A Quick Overview and History of the Tumbatu Island

A Quick Overview and History of the Tumbatu Island

Tumbatu is the third biggest island in the Zanzibar Archipelago, which is located in Tanzania, East Africa. It is situated off the shore of the main island in Zanzibar, also called Unguja, on the northwestern coast.

The Tumbatu island is wedge-shaped and measures 8 km (5.0 miles) long and just 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) broad (the widest part is in the southern end). Although its southern side is just 2 km (1.2 miles), it is ringed by a reef from Mkokotoni on the island, making Unguja somewhat secluded from the remainder of Zanzibar.

Fish market in Mkokotoni - Tumbatu island
Fish market in Mkokotoni – Tumbatu island

Gomani to the north and Jongowe to the south are the two communities on the Tumbatu island. There are no cars or roads on Unguja, yet people go by boat between the settlements and to Unguja regularly. Catherine Clark and Mark Horton explored the site in the 1990s and 1980s and Henriette Rodland in 2019 and 2017. It was occupied during the 15th and 12th centuries CE when numerous Swahili people settlements along the coast of East Africa were expanding and growing. The oldest known proto-Swahili or Swahili sites date from the sixth and seventh centuries, some of the earliest Swahili towns are found in Zanzibar at Fukuchani and Unguja Ukuu. They were African farming and fishing towns that traded among themselves, as well as interior East African settlements and the rest of the Indian Ocean world, and began converting them to Islam in the eighth century, according to the oldest mosque. In the early 2nd millennium CE, larger towns like Tumbatu island grew due to this extensive trade, and archaeological investigations have revealed large amounts of imported glass beads and ceramics at the site, proving the vast trade networks that existed between other ports of the Indian Ocean and African cities. Tumbatu island was also home to a variety of local manufacturing industries, including pottery and iron production, as well as spinning. There are no other recognized archaeological structures on the island at this time, however, there are some earlier structures of undetermined antiquity in the settlement of Jongowe. Tumbatu island most likely had a close association with Mkokotoni, which is readily accessed by water.

The island has historical significance. Shirazi islanders claim to be descended from Persian nobility who came in the 9th century. These types of oral traditions are usually along the Swahili coast, they may reflect more recent post-colonial and colonial developments in Eastern Africa, which focused on tribal and race differences, as more recent linguistic and archaeological evidence suggests Swahili settlement and culture originated locally from African origin.

A chronicle called the “Tumbatu Manuscript” chronicled the late medieval city (thirteenth century). This one-of-a-kind manuscript was reportedly destroyed in a hamlet fire in 1938. Nonetheless, it prompted A. H. J. Prins, a Dutch marine ethnohistorian and anthropologist, to travel to the island from Zanzibar by dhow in June 1957 to discover the remains of the old Shirazi port city.

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