Accepted Paper:

The city, the palace, and the mosque. Asserting political legitimacy through urban re-foundation on the nineteenth-century Swahili coast  


Clélia Coret (Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne / Institut des Mondes Africains)

Paper short abstract:

By focusing on the re-foundation of a city on the nineteenth-century East African coast, this paper examines how political rulers appropriated urban spaces in order assert legitimacy.

Paper long abstract:

City-states emerged early on the East African (or Swahili) littoral. Acting as an interface between the sea and the mainland, the cities' elites managed to channel the sources of power and prestige connected to trade, Islam and urban life. Archaeological remains of palaces, mosques and patrician stone houses built along the coast - from Kilwa in the south to Pate in the north - provide impressive evidence on this behalf. During the nineteenth century, the cities of the Lamu archipelago on the northern Swahili coast witnessed important political conflicts. In their attempt to gain control over the littoral, the Omanis forced a part of the dynastic clan of Pate to leave their city. Fleeing to the adjacent mainland, in 1862 the former rulers of Pate founded a new city: Witu. In a very short time, a few stone buildings - such as a patrician house (the "palace" of the sultan) and a mosque - were erected in the town and the latter was encircled by a stockade. By examining the case of Witu, I analyse how the urban legacies of a city were used in order to re-constitute political power and, more generally, how authority was staged in Swahili urban spaces.

Panel P134
Urban scenographies of political power in Africa before 1900 (double panel)