Kenny Mann. Zenj, Buganda. Parsippany, N.J.: Dillon Press, 1997. 105 pp. $7.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-382-39658-8.
Reviewed by Meena Khorana (Department of English and Language Arts, Morgan State University)
Published on H-AfrTeach (March, 1999)
Attractions of the East Coast of Africa
This is a well-researched, informational book on the varied and complex history of the East Coast of Africa and the kingdom of Buganda. The author has researched a variety of sources such as chronicles, histories, ancient Egyptian inscriptions (dating back to 4,000 B.C.), and archeological excavations and artifacts; an ancient Greek guidebook on the important trading centers of the time (60-100 A.D.); documents by Indian and Chinese traders and accounts by Arab, Portuguese, German, and other travelers; and oral traditions and literary compositions to piece together the history of this region. The scope of the book is broad, giving the history of the East Coast (called "Zenj" or "Zanj" by the Arabs) from Bantu migrations, to the Arab domination, to European exploitation and colonization to independence. The book focuses on the region's position as a trading center, discussing its inter-relationship to the political and economic conditions in the African interior, and throughout the world.
The contents are enriched by sidebar quotations and explanatory notes, extracts from historical accounts, stories from oral tradition, detailed captions, and a timeline. The illustrations, especially photographs of modern life, will extend readers' knowledge of the region. The book is handsomely produced, with an appealing design and layout, attractive artwork, black-and-white and color photographs, and maps and drawings.
A multifaceted work, it begins with a brief account of the importance of the coastal states, which had established trading networks across ancient Egypt, Babylon, India, and China. This rich and fertile region attracted a mixture of indigenous and other groups, who came to trade the coveted ivory, precious woods, and gold. The book focuses on Arab and Persian immigrantion the cost--to Zenj and its profitable trade and wealth. The author points out that the Arab people were not a homogenous group, but that beginning around 700 A.D. they came from throughout the Middle East as refugees and traders, representing different Islamic sects and dynasties. Actual Arab colonization began when the Shirazi prince, Sultan Hasan ibn Ali, came with his six sons in 975 A.D. and annexed different parts of the coast. The book further provides information on the political and economic organization of these states, their ensuing rivalries, and their social order. Arabs were at the top of the social ladder, the Kiswahili-speaking Muslim Africans were next, and at the bottom were the enslaved, non-Muslim Africans, bought or captured in the interior. Africans from the interior traded ivory, gold, and other goods in exchange for luxuries such as beads, cotton, and pottery.
The book analyzes the growing international importance of the region after Europe developed sea routes along the East African coast, for spices from India. The increased wealth attracted European exploration into Africa. Mann states that the Zenj coast had cities that were larger, cleaner, and richer than those in Europe. The Portuguese, with Vasco da Gama, arrived in 1498 and conquering Zenj in just eight years--by looting and sacking cities like Kilwa and Mombasa, and raping, executing, and torturing people. They justified their actions as a continuation of the crusades, for conversion to Catholicism, and for the necessity of capturing the trade; however, their tactics ruined this flourishing trade. All these complex reasons are objectively enumerated.
When the Portuguese domination was broken 200 years later, parts of Zenj were re-conquered by Arabs. In 1840, Seyyid Said transferred the capital of the Omani state from Muscat to Zanzibar, making it the cultural, administrative, and commercial center of Zenj. He united Zenj under one ruler, initiated the lucrative clove trade, and established commercial and diplomatic treaties with Western powers.
Mann provides a detailed and matter-of-fact account of the slave trade, explaining how ivory, the biggest export item, led to its expansion. The men and women who carried the ivory to the coast ended up becoming commodities themselves. The expansion of the slave trade in the nineteenth century is directly related to the growing plantation system and its profitability for European colonial powers in the Americas. In discussing the efforts of Christian missionaries to end the slave trade, the book mentions their selfish religious and political motives. Similarly, it points out that the British ban on slave trading was ineffective due to the loopholes in the treaty signed with Seyyid Said. The heightening of competition between European nations to control the East Coast trade further resulted in European influence in the interior with explorations into Africa for the source of the Nile and search for exploitable commodities to replace the slave trade.
While the books discussion of Zenj lacks adequate information on the interior of Africa, and the complex machinery involved in supplying trade items to the coast, the section on Buganda is intended to make exactly those connections. With only twenty-five pages (out of a total of ninety-six pages of text) on this strong, centralized kingdom, the author explains how both Arabs and Europeans went to Buganda to search of the source of the Nile, and to spread Islam/Christianity, and trade. Mann also refers to the achievements of Buganda BEFORE the influence of outside forces: she narrates Bugandan myths and legends and gives information on their religion, strong army, political and economic progress, and lifestyle. The account focuses on the rule of Mutesa I, a skilled diplomat and politician who established relations with both the Arabs and Europeans. However, the Arab-European rivalry only increased tension and strife in the kingdom of Buganda--their disruptive influence ended with the "Scramble for Africa" and the beginning of colonization. The book^Òs conclusion is that the influence of African culture, Arab rule, and the various traders and colonialists from around the world remains powerful to this day.
While historical, political, and economic accounts of the two states of Zenj and Buganda are accurate, I noted the following weaknesses in the author^Òs treatment or approach:
1. Mann relies heavily on Arabic and Eurocentric sources for her information. The bibliography includes Oliver Roland (a historian known for his Eurocentric perspective, according to Dr. Dibua, a specialist in African history at Morgan State University). The indigenous African perspective, except for the section on Buganda, is excluded. For instance, a fuller treatment of the pre-Arab history of this coastal region--an area known for its riches even in 4,000 B.C.--would counter the impression that it developed only because of the Arabs. Mann mentions the oral traditions of the indigenous peoples, yet does not narrate a single story, dismissing them because they "do not always correspond exactly with information in the Arabic chronicles" (p. 19). However, the author accepts the many ballads and songs about heroes such as the Persian warrior Liongi and accounts of the Arab settlers and chronicles--thus, giving an incomplete portrayal of the historical situation. The pre-Arab history of the region and accomplishments of the Bantu people are very briefly discussed (pp. 24-25); they are the conquered "black people of Zenj" (p. 14). For example, the author draws from the Pate Chronicle, which was dictated in 1962 to a British historian by Bwana Kitini, who recites the stories of Pate from 1204 to 1885. Mann, knowing that Kitini was "'a teller of tales' and could not be relied on for historical accuracy" (p. 36), cites this source, while not citing the oral tradition of the indigenous people.
2. Mann states that the first Arab refugees came to Africa's east cost because it had no ruler (p. 28); however, earlier she refers to Periplus, which states that each coastal town was ruled by its own chief, although there was no supreme ruler (p. 24). The book should have mentioned that the coast was long, dotted with many independent states, and that it would have been impossible for one ruler to govern over it entirely, as was the case when the Arabs were overcome by the Portuguese.
3. Mann's use of the word "Suaheli," instead of the accepted spelling "Swahili" is confusing, especially since the pronunciation of the word given in the text is "swah-hee-lee."
4. The slave trade is presented too objectively. When trade items are mentioned, the author continually uses the term "slaves"--which, of course, they were--without attempting to humanize them. She writes: "All this would change in the nineteenth century, when the export of ivory and slaves and the import of guns and luxury goods from the West made the development of protected trade routes imperative" (p. 12). There are some vital omissions in this dispassionate account of the slave trade: Mann does not detail the Arab slave trade, which extended all the way to India; and neither the inhumane conditions in the slave market in Zanzibar, nor the human misery in the holding forts, are described. The book should also emphasize that Arab achievements were made on the backs of the Africans, who labored in the fields, built the cities, and were sold as commodities. Perhaps, the term "enslaved" would be more appropriate. It would instill in the minds of impressionable readers the ethical perspective that these were human beings who were held against their will.
5. In the section on the arrival of the Portuguese, some information is not given in chronological order. The sack of Mombasa (in 1505) precedes the account of Vasco da Gama's successful voyage (in 1498) and the Portuguese trade in the east coast. This can be confusing for young readers.
6. The author's intention is good (see inset on p. 89), but she presents researched material in such a way as to approve of biased statements. For example, an extract from Al-Masudi (p. 20) mentions cannibals; the author gives no explanations, but lets the quotation stand on its own merits. She mentions cannibals again during the Wazimbu raids into Zenj, stating that she could find no reason for their move to the north (p. 54). Surely, there must have been some disruption in their social, political, or economic organization to cause the raids leading to such devastation of Swahili communities on the coast? What is the opinion of historians? The author, who is sensitive to the fact that Europeans sensationalized accounts of Africa by focusing on cannibalism, should have provided some background information on the Wazimbu group.
7. The information on trade routes in the interior is confusing. The text states that historians suggest that from the twelfth century onward a trade route may have connected Kilwa with gold-providing fields south of the Zambezi, and that the Mali Empire traded along established trade routes. However, later it claims that trade routes were not established until the nineteenth century, accrediting Seyyid Said. The trade situation between the interior and the coast was more complicated and multifaceted than is presented here. According to Dr. Dibua, the author should have elaborated on the effect of Tippu Tip's "empire" in the interior. This would have given an opportunity to discuss how Africans tried to protect their own middleman position in the interior.
8. Other questionable statements include Mann's claim that Mutesa I of Buganda changed a great deal (implying for the better) after adopting Islam (p. 88), or when she quotes H.M. Stanley's opinion that he could aid in the civilization and enlightenment of a vast portion of Central Africa (p. 88). Also, Mutesa is praised for peacefully opening up his kingdom to new civilizations and cultures (p. 89). Why should he be praised for allowing foreigners to come in his kingdom, when these very explorers, missionaries, and traders were the forerunners of colonial rule?
I recommend Zenj, Buganda. The author has gathered a vast amount of information from diverse sources and presents it in a coherent manner. Both text and illustrations will engage the interest of young readers and will serve as a valuable resource in the classroom.
. The author is not sure of the exact spelling/term (p. 11).
. Refer to the recent discussion on H-Africa@H-net.msu.edu on cannibalism in Africa by John Thornton (20 January, 1999) and Christoph Marx (21 January, 1999).
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