African Archaeological Review

, Volume 29, Issue 4, pp 355–381 | Cite as

Spatiality and the Interpretation of Identity Formation: Fugitive Slave Community Creation in Nineteenth-Century Kenya

  • Lydia Wilson MarshallEmail author
Original Article


In the nineteenth century, the coalescence of a plantation economy on the Swahili Coast provoked an upsurge in the local slave trade. Increasing numbers of enslaved workers fled inland, and, by the 1840s, some had created independent settlements. In Swahili, runaway slaves were known as watoro. Forged by men and women of diverse cultural backgrounds, watoro communities offer broad insight into how groups form and sustain themselves. This study explores how watoro settlement organization and landscape practices reflect the process of community formation. Particular attention is paid to watoro communities’ participation in regional networks and the degree to which fugitive slaves developed homogenized sociocultural norms or maintained long-term cultural plurality. This paper adopts a spatial archaeological approach centered on settlement location, housing density, and domestic architecture. Dissonances between these spatial data and artifact distributions reveal the ways in which both heterogeneity and homogeneity were expressed and experienced. Articulations and disarticulations between different evidentiary types also help to better reveal the diverse range of inter-group interactions that fugitive slaves pursued and avoided.


Slavery Maroons Identity Swahili Coast Historical archaeology Landscape archaeology 


Au XIXe siècle, la coalescence d’une économie de plantation sur la côte swahili, a provoqué une recrudescence dans le commerce d’esclaves locaux. Un nombre croissant de travailleurs asservis avaient fui vers l’intérieur des terres et, avant les années 1840, certains d’entre eux avaient créé des villages indépendants. En swahili, les esclaves fugitifs étaient connus comme watoro. Construit par des hommes et des femmes de diverses origines culturelles, les communautés watoro offrir un exemple de comment les groupes se forment et maintenir eux-mêmes. Cette étude explore comment l’organisation de colonies de peuplement watoro et le paysage reflète le processus de formation de la communauté. Une attention particulière est accordée à la participation des communautés watoro à des réseaux régionaux et la mesure dans laquelle les esclaves en fuite développés homogénéisé les normes socioculturelles ou maintenu à long terme la pluralité culturelle. Ce document adopte une approche spatiale archéologique portant sur la localisation des villages, la densité des logements, et de l’architecture domestique. Dissonances entre ces données spatiales et les distributions d’artefact révèlent les façons dont les deux hétérogénéité et homogénéité ont été exprimées et expérimentés. Articulations et désarticulations entre les types de preuve différentes aussi contribuer à mieux révéler la diversité des interactions inter-groupes que les esclaves fugitifs poursuivis et évités.



I wish to thank the National Museums of Kenya’s (NMK) Coastal Archaeology Department, especially Dr. Herman Kiriama, Ibrahim Busolo, Philip Wanyama, and Mohamed Mchulla Mohamed, for support in the field. I am particularly grateful to George Ghandi, who helped me for many months in survey and excavation, and Kaingu Kalume Tinga, who facilitated oral history collection. Ngeto Mwebi, head of the NMK’s Osteology Department, and his staff kindly undertook the analysis of recovered faunal material. Dr. Sarah Walshaw analyzed the project’s archaeobotanical remains. I am also indebted to the British Institute in Eastern Africa, particularly Dr. Stephanie Wynne-Jones, for logistical support. Many thanks to my graduate advisor Dr. Adria LaViolette and committee members Drs. Jeffrey Hantman, Joseph Miller, and Patricia Wattenmaker for guidance. I am grateful to my husband, Adam Marshall, for field assistance. Dr. Fred Morton has been very generous in sharing both research materials and his considerable expertise. Thanks also to Drs. Zoe Crossland and Sarah Croucher for organizing the 2010 Society for Historical Archaeology Conference symposium in which this paper originated. I am also grateful to Mramba Thoyo Baya, Faini Hanga, Kaingu Hanga, Nyevu Menza, Kang’ombe Nzaro Moka, and Karisa Iha Nyundo for permitting excavation on their land. Finally, I wish to thank Dr. François Richard and two anonymous reviewers for their careful critiques, which helped me improve the article. The Explorers Club Washington Group and the University of Virginia Graduate School of Arts and Sciences provided funding for preliminary fieldwork in 2006. The later field season (2007–2008) was funded by an International Dissertation Research Fellowship from the Social Science Research Council, a Fulbright-Hays Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowship (#P022A070037), and a National Science Foundation Dissertation Research Improvement Grant (#0733784). This project was additionally assisted by a Dissertation Completion Fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon/American Council of Learned Societies Early Career Fellowship Program.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyGettysburg CollegeGettysburgUSA
  2. 2.Coastal Archaeology Division, Fort Jesus World Heritage SiteNational Museums of KenyaMombasaKenya

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