It’s been a bit of a slog but I have finally finished my Arab/Swahili army. This is the core army that should allow me to represent numerous Arab armies from Tabora, to the Congo, to lake Nyasa and anywhere else Arabs could be found. Regional flavour can be added to the army with the addition of some units of local allies such as the Tetela in the Congo or the Bemba on lake Nyasa. For this post I’d thought I’d give a brief background on the Arabs in Africa along side some pictures of my new army and in part 2 I’ll give an alternative field force list to the Slavers list in the TMWWBKs rule book.
First a bit of background on the terms Swahili and Arab. The east coast of Africa had been one end the Indian ocean trading network, since at least early medieval times (and probably before), which brought traders from as far as India, Persia and China to east Africa. The most numerous traders though where those from the Arabian peninsula who, as well as trade goods, also brought their culture and religion which had a profound impact on the east African costal peoples, the word Swahili is derived from the Arabic word for coast, the mixture of African culture, Islam, and influences from around the Indian ocean created the unique Swahili culture. The Swahilis were spread right along the east African coast from Mozambique to Kenya in a number of costal trading towns like Mombasa, Pate and Zanzibar. It should be noted that the Swahili despite outside influences, and occasional foreign rulers, where Africans.
The term Arab initially signified settlers from Oman. At the end of the 17th century and throughout the 18th century the sultans of Oman, backed by a powerful navy, had created a maritime empire that stretched from Persia all the way to south-eastern Africa.
This state of affairs existed until 1856 when a succession dispute saw Zanzibar and the African portion of the empire split from the Oman and Muscat part of the empire (with a little help from the British). After this the term Arab becomes increasingly more loose in its meaning. Many Arabs, in Africa, had Arab fathers and African mothers. For example Majid bin Said, the 1st Sultan of Zanzibar, had an Ethiopian mother. As the 19th century wore on the term Arab increasingly seems to have become a cultural tag (wearing Arab clothing, following Islam, happy to engage in slavery) rather than and indication of being from Oman. Thus during the Karonga war Mlozi and his followers where dubbed the North End Arabs by the British and yet there were few, if any, actual Omani Arabs among their ranks the majority being Swahili or Nyamwezi in origin.
The Arabs and Swahilis thrived on trade and this saw them exploring the interior of Africa during the 19th century in search of ivory and slaves. Many of the more famous European explorers of east and central Africa found that their newly discovered lands had already been discovered by the Arabs first. As they moved inland the Arabs created a number of new strongholds such as Ujiji on the shores of Lake Tanganyika or Tabora in what is now Tanzania. though nominally loyal to the sultan of Zanzibar many of the settlements become independent entities.
One of the main advantages that allowed the Arabs to explore and settle in Africa was access to guns something the peoples of the interior had no access to (at least until the Arabs started supplying them in return for slaves and Ivory). Typically, as Arab traders moved into the interior, they would find a local chief, and ally with him, offering to use their guns on his enemies. They would attack the chief’s enemy villages, ideally in a surprise attack, massacre the men, round up the women and children as slaves, loot the village of all its valuables and life stock. On returning to their allied chief they would ideally exchange the livestock and valuables for Ivory and then use the slaves to carry the ivory back to civilization before selling the ivory and slaves. It cant really be understated how brutal this practice was European explorers commented on areas they found that where devastated by years of Arab slave raids.
The Arabs didn’t have it all their own way though many tribes in the interior where formidable warriors, even without guns, and the Arabs seem to have avoided tangling with the likes of the Masai, Ngoni or Ha when ever possible. With other tribes like the Bemba, Yao or Seguhha the Arabs allied themselves and then supplied their allies with guns in return for slaves and ivory.
Organisation of Arab/Swahili armies seemed to have been based around individual leaders and their followers. The followers could be family members, locally recruited allied tribesmen, armed slaves (ironically often called Wagwana meaning freeman) or employed freemen. Our best description of an Arab army is probably Stanley’s break down of the Arab army operating out of Tabora against Mirambo. Stanley lists 16 different Arab leaders, each with their own contingent of musket armed slaves, normally these slaves number between 25 and 75 men though two leaders each have around 250 men under their command. The rest of the army is made up of around 1100 native allies armed with spear and bow and around 150 freemen (assumingly local Tabora residents called out in an emergency).
As such I based my army around a similar theme each unit being an Arab leader and his various hangers on. I have given each unit a flag as an indicator of different leaders. Flags seemed to have been popular the best known is the plain red banner of Zanzibar which was carried by those either representing the sultan of Zanzibar or wanting to give themselves an air of legitimacy. Other banners existed though and Chris Peers in his Foundry African books lists a number for both coastal Arabs and the Congo Arabs so I’ve used these as inspiration for my own.
Weaponry among Arab/Swahili armies changed as the century wore on. The battle of Shela fought circa 1816, between the Swahili cities of Pate and Lamu, both sides where armed mostly with spears and swords supplemented with bows and matchlock muskets. By the middle of the century swords and shields where still commonly carried alongside flintlock muskets. There were three main types of Arab sword the largest being the 4ft long “Frankish sword” wielded two hand the other types where smaller and could be paired with a small round shield. Burton describes Swahili’s often being armed with antiquated German cavalry sabres. An account of the Arab Mtagamoyo’s 1870 expedition talks of the Arab leader cutting his way through his pygmy enemies with a sword and shield during one charge. later in the battle, when the Arabs ran out of powder for their guns, , they charged the enemy with their swords and won the battle. At the battle of the Bua river circa 1888 it’s interesting that the Arabs fired a volley at the attacking Ngoni and followed up with and immediate charge. A tactic that makes some sense if you combine a sword and slow loading muzzle loader into a shock and awe tactic that would probably work well against the sort of tribes the Arabs liked to victimize. unfortunately, for the Arabs, in this case it the Ngoni had actual set an ambush and massacred the Arabs to a man.
The Arabs frequently relied on fortifications in their battles which isn’t surprising given they where often operating deep in hostile territory. A typical Arab stockade could have several rings of ditch and palisade with loop holes, rifle pits and platforms. Obviously when defending one of these boma their muskets became a lot more important than their swords as the arabs tended to lay down a heavy, but not very accurate fire, from the safety of the palisade. Towards the end of the century the Arabs started to get their hands on more modern breech loading and repeating rifles. The arrival of these weapons saw swords and shield fall out of favour charging with cold steal being replaced with skirmishing from cover. These changes in tactics also seem to have coincided with the Arabs increasingly coming up against European trained troops ,armed with modern weapons and bayonets, which probably made charging with a sword a bad idea. Despite the increase in modern firearms towards the end of the 19th century muzzle loading guns seem to have continued to have armed the bulk of Arab troops. After a battle with the Arabs at Chige the Force Publique collected around 600 guns but only 30 where modern breech loaders.
Very occasionally Arab armies would be noted as using Artillery. The Sultan of of Zanzibar had a number of cannon to defend Zanzibar itself though the guns where said to be mostly in poor condition apart from some fine brass pieces of Portuguese origin. When Harry Johnston, as consul of British Central Africa, launched the final attack on Mlozi’s stockade 1895 the Arabs had a single muzzle loading cannon as part of their defences. During the Abushiri war 1888-1890 , between Arab led forces and the Germans, the Germans at least twice faced Arab forces entrenched and supported by a number of muzzle loading cannon. The Bemba also have tradition that sometime in the 1860s Arab traders joined the Bemba in a battle against the Ngoni the Arabs brought a single cannon resulting in a victory for the allies .
Ok that’s the brief history lesson over time for some pictures of the army. These shots are of the basic units of Musket armed infantry. I have also painted up enough miniatures with swords or modern rifles to insert into the units to represent early and later Arab armies but more of that in part two when I show my thoughts on a workable Arab field force list for TMWWBKs.