III. The Postclassical Period, 500–1500 > D. Africa, 500–1500 > 4. Regions, 1000–1500 > d. East Africa
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See 850–1000)
d. East Africa
The monsoon wind patterns that facilitated the rise of East African Indian Ocean trade (See Historical Trends, 500–1000) led to the development of coastal fishing and farming communities into large African towns with trading, religious, and ultimately political ties to Arabia, Persia, and India. These contacts are exemplified by Arab geographer al-Idrisi's description of the known world (1154), which divided the Swahili coast into the land of Zanj, in the north, and the land of Sofala, in the south.  1
The Swahili civilization, which grew out of coastal communities of Bantu speakers, and augmented by peoples from the interior and immigrants from Arabia, Persia, and India, reached its height in this period. Wealth from trading activities led to the development of several important trading towns along the coast, from Mogadishu in the north through Lamu and Zanzibar to Kilwa in the south. These towns imported Arabic pottery and Chinese porcelain and, for the interior trade, Indian cloth. They exported tropical woods and ivory, shells, slaves, iron, and, from Kilwa, gold from the mines of Zimbabwe.  2
In the interlacustrine zone, trade between specialized agriculturalists and pastoralists led to the formation of new polities late in the period.  3
Bantu-speaking groups (who had emerged from the western forests) were still few in number and were concentrated in the areas of higher rainfall (at least 1000 mm annually). The Bantu speakers therefore continued to be root agriculturalists. The drier plains and highlands were dominated by cattle-raising and grain-growing Nilotic and southern Cushitic groups. Some hunter-gatherer groups were interspersed throughout the region. Bantu movements into the drier areas resulted in their adoption of cattle raising and grain cultivation. They also adopted some cultural patterns. For example, Bantu groups affected by contact with southern Cushites and southern Nilotes on the east side of Lake Victoria adopted male and female circumcision and discontinued chieftaincy. Intensive banana and grain cultivation grew out of a merger of Bantu and Cushitic traditions on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The Bantu's adaptability, therefore, encouraged their expansion. The western interior, however, continued to be dominated by southern Nilotic groups. In eastern Uganda, the migration of Bantu speakers (known in tradition as the founder Kintu and his followers) from Mt. Elgon and northeastern Lake Victoria led to the formation of several small states from 1100.  4
A new dynasty identifying itself as Shirazi (from Shiraz, Persia) came to power in the coastal town of Kilwa in the 12th century. The culture of the immigrants from Persia and Arabia was important in East African religion and politics, though the immigrants were not numerous and intermarried with Africans. The ruling classes in the towns were probably of mixed Afro-Arab descent, while commoners and slaves were Africans. Recent immigrants from Arabia and Persia formed a separate group. Islam, adopted first by the merchants and then by other elites and urbanites along the coast, began to spread in the 12th century. The Swahili language was put into written form using Arabic script in the early part of this period.  5
The rise of the gold trade led to Kilwa's eclipse of Mogadishu, Lamu, and Zanzibar after the 13th century. Cowrie shells and locally minted coins were used as currency in this trade. New wealth led to construction in coral in the towns, in a distinctive Swahili style of architecture. One of the most outstanding examples is the Great Mosque of Kilwa, reconstructed in the first half of the 15th century. Swahili civilization reached its peak in the 13th through the 15th centuries, before being overshadowed by the arrival of Portuguese power in the early 16th century. Less is known about the East African interior, because of the absence of written sources, but important developments can be discerned from archaeology and linguistics and in some cases from oral traditions. The history that emerges is one of the movements of various populations, identified by language groups, and changes in material culture due to contact with other people and the entry into new ecological zones.  6
Larger kingdoms, based on the interaction between pastoralists and cultivators, began to emerge in the interlacustrine region. These kingdoms succeeded smaller states organized by Bantu cultivators in the region from around 900. Thus, the Bito dynasty in the Bunyoro kingdom (southwestern Uganda), founded by Luo or Hima pastoralists in about 1400, succeeded the Chwezi dynasty of Bantu cultivators. A new larger kingdom succeeded smaller Bantu states inRwanda in the same period, incorporating both pastoralist and agriculturalist elements under Tutsi domination from about 1400.  7
R. 1344–74
Another tradition based on migrations from the west following the Chwezi collapse names Kimera (1344–74) as founder of a new dynasty in Buganda, which was to become an important state in the succeeding era. (See East Africa)  8
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.