The Swahili Coast and Indian Ocean Trade

Key Points

Selected and adapted from Wynne-Jones & Laviolette (2018) 

  1. Swahili coast cultures are diverse African cultures, made up of a confluence of peoples. They are traders and farmers, cattle keepers, & fisher people who have moved and interacted across land and sea for centuries (see chronology table below), and importantly, before the rise of Islam in the late 8th century. Trade is not the only story to tell about the region. 
  2. Swahili means “people of the coast” in Arabic. The coast and its links with external cultures has been overemphasized at the expense of the role of inland populations. For a long time, racist perspectives believed that the uniqueness and cosmopolitan aspects of the Swahili were because the Swahili were Arab immigrants. New scholarship understands the Swahili as home to African populations and similarities between inland and coastal sites show that they were part of the same society. 
  3. A long history of trade of various luxury goods as well as enslaved peoples set the region at the center of global intercontinental networks, linking the Swahili coast to the Arabian peninsula, China, India, and Cambodia, among other places. In the 15th century, Europe – via the Portuguese intrusion and later the Dutch and British – entered this matrix as pirates and as authoritarians seeking trade monopoly because Europe had nothing of great value to trade.
  4. Trade allowed for rich cultural exchange that is evidenced in food, dress, architecture, language, and religion. The KiSwahili language is an archive that offers a rich entry point into study of the region, as it is a Bantu- (African) language to which other words in Arabic and other languages were added .
  5. The key characteristic features of the coastal settlements (e.g. building with coral rock from the Red Sea) developed around the 11th century. Archaeological evidence shows a more active interaction with the maritime world at that time.
  6. Many coastal Africans began identifying as Swahili in the 19th and 20th centuries, in the contexts of slavery and imperialism.  When discussing past groups, referring to Swahili (in the sense of ethnic identity) to past populations is anachronistic. This is a valuable lesson for students about the construction and fluidity of Swahili identity.Wynne-Jones, S.  & Laviolette, A. (2018); The Swahili World, p. 2.



This select resource list provides key links and videos on the history of trade and cultural connections on the Swahili coast.

Interactive Websites and Image Collections

Connecting the GEMS of the Indian Ocean: From Oman to East Africa – An interactive free app from the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art (NMAA)

World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean (Smithsonian NMAA)

Sailors and Daughters: Portraits and Postcards of the Swahili Coast (Smithsonian NMAA) with a helpful pedagogical tool Reading Portraiture: Guide for Educators (National Gallery Guide for analyzing visual clues)

The Indian Ocean in World History a comprehensive interactive site on the Indian Ocean, spanning the prehistoric to the modern era, centered on interactive, inquiry-based maps, featuring videos, definitions, lesson plans, and more.

See Lesson Plans, esp. “From Mecca to Malaysia: The Spread of Islam across the Indian Ocean”

An Ocean of Paper archive on the same site features thousands of deeds of Omanis in Saudi Arabia and East Africa.

Indian Ocean Trade Routes (ThoughtCo article with a good map)

Int’l Commerce, Snorkeling Camels, and The Indian Ocean Trade (Crash Course WH)

Swahili Coastal City States (Ancient History Encyclopedia)

The Story of Africa: Swahili  (BBC)

Kilwa (

Clothing, Food, Music

Kanga Cloths: Wearing what which cannot be spoken

In Bibi’s Kitchen Cookbook: The Recipes and Stories of Grandmothers from the Eight African Countries that touch the Indian Ocean by Hawa Hassan and Julia Turschen

KiSwahili Proverbs – BU African Studies Center  features ten advanced level Kiswahili lessons, each linked to a proverb with an improvised skit. If too advanced, here is a a shorter activity KiSwahili Proverbs with some guiding questions (BU African Studies Center).

Swahili Coast and Indian Ocean Exchange, Lesson Plan (using language as evidence) by Eric Beckman

A Gateway to the Black Indian Ocean (Africa is a Country Radio)

BU’s African Studies Center has many additional resources for teaching about the Swahili, from kangas (cloth) to simple Swahili recipe books, to model boats/dhows, to textbooks from Kenya and Tanzania and more.


A Brief History of the Swahili Language by Hassan O. Ali

All cultures have proverbs, which reflect important values. Learn more about Swahili proverbs.


Zamani Project Gede: The Ruins of Gede (Kenya)

Zamani Project Lamu Fort (Kenya)

Zamani Project Swahili House Museum (Kenya)

Zamani Project Shela Mosque (Lamu, Kenya

Zamani Project Kua Ruins of a Swahili Town (Juani Island, Tanzania)

Zamani Project Kilwa Kisiwani (Historic Trading City, Tanzania)

Zamani Project Songo Mnara Stone Town, the Palace and Friday Mosque (Tanzania)

Zamani Project Songo Mnara, Persian Bath (Tanzania)

Zamani Project Zanzibar (Tanzania)

Zamani Project Beit El Amani (Zanzibar, Tanzania)

Primary Source Texts

Periplus of the Erythrean Sea (mid 1st c.)

Claudius Ptolemy’s Geography (mid 2nd c.)

Al Masudi (10th c.)

Ibn Battuta’s Journey from the Red Sea to East Africa and the Arabian Sea (an excellent resource documenting the traveler’s famous journey from 1328-1330 by U of Berkeley ORIAS)

Ibn Battuta in Black Africa, eds. Said Hamdun and Noel King. A well-introduced set of documents by the great Muslim traveler who vividly but briefly recounts his visits to the Swahili coast in the 14th c. For middle school up.

Eastern African History: African history in documents, ed., Robert O Collins. An excellent collection of primary source documents for teaching, including but not limited to Ibn Battuta. Accompanied by a short introductions and an overview. For middle school up.

Kilwa Chronicle


 Africa Insights: Arts of the Monsoon – a series of short online videos (2-5 minutes) highlighting the key items, trade and exchanges in the Indian Ocean.

Africa Episode 3: Basil Davidson (The Swahili coast segment starts at min. 30:15)

Coast and Conquest: History of Africa with Zaineb Badawi – BBC History of Africa Series focused on Kenya, Tanzania,  and Mozambique

Kilwa Kisiwani (Smart History)

Swahili Cultures, a useful, 15 min video introductory presentation by Marc Milo with excellent references.

Curricula and Lesson Plans

Africa Unit Overview Presentation – Kristin Strobel

Lamu and the Swahili – Kristin Strobel

Indian Ocean World Introduction – Kristin Strobel 

World History for Us All: especially Era 5 Landscape Lesson “Consolidating the TransHemispheric Trade Network – Patterns of Interregional Unity (UCLA)

The Indian Ocean Trade: a Classroom Simulation – BU Africa Studies Center. Learn more about the Indian Ocean Slave Trade through a classroom simulation created by Joan Celebi as a final project for the NEH Summer Institute.

Indian Ocean Trade Simulation (Center for Middle Eastern Studies, U of Arizona)

Swahili Coast and Indian Ocean Exchange, Lesson Plan (using language as evidence) by Eric Beckman

Lesson Plan: Language as Evidence

Language as Evidence: Using Swahili to Understand East African History World history teacher Eric Beckman created a resource-rich website for educators to teach about East African history and contemporary society through classroom study of the Swahili language.


Helpful Pedagogical Tools to Engage Students with Artifacts 

Reading Artifacts

Archival Artifact Analysis Worksheet

Artifact Analysis Worksheet 2

Analyze an artifact

Books & Texts

The Song of Lionogo: A Free Graphic Novel to download from the Smithsonian Institution. It is based on a Swahili mythological figure from East Africa and was inspired by the cultural connections between the Arab peninsula and the Indian Ocean.

Gila Monsters Meet You at the Airport, M. Sharmat. While not on Africa, this Reading Rainbowamusing selection tells a story of a New York City boy’s stereotypes about living in the southwest. For elementary and middle school.

Moja Means One and Jambo Means Hello, both by Tom & Muriel Feelings. A beginner perspective introducing Swahili culture through stories, using numbers and the letters of the alphabet. For elementary schools.

Fatuma’s New Cloth, Leslie Bulion. A sweet story of an east African child going to the market with her mother to buy a kanga. For elementary schools.

The Mcheshi series of books is a dual language (English and Swahili) series of books originally published in Kenya. The books follow a Kenyan child as she goes on a trip, to market and to school. For elementary schools.

“Swahili” Faces magazine. For middle school.

African Voices, African Lives: Personal Narratives from  a Swahili Village by Pat Caplan

A Choice of Flowers. Chaguo LA Maua: An Anthology of Swahili Love Poetry by Jan Knappert

Four centuries of Swahili verse : a literary history and anthology by Jan Knappert

Mwana Kupona : poetess from Lamu by Kitula G King’ei

The Rise and Fall of Swahili City States by Chap Kusimba (1999)

Swahili port cities : the architecture of elsewhere by Prita Meier

Three Swahili women : life histories from Mombasa by Sarah Mirza

City-States of the Swahili Coast by Thomas H. Wilson

What’s in a name? = Unaitwaje? : a Swahili book of names (1993) by Sharifa Zawawi

The Swahili world (2018),  edited by Stephanie Wynne-Jones and Adria LaViolette, a comprehensive book of recent scholarship on the Swahili coast.

Many picture books, even for younger readers, will offer some useful and insightful perspectives on life on the Swahili coast (e.g. Fly Eagle Fly), including basic language lessons (e.g. Jambo Means Hello). See a list at Africa Access. Find out about other web resources, videos and print material about the Swahili Coast here.