Horton and Middleton discuss the history of identity and location in their text entitled, The Swahili: The Social Landscape Of A Mercantile Society. These author articulate the history of identity by focusing solely on the Swahili society. Although these authors are not writing this text as a historical narrative it becomes a narrative of Swahilian history. The authors do this by taking a “‘Swahilicentric’ and not ‘Eurocentric’ approach” (p.3). This becomes the methodology that drives this text and offers the current Indian Ocean and African historiography a more micro-history on identity.
Horton and Middleton go about this text in breaking down major elements of Swahili society and culture. The starting point is considering the Swahili people as a kind of nomadic folk, thus, creating a large historical footprint. This micro-history becomes a macro-historical narrative. The reader is lead down a path of chronology that includes the location and settlements that were involved in imports and exports of commodities. Trade becomes not as central in the discussion of long term historical relevance of the Swahili societies of today. I do critique the book for its misleading title. The title does lead the reader to think there is much more importance place on “mercantile” or trade elements in this history than actually is in the text.
Interestingly, Swahilian language becomes another main theme in the identification and historical legend of the Swahili society. The authors state, “the Swahili are no longer a mercantile society of any importance; but their language has become a lingua franca of most of eastern Africa and beyond”(p.14). This is key to the work this book does in the account of Swahili history but as well as the discourse around Swahili identity.
In full this book is broken down into key aspects of Swahili history such as but not excluded to: the importance of Islamic theology, the interconnection of trade across the Indian Ocean, the topography, trade, and the legacy of diaspora. The bookends of this research, start and end with the key argument around identity. Within this central topic of identification, a critique can be made in regards to the pitfalls of reproductions of the Eurocentric narrative. This leaves the reader with a misnomer of agency and power that the Swahili society actually hold in history. Unfortunately, this undermines the central themes of this book.
Overall, Merton and Middleton’s text is easy to ready and does a enormous task of highlighting many elements of societal history of the Swahili people. The use of intersectional frameworks brings about a robust account of the past and present. This is identified in the Introduction of the book stating, “to write a history of this people with themselves at the centre we have tried to listen to and understand Swahili ideas of their own society as determined by their own view of the past…all these versions of history are central parts of present knowledge” (p.3). This is a valued approach in writing histories. This text can be noted as a extensive, thorough, and easy to read socio-historical text that includes the past and present of a complex people and their endowment of language that inhabits most of Africa.