The British Empire Library

The World of the Swahili: An African Mercantile Civilization

by John Middleton

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Brian Eccles (Colonial Administrative Service, Zanzibar, Tanganyika, Nigeria 1952-1989)
This is a fascinating book written by the man who brought James de Vere Allen's Swahili Origins (reviewed in No. 67, Spring 1994) to publication, but who also himself (with Jane Campbell) published, in 1965 under the auspices of the Institute of Race Relations, a booklet on Zanzibar: Its Society and Its Politics. He is an ethnographer of great distinction who in his knowledge of the world of the Swahili has no rival. This book describes that world with an intimacy which is both sure and so well expressed that amateur historians, particularly those of us who spent many years in the Protectorate of Zanzibar or along the coast of East Africa, are bound to find it both easy and enjoyable to read.

Swahili has become the language of two nation states and is a lingua franca amongst many thousands of people in Katanga and Buganda. (In the same way English is used in the USA by millions of people with little urge to claim - possibly Professor Middleton is one such - British affiliation.) But this book argues, and to my mind proves, that before the Arab colonization of East Africa there were Swahilis there who were Muslims.

Professor Middleton chooses Rhapta, putatively near the mouth of the Tana River, as the East African source of the Swahilis who dispersed from there in larger or smaller groups to found stone or country towns from the Bajun coast to Kilwa Kisiwani.

He studies particularly the Mkomani area of Lamu (a stone town) and the Hadimu area of Unguja (a country town). It is an indication of the vagaries of usage that whereas his 1965 booklet uses the term Shiraii frequently, in The World of the Swahili the term only rates five references.

He is talking of a total of "about half a million people living in a string of settlements along the East African coast" whose influence, however, spread far beyond their original settlements, albeit their way of life, even in Mkomani and amongst the Hadimu, has almost disappeared. But it has been observed, understood and brilliantly explained to us all by Professor Middleton before it is lost and gone for ever.

British Empire Book
John Middleton
Yale University Press


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