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Medieval Tanzania a Major Player in the Indian Ocean Trade

A brief look at the history of trading and coinage in the Indian Ocean.
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The modern country has a name that is the combination of the mainland, which was called Tanganyika during the British colonial period, and the island of Zanzibar. The two regions have had dramatically different histories for the last two millennia. 

But there is so much more. It seems we all came from there. There is a gated field of rocks in Iraq that is advertised as the Garden of Eden. You can go there and take pictures of it. That’s one story. 

The other story is that the earliest examples of shaped stone tools by primates have been found in the mainland regions of what is now Tanzania. Apparently, we are genetically related to those early tool making primates. In that sense, we humans all came from there. 

We are coin people, most of us. Some of us are interested in fossils, too. Coins are a phenomenon of the last 2,500 years of human history, from the late Bronze Age until today, while fossils are quite a bit ear- lier. There is a fossil market, but there seems to be no presence of early hominid fossils, the kind of thing that governments immediately declare export-prohibited and impound. 

The stone tools made by those early humans were manufactured by splitting pebbles to make edges. We can assume that they were making tools out of things other than stone, but we don’t know that. Sharpened sticks and so forth have not yet been found. 

The pebble tool technology spread out from Tanzania, where the earliest examples have been found. That would have been about three million years ago to as recently as 1.5 million years ago. The splitting of pebbles to make a sharp surface spread with the humans as far as Britain and China. 

Pebble tools in general have come to be described as “Oldowan,” from Olduvai gorge, in Tanzania, where the earliest hominids first appear in the fossil record. Ancient artifact collectors can acquire pebble tools from various countries where they can be traded. Tanzania is not one of those countries. 

A later phase was the more elaborate shaping of the stones to make them easier to use. That technology is called Acheulian and came to be used everywhere in the “Old World.” We know that those people had fire. We generally call them homo erectus. 

Acheulian tools from Africa are almost common and are available in the artifact market. Most of the market presence comes from North Africa. But people were making them in Tanzania Britain and China.

There were Neanderthal type people in East Africa, successors to homo erectus, who crested around 60,000 years ago and whose remnants are not found later than 30,000 years ago, which is almost historic. 

We are used to the European “lithic” sequence that goes Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic. In Africa they have a modified classification scheme based on the idea of pastoralism rather than agriculture as the successor to hunting and gathering. I think they are saying that herding was the main food producing method, with a bit of agri- culture, rather than the other way around. 

This pastoralism seems to have been the dominant cultural component everywhere in Africa except Egypt and the Mediterranean coast from around 10,000 years ago until, in many places, the coming of the Europeans. They developed pottery, then copper and bronze, then iron, but they didn’t settle down and plow fields and build cities. Instead, they moved around with their flocks. 

Immediately before the beginning of history there was an invasion dynamic in which Bantu-speaking herders from the north migrated south and displaced the various hunter-gatherer people. That pro- cess has continued until today. There are many Bantu governments in Africa. There are no governments run by former hunter- gatherers.

As history began to be written, the east coast of Africa came up in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (Ports and Landmarks of the Red Sea, meaning the entire western part of the Indian Ocean), written probably in the 1st century A.D. It names a market town called Rhapta as the southern terminus of the East African maritime trade route. It might have been in southern Tanzania or northern Mozambique. There is no definitive archeology currently. 

Another stop on the ancient water route was the island of Zanzibar, one of several islands along the northern Tanzanian coast. 

So, what were they trading, as they were boating up and down the coast, sail- ing when they had the wind, rowing the rest of the trip? They brought down luxury goods, metal work, coins, glass, beads, pot- tery, amber, cloth. They returned north with slaves, gold, animal skins, copal (low grade amber), ivory and spices. 

 In the first millennium A.D. the power economies in the western Indian Ocean were in coastal India, Persia, and Arabia. The Arabs were not united in any way until the coming of Islam, but they occupied the top level of the East African coastal economy before Muhammad spent any time in that cave. From early on they had some settlements on Zanzibar island. 

 It got so there was significant settlement of Arabs along the coast. A lot of marriages went on between them and the locals and Islam spread. Sultanates emerged in the standard Islamic manner. Some of those sultans made coins. 

Referring to Stephen Album’s Checklist of Islamic Coins, we find East African sultanates issuing coins in Mogadishu, Kilwa, Zanzibar, Harar, Pemba, and he mentions other coins of unnamed places, and an imitative gold dinar from medieval Madagascar. Mogadishu is in Somalia. Harar is in Ethiopia. We will talk about Kilwa, Zanzibar, and Pemba. 

Kilwa is an island off the coast of Africa in modern-day southern Tanzania. The sultanate was established around 1000 AD by a family from Persia who bought the island from the locals and proceeded to build a commercial empire with a military to protect it. At its zenith it controlled the coast from Mozambique up into Somalia, along with parts of the western Madagascar coast. 

The Persian dynasty was supplanted by an Arab family in 1277, circumstances not described in the Wikipedia article. Administrative rot set in with key posts held by grifters and lots of personal gam- bits. Unreadiness developed. Then the Portuguese showed up with better ships and took all their stuff away. 

In Album’s book, coins of nine Kilwa sultans are listed. None are dated. One is gold, the rest are copper. There are no stories about any of those people. One coin is described as scarce, the rest are at least rare.

This is a copper fals of the Kilwa Sultanate, Sultan's name was Kilwa Sultanate. al-Hasan bin Sulayman, 14th century, exact dates unknown at this time. (Actual diameter 21mm). Photos courtesy of Vladimir Souchy.

This is a copper fals of the Kilwa Sultanate, Sultan's name was Kilwa Sultanate. al-Hasan bin Sulayman, 14th century, exact dates unknown at this time. (Actual diameter 21mm). Photos courtesy of Vladimir Souchy.

Zanzibar island is off the central coast, a bit north of Dar es Salaam (Abode of Peace), the largest modern city. The word alludes to the dark skin of the original inhabitants. Wikipedia asserts that it comes from Persia. Arab traders came, stayed, intermarried, developed into a local elite, out of which a sultanate emerged. Album lists three sultans, possibly ruling during the 14th century.

The Portuguese arrived at the beginning of the 16th century and stayed for two centuries. The Portuguese empire was too big for them to maintain. Large chunks of territory around the world were taken away by other European powers. Zanzibar, for Portugal, was down the list of things to attend to. The African venture, though, was profitable for Portugal. There was gold, ivory, and all those slaves. 

In 1698 the Sultan of Oman, feeling good about life, and seeing some low hanging fruit, sent an expedition down to Zanzibar, kicking out the Portuguese and taking over a well-functioning market. This was the high point of the slave trade. Zanzibar became the eastern center. 

The current Sultan of Oman has ruled as a moderate and benevolent reformer for several decades, coming to power in a palace coup. Back then, the Omanis were enthusias- tic conquerors and slavers. They dispossessed the local elites, took their stuff, and enslaved them. They built spice plantations of cloves, cinnamon, pepper, and staffed them with slaves that they got from the mainland. The supply seemed unlimited. They’d buy them or just go catch them, whichever was easier. Then they’d get extra slaves and sell them to traders that came from Arabia, India, Persia, all the way from America, on occasion. They made a lot of money and built a lot of fancy Islamic architecture. 

Album lists copper coins of three sultans, all 14th century and all rare. There were no local coins during the Portuguese occupa- tion, and for the Omanis, only the late 19th century coins when Zanzibar found itself object of the territorial squabbles of European colonial powers. We’ll get back to Zanzibar in a bit. 

Pemba is another island, north of Zanzibar, not to be confused with the city in Mozambique, nor with the town in Zambia. Wikipedia mentions two sultans of the 14th century, otherwise nothing is said of Pemban history. There were and are a lot of Arabs on the island. It has passed most of the last millennium in the orbit of Zanzibar. Album describes tiny silver coins with 10 different names on them. The coins are all in a museum in Tanzania and can’t be collected. 

The general idea of coinage in the Islamic zone was basically that if a coin had a name on it, that was a public claim to legitimacy by the person whose name it bore. Unnamed coins were typically local coppers, beneath the dignity of a ruler to attend to. In sub-Saharan Africa, except for those Pemba silver coins, there was no silver and apparently the only gold coins were things made to show the king. 

What might have been the story of the single hoard of Pemba coins with different names on them? Here’s a theory: some businesspeople got hold of some silver. With or without the approval of the authorities they coined them up with their names on them. Then they put them in a jar in the ground and didn’t ever dig them up. Wear data on the coins in that hoard would tell us something. 

So, what was happening on the mainland during medieval and early modern times? Alice Hingston Quiggin wrote a book called A Survey of Primitive Money in 1949, reprinted by Spink in 1978. She divided sub-Saharan Africa, in economic terms, into two zones.

One was places that used a thing or set of things as standards of value against which other things could be valued, in other words, money. West Africa had things like that: kissie pennies, manillas, etc.

The other zone didn’t have that. Everything was a lot more like barter, where the values are determined on the spot. A subset of the non-monetary peoples was pastoral-dominant, meaning that livestock made up most of the value of the society, and everything of value was compared with that. That was still a system with a lot of barter in it, because better animals had better values. But for us money collectors, you can’t go collect a herd of cattle from 200 years ago. So, we say they were non-monetary. 

The mind set in those zones tended to be that you needed iron for tools and weapons, your livestock of course, and gold not so much. Ivory was something you could try to go and get to trade for metal and trinkets, and all these extra people all over the place that you could kidnap and sell if you were that kind of person. 

The mainland started to organize into kingdoms in the 13th century or so, around the time that the Islamic sultanates were forming on the coastal islands. Portuguese presence from the 16th century forward was ephemeral. 

In the 1850s German and British explorers were in the region, where they bumped into each other. The Portuguese, and the Belgians were becoming active in Congo. Negotiations between the European colonizers culminated in the Berlin Conference of 1885, which gave Germany a path to the formation of what became German East Africa and Britain was given permission to mess around in Zanzibar. 

In the late 18th century there got to be a growth of people who thought that owning other people was wrong. At the same time the development of factories began to make slaves less profitable than machines. The confluence of moral high ground and economic reality pushed the British to ban the slave trade in 1807 and to abolish it in their empire, except for India, in 1833. The slave owners were compensated from the Exchequer. The compensation loans were finally paid off in 2015.

The Zanzibar paisa of 1883 was made to equal the British Indian quarter anna and was struck in Belgium. The scales motif came from the old BEIC Bombay coinage. (Actual diameter 25mm).

The Zanzibar paisa of 1883 was made to equal the British Indian quarter anna and was struck in Belgium. The scales motif came from the old BEIC Bombay coinage. (Actual diameter 25mm).

For the same combination of moral and economic reasons, the British in the 19th century leaned on local rulers to go slave- less. It was the “right thing to do,” and it also might open new areas to British factory products.

Control of Zanzibar, the main western terminus of the Indian Ocean trade, would help things out in India, where they were trying to make the numbers work for them. And again, with Germany mucking about on the mainland, a local base would be mighty convenient. The sultan was convinced it was in his interest to sign a treaty of protection with London.

Interestingly, the first of the modern Zanzibar coins were dated 1299 A.H., which is 1883/4. The treaty that established the protectorate was signed in 1885. They were made at the Brussels mint in Belgium. The 1304 (1887) coins were apparently made at the Brussels mint as well.

In that time, the main copper coin of the western Indian Ocean was the British India quarter anna. Local versions were made not only in Zanzibar, but also in Mombasa in modern Kenya, in Oman, and in German East Africa.

The Belgian made silver and gold coins are kind of mysterious. The silver quarter and half ryals are considered patterns by most people, as are the 2.5 ryals gold coins. The silver ryals were struck for circulation, though they are rare, and a couple thousand 5 ryals gold coins were made, supposedly for use. The weight and module is the USA 5 dollar coin. Go figure.