Swahili coins and the Sindh connection

The connections between East Africa and South Asia can be identified in the evidence provided by coins found in both regions.

Swahili sites and Sindh both issued coins modelled on Islamic coinage after the 7th century reforms; that is, they lacked figural representation and contained only Arabic script. For Sindh, the concept of coinage was not new.

Jason D. Hawkes and Stephanie Wynne-Jones

Histories of early movements between East Africa and South Asia in the western Indian Ocean can be difficult to interpret. While later references certainly exist in the accounts of Arab geographers and travelers, a relative lack of written records means a reliance on oral traditions. It is a matter of lively debate to what extent we can rely on these traditions as fact; in general it is understood that they represent a mixture of deep memories and symbolic statements, deeply affected by the context in which they were recorded. Yet, a series of allusions in Swahili oral traditions contains a whisper of early connections with South Asia, most particularly with Sindh, at the eastern edges of the first millennium Islamic empire.

Swahili oral histories mention the waDebuli, or waDiba, ethnonyms associated with a range of historical events and periods in different parts of the Swahili coast. These traditions are most persistent on Pemba (the waDiba) and Unguja (waDebuli) in the Zanzibar archipelago, as well as on the coast of Kenya and on Mafia Island. They are also mentioned at Kilwa/Songo Mnara. Both Chittick and Horton associate the waDebuli stories with the port of Daybul at the mouth of the Indus, based on similarities in the name and the prominence of that site from the 8th right into the 13th century. As such, the association might not refer to a literal origin point for immigrants so much as a “direction of cultural contact”.

Unfortunately, it seems that connections with one particular place are difficult to sustain, due to the range of cultural practices and associations attributed to the waDebuli in different accounts. A general link with South Asia does seem to be indicated, although there is also the possibility that some Debuli may have originated from Indonesia or the Laccadive Islands. In his review of the term in East African histories, Walsh concludes that it is not possible to pick apart the elements of historical fact from myth and inaccuracy in the Debuli traditions. He does, however, note that the term entered the Swahili language at some point immediately after initial dispersal from a NE Bantu dialect, placing it in the last quarter of the first millennium AD. Horton is more ambitious and suggests that the waDebuli traditions represent an echo of interaction with Sindh and the port of Daybul (itself echoing his own interpretations of the more widespread “Shirazi” origin traditions relating to the Persian Gulf).

The port of Daybul is known mainly through the accounts of Arab and Persian writers, such as the 9th century Arab geographer Al-Muqaddasi and the 13th century Persian traveller Ibn Al Mujawir. The site has yet to be identified conclusively on the ground, but a growing number of scholars argue for its identification with the site of Banbhore. Textual accounts of Daybul and excavations at Banbhore both testify to the site having been a major coastal emporium for the city of Mansura, one of two major towns of the Amirate of Sindh, the eastern extent of the ‘Abbasid Empire. In the 9th and 10th centuries, Sindh was particularly prominent in trade with the Islamic west, with masses of objects and goods moving into the ‘Abbasid heartland through trade and tribute. Excavations at Banbhore have revealed little in the way of material evidence for direct contact between East Africa and Sindh or support for the suspicion of the movement of people from Sindh to the East African coast. Yet, as mentioned above, we do know from wider textual sources that communities from various kingdoms in South Asia were present in cities in the Gulf, just as Jewish, Muslim, and Zoroastrian merchants from the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf travelled to India and established communities along the west coast of India.

The recently excavated site at Sanjan on the Konkan coast of Gujarat, for instance, is known to have been founded by a community of Zoroastrian émigrés. At one time it is also recorded as having been administered by a governor named Mohammed Sugatipa, who was probably Muslim. Thus, we can conceive of these regions as both having been part of an “Arab common market” at this time. It is possible that this involved a number of connections that were not necessarily mediated via the Gulf and eastern Arabia.

Something of the nature of these connections between East Africa and South Asia can be identified in the evidence provided by coins found in both regions. Scholars have long charted the movement of coins as evidence for the physical movement of commodities and economic exchange. Yet, as Helen Brown has pointed out, in addition to these (perhaps more obvious) examples, the coins that were produced in each region also constitute valuable forms of evidence for connections that extend beyond those accounted for by trade inventories or histories of the movement of objects. For instance, we see shared notions of value between these two areas, as each responds to the dirham/dinar weight standards.

Swahili sites and Sindh both issued coins modelled on Islamic coinage after the 7th century reforms; that is, they lacked figural representation and contained only Arabic script. For Sindh, the concept of coinage was not new. Prior to the expansion of the Islamic Caliphate, the region came under the rule of various South Asian kingdoms, including those ruled by the Mauryan and Indo-Parthian dynasties during the later centuries BC60 and the Rai, Vardhan, and Chacha dynasties during the early to mid-first millennium AD, all of whom issued coins. Yet, new coins were minted by the Amirs of Sindh in Mansura and Multan, following the caliphal weight standard, to produce the so-called Qandhari dirhams out of silver. Copper alloy issues were also minted in great numbers. Copper coins were outside the direct fiscal control of the caliphate and so were more sensitive to regional variation in different parts of the empire.

On the Swahili coast, however, the tradition of coinage dates only to the Islamic period, and the concept of money itself undoubtedly had an external origin. The Arabic script that characterizes Swahili coins suggests inspiration in the Islamic world, although certain esoteric aspects of the coins point to a link with Sindh rather than with the Persian Gulf.

Although the most prolific minters of coins were the second millennium sites of Kilwa Kisiwani, and perhaps Tumbatu on Zanzibar, the tradition of minting is attested during the 8th and 9th centuries at the site of Shanga on the northern Kenya coast. Here, early silver coins were minted in the names of Mohammed and Abd Allah. They followed a series of patterns, which were to become characteristic of later coinage along the coast. First, the coins seem to have been cast in a mould, indicated by a regularity of size and a much less regular weight. The coins do not follow the established weight standards for the caliphate. In fact, all 24 silver coins found at Shanga together weigh 3.82g: less than the weight of 1.5 ordinary dirhams. Second, the text of the inscriptions runs continuously from obverse to reverse, with a single sentence beginning on one side and finishing on the other. Finally, the coin dies are set in one of four regular positions using pegs, meaning that the text is always at one of the cardinal directions. All three of these characteristics are known in the coinage of Sindh, where terracotta coin moulds were excavated at Banbhore and dies using pegs were also in use. The continuous inscription is also otherwise unique in the Islamic world, although there are some parallels with amulets—rather than coins—elsewhere. As Helen Brown points out: “At the very least, this must be an indication of lively contact between the two areas.”

Excerpts from a research paper ‘India in Africa: Trade goods and connections of the late first millennium’ by Jason D. Hawkes and Stephanie Wynne-Jones. The research was funded by the Entrepot Project, Danish Research Council Sapere Aude fund.


Stephanie Wynne-Jones is an Africanist archaeologist, whose research focuses on East African material culture, society and urbanism. She is Senior Lecturer and Deputy Head of the Department of Archaeology at the University of York.

Dr. Jason Hawkes is Director of Studies in Archaeology, University of Cambridge. He is also the Affiliate Scholar, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research Teaching Associate, Department of Archaeology.

Courtesy: Journals Open Edition

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