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Black African and Arab intermarriage in East Africa

Arab immigration from Southwest Asia into East Africa goes back to pre-Islamic times. At the beginning of the 5th century B.C., Sabaen (south Arabian) armies settled in the Ethiopian highlands.1 The resulting intermingling of Sabaen and Ethiopian cultures produced the Axum kingdom, which became a powerful empire. 2 The term Abyssinia itself is taken from the Habashan, a powerful southwestern Arabian family which settled in Ethiopia.3 A 1st century B.C. Greek source Periplus of the Erythraen Sea reports large ships going to the East African coast manned by "Arab captains and agents who are familiar with the natives and intermarry with them, and who know the whole coast and understand the language."4

Wars in Arabia in the 7th and 8th centuries sent a large influx of Arab refugees from Arabia and the Persian Gulf to African coastal cities of Somalia, Kenya, and Tanzania.5 Out of this intermingling of Arabs and black Africans was born the Swahili - a Bantu-based Arabized culture. By the 10th century, Arabs were living as far south as Sofala.6 Immigrants from Yemen and Hadramaut came to East Africa in the 13th and 14th century.7 Ibn Battuta, who visited the Swahili coast in 1331 CE, wrote of Mogadishu, then a Swahili town, that Swahili businessmen each had personal ties with Asian merchants, whom they entertained and accommodated in their own houses.8

Until the 19th century, Arabs tended to integrate into the local culture and had relatively little impact on local African traditions.9 But some new imports from Arab culture became central to East African life. Apparently, East Africans were using Arabic script at least by the 9th century. According to Chinese official records of the Zenjistan ambassadors in 9th century China, (Persian Zenj from Arabic Zanj for the people of the East African coast) the Zenjistan language was "like Arabic".10 Quite likely, when asked by the Chinese to write some words, the East African ambassadors wrote in Arabic script.11

The Swahili language is Bantu with a high proportion of Arab loan words.12 The word "Swahili" itself is derived from the Arabic word for "coast". The Swahilis wrote their language in Arabic script for centuries before switching to the Roman script recently.13

Sultans of Omani descent built Zanzibar City in the 18th and 19th centuries.14 (now part of Tanzania) Between 1880 and 1950, Immigrants from Arabia, from Aden and Hadramaut in particular, flocked to East Africa.15 These newcomers brought with them changes in fashion, architectural styles and vocabulary.16 Hadrahmi merchants began to dominate the Swahili trade with southern Arabia.17 Other Arabs of lower economic classes worked in Zanzibar City and Mombasa as hawkers, coffee sellers and unskilled laborers.18 Many died in the Zanzibar revolution of 1964, and the remaining have returned to Oman.19 Some East Africans of Arab-black descent still maintain family ties in Asia. These are descended from relatively recent immigrants and have contact with relatives in Arab countries. Many Swahili have fairly recent Omani ancestors and have used this link to migrate to well-paid posts in Oman.20

  1. Runoko Rashidi, "Africans in Early Asian Civilizations: An Overview", African Presence in Early Asia, ed. Runoko Rashidi, p.32
  2. Runoko Rashidi, "Africans in Early Asian Civilizations: An Overview", African Presence in Early Asia, ed. Runoko Rashidi, p.32
  3. Runoko Rashidi, "Africans in Early Asian Civilizations: An Overview", African Presence in Early Asia, ed. Runoko Rashidi, p.32
  4. Basil Davidson, The Lost Cities of Africa, p.178
  5. Basil Davidson, p.178
  6. Basil Davidson, p.179
  7. James De V. Allen, Swahili Origins, p.193
  8. John Middleton, The World of the Swahili, p.22
  9. James De V. Allen, p.243
  10. James De V. Allen, p.137
  11. James De V. Allen, p.137
  12. John Middleton, p.xii
  13. John Middleton, p.2
  14. John Middleton, p.80
  15. James De V. Allen, p.240
  16. James De V. Allen, p.243
  17. John Middleton, p.53
  18. John Middleton, p.223
  19. John Middleton, p.223
  20. John Middleton, The World of the Swahili, p.186