Swahili identity is unique, but it is not a single uniform one. They have never formed a single polity, but are a cluster of groups each with its own occupation, way of life, and ranked position. These groups include the descendants of the original merchants; of the Arab rulers of the Sultanate of Zanzibar who came in the early 18th century from Oman in Arabia to establish a colonial state; of later Arab colonists who came in the 19th and 20th centuries; and of the slaves (who number half the population). In time, the Arabs and the slaves adopted the Swahili language and became "Swahili" themselves, although the differences are always recognized. There are also many recent labor immigrants from the African interior but these are never considered to be Swahili. The merchants originated on the African coast during the first millennium and speak an African language closely related to those of their non-Muslim African neighbors. Their name, "The People of the Coast", was given to them by the rulers of the Sultanate of Zanzibar, who looked down on the local inhabitants and gave them this derogatory name; the Swahili rarely use it themselves, preferring those of their particular towns.
Nonetheless, historical evidence shows clearly that the Swahili are "African" in origin, even though many aspects of their civilization have been borrowed from Arabia and even India. The Swahili see themselves as neither "African" nor "Asian," but as having their own unique civilization, different from both those of Arabia or of their African neighbors.
"We ... traveled by sea to the city of Kulwa [Kilwa in East Africa]...Most of its people are Zunuj, extremely black...The city of Kulwa is amongst the most beautiful of cities and most elegantly built... Their uppermost virtue is religion and righteousness and they are Shafi'i in rite." -Ibn Battuta, A.D. 1331 Not only does Ibn Battuta describe the inhabitants of Kilwa as "Very Black" but also as "Zanji/Zanuuj" the Arabic word for Africans from the Swahili Coast. Where were all the Arab and Persians when Ibn Battuta visited Kilwa confirming the words of Ptolemy the geographer who also described the cities on the Swahili coast as Metropolis long before Islam. We can now dismiss any notion that non Africans had anything to do with the development of the magnificent culture of the Swahili people.
View of Aden (top), Mombasa (bottom left), Kilwa (centre) and Sofala (right) by Georg Braun and Abraham Hoegenberg, 1572-1624. During an era of overseas expansion when territories had to be fought for, coastal towns were viewed from the safety of the roadstead. Likewise at the Cape, settlements along Europe’s new trade route were recognized by their tokens of civilization: a fort, church, hospital and sheltered anchorage. As these drawings tended to be generic, and interchangeable, they would often be confused by later writers.