Zanj (Arabic: زنج, meaning "Land of the Blacks") was a name used by medieval Muslim geographers to refer to both a certain portion of Southeast Africa (primarily the Swahili Coast), and to the area's Bantu inhabitants. This word is also the origin of the place-names Zanzibar ("coast of the black people") and the Sea of Zanj.
The latinization Zingium is an archaic name for the band of East Africa coast in modern-day Kenya and Tanzania. In the modern day, the architecture of these commercial urban settlements are a subject of study for urban planning. For centuries the coastal settlements were a source of ivory, gold, and slaves, from sections of the conquered hinterland, to the Indian Ocean world.
Geographers historically divided the eastern coast of Africa at large into several regions based on each region's respective inhabitants. In Somalia was Barbara, which was the land of the Eastern Baribah or Barbaroi (Berbers), as the ancestors of the Somalis were referred to by medieval Arab and ancient Greek geographers, respectively. In modern-day Eritrea and Ethiopia was al-Habash or Abyssinia, which was inhabited by the Habash or Abyssinians, who were the forebears of the Habesha.
Arab and Chinese sources referred to the general area south of the Abyssinian highlands and Barbara as Zanj, or the "country of the blacks". Also transliterated as Zenj or Zinj, this Southeast Africa area was inhabited by Bantu-speaking peoples called the Zanj. The core area of Zanj occupation stretched from the territory south of present-day Ras Kamboni to Pemba Island in Tanzania. South of Pemba lay Sofala in modern Mozambique, the northern boundary of which may have been Pangani. Beyond Sofala was the obscure realm of Waq-Waq, also in Mozambique. The tenth-century Arab historian and geographer Abu al-Hasan 'Alī al-Mas'ūdī describes Sofala as the furthest limit of Zanj settlement, and mentions its king's title as Mfalme, a Bantu word.
The Zanj traded with Arabs, Persians and Indians, but according to some sources, only locally, since they possessed no ocean-going ships. According to other sources, the heavily Bantu Swahili peoples already had seafaring vessels with sailors and merchants trading with Arabia and Persia, and as far east as India and China. Through this fusion, some Arabs intermarried with local Bantu women, which eventually gave rise to the Swahili culture and language—both of which are Bantu in origin, but significantly influenced by foreign elements (e.g. clothing, loan words, etc.).
Prominent settlements of the Zanj coast included Malindi, Gedi, and Mombasa. By the late medieval period, the area included at least 37 substantial Swahili trading towns, many of them quite wealthy. However, these communities never consolidated into a single political entity (the "Zanj Empire" being a late nineteenth-century fiction).
The urban ruling and commercial classes of these Swahili settlements were made up of Arab and Persian immigrants. The Bantu peoples inhabited the coastal regions, and were organized only as family groups. The term shenzi, used on the East African coast and derived from the Swahili word zanji, referred in a derogatory way to anything associated with rural blacks. An example of this would be the colonial term shenzi dog, referring to a native dog.
The Zanj were for centuries shipped as slaves by Arab traders to all the countries bordering the Indian Ocean. The Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs recruited many Zanj slaves as soldiers and, as early as 696 AD, we learn of slave revolts of the Zanj against their Arab masters in Iraq (see below). Ancient Chinese texts also mention ambassadors from Java presenting the Chinese emperor with two Seng Chi (Zanji) slaves as gifts, and Seng Chi slaves reaching China from the Hindu kingdom of Sri Vijaya in Java.
The term Zanj apparently fell out of use in the tenth century. However, after 1861, when the area controlled by the Arab Sultan of Zanzibar was forced by the British to split with the parent country of Oman, it was often referred to as Zanj. The sea off the south-eastern coast of Africa was known as the Sea of Zanj, and included the Mascarene islands and Madagascar. During the anti-apartheid struggle it was proposed that South Africa should assume the name Azania, to reflect ancient Zanj.
This section contains too many or too-lengthy quotations for an encyclopedic entry. (June 2015)
Arab descriptions of the Zanj peoples have been inconsistent. A negative view is exemplified in the following passage from Kitab al-Bad' wah-tarikh, by the medieval Arab writer al-Muqaddasī:
As for the Zanj, they are people of black color, flat noses, kinky hair, and little understanding or intelligence.
In 1331, the Arabic-speaking Berber explorer Ibn Battuta visited the Kilwa Sultanate in the Zanj, which was ruled by Sultan Hasan bin Sulayman's Yemeni dynasty. Battuta described the kingdom's Arab ruler as often making slave and booty raids on the local Zanj inhabitants, the latter of whom Battuta characterized as "jet-black in color, and with tattoo marks on their faces."
Kilwa is one of the most beautiful and well-constructed towns in the world. The whole of it is elegantly built. The roofs are built with mangrove pole. There is very much rain. The people are engaged in a holy war, for their country lies beside the pagan Zanj. Their chief qualities are devotion and piety: they follow the Shafi'i sect. When I arrived, the Sultan was Abu al-Muzaffar Hasan surnamed Abu al-Mawahib [loosely translated, "The Giver of Gifts"] ... on account of his numerous charitable gifts. He frequently makes raids into the Zanj country [neighboring mainland], attacks them and carries off booty, of which he reserves a fifth, using it in the manner prescribed by the Koran [Qur'an].
The Zanj who were taken as slaves to the Middle East were often used in strenuous agricultural work. In particular, Zanj slaves were used in labor-intensive plantations, harvesting crops such as sugarcane in the lower Mesopotamia basin of what is now southern Iraq. Harsh circumstances apparently provoked three rebellions between the seventh and ninth centuries. What is now called the Zanj Rebellion was the largest of these.
Others believe that the Zanj Rebellion was not a slave rebellion, but rather that the participants were mostly Arabs, supported by East African immigrants in Iraq. M. A. Shaban argued:
It was not a slave revolt. It was a zanj, i.e. a Negro, revolt. To equate Negro with slave is a reflection of nineteenth-century racial theories; it could only apply to the American South before the Civil War. ... All the talk about slaves rising against the wretched conditions of work in the salt marshes of Baṣra is a figment of the imagination and has no support in the sources. On the contrary, some of the people who were working in the salt marshes were among the first to fight against the revolt. Of course there were a few runaway slaves who joined the rebels, but this still does not make it a slave revolt. The vast majority of the rebels were Arabs of the Persian Gulf supported by free East Africans who had made their homes in the region.
ancient Arabic geography had quite a fixed pattern in listing the countries from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean: These are al-Misr (Egypt) -- al-Muqurra (or other designations for Nubian kingdoms) -- al-Habasha (Abyssinia) -- Barbara (Berber, i.e. the Somali coast) -- Zanj (Azania, i.e. the country of the "blacks"). Correspondingly almost all these terms (or as I believe: all of them!) also appear in ancient and medieval Chinese geography.