African Pre-Colonial Political Structure: East Africa

Figure 1.--This is the chief of the Moshukula in Zambia with his wives and some of their children. The photograph was taken June 27, 1922, but it could have been taken any time in the 19th century or earlier. The only difference is that the Chief's European jacket would have been different style.

Historians believe the people of East Africa entered the Iron Age relatively early (6th century BC). There is evidence that people in the Great Lakes area (modern Uganda and Rwanda) wre the first to smelt iron. This was before iron technology reached Westen Africa. East Africa was exposed to Arab penetration because armed Arab merchants controlled the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. The Arabs set up trading posts all long the coast. The first outposts were transitory and faced opposition from local tribes. Many were small-scale efforts on the part of exiles or military adventurers (8th and 9th centuries). The Arabs commanded the sea, however, and gradually the Arab trading posts became more permanent. The Arabs gradually spread Islam among the African tribes living close to the coast. Ancient Nubia had been a source oif black slaves in antiquity. The port of Massawa and the Dahlak Archipelago became imports hubs in the slave trade. Both Arabs and Persians set up trading posts along the Indian Ocean coast and slaves were one of the primary trade items. A shift from hunting to keeping livestock dirst occurred along the the Limpopo River, in modern Zimbabwe (about 9th century AD). This occurred later in Africa because people did not suceed in domesticating native animales like wilferbeast and zebras. Rather non-native spoecies were acquired from outside the refion--sheep and cattle. The source of the livestock is unknown, but presuably came from from the Bantu people to the north. At about the samne time th Karanga/Shona began speaking a Bantu language. The Karanga people began selling animal furs and ivory. They may have shipped these trade goods down the Limpopo River to the settlements on the Indian Ocean coast. There is also evidence of mining gold in Zimbabwe. These goods were exchanged for glass beads and cotton cloth from India. Arabs both in East Africa and coastal India became intermediaries in this trade by dominating trade in the Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean (th century). The most advanced civilization in Central Africa was Great Zimbabwe. People began buildig stone palaces (11th century). These were the first monumental structures ever seen in central Africa. They were called zimbabwes, The most impressive structures were built (mid-13th century). Great Zimbabwe was the only major black African states in East Africa. The Great Zimbabwe complex was built by Shona-speaking cattlemen (13th-14th centuries). Information on Great Zimbanwe, other than the stone ruins, is very limited. For the most part there was no strong African state to resist the Arab slave trader who benefitted from wars between African tribes. Some tribes cooperated with the Arabs. Trade through East Africa declined (15th century). This undercut the economic underpinings if Great Zimbabwe and the cities and important trading began to be abandoned. The best known Arab trading post in East Africa became Zanzibar. Its island location made it very secure. In the later period of the slave trade, the Sultan of Oman gained control over much of the Indian Ocean coast. He oversaw the slave trade both to sell slaves, but to obtain labor for his palm oil and spice plantations. They became so profitable that he moved his capital to Zanzibr. East Africa thus served as an important region for the Arab slave trade until the intervention of the British in the late 19th century.


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Created: 12:04 AM 8/8/2012
Last updated: 4:33 PM 10/24/2014