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.