Sheikhs and Sultans of the Swahili ‘City-states’ – What Sir Burton had to Say

This is a picture of Lake Victoria as it appea...

Lake Victoria. Wikipedia

Some years before Stanley’s trip across east Africa, discussed here, Richard Burton and Speke travelled across the same area, being the first English to follow the ivory and slave route into the interior. They ‘discovered’ Lake Tanganyika, and on the same trip, while Burton felt too unwell to proceed North, Speke took a small caravan northwards and ‘discovered’ Lake Victoria (see map, below).

The main trail to Lake Tanganyika, in red, showing major Arab-Swahili settlements.

During the time that Stanley took a caravan north, Burton stayed at Kazeh (Tabora) where, as discussed in this blog, he felt more comfortable residing with the Arabs who became his major informants.  He was fluent in Arabic and did not seem at all well disposed to Africans who, as his Arabic colleagues thought, were seen, for the most part, as uncouth, and unable to effectively govern themselves, to farm, and so forth, a disposition discussed also in this entry.    These rationalizations, of course, helped pave the way in England for later colonial activities in the region as well as for the entry of missionizing forces.  Nevertheless, in his two-volume book on  The Lake Regions of Central Africa, he does provide a mass of information not only on flora and fauna, but also on the various people inhabiting the region.

Burton in Arab garb, in which he often travelled in east Africa. 1848.

 Most of the information gathered by Burton along the way – in the ‘city-states’ in which he and Speke stayed – was apparently obtained from Arab informants in these settlements.Thus, data on indigenous people and activities were secondary and often highly biased in ways that seemed to suit  Burton.

…Such are the most important details culled from a mass of Arab oral geography: they are offered, however, to the reader without any guarantee of correctness. The principal authorities are the Shaykh Snay bin Amir el Harisi and Amayr bin Said el Shaksi; the latter was an eye-witness. All the vague accounts noted down from casual informants were submitted to them for an imprimatur.

Their knowledge and experience surpassing those of others, it was judged better to record information upon trust from them only, rather than to heap together reliable and unreliable details, and, as some travelers do, by striking out a medium, inevitably to confuse fact with fiction. Yet it is the explorer’s unpleasant duty throughout these lands to doubt every thing that nas not been subjected to his own eyes. The boldest might look at the” Mombas Mission Map” and tremble…

…The 26th of Septelnber, 1858, saw us on foot betimes. The hospitable Snay bin Amir, freshly recovered from an influenza which had confined him for some days to his sleeping-mat, came personally to superintend our departure. .As no porters had returned for property left behind, and as all the ” cooking-pots” had preceded us on the yester, Snay supplied us with his own slaves, and provided us with an Arab breakfast, well cooked, and, as usual, neatly served on porcelain plates, with plaited and colored straw dish-covers, pointed like Chinese caps. Then, promising to spend the next day with me, he shook hands and followed me out of the compound.

After a march of three miles under a whitehot sun and through a chilling wind, to which were probably owing our subsequent sufferings, we entered the dirty little villa~ of Masui, where a hovel had been prepared for us by Said bin Salim. There we were greeted by the caravan, and we heard with pleasure that it was ready, after a fashion, to break ground.

Early on the next morning appeared Snay bin Amir and Musa  Mzuri: as I was suffering from a slight attack of fever, my companion [Speke] took my place as host. The paroxysm passing off allowed me to settle all accounts with Snay bin Amir, and to put a finishing touch to the names of stations [along the route] in the journal.

I then thanked these kind-hearted men for their many good deeds, and promised to report to II. H. the Sayyid Majid [Sultan in Zanzibar] the hospitable reception of his Arab subjects generally, and of Snay and Musa in particular. About evening-time I shook hands with Snay bin Amir-s-having so primed the dear old fellow with a stirrup-cup of burnt punch, that his gait and effusion of manner were by no means such as became a staid and stately Arab shaykh…

Source – Richard Burton, THE LAKE REGIONS OF CENTRAL AFRICA, Vol 2 of 2, 1860

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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3 Responses to Sheikhs and Sultans of the Swahili ‘City-states’ – What Sir Burton had to Say

  1. Pingback: Sahelian City-States in the Western Sahel: Part 2 | DIANABUJA'S BLOG: Africa, The Middle East, Agriculture, History and Culture

  2. Pingback: City States in the Sahel: Pre-European Kingdoms of West Africa, Pt.1 « Dianabuja's Blog

  3. Pingback: Swahili city states: Pre-European ‘colonizers’ of East and Central Africa « Dianabuja's Blog

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