The Indian Ocean Coast – Intro

11th March 2013

If the history of the Indian Ocean Coast of Tanzania could have been video recorded with time lapse photography from the beginning of this millennium it would show an extraordinary pattern of visitors arriving, departing and settling on its shores. This coast has attracted sailors, merchants, adventurers, explorers and migrating tribes for thousands of years, and Arabic, Portuguese and European settlers have built and abandoned their commercial capitals here depending on the longevity of their control.

For today’s travellers, just the nature of the land is often treasure enough, and they discover a coastline of clean coral sand beaches as white and soft as riceflour shaded by palm trees and lapped by shimmering blue-green waves of the Indian Ocean. A string of different historic towns slumber in this idyllic setting, often as a curious and crumbling reminder of a once more prosperous past. The individual towns of Tanga, Pangani, Bagamoyo and Dar, Kilwa and Mtwara all provide a range of options for accommodation and opportunities to enjoy the bright pace of Swahili coastal life in unusual and often magnificent surroundings. From here you might arrange to discover nearby coastal game reserves or make underwater explorations into the world of coral reefs, or explore natural lagoons, islets and sandbanks on the wide and peaceful deck of a traditional old dhow.



The history of this Indian Ocean coastline is one of many centuries of sea-trading commerce and trade links to great civilisations such as the Egyptians, the Sumerians and Phoenicians and the Roman and Islamic Empires, who relied on overseas trade for wealth and acquisition of luxury goods and raw materials. It is thought that this East African coastline, known as Azania, formed a part of international trade relationships for more than 2000 years, although the earlier millennium is harder to verify with historical accounts. However it is certain that trading connections were well established by the first or second century AD, as recorded in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a guide to the trade and ports of Arabia, East Africa, India and their connections with China, written in the first century.

It is thought that some merchants settled along the coast, marrying and intermingling with local people during these early days, but these newcomers barely affected the cultural, social or political sensibilities of the day until the birth and growth of the Islamic religion and empire in the early centuries AD. The greatest immigration to the East African coast from the Arabian Peninsula occurred as a result of great religious and political upheavals after the death of the prophet Mohamed between the 8th to 10th centuries AD. Large numbers of families then emigrated to settle along the Azanian coast, which they called the ‘Land of Zanj’, and they founded settlements that developed into powerful thriving centres of Islamic culture.

An adventurous sailor and Arab writer called Abu’l Hasan’Ali Al-Mas’udi recorded an account of his travels to Zanj at the end of the 10th century AD. He describes the ‘villages of Zanj’ stretching for ‘700 parsangs’, equivalent to 2,500 miles, which would cover the distance from the Red Sea to a point on the mainland opposite Southern Madagascar. This coast became a focal point for Indian Ocean trade, the land to which the monsoon winds blew from the Arabian lands in the East. Their wooden dhows would sail the ocean laden with textiles, hatchets, daggers, awls and types of glass, as well as wine and sometimes wheat. They would set sail when the winds changed direction to take them home laden with cargoes of gold, tortoiseshell, ambergris or crammed with African people bought from the trading ports and taken as slaves. So this land of plenty earned an attractive reputation around the Arabian Gulf, and when political and religious strife made life hard in the Persian Gulf and Southern Arabia, many were inspired to leave their homeland and rebuild their communities in the sunny and palm-fringed land of Zanj.

Legend tells how many of the settlements along the Tanzanian coast grew from one spectacular emigration led by Ali bin Sultan Hasan of ‘Shiraz’, the capital of Fars in then Persia, now Iran. Some stories tell how in 975AD he had a dream that a rat with iron jaws was gnawing though the foundations of his palace. He interpreted the dream to be a threat to the very foundations of his family and rule, and resolved to move them all away to somewhere safer. This would also have coincided with the religious and political upheavals synonymous with the growth of the Islaam. The Sultan then organised himself and each of his six sons and their entourage into seven separate boats, and they all set sail for Zanj on the monsoon winds. Somewhere in the midst of the Indian Ocean they were separated by a storm which caused each dhow to land at different points along the coast and islands, including Mafia, Kilwa, Pemba, Tongoni (Tanga), and the Comoros. This coincides with tales of the Shirazi Sultan of Kilwa, who arrived in the islands of Zanj and bought Kilwa Kisiwani for a length of cloth, and then sent his son, Bashat to the Mafia Archipelago to govern his sultanate there.

The story of Ali bin Sultan Hasan was a good tale for newcomers to ensure their welcome as the descendants of a valiant and wise Shirazi king, but the likelihood of its validity is slim. It is more likely that during the 9th and 10th centuries AD émigrés from the Arabian Gulf first settled further north on the Azania coast, in the present-day land of Somalia, and then moved south to finally settle along the coast of present day Tanzania between the twelfth and fourteenth. Many of these settlements achieved prosperity resulting from Indian Ocean trade, and then suffered an often devastating decline following the arrival of the Portuguese in the 17th century.

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