Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Story of Harambe Part One; Early History


Harambe, the African town in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, is a mythical port village on the coast of East Africa.  In the coming weeks, Safari Mike will take us on an in-depth exploration of Harambe.  However, before we get there, I wanted us to take a few giant steps back in time and examine the history of the East African coast, specifically Kenya and Tanzania, the two countries where Imagineers went for research.  While it would require volumes of books to truly cover this subject, hopefully placing Harambe into a little historical context will help guests traveling to this most immersive of Disney locations to better understand and appreciate all it has to offer.

From what most experts can gather, East Africa may very well be the birthplace of humanity itself.  Some of the earliest evidence of human existence has been found in countries like Tanzania and Kenya.  But its influence upon human civilization extends way beyond these prehistoric origins.


The period of East African history before the European explorations of the mid-15th century can often be a bit murky for us.  There were kingdoms and city-states of significant size and power all along the coast, all part of extensive trade routes that included Indiai, China and others.  These empires were large and powerful, and sadly this history has been mostly forgotten or skipped over by western educators.  Arab and Indian traders were regular visitors to East African ports throughout the first millennium and Arab immigrants are some of the earliest permanent settlers in Kenya.

East Africa has always been a cultural melting pot of humanity, the evidence of which is clear even today in the areas culture and religion.  The Arab influence from the era before European colonialism is directly related to the rise of Swahili culture along the coast.  Arab city-states in East Africa dominated the shores and therefore were a huge player in overseas trading along the Indian Ocean.  Arab traders and settlements brought the world back to the shores of Africa, and spread African culture influence around the world as well.

Fort Jesus in Mombasa, Kenya
 But keep in mind we are talking about the coast of East Africa here.  A quick look at a map and one can easily see why this area soon became the focus of European exploration and conquest.  It sits right in the middle of trade routes to the East, not to mention its own resources available as treasure for conquering westerners.  That is pretty much how it went, and the first to arrive were the Portuguese, specifically Vasco de Gama, in 1498.

As it so often goes in history, exploration turns into conquest.  Controlling the East Coast of Africa meant controlling the oversea trade routes with the Far East, specifically the spice trade.  All up and down the coast of Tanzania and Kenya, Portuguese naval ships began taking control of port towns and consolidating their power over the other European merchants looking to trade with the east.  The Portuguese stronghold of Fort Jesus still stands in Mombasa today as a reminder of their important influence in Kenya’s history and culture.

Vasco de Gama Pillar in Malindi, Kenya
Portugal remained the principle foreign power along the coast until the late 17th century when Omani Arabs along with other European empires, specifically Britain and Holland, began challenging Portuguese control, adding a few more ingredients to the ever expanding melting pot that is East Africa.  The Omani were the most successful of these incursions, with the sacking of Fort Jesus in 1698, and became the biggest ruling foreign power well into the 19th century.  It was during this period of Omani control when the slave trade became such a huge business in East Africa.

In part two we will take a look at the influence and rule of the European powers during the 19th and 20th centuries and how Kenya and Tanzania gained their independence.

by Dave McBride (twitter: @RadioHarambe)

1 comment:

  1. Great article I look forward to reading the future installments!

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