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An examination of the cultural heritage and archaeology of Pemba, from late antiquity to the early modern age

Pemba Island, although small, boasts a rich and fascinating cultural history. The island can trace the first occupation back to at least AD 600, with a plethora of artefacts and ruins by which we can tell the story of this fascinating place. Modern archaeological investigations have revealed a rich history of trade, agriculture, religion, and cultural development that has provided a small but vital cornerstone in historical studies of both the Swahili Coast and trade links throughout the Indian Ocean.

Archaeological investigation in Pemba is somewhat difficult, as the terrain is both hilly and densely vegetated. There are also difficulties reaching certain parts of the island, particularly with the necessary infrastructure to conduct an archaeological survey. This means that, whilst a good amount of information is available about the general history of Pemba, what we know is limited to some isolated examples and the full picture may permanently elude us. There is still a rich amount of cultural heritage to uncover, however, as of the 50 archaeological sites discovered on Pemba so far 29 contain mosques, 23 contain stone ruins, and 6 contain tombs, whilst all of those whose full extent can be determined sit at over 10ha (with the largest site reaching over 1500ha).

What follows is a brief rundown of the cultural history of Pemba based on reliable archaeological survey.
Following the late antiquity period, the first evidence of occupation on Pemba begins to emerge. Archaeological excavations have revealed that the primary settlement on the island was the city of Tumbe (named after the nearby modern village of Tumbe). Located in the centre of the island on its northernmost coastline, on a bluff looking over Michewini Bay, archaeological finds indicate that the settlement was a trading centre in the Indian Ocean (made all the more likely by the site’s location) during the 7th to 10th centuries. Archaeological surveys suggest that, at its peak, the town measured 600m wide by 600m deep – a large settlement at the time.

Occupied until the middle of the 9th century, Tumbe is surrounded by the remains of approximately 15 smaller settlements dating to between the 8th and 10th centuries. Beside the ruins of Tumbe sit an 11th to 16th century Swahili town (Chwaka) with which Tumbe has seemingly no cultural or chronological overlap, indicating abandonment of Tumbe prior to the year 1,000.

The remains of two houses from the period remain relatively extant, providing us an example of how the people in this period may have built their homes. Similar to many European cultures of the time (and proceeding centuries) the occupants appear to have used thick layers of daub (pressed mud forming layers to line the walls of the structure) supported by wooden poles. At Tumbe, hundreds of kilogrammes of daub were discovered, although frustratingly the actual pattern of build is unknown; whilst the daub deposit was found in a circular pattern, the post hole (evidence of wooden support posts) pattern does not follow this shape, leaving us in the dark as to how these houses actually would have looked. The housing remains did, however, reveal some other aspects of daily life. Preserved within the remains were a large number of seeds and grains (of the type common to the site, as discussed below) as well as around 1,500 bone fragments belonging to animals; of the remains that did not belong to fish, over 50% belonged to cattle and the remainder were avian. Artefact evidence for the maritime aspects of the local economy comes from iron fishhooks, two large copper needles consistent with those used today for sailmaking (and finishing mats/basketry), and lead weights for fishing line or net.
Excavations on the site of Tumbe and its smaller neighbours produced indicators of an agricultural economy focussing on millet, rice, legumes, and coconuts. This was not the only manufacture present on the island, however, as there is significant evidence for the manufacture of shell beads. Whilst beads themselves rarely survive, a problem facing archaeological investigations worldwide, there have been finds of tools used in bead manufacture on Pemba which can give us a rough estimate of the scale of bead production. Bead grinders in particular, the tool used to grind shells down into the shape of beads, are in abundance. One excavation alone around Tumbe revealed 3,600 of these grinders, a number far larger than any other single site on the entire east coast of Africa. Accordingly, such a high number indicates the beads were likely used as a trade commodity (as there would be far too many simply for personal use), and that bead-making was not restricted to professional craftsmen but also took place in the household. Multiple examples of iron slag found on the same sites also indicate iron smithing took place, however these samples have not been fully examined at time of writing.

Pottery fragments found in and around Tumbe point to a shared cultural heritage with the East African Coast, as the ceramics bear a decorative pattern connecting them with a trend dubbed the Early Tana Tradition. This tradition can also be found in Tanzania, Kenya, and Mozambique, demonstrating a shared heritage between mainland Africa and the people of Pemba during the first millennium. In addition to these shards, a good amount of imported pottery and glass can also be found around Tumbe, with only one other site on the east African coast (Manda, Kenya) revealing a higher number of imported pottery shards (over 10,000), and Tumbe also providing a slew of glass and copper fragments.

Tumbe has therefore become a vital new source for investigations into the trading culture of the east African coast and Indian ocean during the first millennium. This, along with a handful of settlements along the mainland coast, are considered notable for their similarity to later fourteenth and fifteenth century Swahili towns, known for their above-ground coral ruins, Islamic practices, and links to large-scale trading activities across the Indian Ocean. As such, we can consider the people of Tumbe ahead of their time.
Sites around the coast of Pemba (and Africa in general) are mentioned in literary sources of the time, by travellers to and from the east African coast. Masud, writing in the middle of the 10th century, mentions a place called “Kanbalu in the land of Zanj”, possibly Mkumbu on Pemba. He also mentions the presence of Muslim and non-Muslim residents, as well as the export of ivory, tortoise shells, and other items. How reliably we can assign this to Pemba is uncertain, however it is clear that Pemba had firmly established herself as an important link in the travel and economic chain along the African coast and into the Indian Ocean.

During this millennium throughout the Swahili coast many people converted to Islam. As mentioned in the introductory paragraphs, Pemba is no exception and indeed the most constant feature found on archaeological sites here is a mosque. It has been hypothesised that the speed with which local peoples converted to Islam is due to trade relations with Muslim merchants (a practice seen in other cultures and periods throughout the world, from the New World in the Renaissance to Japan in the early modern era). In addition, the mosques in towns formed a centre of religion which may have encouraged migration and population movement from rural villages to larger townships.

Following the abandonment of Tumbe and moving into the medieval era as it is known in Europe, Pemba saw the establishment of the city of Chwaka, slightly south of Tumbe. A stone town, archaeological surveys indicate that Chwaka began life as a small settlement before growing into a large, densely populated town. Population patterns from the surrounding area indicate that as Chwaka grew the nearby smaller settlements became less populated, thus indicating a migration of the rural populace into the towns. This may be due to the appeal of a cohesive religious community following the mass adoption of Islam, as discussed above. The town of Chwaka itself already housed two standing mosques before archaeological investigation took place; one of which was a large, congregational mosque and the other a smaller, honorific mosque built to honour a former ruler of the town.

Archaeological investigations on the site revealed more and more important structures, eventually totalling four mosques, ten stone tombs, and a stone dwelling displaying a date range of around 500 years between construction. Other homes were found, although these were constructed of earthen materials such as daub rather than stone.
Examination of the mosques indicated they were all built at different times. The first coincides with the date of the site’s first occupation in the eleventh century, and the second appears to haven not been built until the thirteenth. In the following century, the first mosque was demolished and replaced by the third mosque on the same site; this third mosque was far larger and much more elegant, with decorative vaulted ceilings of surprising sophistication given the size of Chwaka at the time. The final mosque was built in the fifteenth century and is much smaller than the rest. The dedication to building and improving upon the mosques suggests the investment of the community, again lending credence to the theory of religious appeal during this period of history.

The constant improvements to the mosques may also suggest a different theory; with the small number of stone homes indicating a minor mercantile elite class present in the settlement, the large number of stone tombs combined with regular mosque enhancements could suggest the site played home to a larger religious elite population. Either way, we cannot be certain. While the mosques have been damaged and the stone tombs are all in different stages of disarray, there is one excellent example of a Swahili pillar tomb.
Other towns throughout the island were established at this time as well. Mkia wa Ngombe, Mduuni, and Mtambwe Mkuu were established around the same time as Chwaka. Mkia wa Ngombe was a town of similar size to Chwaka and had mosques and elite homes as Chwaka did. Mkia wa Ngombe has some of the most extensive ruins on the Island. Mduuni was a smaller town among a set of eight others of similar size and composition around the island. Mtambwe Mkuu is a site in northwest Pemba and features many stone structures including a town wall, a mosque, tombs, and homes. The earliest evidence of occupation is in the eleventh century and continued, prosperously and uninterrupted, until the fifteenth century. An excavation revealed a hoard of over two-thousand gold and silver coins dating to the tenth and eleventh centuries below the floor of a home at the site indicating Pemba was involved with the trade networks of the time.

One of the final stages of occupation, the Portuguese arrived to Pemba Island in the sixteenth century. When they arrived the number of sites on the island began to decline sharply. There was tension on the island and throughout the East African coast between the Portuguese and the indigenous populations causing both sides began to build fortresses. This was hardly unique to Pemba, however. Across the Swahili coast, the coming of the Portuguese in the 15th-17th centuries created considerable political instability and disrupted East African coast settlements. Most large cities were abandoned at this time. Small Muslim settlements sprang up along the coast of Mozambique as the Portuguese captured and took control of the larger towns. Interestingly, although many sites were occupied at the time of the Portuguese arrival, and were abandoned immediately afterwards, none of the ancient buildings in Pemba show Portuguese influence.
Occupied site numbers across East Africa decline sharply in the 16th century, when Portuguese colonial domination began. Both the Portuguese and indigenous East Africans built fortresses during this period of strife and following the departure of the Portuguese in the 17th century both Zanzibar and Pemba show an increase in the number of occupied sites into the 18th century. This may be associated with an Omani takeover of the coast at the time which, although it did not end a period of foreign domination, did return political stability to the islands.

This stability was even greater when the Omani Sultan, Said bin Sultan, moved the capital to Zanzibar during the nineteenth century. Under Omani rule, a system of taxation was established as well as a trading organization. The slave trade market grew quickly throughout the East African coast and eventually Pemba Island made trading contracts with European countries and the Americas. Because of the centralized trade, the prosperity of the towns on Pemba was declining. In the late eighteenth century many on the islands turned to agriculture as a different economic strategy. Sugar and cloves had an expanding international market and agriculture allowed them a different option of trade goods.

When the British banned the slave trade in the nineteenth century, the economies of the main slave trading ports of East Africa, Zanzibar and Pemba, suffered. While they could not trade slaves, they could trade and export the products of slave labour. This caused many to move from maritime industries to subsistence farming and the development and growth of plantation farming. Due to this change, new infrastructure had to be built on the island including new roads and new small towns on the interior of the island. This success is the reason the Omani Sultan moved his capital to Zanzibar, bringing with him both economic and political success and stability.