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The Archaeology of Colonial Encounters in Eastern Africa

Abstract and Keywords

This article examines a dynamic and rapidly growing field in African archaeology. It covers a complex period of colonial history from the end of the fifteenth century, when the Portuguese first sailed along the East African coast, to the 1960s, when East African countries finally gained independence. Squeezed between European periods of rule was that of the Omani sultanate, which ruled the coast and caravan routes with variable local powers from the seventeenth century until 1890 when Zanzibar became a British protectorate. These changing systems of rule interacted with local histories in which local African communities were increasingly engaged in the intensification of the caravan trade, especially enslaved persons and ivory, and the introduction of plantation agriculture. The discussion considers colonialism and power, settlement patterns, economic life and artefact studies, and enslavement and resistance.

Keywords: colonial history, Omani sultanate, Zanzibar, caravan trade, slavery, African archaeology, plantation agriculture


This chapter offers an introduction to a dynamic and rapidly growing field in African archaeology. It covers a complex period of colonial history from the end of the 15th century, when the Portuguese first sailed along the East African coast, to the 1960s, when East African countries finally gained independence. Sandwiched between European periods of rule was that of the Omani sultanate, which ruled the coast and caravan routes with variable local powers from the 17th century until 1890, when Zanzibar became a British protectorate. These changing systems of rule interacted with local histories in which local African communities were increasingly engaged in the intensification of the caravan trade, especially enslaved persons and ivory, and the introduction of plantation agriculture.

An important debate for archaeologists working in later historical periods of East Africa, particularly those whose research clearly intersects with colonial histories, is the manner in which this should fit into broader archaeological discourse. Concern has been voiced with the label of ‘historical archaeology’ as an American-and European-based methodological and theoretical import, focused only on the periods of colonialism (Funari et al. 1999; Reid and Lane 2004; Schmidt 2006; Lane 2007; Schmidt and Walz 2007). In thinking about the archaeology of colonial periods in this region, it is important to be mindful of these debates, particularly since they raise the issue that within this period local oral histories can be ignored at the expense of privileging hegemonic histories which made their way into textual sources. This reminds us that it is vital to treat local oral sources on a par with textual sources (Schmidt, Ch. 3 above).

Labels aside, there are important reasons for the archaeology of colonial encounters in eastern Africa to be in dialogue with the wider field of historical archaeology. Africanist archaeologists may gain from thinking about historical archaeological work in wider contexts, particularly from recent studies that carefully balance historical sources with material data, resulting in explorations of the dynamics of colonial relations between a variety of rulers and (p. 1014) ruled, and explore the complexities of changing identities as different groups came to be in contact and live with one another (Dawdy 2008; Voss 2008a; Richard 2010). Orser's (2010) review of the state of historical archaeology shows just how much the broader field has changed in drawing in wider contexts and non-traditional historical sources, along with many projects that place research squarely within the realm of local political situations (Hall 2000, 2008). Later archaeologies of Africa also have many important perspectives and critiques to offer a wider field, particularly where they explore novel forms of late Islamic colonialism, the impact of enslavement within East Africa, and the growth of new trading routes, all of which existed within a thriving East African indigenous cultural realm. The importance of working across different social scales ranging from local to global within later archaeologies has been widely recognized (Hall 2000; Voss 2008b; Orser 2010), and is equally important to endeavours in Eastern Africa, no matter what we name the field of study.

Colonialism and Power

The most obvious material forms of colonial encounters within eastern Africa are the forts and other structures constructed by those in power at different periods. Fort Jesus, Mombasa, the first to be investigated in any depth (Kirkman 1974), perhaps typifies the colonial histories of this region in that it was first constructed by the Portuguese during the 16th century, came under Omani control in the 17th century, and was used by the British during the late 19th and 20th centuries; it now hosts an important Kenyan museum and research centre. While the archaeology of such sites is important in mapping colonial landscapes of power and has often been the first stage of archaeological research on colonial Africa, as was also the case in West Africa (Osei-Tutu 2007), this archaeology has rightly been criticized for privileging only the clearest landmarks of colonial rulers, and provides little information about the vast majority of East Africans during the period the fort was used (Reid and Lane 2004). However, paying attention to these monuments does allow us to see the points at which colonizers attempted to assert their power through the creation of large structures, which must surely have seemed imposing to local populations, whatever the relations between those living and working within the forts and other local residents. Further examples analogous to Fort Jesus include Kilwa, Zanzibar, and Chake Chake, Pemba.

Smaller forts and other structures also help us to understand how colonial rulers attempted to impose power upon the landscape. A recent debate about the logic behind the location of Tongwe Fort as a demonstration of negotiations of power between Omani and local East African rulers (Lane 1993; Walz 2009) shows that thinking about these types of building can be instructive in understanding how colonizers were forced to work within local East African power dynamics, and how they were sometimes used by local rulers to increase the latter's power. Fortified structures were also a feature of indigenous East African communities, particularly in response to the intensification of slave raiding and caravan trading. Indigenous fortifications that appear to be a response to the upheavals of the colonial period have been documented archaeologically in several locations in eastern Africa, including western Tanzania (Wynne-Jones and Croucher 2007), Uganda (Sutton 2006), and both eastern (Kusimba 2004) and western Kenya (Scully 1969, 1979). This range of locations seems in and (p. 1015) of itself to demonstrate the widespread nature of settlement changes as a deliberate response to intensified fighting and the upheavals often brought about by shifts in trading routes (Kusimba 2004; Wynne-Jones and Croucher 2007; see also Elzein, Ch. 66 above).

Non-fortified structures also testify to the growing landscape of imperial power. Although little studied in the region by archaeologists, these include prisons, hospitals, and mission sites. Within historical archaeology and other anthropological disciplines, a tradition exists of interpreting such institutions as part of the apparatus of imperial state power. Although an undeveloped field, archaeologies of sites such as the CMS Mission in Mombasa (Frankl 2008), mission sites along the caravan route (Wynne-Jones and Croucher 2007), and the multitude of other colonial institutions built by the Omanis, Portuguese, Germans, and British (Rhodes 2010) may help to elucidate the manner in which imperial powers attempted to assert control in varied ways across the region.

Settlement Patterns

The period of colonial encounters in eastern Africa witnessed many changes in settlement patterns and locations. Archaeology is poised to make a strong contribution in interacting with historical records in demonstrating to what degree settlement and landscape change took place. Most historical evidence seems to point to dramatic shifts in settlement patterns and types, not for all East Africans, but for a significant number drawn into new urban centres, changing agrarian settlement—particularly plantations—and other new settlements, such as smaller halts or supply villages along caravan routes. Social composition in settlements may also have changed; for instance, women, children, and the elderly may have become a much larger proportion of year-round residents in Nyamwezi villages as a direct result of the participation of Nyamwezi men and women as caravan porters (Rockel 2006a, 2009). Such changes are as yet unexamined by archaeologists.

A number of studies are beginning to directly address to what degree and why settlement patterns changed in the region as a result of, or in relation to, colonial encounters. A major study has been that of the Historical Ecologies of East African Landscapes (HEEAL) project (Lane 2010), which has explored the relationship between ecological impacts of the intensification of the ivory trade in eastern Africa during the 19th century in relation to local cultures. One offshoot of this project has been the excavation of several sites along the Pangani River associated with the caravan trade (Biginagwa 2009). None of these sites appears to show any obvious earlier settlement below 17th and 18th century contexts, suggesting that these sites may partly have developed where they did as a result of the intensification of particular caravan routes. As an indirect consequence of the trade in enslaved Africans, Kusimba (2004, 2006) has also demonstrated that settlement patterns changed substantially in the Tsavo region of Kenya as residents moved to higher fortified sites as a defensive measure. Enslavement was also a key factor in the placement of watoro (maroon or runaway slave) settlements, one of which has been investigated on the Kenyan coast (see below). This type of fortification in response to fears of enslavement and slave-raiding activity also reminds us that we must be attuned to potential depopulation in some areas of East Africa during this period, and survey work should be mindful of any changes indicating abrupt settlement (p. 1016) abandonment that might help us to understand areas severely impacted by colonial-era slave trading in East Africa. Plantations were also developed at several key areas, mostly under Omani control, particularly around Mombasa and Pangani and on Zanzibar (Cooper 1977; Glassman 1995; Croucher 2007a).

Colonial urbanism seems to have created a significant shift in the regional landscape. Many of the new towns along trade routes were relatively short-lived, showing the rapidity and scale with which economic and other factors altered the lives of East Africans (Rockel 2006b). Survey along the central caravan route in the area of Tabora and Ujiji, and later excavations at the settlement of Kasimbu, a suburb of Ujiji, produced scant evidence of earlier settlement directly in the areas of these predominantly 19th- and 20th-century urban centres (Wynne-Jones and Croucher 2007). In another area of direct Omani colonial control, on Zanzibar, major urban centres of the same date, particularly Zanzibar Stone Town, have been argued to be largely Omani-period cities, with some earlier Portuguese settlement in the area (Sheriff 2001–2). This pattern is also apparent at other key 19th-century urban sites, such as Pangani, and, of course, at later European colonial cities such as Nairobi and Dar es Salaam (Burton 2001–2). This is despite over a millennium of urban settlement on the coast and the continuation of key precolonial urban centres as major entrepôts within Omani and European colonial trade systems, particularly Kilwa, Mombasa, and Lamu (see La Violette, Ch. 62 above).

However, shifts in settlement and the intensification of urban centres should not be overemphasized at the risk of ignoring continuities in earlier settlement patterns and forms. In some cases, such as the Pangani region (Walz 2005) and along part of the southern Tanzanian coast (Pawlowicz 2009), indigenous patterns of settlement may have persisted, despite other social changes. Archaeologists working in this area of study have much to contribute to conversations outside of archaeology, particularly with those interested in preserving the built environment and landscape heritage of colonial periods in the region (Sheriff 1995; UNESCO 2005). A broad ranging survey of the urban centres dating to the British and German colonial periods of Tanga, Pangani, Bagamoyo, Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam, Chole (Mafia Island), Kilwa Kivinje, and Mombasa has been undertaken by Rhodes (2010), addressing the material aspects of colonial rule through specific buildings—bomas, caravanserais, post offices, forts, railway stations, markets, and various domestic buildings—and the layout of towns in regard to the systems of streets, orientation of the cities in relation to their port, railway, road, and market infrastructures, and the formation of specific residential areas (European/Indian/African). This study is broad-ranging and begins the process of taking a specifically historical archaeological perspective to these centres. As further urban-based studies are hopefully undertaken, an important aspect of an archaeological perspective in such investigations will be to figure these later colonial periods into long-term patterns, and in doing so to elucidate the reasons and outcomes of change and continuity at a settlement pattern scale.

Economic Life and Artefact Studies

The economic and productive realms of colonial Eastern Africa were similarly simultaneously in flux whilst retaining continuities with earlier periods. The most obvious example of this is the caravan trade. Historically we know that trade goods, particularly ivory and (p. 1017) enslaved Africans, were traded at an intensity never seen before in this region (Alpers 1975; Rockel 2006a; Prestholdt 2008). As mentioned above, the HEEAL project (Biginagwa 2009; Lane 2010) is the most in-depth study to date of this intensifying trade, and sought to place this within the context of long-term environmental trends. A small amount of survey work was also carried out along the central caravan route, and has shown that alongside the growth of urban centres such as Ujiji, smaller indigenous settlements like Maswa's Fort grew up as local groups vied for dominance in local trading networks that linked into expanding global trade (Wynne-Jones and Croucher 2007). Settlements in western Tanzania and Tabora are comparable to those along the Pangani, possibly related to provisioning caravans and trading in ivory (Biginagwa 2009).

This caravan trade was not simply a local intensification of trade, but a complex mechanism of the relationship between Eastern Africa and global commerce that played out on a number of levels, including Europe and North America, as a result of the trade in ivory in particular (Shayt 1993; Malcarne 2001). Little work has yet been done on the social impact of intensifying economic relations between eastern Africa, the United States, and Europe, but work is beginning to address these connections as a social phenomenon. One way in which this global trade is increasingly understood is the use of mass-produced goods by East Africans and their importation into local systems of meaning. Large quantities of beads are found along some caravan route settlements (Biginagwa 2009; Wilson Marshall 2009), fitting historical descriptions of the importance of beads as trade goods to East Africans (Pallaver 2008), alongside cloth, an artefact that may prove harder for archaeologists to address. In studying the importation of mass-produced ceramics on Zanzibari plantations, one study has demonstrated the clear preferences for goods that fit into East African tastes (in this case relating to cuisine), and the manner in which this in turn affected production in European factories (Croucher 2011a). Future studies based on this type of commodity chain analysis may help us to understand how East African colonial trade relations were not simply a case of Africans buying up what few imported goods were available to them but, as in West Africa (Richard 2010), were the product of a complicated relationship between the desires of African consumers and the output of European producers (cf. Prestholdt 2008).

It is this type of relationship that alerts us to the growth of capitalism as an economic and social system in later colonial eastern Africa (particularly from the 19th century). The formation of plantations, producing only a monocrop output for regional and global markets, is one aspect of this, and in the process East African slavery was transformed into a system close to that of North American chattel slavery (Cooper 1979; Glassman 1995). Archaeological investigations of a clove plantation site on Pemba show how new spaces of capitalist labour—a clove plantation floor where planters could observe the work of their enslaved labourers—became sited alongside eastern African architectural forms, such as the stone-built plantation house at Mgoli (Croucher 2007a). In this example we see how the exigencies of capitalist production were brought into the social context of particular forms of colonial rule in eastern Africa. Omani colonial rule was not simply the same as European colonial rule, although it did share some of the same economic principles. But ideologies of Islam and social norms of eastern African society also shaped the way in which power became deployed within this colonial system. Archaeological examinations of the ways in which the eastern African context shaped specific iterations of colonialism are a key area in which archaeologists can, and do, contribute to wider debates.

(p. 1018) Although capitalist trade increased in this period, it was not at the expense of local production. A curious fact of colonial Eastern Africa appears to be the persistence of earlier forms of local production, particularly in ceramic styles (Croucher and Wynne-Jones 2006; Biginagwa 2009). This phenomenon continues today along the East African coast (Wynne-Jones and Mapunda 2008). The social implications of such continuities alongside such widespread social change, particularly the massive immigration to regions in which ceramic style continuity has been demonstrated, are still under examination by archaeologists, but appear to show the way in which new identities, possibly along ethnic lines, may have been at least partially based on incorporating foreigners into local societies. This may, in part, be a continuation of the long-term fluidity of cultural incorporation on the East African coast, particularly at Swahili sites (Wynne-Jones and Mapunda 2008). Outside ceramics, little is known of local production, but the density of shell beads, alongside other objects such as clay pipes at sites along the Pangani (Biginagwa 2009), and the bead assembly area excavated at a Giriyama settlement in Kenya (Wilson Marshall 2009), seem to be early indications of widespread local production even as mass-produced goods became more widely available and commodification of goods intensified.

Enslavement and Resistance

A vital area of research that is impossible to ignore in this chapter is the archaeology of enslavement and resistance in colonial Eastern Africa. Historically, it is irrefutable that enslavement drastically increased in scale from the 17th to the 19th centuries (Alpers 1975; Cooper 1977; Sheriff 1987). Enslavement can be difficult to document in the African archaeological record (Alexander 2001; Croucher 2004), but great strides have been made in the last decade to address this problem. A key study is that of Kusimba (2004, 2006) in Kenya's Tsavo region, where fortified settlements provide evidence of defensive measures taken in response to the fear of intense slave raiding. Runaway slave settlements (known in Swahili as watoro, comparable to maroon settlements in the Americas) have been studied by Wilson Marshall (2009), who documents the careful placement of a watoro community in Kenya, where the settlement had to balance contact with neighbouring communities—particularly through alliances with local Giriyama groups and with European missionaries—with distance from Swahili settlements where dangers of re-enslavement lay. Despite this, watoro settlements show material similarities with Swahili settlements, particularly in house forms. This supports historical arguments that enslaved East Africans attempted to demonstrate at least a veneer of cultural affiliation with Swahili and Omani owners in order to gain social status in coastal communities where plantation industries were located (Cooper 1977). As with the continuities of local production, this evidence seems to show that, as well as the exclusion of enslaved persons from full membership of colonial society through their increasing role as chattel slaves on plantations, eastern African colonial culture also allowed for a degree of acceptance of immigrants into new forms of East African identities shaped within this context.

Evidence of enslavement aside from resistance is harder to find. Survey work in plantation areas of Zanzibar yielded very few obvious sites associated with enslaved labourers, despite (p. 1019) the fact that so many of these lived on the islands (Croucher 2004). This may partly be due to the lack of social memory of enslaved labourers, as their descendants have been fully incorporated into Zanzibari society. Nonetheless, the location of a Muslim graveyard and a single settlement site, said to be those of 19th-century plantation slaves, shows that sites associated with the enslaved do exist. A lime mortar house at the plantation site of Mgoli has also been interpreted as potentially being the home of a woman enslaved for relations of concubinage (Croucher 2007b, 2011b). Thus, archaeological evidence for enslaved segments of the East African colonial population exists, but may not always be as obvious as might be expected from its historically known scale.

Future Directions

The archaeology of colonial periods in eastern Africa looks certain to be a growing field within the region over coming years. It is clearly going to develop as a field that is heavily entwined with oral historical research and heritage discourse. UNESCO money to record sites of the slave route in the Indian Ocean region (UNESCO 2005) is likely to continue to have an impact in this area. On the Kenyan coast, at least one area has seen the ‘remembrance’ of a slave cave site in response to heightened heritage activity and tourist interest (Wynne-Jones and Walsh 2010). Cases such as this show that sites associated with the archaeology of colonial periods in the region continue to be part of an active dialogue concerning precisely what this history was, and how it fits with contemporary politics, communities, and identities today.

Historical archaeology in North America in particular has been at the forefront of grappling with issues of archaeological sites that remain important to community memory and identity, particularly with reference to the contestations of colonial histories (Wynne-Jones and Walsh 2010; see also Shepherd 2007; Weiss 2007 for South Africa). As we develop such programmes, we potentially have much to learn from issues raised in analogous contexts in other areas. Eastern African archaeology also seems poised to begin to force critical reflection on some of the often insular narratives of historical archaeology in other regions of the world, particularly in comparative discussions of the archaeology of enslavement, global trade, plantations, and maroon communities.

These different elements mean that the future of this field as it expands will be deeply rooted in local histories, helping to build heritage projects in the region, and using archaeology as a means of dialogue about the recent past with communities neighbouring projects. It will also have a global impact in forcing conversations in a field normally rooted in Atlantic worldviews to consider Indian Ocean perspectives.


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