Trade Winds

The climate of the Indian Ocean dictated the pattern of trade between Africa and the near East. Traders from the near East could sail to the East Coast anytime between November and February when the winds blew West. There was then a small window of commercial opportunity between March and April. By April, the winds would start blowing East and the traders would depart once again.

Imports & Exports

There is little information about patterns of trade off the East Coast of Africa before the advent of Islam. One of the earliest written sources is a first century manual for travelers, the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.

Commodities referred to in the Periplus include, ivory, rhino horn, tortoise shell and coconut oil.

People trading with the Swahili took advantage of the seasonal trade winds to cross the Indian Ocean Ivory was a hugely sought after product. It was strong, easy to carve and both functional and decorative. Ivory could be regarded as the plastic of its day. After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and the division of his empire into three, we know there was an increase in ivory imports from Africa. This was because trade with India, the other main source of ivory, became subject to higher tariffs.
The African coast of the Red Sea (in the North East) became staked out for delivery and consignment of elephant tusks. Gold from southern Africa was also much sought after in the Near East and in North Africa. Coins from Northern Africa and Persia, dating back to the 3rd century AD have been found in Zanzibar and Northern Tanzania, suggesting a strong tradition of trade between the Mediterranean world and the African world.

Trade routes from East Africa went North as well as East. For example, the people of the Empire of Aksum traded with the people of the East Coast for gold. There is a vivid description of this in the 6th century account of the Greek merchant, Cosmas Indicopleustes.

"They take with them to the mining district oxen, lumps of slate, and iron, and when they reach its neighbourhood they make a halt at a certain spot and form an encampment, which they fence round with a great hedge of thorn.

Within this they live, and having slaughtered the oxen, cut them in pieces, and lay the pieces on the top of the thorns, along with the lumps of salt and the iron.

Then come the natives bringing gold in nuggets like peas, called tancharas, and lay one or two or more of these upon what pleases them - the pieces of flesh or the salt or the iron, and then they retire to some distance off.

Then the owner of the meat approaches and if he is satisfied he takes the gold away, and upon seeing this its owner comes and takes the flesh or the salt or the iron."

-Cosmas Indicopleustes in East African Coast, Select Documents.

Among the expensive textiles imported, such as embroidered silks, blue cotton cloth was hugely prized. Blue dye was unknown in East Africa and the colour was regarded as having special powers. Blue cloth was unpicked and the prized strands were woven into white cloth. .

In the 19th century, the Sultans of the East Coast made themselves immensely rich through buying and selling slaves, playing off the French against the Portuguese.

From 1834, the Portuguese were keen buyers of slaves after the Atlantic slave trade was closed down by the British.

One of the key traders with whom they did business was the Swahili traveler and trader Tippu Tip. He made himself a hugely rich and influential man in the region. A ruthless and commercially clever man, he specialised in long and dangerous treks into the interior to buy and capture slaves to sell at the coast, and had the monopoly of trade across an enormous territory stretching back from the coast. The Zanzibar slave market was only closed down in 1873.

Listen to some information on the linguistic origins of the Swahili language


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