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By Robert Caputo

A unique Islamic heritage anchors the ports of East Africa, for centuries a mecca for Arabian and Indian merchants.

Read this compelling excerpt, or print the whole story.

“Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam, Comoros, Mombasa, Mogadishu, Bombay, Mangalore…” The names of places strewn along the rim of the Indian Ocean tripped like a melody off the old sailor’s tongue. “I visited them all and more. From here in Africa we sailed with ivory, mangrove, coconuts, tortoise and cowrie shells. From Arabia we brought dates, whale oil, carpets, and incense. From India pots, glassware, and cloth. Trade was our life, you see.”

Bwana Shafi Ahmed and I sat on the porch of the old fort in Lamu. Through an arched gateway we could see off into the harbor, dotted with lateen-rigged dhows. They carried people and goods to and from this island, just eight miles (thirteen kilometers) long and three miles (five kilometers) wide—part of an archipelago off the far northern coast of Kenya. Below us in the town square groups of men, most wearing kofia caps and kanzu robes, sat talking in the shade. Boys with pushcarts scurried past donkeys laden with wares. Women, some covered head to toe in black bui-buis that revealed little more than their eyes, hastened by and disappeared into narrow alleyways. A call to afternoon prayer from a nearby mosque soared over the din of voices, braying animals, and clattering hooves. It was a scene that has changed little since Ahmed, who said he was “not less than 65 years old,” left Lamu at the age of 15 and went to sea.

“Lamu prospered in those days,” he said. “The wind in our sails made us rich, just as it did our ancestors. In the season, dozens of foreign dhows would arrive—booms a hundred feet long or more, great sails white against the sky. And at night! Hundreds of dhows big and small anchored in the harbor, their cooking fires shining like stars in the night.

“Oh, life at sea was hard work,” he continued. “It could take us a month to sail from here to India—15 men in a 60-foot (18-meter) boat. Sometimes we would run into storms so bad we’d lose all hope of surviving. Sharks would ram the boat, nearly capsizing it. But the world was so big for us—seeing how other people lived, making friends in many different lands. The pleasures of being a sailor. . . .” A glimmer of fond remembrance lit up the old man’s eyes as he excused himself and headed off to the mosque. “We will talk more of this later.”

In its prime Lamu was one of a string of ports that stretched along the East African coast from Mogadishu to present-day Mozambique—ports that evolved into powerful city-states as they grew rich from Indian Ocean trade. For more than 2,000 years sailors like Ahmed sailed in and out of these ports on the monsoon winds. Arabian sailors arriving in Africa found good harbors, a sea full of fish, fertile land, and opportunities for trade.

Swahili Coast
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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Zanzibar has been known for centuries as one of the exotic Spice Islands, where sultans ruled from palaces and sailors arrived from Arabia, Persia, and India to trade for tropical fruits and spices—cloves, nutmeg, ginger, peppers, cardamom, and cinnamon. Legend says Sinbad the Sailor, of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, docked his ship here.

But this romantic vision of an island paradise tells only half the tale. Zanzibar was also a hub of the slave trade between Africa and Asia. In Stone Town, the oldest section of Zanzibar City, men, women, and children were squeezed into claustrophobic cells—two of which still exist—and left for days without food or water. Some were flayed at the whipping post to discover how much pain they could withstand, then priced according to their endurance and strength.

By the mid-1800s, 50,000 slaves were passing through Zanzibar each year. Many were captives of Tippu Tib, a notorious Arab slave trader and ivory merchant. Tib led huge expeditions, some 4,000 strong, into the African interior, where chiefs sold him their villagers for next to nothing. These Tib used to caravan ivory back to Zanzibar, then sold them in the slave market for large profits. In time Tib became one of the wealthiest men in Zanzibar, the owner of multiple plantations and 10,000 slaves.

Slavery persisted in Zanzibar until 1897, when it was finally abolished due in part to the urging of British explorer David Livingstone.

—Christy Ullrich

Zanzibar Travel Network
Comprehensive site about Zanzibar that offers history, travel tips, and more.

Channel Africa
Broadcasts late-breaking African news via shortwave, satellite, and Internet radio.

The Kamusi Project
Described as an “Internet Living Swahili Dictionary,” the Kamusi Project is an undertaking of the Yale Program in African Languages and the Council on African Studies at Yale. The website allows you to translate English words into Swahili.


Finlay, Hugh, and Mary Fitzpatrick, Matthew Fletcher, Nick Ray. Lonely Planet: East Africa. Lonely Planet Publications, 2000.

Horton, Mark, and John Middleton. The Swahili: The Social Landscape of a Mercantile Society. Blackwell Publishers, 2000.

Kusimba, Chapurukha M. The Rise and Fall of Swahili States. Sage Publications, 1999.

Middleton, John. The World of the Swahili: An African Mercantile Civilization. Yale University Press, 1992.

Nurse, Derek, and Thomas Spear. The Swahili: Reconstructing the History and Language of an African Society, 800-1500. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985.

Pearson, Michael. Port Cities and Intruders: The Swahili Coast, India, and Portugal in the Early Modern Era. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Sheriff, Abdul. Historical Zanzibar: Romance of the Ages. HSP Publications, 1995.

Sheriff, Abdul. The History and Conservation of Zanzibar Stone Town. Ohio University Press, 1995.

Siravo, F. and A. Pulver. Planning Lamu. National Museums of Kenya, Nairobi, 1986.


Morell, Virginia. The Blue Nile: Ethiopia’s River of Magic and Mystery. National Geographic Adventure Press, 2001.

Morell, Virginia. “The Blue Nile: Ethiopia’s Sacred Waters,” National Geographic (December 2000), 2-29.

Beckwith, Carol, and Angela Fisher. “African Marriage Rituals,” National Geographic (November 1999), 80-97.

White, Peter T. “Tanzania Marches to Its Own Drum,” National Geographic (April 1975), 474-509.

Moore, W. Robert. “Clove-scented Zanzibar: On a Lush African Island an Arabian Nights City Thrives on Spice and Copra,” National Geographic (February 1952), 261-278.

Johnson, Electa and Irving. “Yankee Roams the Orient,” National Geographic (March 1951), 327-370.

Childs, Mrs. Harris R. (Eleanor Stuart). “Zanzibar,” National Geographic (August 1912), 810-824.


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