Monday, January 27, 2014

Kilwa: Golden Port in East of Africa

Map of East Africa
Gold is one of the world’s precious metal. It was used as a currency. The dollar for instance used the gold standard for the value of the dollar. Only mined in few areas, its scarcity and the great color of it makes it into one of the most treasured metals in the world. In history, it built empires, funded wars, made or break people. In Africa, it was the center of the Trans-Saharan Trade. In the east of Sahara, it was also coveted by tribes and kingdoms that wanted to experience prosperity.

At the east of Africa lies the vast Indian Ocean, along with its bustling trade routes. By the ocean, silk and porcelain from China travel west. From the subcontinent of India and the largest archipelago of Indonesia, spices reaches from one end of the Indian Ocean to another. And from the Middle East, Frankincense and pearl traversed its vast ocean. And from Africa itself, ebony, ivory from different horned animals and especially, gold, journeyed to different ports.

In Africa, the growth of ports, cities, kingdoms, and tribes, lie on the three materials mentioned, ivory, ebony, and gold. It became a source of wealth to many. Centers of trade, mining, and commerce rose because of the goods. Mogadishu, Great Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, and Mozambique became well known to many travelers and traders of all kinds. But among the most powerful and prosperous of the port cities in East Africa was the Sultanate of Kilwa.

Kilwa was once an island backwater area in now present day Tanzania. Much about Kilwa came known from archaeological evidence and the book titled The Chronicle of the Kings of Kilwa. It was occupied by the Bantu people before 800 CE. The inhabitants of Kilwa had a small economy. Cowrie shells were the currency of the people. They gathered attention from their metal work. Because of its position and the monsoons of the Indian Ocean, it became a small trading port for merchants looking for precious goods such as tortoise shell and ivory.

But the rise of Kilwa into a golden port in East Africa when a foreign prince arrived to change the course of Kilwa. In 800 CE, a Shirazi or Persian descent prince named Ali Al-Hassan, along with his six sons, arrived in Kilwa to establish his sultanate. He made bargain with the chieftain and made himself ruler of the new Kilwa Sultanate. The fortune of Kilwa rose under the Shirazi rulers. They took advantage of the flourishing gold trade from the Zambezi River and the Great Zimbabwe. Kilwa became a post of traders going to either Mozambique of the Sofala where the gold was transported to from the mines in deep Africa. From 9th to the 12th century, Kilwa prospered.

However, like other dynasty, succession could become an issue. During the early 13th century, the Shirazi rulers had problems of who would be the ruler. Intrigue and political confusion led to a recession of the port. It was not until the arrival of another foreign prince that would bring back stability and prosperity to Kilwa. In 1280. A new Middle Eastern prince arrived. He was an Arab, Al-Hassan Mahdi who grab power from the Shirazi and establish the Mahdi Dynasty. Under the Mahdi Dynasty, Kilwa would reached the pinnacle of its economy.

Prominence of Kilwa rose for the next three centuries under the Mahdi. Its position as a pit stop for traders and its involvement with the gold trade gave it great wealth. The main income came from the customs of trade and from the buying and selling of gold. Along with the wealth, it gain confidence to diversify its industry. It entered to textile, metal industries and continued the trade of ivory. Furthermore, with wealth comes power and influence. It made Sofala, a port from the south of Kilwa came under the influence of the sultanate. Neighboring islands, such as Mafia, bowed to Kilwa as well. Coastal areas also became under the spell. And with access to the mainland, Kilwa secured its food by making the mainland as the bread basket of the sultanate. With food, the population of the island of Kilwa rose to 10,000. Eventually the lands spanning from Kilwa to Sofala all came under the Sultanate of Kilwa. With vast wealth, they instituted currency based on copper.

With gold wealth, the rulers of Kilwa succumb to the need of having monuments as symbols power and economic prosperity. Mosques and Palaces were built. The most spectacular and popular palace of Kilwa was the Husuni Kubwa. Infrastructure also improved. Ports expanded and the well system of the island extended.

Kilwa was a popular port. People from Europe, Asia and northern Africa took notice of the island. In 1331, a well-known traveler arrived to Kilwa. Ibn Battuta, the famous Moroccan traveler went to Kilwa. He observe the greatness of the capital. He noted the society of the sultanate and wrote about the generosity of the Sultan of Kilwa, Hassan Sulaiman.

In mid-14th century, Kilwa again saw another slump to its economy. The Black Plague devastated Asia and Europe. Under a globalized world during that time, Africa felt a ripple effect from the plague. Number of traders coming to Kilwa decreased. Gold demand slump. Demand for under products also became sluggish. It was the start of another period of recession for Kilwa.

By the start of the 15th century, Kilwa again became revitalized once more. As Asia and Europe recovered from the plague, commerce and industries once again soared. Kilwa again experienced a surge of wealth.

But the revival during the 15th century would be the last period of prosperity for Kilwa. By the middle of the century, Kilwa lost its shine as Mombasa rose to be the star port in East Africa. The Age of Exploration in Europe caused the arrival of Europeans, in particular, the Portuguese in East Africa. In 1498, the Portuguese, under Pedro Alvares Cabral, arrived in Kilwa. After few years, in 1502, the famous Vasco de Gama landed and threatened Kilwa with destruction. But the destruction of Kilwa and succumbing to the Europeans only happened in 1505, when Francisco de Almeida arrived in Kilwa and established a garrison in the island, controlling the sultanate itself. The fear of the invaders led to emigration and the population dropped by half, leaving only about 5,000. After 6 years, the Portuguese left but badly weakened, it was conquered by the Zimba tribes from Zimbabwe and in 1698, Oman to control of the island. Never again the grandeur of Kilwa rose once again.

Bibliography:
Alpers, E. The Indian Ocean in the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 

Briggs, P. Tanzania: With Zanzibar, Pemba, and Mafia. England: Bradt Travel Guides Ltd, 2009. 

Ring, T. ed. et. al. International Dictionary of Historic Places: Middle East and Africa. Illinois: Fitzroy Dearborn Publisher, 1996. 

Skinner, A. Tanzania and Zanzibar. Connecticut: The Globe Pequot Press, 2005.

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