Swahili ‘City States’ in 19th Century East Africa: Indigenous and Imported Crops

Maqluba (middle eastern dish) מקלובה مقلوبة

Maqluba - Wikipedia

For several hundred years before European colonization, the crops and cuisines of East Africa were influenced by Arab and Swahili traders, who brought seeds of their favored foods to the coast as well as inland to plant in their little settlements.  Rice seems to have been the most important, followed by a variety of vegetables, fruits and other crops.

Richard Burton’s primary interest during his exploration of the area in the 1850’s seems to have been in documenting the fresh produce of the Arab and Swahili settlements, which I have written about here as being incipient ‘city states’:  For although the interests of the  Swahili was primarily mercantile – especially in slaves and ivory as the 19th Century advanced – their inland settlements took on the quality of city states, in which the ‘citizens’ were Arab or Swahili while many of  indigenous folk were their ‘clients,’ who worked and farmed for them

That is a great simplification, though it does help to explain the socio-political dynamics of the time between indigenous folk and merchant (Arab; Swahili) traders who lived both inland and on the coast.

Sir Burton spent time at Zanzibar on the coast and also at Unyanyembe and Ujiji, which were inland Arab-Swahili settlements.  Since he was a fluent Arabic speaker, his primary informants were the Arab and Swahili residents in these communities.  As well, it seems from his writing that he never really ‘took’ to Africa, but saw Africa and Africans from an Arab-Swahili perspective.  He was an Arab scholar and had already travelled incognito to Mecca.

It is unfortunate that neither he nor other explorers of the time provided more information on indigenous vegetables – how they were grown (or collected), the seasonality, and how cooked.

Mixed garden upcountry - this is the kind of local agriculture that Burton would have seen.

Here is some of what Sir Burton has to say about local crops:

Burton – The Lake Regions of Central Africa, Vol. 2 1860

In the following entry, Burton considers rice ”more civilized’ than sorghum and other indigenous grains.  This is the kind of western-biased reasoning that has continued to influence some of the agricultural research and development programs in Africa.

For example, nearly all of the research done by IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) on rice has been on Asian varieties and not on African varieties – either West African domesticated or on wild rice. In fact, very little research has, in general, been done on indigenous crops across the continent, although this is now changing.

Lake Tanganyika and Surrounding Area

… Rice of excellent quality was formerly raised by the Arabs upon the shores of the [Lake] Tanganyika; it grew luxuriantly, attaining, it is said, the height of eight or nine feet. The inhabitants, however, preferring sorghum, and wearied out by the depredations of the monkey, the elephant, and the hippopotamus, have allowed the more civilized cereal to degenerate.

The Principal grains are the holcus and the Indian nagli or nanchni (Eleusine coracano); there is no bajri (panicum or millet) in these regions; the pulses are phaseoli and toe voandzeia, ground-nuts, beans, and haricots of several different species.

The manioc, egg-plant, and sweet potato, the yam, the cucumber, an edible white fungus growing subterraneously, and the Indian variety of the Jerusalem artichoke, represent the vegetables: the people, however, unlike the Hindoos, despise, and consequently will not be at the pains to cultivate them.

Sugar-cane, tobacco, and cotton are always purchasable in the bazar.The first four entries (below) seem to be referring to indigenous red rice, which was locally grown, as well as Indian white rice and other imported vegetables.  Most of these were not eaten by local (rural) people until the 20th Century, who might have grown the crops for sale but who considered them ‘Arab food’.

The descriptions of rice are at times confusing – as it is not always clear what is meant by ‘wild’ or ‘indigenous’; whether the same, a domesticated/ indigenous variety, or imported variety :

… Crossing the Runangwa or Rarungu River, which, draining the southern countries toward the [Lake] Tanganyika, [is reached]Ufipa, [which] is an extensive district, . . . It produces grain in abundance, and the wild rice is of excellent flavor…There arc other islets in the neighborhood, but. none are of importance, Ufipa is an extensive district, …

… There are other islets [in Lake Tanganyika] in the neighborhood, but none are of importance, Ufipa is an extensive district … It produces … wild rice is of excellent flavor…

The general health [of inland people] has been improved by the importation from the coast [by Arabs settling inland] of wheat, and a fine white rice, instead of the red aborigen of the country; of various fruits-plantains, limes, and papaws and of vegetables-brinjnlls, cucumbers, and tomatoes, which relieve the indigenous holcus and maize, manioc and sweet-potato, millet and phaseoli, sesamum and ground-nuts.

They declare to having received great benefit from the introduction of onions-an antifebral, which flourishes better in Central than in Maritime Africa.

… Msene [an Arab/Swahili settlement towards Lake Tanganyika], like Unyanyembe, is not a town, but a mass of detached settlements, which arc unconscious of a regular street. To the northward lie the villages of the sultan Kwihanga and Yovu….Rice of the red quality – the white is rare and dear – grows with density …, Holcus and millet, maize and manioc, are plentiful enough to be exported.

Magnificent palmyras, bauhinias and sycamores, plantains and papaws, and a host of wild fruit-trees, especially the tamarind, which is extensively used, adorn the land.

The other productions are onions, sweet potatoes, and egg-plants, which are cultivated; turmeric brought from the vicinity; tomatoes and bird-pepper, which grow wild; pulse, beans, pumpkins, watermelons, excellent mushrooms and edible fungi. Milk, poultry, honey, and tobacco are cheap, and plentiful.

Abundant humidity and a fertile soil, evidenced by the large forest-trees and the abundance of ferns, render Ujiji [an Arab trading settlement on the East shores of Lake Tanganyika]  the most productive province in this section of Africa: vegetables, which must elsewhere be cultivated, here seem to flourish almost spontaneously.

The fruits are the plantain and the Guinea palm, The mdizi or plantain-tree is apparently an aborigen of these latitudes: in certain parts, as in Usumbara, Karagwah, and Uganda, it is the staff of life: in the hilly countries there are, it is said, about a dozen varieties, and a single bunch forms a load for a man.

… Their [Arab and Swahili] cargoes from India and the Eastern regions are rice, sugar, piece-goods, planking, pepper, and pilgrims; from Persia, dates, tobacco, and raw silk; and from the Mozambique, ivory, gold dust, and similar costly articles.

About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
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5 Responses to Swahili ‘City States’ in 19th Century East Africa: Indigenous and Imported Crops

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