Retracing the Caravan Routes of East Africa; from Kilwa to Zimbabwe

By Mbwiliza, Joseph Frederick | UNESCO Courier, June 1984 | Go to article overview

Retracing the Caravan Routes of East Africa; from Kilwa to Zimbabwe


Mbwiliza, Joseph Frederick, UNESCO Courier


Two factors have directly influenced the development of long-distance trade in east Africa. The first is the existence of a long coastline stretching from Cape Guardafui in the north to Sofala in the south. Along this coastline were rich fishing grounds, mangrove swamps, salt, and a variety of other products. These served as major incentives in the development of commercial relations between the peoples of east Africa on the one hand and those of Asia and the Mediterranean world on the other. The second relates to the interior, where salt-lakes and springs, and deposits of minerals such as iron, gold and copper served similar purposes and helped to bring people from different parts of Africa's heartland into regular commercial contact.

A dearth of information on the east African interior has given substance to the view that there was no contact between the interior and the ports which dotted the coast during the centuries preceding the arrival of the Portugese in the Indian Ocean at the close of the fifteenth century. However, new evedence shows that long-distance trade could not have been suddenly imposed on the societies of the interior but rather grafted itself onto older local patterns and regional networks of trade in foodstuffs, livestock, and especially iron tools and salt. It was most probably from these humble beginnings that the peoples of the interior eventually came into contact with the coast and thus with international trade.

However, it does seem plausible that a revival of commercial contact between the interior and the coast came in late in the eighteenth century, and that caravan routes to the great lakes did not become firmly established until the nineteenth century. This was in response to increased world demand for ivory and slave labour for the plantation economies in Zanzibar, the Mascarene Islands and the Caribbean. …

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