Kilwa Sultanate: a state based in Tanzania which traded as far as Australia

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The word Kilwa translates loosely to Island. The full name of Kilwa Kisiwani, translates in Tanzanian to Isle of the Fish. The Kingdom of Kilwa is known as one of the great African empires in history. It existed from 960-1513 CE, and was based in Tanzania. In its heyday, its wealth and trading prowess was world-class.


The Sultanate was based mainly on the Island of Kilwa, which is just off modern-day Tanzania. Its power extended much further than just the Island, however. At its absolute peak, the Empire had control of the Entire Swahili coast, which includes not only Tanzania but parts of Kenya and the Northern tip of Mozambique as well.

It is partly because of the Kilwa Sultanate that the Swahili people have their own distinct culture.



The Empire began around 960 CE. A legend says that the founder of Kilwa, Ali Ibn al-Hassan Shirazi, was one of the seven sons of the King of Shiraz in Persia (modern day Iran). However, his mother was a slave wife (a concubine), and using that fact, his brothers robbed him of his inheritance. Unable to blend with the elite society of Persia and Somalia, he retired to Kilwa, which he bought by promising the King enough cloth to cover the whole Island. When the King tried to renege on the deal, he supposedly had the bridge to the mainland destroyed.

This legend helps explains why the Empire was Muslim, but also why it was African in heritage. The veracity of it though cannot be confirmed.

Suffice to say, that at its peak, the Empire stretched across the Swahili coast, and broke the dominance of Mogadishu over the East African Coast.


With the Emperor confined to Kilwa, a small town on the Island, he set it up as an economic rival to Mogadishu. This wealth helped Kilwa grow, and expand its armies.

A 1572 depiction of the city of Kilwa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site – Image: City of Kilwa, 1572

However, it was not until Suleiman Hassan, the 9th descendant from Ali Ibn al-Hassan Shirazi that Kilwa started truly expanding. He conquered Sofala, which was the center of trade with the Empire of Zimbabwe. Specifically, it was the main trading post for the trade of gold and ivory. With further commercial income solidified, the Kilwa Empire grew and, by the 15th Century, they had control over the entire Swahili Coast. By itself, Sofala covered 68,000 square kilometres.

kilwa_Principal cities of East Africa, c. 1500.

Cities of East Africa (source)


Kilwa Sultunate sphere of control (source)


The Empire was dependent on trade. Agricultural activities within the Empire were very limited, thus a lot of the food supplies were imported. Rice, along with poultry and Cattle were imported in large amounts from the Bantu people.

To pay for this, Kilwan traders developed Market Towns in the highlands of Kenya and Tanzania. With their dominance over the coastal areas, they imported luxury goods from India and Arabia, and effectively marketed them to the interior, and also obtained food supplies in the exchange. This helped Kilwan thrive and kept up their supplies, while netting them a good amount of money.

The only agricultural activity they undertook was the planting of palm trees that produced coconut. This helped provide them with fruit, but also with wood for building, along with material for weaving clothes.

They were also used to build the many ships that were used for transit from the Island to the mainland, and for their trade ships.

Along with this, the Kilwa were also known for their thriving trade in tortoise shells.


Kilwan ships used the monsoon winds to sail to India and then back to Africa, at a time when such voyages were extremely dangerous. For this reason, Kilwan pilots were renowned for their accuracy while sailing, and their use of navigational instruments such as the latitude staves. The Portuguese were a great sailing Empire in their own right, but were envious of the instruments used by the Kilwan, which they felt were much superior to their own. It is also said that they were the first Empire to discover Australia, and definitely the first Empire to trade with the Australians.


While their ships were not good enough to sail south, their navigational skills were second to none. For this reason, Inhambane – also known as Terra de Boa Gente (Land of Good People) – was the southern-most tip of the Empire.

The Kilwan people are also one of the first Empires to have great trading relationships with countries as far as China and also countries like Australia. Another amazing achievement of theirs is that they had their own currency, in a time when that was not common.

Their wealth was another thing that left the Portuguese stunned. They built huge cities and wore the finest of silk and gold, with the wealth they made with their trade. They are one of the oldest long range trading empires to exist.

Terra Cotta lamps were discovered by archaeologists, pointing to the use of these lamps for activities like writing and reading, showing how well read and developed the Empire was.


The decline of the Kilwa Sultanate was swift, and partly caused by one person. Emir Ibrahim’s usurpation of a previous King stunned those even in the colonies, and he was unable to gain the legitimacy and respect that the ruling family held. With his reputation in tatters, he refused to strike a deal with the Portuguese, in the belief, that he could hold on to power without them.

He had been advised by many to accept the deal, as the Portuguese could have helped him control the vassal states that were thinking of rebelling.

Sadly for him, the end was swift. A second Portuguese Armada came heavily armed and easily conquered an Empire that was already teetering on the edge of rebellion.

Thus, ended a great Empire, and the entire area fell to the brute force of Colonisation. Yet, at its zenith, this was an Empire that even the Portuguese would not have dared trifle with.

Current Descendants

The current Descendants of the Kilwa Sultanate are the Swahili people. They have their own distinct culture, their own distinct lifestyle and their own distinct history, having been part of the proud and great Kilwa Sultanate.


João de Barros (1552–59) Décadas da Ásia: Dos feitos, que os Portuguezes fizeram no descubrimento, e conquista, dos mares, e terras do Oriente., esp. Dec. I, Lib. 8, Cap. 6 (p. 225ff)

Strong, S. Arthur (1895) “The History of Kilwa, edited from an Arabic MS”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, January (No volume number), pp. 385–431.

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Kilwa Sultanate: a state based in Tanzania which traded as far as Australia

by Editorial Team time to read: 4 min