The Swahili Coast and the Indian Ocean: Some lessons in World History

Since the Enlightenment, the myth of the African past has depicted Africans as isolated from history, destined to live in static "tribal" societies until the forces of change intruded in the form of colonial conquest. Such myths can be challenged by the history of the ancient city-states of East Africa’s Swahili Coast, which for centuries mediated commercial, political, and intellectual influences from across the Indian Ocean and deep into the African interior. We will examine the racial ideas that prevented an understanding of Swahili culture: ideas by which an urban, cosmopolitan culture like this was assumed to be a foreign transplant. But at the same time, we will consider the dangers of conceiving "history" as entailing only the broad features familiar from the history of the West, such as cities, long-distance commerce, literacy, and monotheistic religions. The presence of such features may prompt us to accept the Swahili coast as part of "history." But what about other East African cultures, which lacked such features? Are they still to be regarded as somehow outside history, trapped in unchanging stasis?