The School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) Library's Special Collections I and Archives house 950 Swahili manuscripts from East Africa, dating from 1790 to 1980 and held in eight separate collections named after those who collected them.
These invaluable manuscripts range from Islamic and secular poetry, transcribed oral literature, historical documents and chronicles, to linguistic material about the Swahili language.
This primary source material has supported work on the Swahili language, culture and history from the 19'" century to the present day.
The collections come from the Swahili coast and archipelago from southern Somalia to northern Mozambique--including the adjacent islands.
There are other important collections of Swahili manuscripts in East Africa, namely the Africana collection of the University of Dares Salaam in Tanzania, and the one held at Kenya Heritage Institute in Mombasa, as well as private collections.
The second-largest European collection is the Dammann Collection at the Berlin University Archives in Germany.
The earliest manuscripts held by SOAS were collected in Mombasa by the scholar and Church Missionary Society member, Reverend William Taylor, who worked closely with local Islamic religious leaders such as Mwalimu Sikujua, Sir Mbarak Hinawy and Mohammed Kijumwa, the sources of Rev Taylor's manuscripts.
It is important to emphasise there is often a misrepresentation in the ownership of the collections, especially when they are named after the European collector only, and not the collectors in East Africa who provided the manuscripts.
A first step in redressing this issue would be to rename the collections to include the names of the East African scholars and religious leaders who effectively built them.
Secondly, we need to assess the possibility of repatriating some of the oldest and more valuable items for exhibition in East African museums. Currently, the only form of 'repatriation' has been enabling digital access to manuscripts in the SOAS digital library.
The Centre of Manuscripts in Hamburg, Germany, has provided funding to digitise the entire JWT Allen collection--which includes the largest concentration of manuscripts of Swahili Islamic poetry--and given full free access to the University of Dar-es-Salaam. This was a joint project between the two institutions and a welcome opportunity for collaborative research.
As well as religious literary works, primarily in Arabic...