stories go, settled coastal sites as part of the Islamic diaspora; they vanquished less virile African societies; they built cities which were reflections of Middle Eastern prototypes; they imposed their religion; and, they ‘founded’ coastal civilization, a civilization, therefore, which was characteristically Middle Eastern. Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century historians cannot be entirely blamed for holding such simplistic views. After all, the traditions themselves at least imply some of these things. And, given the literalist and diffusionist nature of past anthropological and historical theory, simple and biased interpretations of these traditions are not surprising.

What is perhaps remarkable, given the developments in anthropological theory since the 1940s, is the persistence of such views in some quarters. Examples include portions of two recently published papers by Saad and Wilkinson. Both deal wholly or in part with the most intriguing of the coastal origin traditions, the stories which tell how many coastal towns were originally settled by immigrants who came from Shiraz or Persia (see appendix). Their interpretations are so literal as to link the Shirazi name not merely with a particular dynasty, but with a specific family or kin group which ruled in pre-fourteenth-century Kilwa.

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I wish to thank the following people for comments they generously offered on earlier drafts of this paper: Neville Chittick, John Graham, James Kirkman, Nigel Oram, Michele Stephen, and Jan Vansina. None of these scholars, of course, is responsible for the contents and the ideas expressed herein.

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1. Strandes Justus, The Portuguese Period in East Africa (2d ed.: Nairobi, 1962), 72.

2. Saad Elias, “Kilwa Dynastic Historiography: A Critical Study,” HA, 6 (1979), 180–81. On such stylization of genealogies, see Bohannan L., “A Genealogical Charter,” Africa, 23 (1952), 302–15. Saad's analysis of the Mahdali genealogy, in contrast to his discussion of the Shirazi, is on firmer ground. It must be noted, in passing, that much of his thesis leans on his translation of the Arabic ʿamr and ʿimara to denote the possession of a formal office of ʿamir. The text, however, does allow for the far more ambiguous translation of these terms followed by Free-man-Grenville. Saad's overall treatment of the text, while an interesting alternative, does not merit an especially great amount of confidence.

3. Wilkinson J.C., “Oman and East Africa: New Light on Early Kilwan History from the Omani Sources,” IJAHS, 14 (1981), 272–306, esp. 286300.

4. Spear Thomas, “The Shirazi in Swahili Traditions, Culture, and History,” HA, 11 (1984),

5. deV. Allen J., “Swahili Culture Reconsidered: Some Historical Implications of the Material Culture of the Northern Kenya Coast in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” Azania, 9 (197 ), 105–38; idem., “Swahili Culture and the Nature of East Coast Settlement,” IJAHS, 14 (1981), 306–35.

6. Horton Mark, Shanga 1980: An Interim Report (Cambridge, 1980), and personal communications; Phillipson D.W., “Some Iron Age Sites on the Lower Tana River,” Azania, XIV (1979), 155–60; Sinclair P., “Chibuene - An Early Trading Site in Southern Mozambique,” in Allen J. & Wilson T.H., From Zinj to Zanzibar (Wiesbaden, 1982), 149–64; Hinnebusch T., “The Shungwaya Hypothesis: A Linguistic Reappraisal” in Gallagher J., ed., East African Cultural History (Syracuse, 1976); Nurse D., “History from Linguistics: The Case of the Tana River,” HA, 10 (1983), 207–38; idem., “A Hypothesis Concerning the Origin of Swahili” (mimeograph, 1982).

7. Martin Bradford G., “Arab Migrations to East Africa in Medieval Times,” IJAHS, 7 (1974), 367–90; Freeman-Grenville G.S.P., “The Coast, 1498–1840” in Oliver R. & Mathew G., eds., History of East Africa, I (Oxford, 1963); and Chapter 3 of R.L. Pouwels, Horn and Crescent, Cultural Change and Traditional Islam on the East African Coast, 800–1900 (forthcoming).

8. Chapters 2 and 3 in Pouwels, Horn and Crescent. See also van den Bergh L.W.C., Le Hadramout et les colonies arabes dans l'Archipel Indien (Batavia, 1886), for corresponding effects on Malaysia and Indonesia. It is questionable whether or not the effects of these earlier phases would show up as strongly in linguistic evidence as it does, apparently, for the nineteenth century (Derek Nurse, personal communication) since an appreciable amount of older Swahili vocabulary, especially in the non-‘standard’ older dialects, has dropped out of use, according to A.S. Nabahani (interview, Malindi, July 1975).

9. For discussions of these critiques and examples of the ‘new’ oral historiography, see Pender-Cudlip Patrick, “Oral Tradition and Anthropological Analysis: Some Contemporary Myths,” Azania, (1972), 324.MacGaffey W., “African History, Anthropology and the Rationality of the Native,” HA, 5 (1978), 101–20; Miller J., “Listening for the African Past,” in Miller J., ed., The African Past Speaks (Folkestone, 1980), 159; Spear T.T., “Oral Traditions: Whose History?HA, 8 (1981), 165–81.

10. Miller , “Listening,” 521; idem., “The Dynamics of Oral Tradition in Africa” in Bernardo Bernard!, ed., Fonti Orali (Milan, 1978).

11. Wilkinson , “Oman,” 288.

12. Tolmacheva Marina, “They Came from Damascus in Syria: A Note on Traditional Lamu Historiography,” IJAHS, 12 (1979), 259–69.

13. Wehr Hans, A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic (Ithaca, 1971), 410; Sacleux Ch., Dictionnaire Swahili-Francais (Paris, 1939), 824.

14. The Kilindini, for example, claim to be from Shungwaya, as do the Bajun; see Guillain Charles, Documents sur l'histoire, le géographie et le commerce de l'Afrique Orientale, (Paris, 1856), 3:240; Talbot-Smith L., “Historical Record of Tanaland,” Kenya National Archives (KNA), DC/LAM/3/1, p. 44; Werner Alice, “A Wwahili History of Pate,” Journal of the African Society, 14 (1915), 157n9; Nurse Derek, “Bajun Historical Linguistics,” Kenya Past and Present, 12 (1980), 39; oral traditions on the Famau at Siyu collected by Howard Brown, personal communication. Probably the most revealing account, however, was reported by Elliott. According to a tradition he collected at Ngumi, the Bajun originally were “light coloured” non-Muslims who possessed no slaves and who lived on amicable terms with other mainland Africans. However, they were converted to Islam by “Arabs,” with whom hey “amalgamated,” but only “on the understanding that all their historical records and traces of a spearate nationality were destroyed.” Elliott J.A.G., “A Visit to the Bajun Islands,” Journal of the African Society, 25 (1925/1926), 255.

15. Many Bajun in the Lamu region simply take names like Khazraji, Maawi (Umayyad), or Makhzumy. At Mombasa, some of the Taifa Ithnaashara have taken names like al-Kindi (Kilindini), al-Jaufi, Umeya, etc. For a few traditions in which various people claim noble Hijazi origins or claim to be Ansar, see Hadlthi ya Wachangamwe” in Lambert H.E., Chi-Jomvu and Ki-Ngare (Lampala, 1958), 8990; “Usulu was Wajomvu,” in ibid., 70–71; and Kurratil Ayun fx Nxsbatil Bajun” in Grottaneilli V.L., Pescatori dell'Oceano Indiano (Rome, 1957), 365–67.

16. See B. Malinowski, “Myth in Primitive Psychology” in idem., Magic, Science and Other Essays (Glencoe, Ill., 1948); Bohannan , “Genealogical Charter,” 302–15; Leach Edmund, The Structural Study of Myth and. Totemism (London, 1967); Beidelman T.O., “Myth, Legend and Oral History,” Anthropos, 65 (1970), 7497; de Heusch Luc, Le roi ivre ou l'originie de l'etat, (Paris, 1972).

17. See the various essays in Miller, African Past Speaks, as well as idem., Kings and Kinsmen (London, 1976); Vansina Jan, The Children of Woot (Madison, 1978); and Feierman Steven, Shambaa Kingdom (Madison, 1974), among others.

18. Geertz Clifford, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York, 1973).

19. Vansina Jan, “Memory and Oral Tradition” in Miller , African Past Speaks, 262–79.

20. Sahlins Marshall D., “Culture and Environment: The Study of Cultural Ecology: in Sol Tax, ed., Horizons in Anthropology, (London, 1965), 215–30; idem., “The Segmentary Lineage: An Organization of Predatory Expansion,” American Anthropologist, 63 (1961), 322–45; Horton Robin, “Stateless Societies in the History of West Africa” in Ajayi J.F.A. and Crowder M., eds., History of West Africa, I (New York, 1972), 78119.

21. Sahlins , “Segmentary Lineage,” 236–29; Horton , “Stateless Societies,” 8493; Newcomer Peter J., “The Nuer Are Dinka: An Essay on Origins and Environmental Determinism,” Man, 7 (1972), 511.

22. Southall Aidan, “Nuer and Dinka Are People: Ecology, Ethnicity and Logical Possibility,” Man, 11 (1976), 482. Similar observations were made by David Turton in an unpublished paper, “The Mursi and the Bodi: An Hypothesis Concerning War, Migration, and the Formation of Ethnic Groups in Southeastern Ethiopia.”

23. Southall , “Nuer and Dinka,” 478.

24. Ibid., 468–78; Newcomer, “The Nuer.”

25. The summary which follows is based on wide range of sources, including works by H.N. Chittick, Christopher Ehret, Thomas Hinnebusch, Mark Horton, Derek Nurse, and Thomas Spear. For a detailed outline of this discussion, see Pouwels, Horn and Crescent, Chapters 1 and 2.

26. This term is used since it is recognized, of course, that a culture evolves, and therefore it is difficult to pin down precisely just when people now called Swahili ‘became’ recognizable as such. I would suggest that the peoples presently called Swahili exhibit a bundle of characteristics, including living on or near the East African littoral and islands; being primarily urban in origin and outlook; being Muslims; living in the characteristic rectangular house which is constructed out of coral, mangrove, and makuti; having multiple social allegiances; having Kiswahili as their first language; and being cultivators of the distinctive coastal crops, as well as fisherfolk and coastal traders. The so-called proto-Swahili, as such, would have been peoples who included at least some of these traits in their culture and who demonstrably were in the early stages of cultural and linguistic divergence from related African (principally Sabaki-speaking) groups, such as the Pokomo and the Mijikenda.

27. This name has not been settled. Some have called it Wenje ware, after the Tana river site where it was identified by Phillipson D.W., “Some Iron Age Sites on the Lower Tana River,” Azania, 14 (1979), 155–60. However, this is the same pottery originally found in Period la levels at Kilwa and was labelled “Kilwa Early Kitchen Ware” by its discoverer, H.N. Chittick. In deference to the site where it originally was identified and to Chittick's achievement(s), I suggest that ‘Kilwa ware’ should be an appropriate name for it.

28. Christopher Ehret, personal communication. Derek Nurse, “History from Linguistics” and personal communication, details four other languages which developed out of Sabaki: Malankote (Elwana), Comorian, Pokomo, and Mijikenda.

29. Mgomezulu M., “Recent Archaeological Research and Radiocarbon Dates from East Africa,” JAH, 11 (1981), 447–48.Sinclair Paul, “Chibuene--An Early Trading Site in Southern Mozambique” in Allen /Wilson , From Zinj to Zanzibar, 149–64; H.N. Chittick, personal communication, 5 Sept. 1983.

30. See Freeman-Grenville G.S.P., The East African Coast, Select Documents (hereafter SD), (Oxford, 1962), 20, 24; Lombard M., The Golden Age of Islam, (New York, 1975), 179.

31. Locally-produced cloth was first associated with the rise to commercial prominence of Mogadishu and it remained an important ingredient of coastal trade well throughout the Portuguese period. Cloth still is woven by guildsmen in Mogadishu. Chittick , Kilwa, 2:428–31, found, significantly, spindle whorls in Period lb levels at Kilwa. In its heyday, Pate, too, was famous for its “Pate cloth.”

32. See Datoo B.A., Port Development in East Africa (Nairobi, 1975), 2930; Chittick , Kilwa, 1: 6199; idem., “Kilwa: A Preliminary Report,” Azania, 1 (1966), 19; Horton , Shanga 1980, 408 and personal communication; Kirkman James, “Historical Archaeology in Kenya, 1948–1956,” Antiquaries Journal, 37 (1957), 1628.

33. Horton Robin, “On the Rationality of Conversion,” Africa, 41 (1971), 85–100, 101–08; Peel J.D.Y., “Syncretism and Religious Change,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 10 (1967/1968), 121–44.

34. See Memoir concerning the East Coast of Africa, 15 June, 1777 and 26 September, 1777” in Freeman-Grenville G.S.P., The French at Kilwa Island, (Oxford, 1965), 92. In other parts of Morice's correspondence with J.F.C. de Cossigny, he observed the “predatory habits and ferocity” of Arab seamen which compelled both Africans and Swahili townspeople at Kilwa to distrust them. Ibid., 82.

35. Joao de Barros, quoted in Kirkman James, Ungwana on the Tana (Hague, 1966), 10. The towns referred to specifically as walled were Ozi, Mombasa, Malindi, Mudio/ldio, and Kilifi. Other major towns to have been walled were Gedi, Lamu, Kilwa, and Pate. See various Portuguese accounts in SD, 66, 108, 134.

36. See Pouwels, Horn and Crescent, chapter 4. One Swahili historian actually does refer to the name of one town as meaning “refuge from one's enemies,” q.v. “Kitab az-Zanuj” in Cerulli Enrico, Somalia, scritti vari editi ed inediti, (Rome, 1957), 1:329.

37. The literature on this is extensive, so only a few will be cited. See Guillain , Documents, 2: 97; Stigand C.H., The Land of Zinj (London, 1913), 124–25; Ingrams W.H., Zanzibar, Its History and Its Peoples (London, 1931), 435; Caplan Patricia, Choice and Constraint in a Swahili Community (London, 1978), 100–01; KNA, DC/LAM/3/2, p. 34.

38. An excellent description of a kuzunguo is detailed in Lienhardt Peter, “A Controversy over Islamic Custom at Kilwa Kivinje, Tanzania” in Lewis I.M., ed., Islam in Tropical Africa (London, 1966), esp. 377–79. See also Caplan , Choice, 90; el-Zein A.H., The Sacred Meadows (Evanston, 1974), 281321.

39. Such, for instance, are the traditions associated with the arrival of the Abu Bakr b. Salim shurafa at Pate around the middle of the sixteenth century. In these stories, either it was the Orma or the Portuguese who were repelled. See Nasir Sayyid Abdallah Ali, Al-Inkishafi, ed., Hichens W. (Nairobi, 1972), 11; Zein , Sacred Meadows, 39; Martin B.G., “Arab Migrations to East Africa in Medieval Times,” IJAHS, 1 (1974), 381; Cerulli , Somalia, 1:2223; Stigand , Zinj, 51; Talbot-Smith , “Historical Record of Tanaland,” 64.

40. I originally made this point in an earlier article, The Medieval Foundations of East African Islam,” IJAHS, 11 (1978), 394–96.

41. The following social analysis is outlined in greater detail in Pouwels , “Islam and Islmaic Leadership in the Coastal Communities of Eastern Africa” (Ph.D., UCLA, 1979), 208–56. See also Caplan , Choice, 1958, for an excellent description.

42. Prins A.H.J., Didemic Lama (Groningen, 1971); Ranger T.O., Dance and Society in Eastern Africa (Berkeley, 1975), 1920; Lienhardt Peter, “The Mosque College of Lamu and Its Social Background,” Tanganyika Notes and Records, 53 (1959), 228–42; Pouwels , “Islam and Islamic Leadership,” 234–44.

43. Prins , Didemic Lamu, 23n15.

44. Fighting with food as a means of expressing status in wealth--or more accurately, the power to draw upon one's ‘social capital’ to provide wealth--is a familiar topic among students of Melanesian societies, but has not yet been explored extensively among Africanists. See, Young Michael W., Fighting with Food: Leadership, Values and Social Control in a Massim Society, (Cambridge, 1971). Such activity, however, was observed in Lamu by British colonial administrators. See Skene R., “Arab and Swahili Dances and Ceremonies,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 47 (1917), 415–21, esp. 415–16, and Harries Lyndon, Utenzi wa Mkunumbi: A Swahili Potlatch, (Nairobi, 1967).

45. Turner Victor, The Ritual Process, Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago, 1969), 83.

46. The sole exception is number 8. The recent (1980) date of its collection, however, probably has something to do with this. Many Swahili nowadays are beginning to think of themselves as Africans.

47. It must be remembered that present evidence suggests that the Swahili/Shirazi first appeared north of the Tana river.

48. This process was not always unidirectional. So-called Arabs sometimes reverted to being Shirazi in other circumstances. Lately, again, with independence, “Arabs” and “Shirazi” are calling themselves Africans in Kenya.

49. For information on Mogadishu see Guillain, Documents, passim; Chittick H.N., “Medieval Mogadishu” in Allen /Wilson , From Zinj to Zanzibar, 4854. On Siyu, interviews, Mombasa: Sayyid Athman b. Abdu'r-Rahman Saqqaf, 23 January and 3 February, 1975. On Lamu: numerous interviews obtained January-August 1975; Talbot-Smith , “Historical Record,” 4749; Clive J., “A Short History of Lamu,” KNA DC/LAM/3/1, p. 5; Prins, Didemic Lamu; Lienhardt, “Mosque College,” passim. On Vumba Kuu: Hollls A.C., “Notes on the History of Vumba, East Africa,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 30 (1900), 282; McKay William F., “A Precolonial History of the Southern Coast,” (Ph.D., Boston University, 1978), 51. On Zanzibar: Sacleaux Charles, Grammaire des dialectes Swahilis, (Paris, 1909), xivxvi; Appendix, no. 7. On Kilwa: Appendix no. 3; Morice in Freeman-Grenville , French, 74, 79–81, 92. On the Comoros: Appendix, no. 6; Verin Pierre, “L'introduction de l'Islam aux Comores selon les traditions orales,” in Allen /Wilson , From Zinj to Zanzibar, 193200.

50. Taylor W.E., African Aphorisms, (London, 1924), 8083; Abdulaziz M.H., Muyaka, Nineteenth Century Popular Poetry, (Nairobi, 1979), 19–21, 146–47; Idrisi in SD, 20.

51. Sassoon Hamo, “Excavations at the Site of Early Mombasa,” Azania, 15 (1980), 142.

52. Krapf J.L., Dictionary of the Suaheli Language, (London, 1882), 270; al-Bauri Mbwana b. Mbwanafundi, “News of Mombasa,” KNA CP/1/2, p. 14; Berg F.J., “The Swahili Community of Mombasa, 1500–1900,” JAH, 9 (1968), 4245.

53. Sassoon , “Excavations,” 39; Battuta Ibn in SD, 31. The area associated with Shehe Mvita's town is corroborated by early sixteenth-century eyewitness accounts and maps: Freeman-Grenville , SD, 52, 97; da Sa's map in Sassoon , “Mbaraki Pillar and Related Ruins of Mombasa Island,” Kenya Past and Present, 14 (1982), 31. See also the discussion in Sassoon , “Excavations,” 910.

54. See the “Mombasa Chronicle” in SD, 216–17; Berg , “Swahili Community,” 46, 51; Gray John M., The British at Mombasa, 1824–26 (New York, 1957), 79.

55. See Pouwels, Horn and Crescent, chapters 7 and 8.

56. Wilkinson , “Oman,” 297–99.

57. The image of the cloth barrier or walkway to the mainland has several levels of significance: as separation of the island from a zone of unbelief (kufr)--like kuzunguo, already discussed; as a way of defining ‘legitimacy,’ land ownership, and a prevailing legal (e.i. Islamic) system, to be discussed in the conclusion; and, as is being argued here, as symbolizing the unique position of the Shirazi/Swahili in the trade that joined continental Africa to Indian Ocean commercial networks.

58. See the reports of de Barros, Hans Mayr, and Barbosa in SD, 90–91, 103, 107, and 110.

59. Ibid., 127.

60. Freeman-Grenville , French, 8182.

61. Appendix, no. 3; Morice in Freeman-Grenville , French, 135–36.

62. Appendix, no. 3; SD, 221–23; Morice in Freeman-Grenville , French, 81, 135–36.

63. This appears tohave been quite ancient and widespread. The Mahdali sultan of the fourteenth-century Kilwa state was entitled the Abu'l-Mawahib--the ‘Father (Giver) of Gifts.’ Ibn Battuta, particularly, commented on this characteristic in SD, 32. Also, numerous interviews obtained in Mombasa and Lamu, 1975. See Horn and Crescent, Chapter 4. Prestation and redistribution--gift exchange--of course was the principal cement binding client to patron, senior to junior, ruler to subject all over Africa. See Meillassoux Claude, “‘The Economy' in Agricultural Self-Sustaining Societies: A Preliminary Analysis” in Seddon David, Relations of Production, (London, 1978), 127–57.

64. SD, 223.

65. Morice in Freeman-Grenville , French, 92; SD, 222–23.

66. As the author of the Kitab az-Zanuj says: “Persians for a certain while were powerful and authoritative in the cities and towns from Mogadishu to Kilwa.” Extensive fieldwork in the Lamu area traditions was carred out in 1974/75. Discussion of these traditions and their relationship to the material presented in this paper is to be found in Chapter 3 of Horn and Crescent.

67. Freeman-Grenville , SD, 3637.

68. Ibid., 89–90.

69. Ibid., 221–22.

70. Ibid., 297.

71. Saadi Amur Omar, “Mafia--History and Traditions,” Tanganyika Notes and Records, 12 (1941), 25.

72. Dubins Barbara, “A Political History of the Comoro Islands, 1795–1886” (Ph.D., Boston University, 1972), 1920.

73. Kirkman James, ed., “The Zanzibar Diary of John Studdy Leigh, Part I,” IJAHS, 13 (1980), 291312.

74. Elizabeth Wangari Rugoiyo, oral tradition collected from Asmau Famau, Siyu, and published in Horton, Shanga, Appendix 5.

75. Stigand , Land of Zinj, 2930.

76. Cerulli , Somalia, 1: 258–67; variation, ibid., 334.

77. Hollis , “Vumba,” 282.

78. KNA DC/MSA/3/1, 197, or Werner Alice, “Some Notes on the Wapokomo of the Tana River Valley,” Journal of the African Society, 12 (1912/1913), 366.

79. Kurratil Ayun fi Nisbatil Bajun” in Grottanelli , Pescatori, 366–67.

80. Freeman-Grenville , SD, 8384.

81. Hadithi ya Wachangamwe” in Lambert H.E., Chi-Jomvu and Ki-Ngare, (Kampala, 1958), 8990.

82. “Usulu wa Wajomvu” in ibid., 70–71, 81.

* I wish to thank the following people for comments they generously offered on earlier drafts of this paper: Neville Chittick, John Graham, James Kirkman, Nigel Oram, Michele Stephen, and Jan Vansina. None of these scholars, of course, is responsible for the contents and the ideas expressed herein.

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