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Journal of World History 11.1 (2000) 126-129

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Book Review

Port Cities and Intruders: The Swahili Coast, India, and Portugal in the Early Modern Era

Port Cities and Intruders: The Swahili Coast, India, and Portugal in the Early Modern Era. By Michael N. Pearson. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. Pp. x + 202. $35.95 (cloth).

Literature on the eastern African coastal people known as Swahili, who for many centuries have formed a society of middlemen in the long-distance commerce between Africa and the northern and eastern littorals of the Indian Ocean, is in general somewhat parochial. The literature on their counterpart middlemen in Asia is much larger: it is written mainly by economic historians who place Indian maritime trade within the wider context of long-standing Asian-European commerce [End Page 126] by land and sea, but they ignore eastern Africa as a peripheral area of minor importance. Michael Pearson, one of the more interesting writers on the Indian side, has now transferred his interest to Africa and perceived it to be an integral part of the trade networks of the Indian Ocean (for which he prefers the name "Afrasiatic Sea"). His book is scholarly and enlightening, free of jargon, and presents new understanding based on his long experience of Indian trading history. The author has not himself done "fieldwork" among the Swahili, although he has visited the coast itself, but from the available sources he has constructed a single, coherent whole. He has done great service, not by introducing new historical or ethnographic data on the Swahili or Indian merchants but rather by discussing them as equal partners in a single trading system that as such has been given little scholarly attention.

The first chapter, an introduction, is concerned with several main problems: the concepts of "world history" and "world-system history"; the great diversity of sources; the varying definitions of the Swahili as "African" or "Asian" in origins and culture (a now outmoded argument that has long been settled in favor of Africa); and the orientation of Swahili settlements. Pearson stresses that many are land-oriented and not sea-oriented, so that views of the Swahili as a maritime civilization need amendment, although by ignoring the variations in function of the different kinds of Swahili towns he weakens his argument. Finally, there is a useful discussion of the nature and uses of the past and the present.

There follow three central chapters, on the Swahili coast and its relations with the Indian Ocean, with the African interior, and with the world economy. In chapter 2 Pearson makes the points that the littoral mercantile societies have many resemblances to land-locked ones, that there are also many similarities between land caravans and ocean convoys, and that many Swahili ports are not on the coastline but far inland up navigable rivers, the main one being the Zambezi network. He discusses traditional ocean-going sailing vessels and the monsoons on which the entire system has been based. He asserts that the Swahili themselves did not sail across the Indian Ocean, but ignores the fact that they did sail as far as Arabia and Madagascar (as they still do) and that some Swahili towns built and still build extremely large ocean vessels. He discusses the production and value of the more important trade commodities, especially ivory and gold from Africa and textiles from Asia, and provides useful new material about the gold trade from Zimbabwe and Mutapa, making use of early Portuguese sources that have hardly been used by other writers. He concludes this chapter with a discussion of Islam among the Swahili, [End Page 127] and emphasizes the importance of Islam for merchants (as has often been shown for those of western Africa).

In chapter 3 Pearson turns to the African interior. He discusses the geographical notions of foreland, umland, and hinterland, but makes little use of them: they are neatly descriptive but have little analytical value. He rightly accepts the view that the Swahili coast should be divided...