Islands in the Sun

Mafia

Although Mafia Island officially forms part of mainland Tanzania and not Zanzibar, it’s near to Zanzibar and classifies as an Island in the Sun!

It lies close to the Rufiji Delta, just a short aircraft flight from Zanzibar. The island was a regular stop for two thousand years for Arab and Persian dhows plying the coastal waters from the Gulf to Madagascar and Mozambique. Chole Bay, Mafia’s protected deep-water anchorage and the original harbour, is studded with islands, sandbanks and beaches. The clear, protected waters offer wonderful snorkelling, sailing and swimming. Outside the Bay unbroken reef runs the length of the island, from Tutia in the south to Ras Mkumbi at the northern tip.

Mafia is little changed from ancient times and retains a traditional, friendly culture; the community tourism association works hard to preserve this individualty. Chole Bay and its surrounding forests and islands are now within the protected Mafia Island Marine Park, supported with assistance from the World Wide Fund for Nature. The reefs offer a great range of corals and fish, excellent for diving and snorkelling.

Other activities on Mafia Island include bird-watching, fishing, visits to the villages, historic archaeological sites, coastal forests, coconut plantations and traditional boat-building yards.

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A Short History of Mafia

The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, written in approximately AD50, describes a well established trade route at least 2000 years ago, linking Arabia with Azania, as the east coast of Africa was then known. The principal port of trade was Mocha in present day Yemen, and the last port in Azania was Rhapta, lying some two courses (a sailing measure, possibly tacks) from the island of Menouthias, itself 300 stadia – about 30 miles – from the coast. Menouthias was “…a low island covered with trees in which are rivers…”. Rhapta lay to the south “…beside and to the east of a cape with a river…” according to Ptolemy in his Geography. The location of both Menouthias and Rhapta has confounded scholars since the Periplus was first translated in 1912. Present thinking holds that Zanzibar or Pemba may be the fabled Menouthias.

The trade links to Mocha confirm that the Sabaeans, ancestors of the Yemenis, claimed ancient right to overlordship of the Azania coast. Rhapta and its hinterland was governed by these people, believed to be Ma’afir, a tribe of Himyaritic stock.

It is not too fanciful to suggest that Mafia is the Menouthias of the ancients and Rhapta was in the area of Kilwa. The control from the Ma’afir may explain the name of ‘Mafia’ and the geographical descriptions and the mention of many crocodiles in the old writings certainly support Mafia and the Rufiji Delta as the possible Cape Rhapton.The respected archaeologist Neville Chittick believed this was possible and at his death in 1984 was investigating the Rufiji Delta for evidence of the lost metropolis of Rhapta.

A Persian family from the town of Shiraz in Persia, led by Ali ibn Sultan al Husayn ben Ali settled in Kilwa in AD975. The Kilwa Chronicle states that he purchased Kilwa from the ruling chief for a great quantity of cloth. Bashat one of his sons settled in Mafia to govern under the new Kilwa Sultanate of his father. Bashat is thought to have established the towns of Kua and possibly Kisimani Mafia, which places the ruins there at the early 11th Century.

Kilwa prospered from the gold and ivory trades, tariffs on cargoes, as a source of pitch and resin and as a convenient port for victualling and re-caulking ships. Here the literature is vague: Did Kilwa already exist as a significant port (Rhapta?) ? How did this new settler from Shiraz assume such economic and political power ? It is hard to believe that Kilwa was not already prosperous and therefore attractive to the Persians, who stepped into an economic and power vacuum, possibly because the Yemenis were itinerant trader-sailors and did not settle. In any case Kilwa became the most prominent port in the trade of the Indian Ocean by the 14th Century, although it was in decline by the arrival of the first Europeans. The rise of Kilwa and its great influence from the 11th through 13th Centuries coincided with the early spread of Islam to eastern Africa. During this process Mafia played an important albeit supporting economic role.

The inhabitants of Mafia are recorded in the Kilwa Chronicle as the Mwera, who were ruled from SongoSongo by Muslim settlers (Yemeni ?) prior to the arrival of Bashat. But what of the first 1,000 years AD ? Who were the people and what was the government of Mafia ? Dr. Felix Chami of the University of Dar es Salaam believes that the first settlers were Early Iron Working and farming Bantu people, who crossed from the mainland and settled the islands, probably for their marine resources. This culture existed in 200-400 AD and was followed by a later native culture recognised as Triangular Iron Ware, which was extant with the settlement and domination from Arabia. The coast of Tanzania is known to have been originally settled by Late Stone Age people.

The Portuguese arrived in April 1498, when Vasco da Gama first sighted Mafia off to starboard on his way northwards, but the first Viceroy did not arrive to establish control and depose Arab rule until 1505. Portugal formally annexed the east coast of Africa in 1515 after the Papal bull of 1514 divided the known world between the warring Portugal and Spain. The Europeans referred to Mafia variously as “Morfiyeh” or “Monfiyah” on their charts and in their records, but morfiyeh is an Arabic word meaning archipelago. The name of Mafia may also be derived from a derogatory application of mafi, the Arabic for waste, denoting a place of little value.

In 1588 Kilwa was sacked by an African army of cannibals referred to as “Zimba” or “Muzimbe”, believed to be from central Africa (other literature sources suggest somewhere in southern Africa). This put an end to the remainder of Kilwa’s supremacy as a trading port and to its control over Mafia, for the cannibals literally devoured the inhabitants. From this time Zanzibar became the dominant trading port in Azania.

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Control of Mafia changed hands frequently in the 16th and 17th Centuries, as Portugal’s fortunes declined, Oman’s waxed and waned, and the influence of other world powers played their part. The defeat of the Portuguese by Oman in Mombasa in 1698 ended what had been a troubled and cruel Portuguese rule and gave the Sultan of Oman control of the coast from Lamu to Kilwa.

In 1829 Kua was destroyed by Sakalava cannibals from Madagascar and in 1872 Kisimani Mafia was destroyed in a cyclone. By then the seat of power had moved to Chole. The arrival of the Sakalava prompted the Sultan of Zanzibar to send a punitive expedition that included some of his personal Baluchi regiment. Descendents of these Pakistani people are to be found settled mainly in the area of Kitoni near Kismani Mafia. There is also evidence for settlement of Mafia by Madagascans, Chinese, Malay and Indonesian peoples (who first settled Madagascar about 1,500 years ago). Pottery and coins indicate trade took place from, at latest, the 8th Century.

Under a treaty of 1890 Germany took control of Mafia and in 1892 the first German Resident arrived and constructed the buildings still evident on Chole. Germany paid Sultan Syed Ali ben Saad of Oman DM 4 million for Mafia and part of the mainland coast. In January 1915 Mafia was taken by British troops as a base for the air and sea assault on the cruiser Konigsberg. It was not until late 1922 that control of Mafia passed from Zanzibar to Tanganyika Territory, ending the martial law of WWI.

The population of Mafia was 33,000 at the last census in 1988 and is now thought to exceed 40,000 persons, located in fishing and farming villages and homesteads all over the main island, Jibondo, Juani and Chole. Mafia is now part of the Coast Province of the Republic of Tanzania and is governed from the mainland (not Zanzibar).

The farmers on Mafia are smallholders, growing plots of cassava, rice, pigeon pea, pineapples, pawpaws and beans; it is typical to also find cashew, coconut and mango trees on each household’s land. Large areas of the island are planted to coconuts, mostly by pre-World War II German settlers and descendents of Arab and Shirazi pioneers. Farmed areas are usually surrounded by woodland, grassland or coconut plantations.