The British Empire Library

Swahili Origins: Swahili Culture and the Shungwaya Phenomenon

by James de Vere Allen

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Brian Eccles (Colonial Administrative Service, Zanzibar, Tanganyika, Nigeria 1952-1989)
This book is sub-titled Swahili Culture and the Shungwaya Phenomenon and if one accepts the philosophical use of the word phenomenon as a thing as it appears rather than a thing in itself then one can accept the existence of Shungwaya as a fundamental Swahili concept - the mythical source of Swahiliness - without there being any proof that a place called Shungwaya actually existed.

The book has a preface by James Middleton which in a couple of pages says most of what a reviewer should say. It is an excellent introduction to a collection of frequently fascinating, almost as frequently controversial, thoughts about the development of Swahiliness (the author's term) and its essential Africanity. In botanical terms it was not a graft on an Arab, Persian, Indo-Pakistani - or even Muslim - root stem, but an autochthonous plant which was dusted from the ninth century onwards with the pollen of the many cultures of the Indian Ocean and those of up-country Africa. Curiously die author makes only a very slight mention of the effect of the slave trade on Swahilidom (when discussing whether Swahilis are ipso acto Muslims) and, while agreeing that most of the immigrants who came by sea were males, says nothing of the likely effect on their children and grandchildren of the inevitable miscegenation.

The basis of this book is profound personal experience and observation of the eastern coast of Africa and of the Lamu area in particular; it makes a totally credible claim that small Swahili communities, spread from Cape Delgado and the Comoro Islands in the south to Mogadishu in the north, had a considerable effect on the people who came into contact with them, in so far as "the entire Swahili population which grew up (after c.800 AD) was composed of non- Swahilis of one sort or another who became Swahilis". The boundaries of Swahilidom (which is another of the author's terms) were cultural rather than genetic; Swahilis had more in common with people living around the Indian Ocean than with up-country people - for instance Shaaban Robert, although his origins were Yao (his ancestor having been brought from the area near the source of the River Rovuma and Lake Nyasa), was undoubtedly a Swahili who insisted on being so called.

When Indian traders and European colonialists made direct and frequent contact with upcountry people, Swahili influence declined; present day political considerations may have extended the range of the language but they have brought about the eclipse of the culture.

The basis of the argument in the book is a cultural one which does not at present stand up to the hard light of historical, linguistic and archaeological evidence: phrases like "there can be little doubt....", "conceivably ....", "it will be seen to be substantially correct that...." are so often used that the reader's doubts are multiplied. The detail is at time prolix and contradictory, the argument frequently undigested and, therefore, indigestible - but the book remains an intriguing warren of information and inter-pretation. Surmise outweighs proof. However, the author's concluding sentence is a justified claim - "Let the historian whose instinct is to reject all in this book that seems too hypothetical first try to compose an account which, if correct, would explain one half as much." My hunch is that the historians, linguists and archaeologists of today, who have replaced in Africa the colonial civil servants of yesterday, will find that many of James Allen's "tentative" conclusions are right.

British Empire Book
James de Vere Allen
James Currey


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe