November 24, 2008

The Swahili Coast, 2nd to 19th Centuries

The Swahili Coast, 2nd to 19th Centuries by G.S.P. Freeman-Grenville

I am reading this book in companion with East Africa and The Orient: Cultural Synthesis in Pre-colonial Times ed. Neville Chittick. They both have their virtues, but I prefer Freeman-Grenville's style and communication of ideas; his book is more unitary in theme--constantly returning to certain outstanding features of coastal history and weaving them again and again into East African coastal history from a variety of perspectives.

Freeman-Grenville's erudition is great and his conclusions generally sound. He has some interesting insights into the future of the field, which, although somewhat dated, scholars have increasingly been heeding:

"In the future, the history of the East African coast will of necessity be written by scholars versed in Arabic and Swahili. It will include both public and private records, and likewise oral traditions, some of which have already been collected."
He also has an interesting historical note on the Sidi of India, descendants of enslaved Africans brought there beginning around 1738. Many of them live in Gujarat to this day. They speak a dialect of Swahili. I will have to look and see if any other scholars have done any work on this. He includes some interesting insights about Ottoman interest in the East African Coast, which I touched upon in a paper for an Ottoman History course at Georgetown University. Specifically he discusses the need for Africanists to consult the Seraglio Archives in Istanbul, as well as a collection of Swahili documents at Goa as well as some documents written in Portuguese with an Arabic script. At the time of his writing, no one had consulted the Sultan's Palace in Muscat nor the archives of Pondichery--I am sure that has changed.
Lastly, he has assembled a list of words of Portuguese origin in Swahili. Most of them, unsurprisingly, have to do with nautical topics. I will reproduce a few of them here:

abedari--large pulley (nautical)
amari--anchor cable
barkinya--small boat
bweta--small box
danguro--tavern, brothel
karata--playing cards
nanasi--pineapple (this is also common to Arabic)
upao--roof timber, beam
mvinho--wine, spirits


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