East African Sailor Led Da Gama to India: Without the Help of an Anonymous East African Sailor, It Is Doubtful That Vasco Da Gama, the Portuguese Explorer, Would Have Ever Succeeded in 'Discovering' India. Stephen Williams Writes on the Early History of the East African Region

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The history of Africa's 1,500km Indian Ocean coast from Somalia to Mozambique has been documented for more than 2,000 years, although small coastal settlements undoubtedly existed for many millennia before that.


Some historians have suggested links between the east coast of Africa and Ancient Egypt. They base their theories on a number of Ancient Egyptian murals that show black Africans bearing tributes of gold, leopard skins, ostrich eggs, ivory and precious stones to the courts of Egyptian Pharaohs. It is possible that these emissaries travelled not from the coast but from a kingdom the Ancient Egyptians knew as Punt--thought to have been located in the triangle between the Red Sea coast, present day Sudan's southern province of Kordofan and Ethiopia's northwest highlands.

What is certain is that by 50 BC, merchants and traders of Roman-ruled Egypt, Axum (Ethiopia), Persia, Phoenicia and southern Arabia had developed long-distance trading routes--east to India, the Far East and China as well as travelling down the African coast as far south as Tanzania and Mozambique.

The ancient Greeks knew of East Africa's coast as Azania but it later became known as the Zhanj coast. "Zhanj" means black in Persian and those early Indian Ocean mariners trading with East Africa could rely upon the regular monsoon winds that blew from the northeast along the African coast between November and March (the Kaskazi wind) and southwest between April and September (the Kusi wind).

They could also depend on the ubiquitous coconut, found in all lands of the Indian Ocean. Both ocean-going and coastal sailing-boat builders of the region had, since time immemorial, used coconut fibres to bind together wooden hulls. This 'sown' technique was developed before there was a ready supply of iron to make nails to hold timbers together, although iron smelting and trading in the commodity is known to have existed in East Africa more than 2,000 years ago.

It is thought that Africa was of lesser interest to the early Red Sea, Arabian and Persian Gulf traders than India and China. The return voyage to the East African coast usually required two years of preparation and voyage time waiting for the right winds, while ships could sail to India and back in less than 12 months. India and China also provided more valuable cargoes for the traders.

Nevertheless, a major trading centre was established at a port called Rhapta (perhaps located near the mouth of the Pangani River close to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, although no trace has been found of it) and traders, particularly from Yemen and Persia, began to settle along the coast of Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania acting as agents for those merchant mariners trading for slaves, ivory, rhinoceros horn, tortoiseshell, frankincense, myrrh and other trade goods.

The influence of these coastal-settlers became increasingly dominant as they began to trade and intermarry with indigenous Africans. Their presence was to be strengthened as the wealth and power of Persia and Arabia developed shortly after the death of the Prophet Mohamed when Middle East economies boomed. During the 9th and 10th centuries AD, proselytisers arrived with the traders to convert people to Islam.

Islam had a unifying effect on those living on the coast, although some of the customs of the faithful took a different path to the rest of the Islamic world. For example, a unique practice was to build pillars over tombs. Early examples of pillar tombs still stand such as the 14th century Mbaraki Pillar and the 17th century pillar tomb of the Sheik of Changamwe on Mombasa Island.

Shortly after Islam came to East Africa a common trading language, KiSwahili (the language of the Swahili) spread along the coast. Today the language is spoken throughout east and central Africa. Swahili is from an Arabic term that means 'coast' but it has evolved to mean much more. …