The Urban History of a Rural Place: Swahili Archaeology on Pemba Island, Tanzania, 700-1500 AD*

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Pemba, the northernmost of Tanzania's three major offshore islands that include Zanzibar (Unguja) and Mafia, has been considered a peripheral, largely rural place in later Swahili historiography, the agricultural "breadbasket" of nearby Mombasa and other Swahili coastal towns and regions (Figure 1). This image derives from the post- 1500 period, when Pemba Island was indeed the location of much agricultural and arboricultural production for export to the mainland and to international markets, and when European accounts of the area begin. Older historical sources concerning Pemba do not abound. But those that do exist suggest a different history in which Pemba was a core area of the Swahili coast in the late first millennium and early second millennium AD, when Swahili polities controlled the southwestern rim of the Indian Ocean trade system.1

Al-Mas'udi, for example, wrote of his visit in 916 to an island he called Kanbalu (also Qanbalu), believed by some scholars to be Pemba.2 On this visit, he may have stopped at the now-ruined town of Ras Mkumbuu, which he described as having a "Muslim population and a royal family."3 Several other writers cite Kanbalu in the following centuries, based on information from Arab merchants and travelers who moved in and out of the region, including ibn Buzurg in the late tenth century, al-Idrisi in the midtwelfth century, and Yakut in his thirteenth-century Geographical Dictionary.4 Pemba's Arabic nickname was al Khudhra, the Green Island. The island's pre-1500 history as conveyed in such accounts indeed inspired the earliest professional archaeology on the island, by James Kirkman in the 1950s.5 Kirkman sought to connect the site of Ras Mkumbuu with Kanbalu, but failed to locate levels earlier than the thirteenth century in the stone-built areas he investigated.6

Pemba's towns were also noted by late fifteenth-, early sixteenth-century Portuguese visitors, who mention five sultanates or kingdoms there at a time when only one ruler was known in Zanzibar.7 But the Portuguese characterizations of Pemba's history, although mentioning the presence of towns, and elites, underscore the island's potential to provide food to the mainland, and it is this latter theme that foreshadows its future marginalization. Duarte Barbosa, a Portuguese factor who wrote in 1517-18, noted that the offshore islands had Moorish kings, and held a "great store of food . . . rice, millet, flesh-meat in great quantity, oranges, limes and citrons . . . and every other kind of fruit," which he describes as ferried to the mainland.8 He observed that the "kings of these isles live in great luxury; they are clad in very fine silk and cotton garments, which they purchase at Mombaça from the Cambaya merchants ... they have many mosques."9 Justus Strandes' classic 1899 review of Portuguese documents from East Africa states that Pemba and Zanzibar supplied food to places as far away as Mozambique in the sixteenth century.10

Pemba, Zanzibar, and Mafia were all depicted as agricultural suppliers to the mainland in the early Portuguese accounts. By the early nineteenth century, Pemba had become increasingly ruralized. When the Omani capital relocated from Muscat to the portcity of Zanzibar, and Zanzibar and Pemba islands were made the core of the sultanate, Pemba was targeted as the location of Ornai clove, grain, and coconut plantations.11 Pemba became the rural hinterland foil to Zanzibar with its port metropolis. The real transformation of Pemba into a breadbasket periphery, but with the memory of its very different history increasingly obscured, has been the common image presented in historical overviews of the past century. As one example, Freeman-Grenville wrote that in the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries Pemba "...was chiefly a purveyor of rice, and the rest of coconuts and their by-products. They had not the wealth of the mainland, which indeed was confined to a small number of merchant cities. …


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