|Old World Contacts|
MERCHANTS & TRADERS|
Third - Fourth Periods: 1000 - 1500 CE
The wealthy island city of Kilwa was the most important of thirty-odd trade centres that flourished along the East African Coast from the 1100s to the early 1500s. All were politically independent, but commercially linked to centres in Arabia. On any given day, Kilwa's fine harbour was packed with Arab dhows loading and unloading goods that circulated through the ecumenical trading sphere. Colonists, resident merchants, and visiting traders from Arabia and India mingled on its streets with local Swahili-speaking Africans.
Kilwa's glittering wealth thoroughly impressed the European scribe who arrived in Kilwa harbour with Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral in 1500. The man reported seeing finely appointed houses made of coral stone, the most imposing of which was the ruler's 100-room palace. "In this land," the scribe wrote, "there are rich merchants, and there is much gold and silver and amber and musk and pearls. Those of the land wear clothes of fine cotton and of silk and many fine things, and they are black men."
Kilwa derived its prosperity from its monopoly of the flow of goods in and out of the Zambezi River region in the southern African interior. It was the major exchange point for gold, ivory, iron and coconuts from the kingdom of the Mwene Mutabe, jewellery and textiles from India, and porcelain from China. Kilwa's ruler maintained a mint that produced coins in several foreign denominations, and exacted stiff tariffs from visiting Arab and Indian traders.
Kilwa's local culture illustrates well the close association between commerce and the spread of social and religious customs across the map of the Old World. The influence of Islam permeated daily life in Kilwa. Kilwa's Muslim ruler styled himself a sultan, and many of the city's rich African-born businessmen claimed descent from aristocratic Persian and Arab families to enhance their local status. The city's multi-storied houses were architecturally of Islamic Middle Eastern design. Portuguese visitors in the 1500s compared Kilwa's splendid mosque, built between the 1100s and 1400s, to Spain's famous Cordoba Mosque.
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Old World Contacts / The Applied History Research Group / The University of Calgary
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