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20th Century Images of East Africa’s Swahili Coast Online

(The following is a post by Eve M. Ferguson, Reference Librarian for East Africa, African and Middle Eastern Division.)

The name “Zanzibar” often conjures up visions of exotic landscapes populated by Arabian princesses and sultans, palaces by the sea and a vigorous trade of spices, gold and ivory. But for centuries, trade across the Indian Ocean has brought to Zanzibar and the Swahili Coast in East Africa merchants, travelers and immigrants from Europe, the Middle East and as far as India and China, and thus shaped these regions into one of the most culturally diverse places on earth. The Library of Congress has almost 100 photos online, dating from the early 20th century, documenting the rich culture of East Africa’s Swahili Coast, which stretches from Mogadishu in Somalia to Sofala in Mozambique.

Detail of Map of Africa. [Washington, D.C.: Central Intelligence Agency, 2007]. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.


Zanzibar became part of the United Republic of Tanzania in 1964 after Omani rule was abolished and the island joined with the Republic of Tanganyika, which had gained its independence from the British in 1963. The Port of Mombasa, about 366 miles north of Zanzibar, in neighboring Kenya, was an Arab trade center for gold and slaves dating back to the 8th century. It was essential to the construction of the Uganda-Kenya Railroad at the beginning of the 20th century, which originated in Kampala, Uganda and ended in Mombasa. The harbor still serves a vital role as the entryway to the interior of East and Central Africa.

Zanzibar. Remains of an early sultan’s palace. [1936] Omani Sultans ruled Zanzibar officially since the 17th century. This photograph captures the ruins of one of the old Sultan’s palaces.

The online photographs, which include landscapes, aerial photos, scenes of everyday life and images of the Sultan of Zanzibar, Sayyid Ali bin Hamud (who ruled from approximately 1901 until 1911) originate from two different sources — the Stereo Geographic File (Stereo copyrighted by Underwood & Underwood) and the Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection. They show these important Swahili enclaves: Zanzibar and Mombasa Harbor, from the early 20th century from three major collections: The Eric G. and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, the Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection and the diverse Stereo Geographic File, which consists of photographs printed on stereograph cards intended to be viewed with a stereograph viewer (also known as a stereoscope and sometimes referred to as the stereogram or stereopticon). This style of photography was introduced in the 19th-century as a precursor of Polaroid photos, with two almost identical photographs placed on cardboard, side by side, thus viewed “in stereo.”

Zanzibar. Ancient Portugese building now used as museum. [1936] Buildings that no longer exist, or have fallen into disrepair are captured in photos by Eric Matson, whose 1936 travels to Zanzibar and Mombasa document a history past.

The images in the Library’s collection also include photos taken in local studios, such as those of Coutinho & Sons (also appearing under the name J.B. Coutinho, photographer and Coutinho Bros. with studios in Zanzibar and Mombasa) and C. Vincenti in Dar-es-Salaam, the capital of then Tanganyika. The resident photographers often took vanity photos including posed portraits of upper-class Zanzibaris, as well as scenes of everyday life such as Coutinho & Sons’ “Swahili Women” (ca. 1890-1923) depicting an African woman braiding another woman’s hair, both wearing classic kanga wrappers.

The majority of these images of East Africa are in the Eric G. and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, which has rare aerial photos of the Mombasa coastline, as well as candid photos of the streets, structures and people of Zanzibar and Mombasa. While not much is known about the journey Eric Matson took to East Africa, the following text was added to the records gleaned from the Matson Photo Service Catalog:

East Africa copyright photos by G. Eric Matson, American Colony Photo Dept. Monotone, Finlay colour, and infra red photos, taken on a flight with Imperial Airways on a World Trunk route following the Nile from the Delta to the Victoria Nile and the Victoria Lake.

(The Matson Photo Service. “Photographic Catalogue of Bible Lands and Near East Countries including East Africa.” Jerusalem. The Matson Photo Service. [1936?]. P&P Matson Photograph Supplementary Archive)

In an unpublished typescript, provided by Arden Alexander of the Prints and Photographs Division, Eric Matson stated: “Another of the assignments I particularly enjoyed was a promotional photographic trip in 1936, to East Africa for the Imperial Airways (now BOAC). On this trip, I followed the Nile southward, through the Sudan, to its source in Uganda, to the Murchison Falls and the Victoria Nile, and then went on to Kenya, Tanganyika, and Zanzibar.” (“Half a Century of Photography in the Bible Lands,” Eric G. Matson, 1969, typescript, p. 4, source unknown.  P&P Matson Photograph Collection, collection files).

Eric Matson was not the only Westerner entranced by East Africa’s Swahili Coast. The Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection also includes images from the early 20th century, such as one of the iconic images of Omani Sultan Sayyid Ali bin Hamud on the throne of Zanzibar.

[Sultan of Zanzibar seated on throne]. c1927. Sultan Sayyid Ali bin Hamud was the 8th Sultan of Zanzibar who was on the throne from 1901 through 1911.

The Omanis had a presence on the Swahili Coast dating from the 17th century, and by 1730 as Zanzibar emerged as the most important Swahili city an Omani governor was appointed there.

In 1840, Omani Sultan Said bin Sultan officially moved his capital to Zanzibar City. The Omani Sultanate ruled the tropical island off the eastern coast of Tanganyika until an uprising of indigenous Africans overthrew Omani rule in 1964, led by Ugandan John Okello.

Through the digitized images, viewers can see the opulent seaside palaces of the Omani sultans, as well as the ruins of other important structures on the Swahili Coast. A detailed photo of an intricately carved wooden door flanked by ivory tusks by P. DeLord Brothers, Zanzibar, from the Carpenter Collection, illustrates the unique architecture of the elite homes on the island.

Ruins of earlier ornate Omani palaces lend credence to the legacy of the Sultanate in Zanzibar, showing remnants of once imposing structures with swimming pools and colonnades overgrown with vegetation.

Photos from the Matson Collection show aerial views of Mombasa harbor, which in the early 20th century, was sparsely populated with buildings despite its importance as a hub for trade in gold, ivory and human cargo, coming from the interior of the continent.

Kenya Colony. Mombassa. Air view. Section along the sea front. This photograph shows aerial views of a sparsely populated Mombasa harbor taken from the Imperial Airways flight taken by Eric Matson in 1936.

Kenya Colony. Mombassa. Air view. Close up of section around the bay. [1936] This photograph shows aerial views of a sparsely populated Mombasa harbor taken from the Imperial Airways flight taken by Eric Matson in 1936.

Candid views of the narrow streets of Zanzibar and its inhabitants document the attire of men in flowing kanzu robes (the national dress of Tanzania) and women in classic kangas (a style of cloth wrappers worn by East African women and unique to the region) strolling down the streets or selling goods in bustling markets. Landscapes capture scenes of the precious cloves, of which Zanzibar was a major exporter, drying in the sun. Images of coconut and pineapple plantations attest to a rich agricultural society, which lean towards the artistic in their imagery when photographed in black-and-white film of the day.

Zanzibar. Banana stand in the market. [1936] This candid scene from a market in Zanzibar illustrates the aims of Eric Matson to capture everyday life on the East African island.

The Carpenter Collection consists of photos produced or gathered by Frank Carpenter (1855-1924) and his daughter Frances (1890-1972) to complement his writings on travel and world geography. Carpenter’s works helped to popularize the study of cultural anthropology and geography in the early 20th century. The photos digitized and placed online represent a small sampling of the collection, which consists of approximately 5,400 photos in albums, 10,400 photographs not included in albums and 7,000 glass and film negatives.

Swahili women, Africa. [between 1890 and 1923] This posed photograph of two Swahili women is an example of the photos taken by Coutinho & Sons, depicting Swahili culture.

The Matson Collection came to the Library of Congress from photographer Eric Matson, who had immigrated to the United States in 1946. The majority of the collection was donated in 1966 with additional photos arriving in 1970. The Home for the Aged of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Diocese of Los Angeles, where Matson had been living, officially donated the collection to the Library of Congress in 1978.

The Manuscript Division of the Library holds the papers of Eric and Edith Matson. This collection includes personal diaries, but the year of the Africa trip (1936) is not represented in those papers. Additional information about the photographers, the collection and how it came to the Library of Congress can be found here.

The Library of Congress also has in its General Collection holdings, two of the earliest English translations, from1888 and 1907, of “Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar: an Autobiography” by Emily Ruete, born Salme, Princess of Oman and Zanzibar (1844-1924). Originally published as “Memoiren einer arabischen Prinzessin” in German, the English version has been digitized by HathiTrust and can be viewed online.

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