mosques and tombs before the 18th century had a style quite unique
to the Swahili and independent of Arabia. Doors of houses were,
and still are, ornately carved. There was a very large population
of craftsmen, working in wood, stone and metal. The ruling classes
(the Sultan, his family, and government officials) lived in large
houses, some several stories high. Their plates were porcelain and
came from China.
One of the greatest cities was Kilwa . Situated on an island very
close to the mainland, Kilwa had by the 13th century broken the
hold that Mogadishu had on the gold trade. By the 14th century it
was the most powerful city on the coast. The Moroccan scholar and
writer, Ibn Battuta, describes the Sultan of Kilwa being both gracious
and kind. He also describes him making regular raids into the interior
and looting the settlements of people there. Kilwa is now in ruins.
THROUGH THE AGES - EARLY TIMES
"Of the original people who built Kilwa Kisiwani, the first
were of the Mtakata tribe, the second the people of Jasi from the
Mranga tribe. Then came Mrimba and his people. This Mrimba was of
the Machinga tribe and he settled at Kisiwani."- Oral tradition.
"The city comes down to the shore, and is entirely surrounded
by a wall and towers, within which there are maybe 12,000 inhabitants.
The country all round is very luxurious with many trees and gardens
of all sorts of vegetables, citrons, lemons, and the best sweet
oranges that were ever seen… The streets of the city are very narrow,
as the houses are very high, of three and four stories, and one
can run along the tops of them upon the terraces… and in the port
there were many ships. A moor ruled over this city, who did not
possess more country than the city itself." - Gaspar Correa
describing Vasco da Gama's arrival in Kilwa.
"The woods are full of orange, lemon, citron, palm trees and of
a large variety of good fruit trees. The islands grow millet, rice,
and have large groves of sugarcane, but the islanders do not know
what to do with it."- Franciscan friar, Gaspar de Santo
Berndino account on visiting in 1606..
"We the King of Kilwa, Sultan Hasan son of Sultan Ibrahim
son of Sultan Yusuf the Shirazi of Kilwa, give our word to M. Morice,
a French National, that we will give him a thousand slaves annually
at twenty piastres each and that he shall give the King a present
of two piastres for each slaves. No other but he shall be allowed
to trade for slaves…" Slave treaty between French trader
and Sultan of Kilwa, dated 1776.
"the town of Quiloa [Kilwa], [was] once a place of great
importance, and the capital of an extensive kingdom, but is now
a petty village. The greatness of Quiloa…was irrecoverably gone.
The very touch of the Portuguese was death. It drooped never to
recover… Like other cities then on this coast, said to be flourishing
and populous, it sunk from civilization, wealth and power into insignificance,
poverty and barbarism." - James Prior, surgeon on the frigate
Nisus, visiting Kilwa as part of a hydrographical survey of the
western Indian Ocean.
All excerpts from East African Coast, Selected Documents.
Portuguese came on the scene in 1498 when they sailed round the
southern tip of Africa and went north up the East African coast.
Just five years later, they began a relentless campaign to subjugate
local rulers and take control of the trade in gold, textiles, spices
and ivory. They did an immense amount of damage to some of these
cities, pounding them with their guns to force their Sultans to
give tributes to the King of Portugal. The first place to be attacked
was Zanzibar in 1503; two years later Kilwa and Mombasa were attacked
"Then everyone started to plunder the town and to search
the houses, forcing open the doors with axes and iron bars…A large
quantity of rich silk and gold embroidered clothes was seized, and
carpets also; one of these was without equal for beauty, was sent
to the King of Portugal together with many other valuables."
- Eye witness account of the sack of Mombasa by Francisco d'Almeida
and Hans Mayr. Taken from East African, Coast, Selected Documents.
Mombasa suffered the greatest damage as its Sultan refused to give
in to the Portuguese. In 1599, the Portuguese completed their largest
fortress in Mombasa, Fort Jesus, which still stands today.