Seminar “The Omani influence on East Africa in the 19th Century: seals, garments, scribes and donkeys as symbols of power”— IFRA Nairobi, 28 septembre 2023

The connections between India, East Africa and the Persian Gulf in the 19th Century, driven in particular by Arab, Swahili and Indian Muslim merchants, are relatively well known. This communication is looking at particular aspects of these connections. It is examining how certain Omani garments distributed via Zanzibar, the main seat of the Omani empire in East Africa, became regalia used from Buganda to Madagascar, through the Comoros and Usambara. I am also looking at the circulation of scribes and the use of Kiswahili and Arabic in the same spaces. The study of the aesthetics of the seals used by the East African sovereigns raises the question of the Omani models’ attraction for them, as well as the use of Muscat white donkeys as prestige mounts by East African rulers and warlords. To what extent these diffusions were or not part of an Omani strategy of influence, leading in some cases to the subjection of the sovereigns, and eventually, to what extent did they play a role in the Omani expansion during the 19 century? I am relying on photographs from German and French colonial sources, and other collections such as a previously unpublished source deposited in a private archive, the diary of Vincent Noël. A tentative French ambassador to Zanzibar, Noël spoke fluently Arabic and Malagasy and enjoyed close connections with East African elites and merchants which allowed him to collect crucial information that is absent from official reports.

For this presentation, I rely on photographs deposited in various European and African museums depicting nineteenth-century East African rulers in order to highlight their adoption of Omani clothing as a status symbol. By confronting these photographs with accounts written by European travelers, I try to understand how and when the use of Omani symbols of power spread. This presentation is part of a PhD Thesis focused on the history of the Omani domination in East Africa and the hybridizations between Omani and East African idioms of power.

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