East Africa, the Western Indian Ocean Basin, and the World Economy, 1760 to 1880

by Renee Tantala

This essay represents a small step towards placing East Africa—as part of the western Indian Ocean basin—into world history models of global economic integration.

For eastern Africa, the nineteenth century was truly a "Century of Ironies." The region was integrated into the world economy, but little real economic development occurred. At the core of this lesson is Zanzibar's commercial transformation, a process highly dependent on the trade in ivory, slaves, and cloves. The expansion of long-distance trade over a vast hinterland enabled this transformation. Omani rulers funneled trade from the interior through Zanzibar.

Part 1: The Indian Ocean World of the Late Eighteenth Century

This was a world of sailing ships, large ocean-going dhows, and smaller coasting vessels. The monsoon wind system still facilitated and constrained maritime trade in the Indian Ocean basin, just as it had for two millennia.

Part 2: Zanzibar's Commercial Empire: 1800 to 1880

Zanzibar's major exports were ivory, slaves, and eventually cloves, but the real "engine" of its transformation was the continuous growth of ivory exports. A very rapid rise in the British demand for ivory in the Bombay market boosted trade between India and the East African ports.

Part 3: Caravans and the Impact of Long-Distance Trade

The caravan trade of the nineteenth century opened up the interior, bringing many African peoples into the world economy as suppliers of ivory or slaves or producers of food or local products that provisioned caravans.

Part 4: Slavery, the Slave Trade, Abolition, and Ironic Consequences

Enslavement always entails the painful separation of persons from their homes and communities. The new lives that slaves make for themselves, insofar as they are permitted to do so, are shaped by prevailing norms where they reside.

Part 5: The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean

What happened to Africans who entered the Indian Ocean basin during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? They either lived and died as slaves, or they were manumitted or freed. In any case, in most places it was more possible for them to form stable communities than in the plantation-dominated Atlantic world.