Africa, in the centuries before the Europeans came to conquer it, was home to an astonishing variety of cultures and political structures that have largely fallen from the memory of the Western public. The city-states of the Swahili on the Africa’s eastern coast are one of these cultures. They were never an empire, never had that kind of political unity. But they created a culutre, a way of life, that persisted for centuries and created some of the most sophisticated and urbane societies in the world at that time.
The Swahili were primarily traders. Their advantage lay in the geography of the coast and the climate of the Indian Ocean. Unlike the western coasts of Africa, the East, where the countries of Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania and Mozambique are today, have coral reefs that provide many small islands and natural harbors facing into the Indian Ocean. The rim Indian Ocean is deeply affected by the monsoon winds, which blow from the northeast in winter and from the southwest in winter. On the Indian subcontinent, the summer monsoons bring the seasonal rain that allows farming in much of the country. They were just as vital to the Swahili. They allowed sailing ships to easily sail north in summer and south in winter, bringing traders from Arabia, Persia and western India. These traders, mostly Muslim, bought gold, ivory, ironwork, slaves and other goods that the Swahili made or acquired from the people of the interior in exchange for spices, pottery, glass, textiles, among other things.
This created great wealth for the residents of the cities that began to emerge during the eighth and ninth centuries. They built houses of wood, stone and coral, where they hosted Arabic traders waiting for the monsoons to turn. Most cities were a mix of Muslim and local religions, and their culture owed some to the people of the interior, more to the Arabs and Persians they traded with, but was, in the end, unique and complex. They created the lingua franca that today is called Kiswahili and used throughout eastern Africa. There were universities and, in the centuries before the printing press, centers of manuscript production. The Swahili cities never united, each city preferring to rule only its environs, but the cultural ties created a kind of unity all along the coast.
The Swahili prospered for a millennium, growing in wealth and urbanity, until the Portuguese rounded the southern tip of Africa. They intended to control by force any area of trade they came in contact with, and turned their guns on the cities, razing Kilwa, a city of 12,000 in what is now Kenya. Following that, the lands of the Swahili were governed by the Portuguese, Omanis from the Arabian Peninsula, and then the British, declining under foreign rule until the Indian Ocean trade was changed forever by the Suez canal and modern long-distance ships.