“Strange foreign jewels on a mournful silent shore”
Historians have frequently viewed the Swahili-speaking peoples of the East African coast as members of an Arab diaspora that spread around the Indian Ocean with trade over the last two thousand years. The interpretation flowed easily from the apparent “Arab” nature of Swahili culture--a written language using Arabic script, elaborate stone buildings and mosques constructed in urban settings, Islam, and genteel social behavior--especially when contrasted with the culture of mainland Africans, members of preliterate, uncentralized communities. Since the Swahili culture of the islands and coastal fringes bore little apparent resemblance to the cultures of the mainland, historians reasoned, its development could only have been the product of Persian and Arab merchants bringing to the “mournful silent shores” of East Africa the “jewels” of their own Muslim civilizations.
The perspective was essentially diffusionist in assuming that cultural innovation and historical development in Africa could only have come from elsewhere, and racist in assuming that race and culture were so inextricably linked that a separate “race” of immigrants had to carry these new ideas. As a result, historians failed to investigate the possible African roots of Swahili culture in their Bantu language, their religious beliefs and values, their economy, or their social structure. But this charge applies not only to European historians; Swahili oral historians have long recounted the development of their societies in essentially the same terms in involved genealogies tracing the development of different Swahili families, communities, and institutions back to Persian or Arabian ancestors. When European historians came to study the oral traditions of the Swahili (usually in written, chronicle form), they thus found ready confirmation of their own assumptions and interpretations.
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