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From the School of Oriental and African Studies

Part 1: The Taylor, Hichens and Werner Collections

Part 2: The Knappert, Whiteley, Allen, Miscellaneous and Yahya Ali Omar Collections

Publisher's Note - Part 2

This second part covers a further 86 manuscripts from the Knappert, Yahya Ali Omar, and Miscellaneous collections; and 25 boxes from the Allen and Whiteley collections.

The Knappert, Yahya Ali Omar, and Miscellaneous collections have been covered in their entirety.  These range in size from individual poems and stories to collections of love poetry.  They include:

  • Versions of the Al-Inkishafi  (supposedly written by Sayyid Abdalla bin Sayyid Ali bin Nasir in the 19th century) (Knappert MS 380548);
  • the Utenzi wa Isubani (describing a battle in the Wadi Isban between the Prophet Mohammed’s army and the army of an unbeliever, Katrifu (Knappert MS 380552);
  • Mke na Mume (a poem in which a wife eagerly awaits the return of her husband, only to find that he has a new, young wife) (Yahya Ali Omar MS 380743);
  • A letter from the King of Pate (describing war, colonialism, and the struggle between the Portuguese and Arabs for control of Pate) (Yahya Ali Omar MS 380699);
  • and a collection of Kimai and Wawe (songs of fishermen and farmers) (Knappert MS 380059).

All of the Allen collection has been filmed except for Box 20-9, which contains audio tapes, and his extensive collection of photocopies of manuscripts in the archives of Dar es Salaam.  All of the Whiteley collection has been covered except for the personal correspondence (Box 1), miscellaneous material (Box 23), and the extensive collection of recent articles by other scholars (Boxes 2-4).

The material in these two collections is extremely varied, with much on socio-linguistics and the history of the Swahili language, African life and customs, literary forms, the oral tradition and the transmission of culture, myths and religion, art and dance.  There are also many fine individual items, such as an account of the life of the famous Zanzibari slave trader, Tippu Tip (Whiteley PP MS 42/S 38), a collection of Tanzanian folk tales (Whiteley PP MS 42/S 47-48), the Utendi wa Kutawafu Nabii (concerning the death of the Prophet Mohammed in Medina) (Allen PP MS 20-3) and The Story of the Old Kerebe: traditional customs and mores (Allen PP MS 20-7).

Those working with this collection should also be aware of the Swahili Manuscripts Online Catalogue which is available free of charge at:


This catalogue began in 2001.  A collaboration between the Department of the Languages and Cultures of Africa and the SOAS Library, it was funded by a research project grant from the Leverhulme Trust.  It provides descriptions of each of the major collections, and at the item level it provides

  • item reference (Ms number) and title
  • first lines of manuscript
  • author, scribe and dating information
  • Extent and format
  • Poetic form, language, script and relevant dialects
  • Subject and keywords
  • People and places associated with the manuscript
  • Archival history and physical characteristics
  • Notes on relevant publications
  • An extensive scope and content field

All of the fields are searchable, enabling scholars to make connections between manuscripts and to focus on items relating to colonialism, warfare or other topics.

The following biographical details relating to the collections are from the catalogue:

Dr. Jan Knappert was Lecturer of Bantu Languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies, specializing in Swahili traditional and religious literature. He wrote extensively about the manuscripts he collected and deposited in the SOAS Archives. His most important contributions include Four Centuries of Swahili Verses (1979), Swahili Islamic Poetry (1971), Epic Poetry in Swahili and other African Languages, (1983), A Survey of Swahili Islamic Epic Sagas (1999). He also resided at the University of Dar-es-Salaam where he became Secretary of the East African Swahili Committee as well as Editor of the Journal of the same committee, after the death of W.H. Whiteley, in the 1970s. At SOAS, he worked with the great Africanists Malcolm Guthrie, A. N. Tucker, B. W. Andrzejewski, Gordon Innes, and Ronald Snoxall. In addition to the study of Swahili, Dr Knappert also holds a degree in Sanskrit with Indian history, Hinduism and Buddhism, a degree in Semitic languages with Hebrew, Arabic and Islam, and a Master in Austronesian studies, with Malay, Tagalog, Hawaiian and Malagasy. After teaching at SOAS for a number of years, he moved to Belgium and he retired from the University of Louvain, Belgium, to devote himself entirely to writing.

Sh. Yahya Ali Omar was born in Mombasa old town, Kenya, in 1924. He attended Koranic school in Mombasa at the Anisa mosque. Then, he attended Madrasa Ghasali Muslim school. His main teacher has been Sh. Abdalla al-Husnyi who was teaching religious studies at the Anisa mosque. Yahya was also taught by the famous religious scholars Sh. Alamin bin Ali Mazrui, Sayyid Ali Badawi and Sh. Bereki. After completing his religious education, Yahya began teaching Arabic and the Qur'an at the Arab Boys Primary school in Mombasa. In the 1960s, he worked for the Islamic Foundation in Nairobi where he translated a book by Sayyid Abul A'la Maududi entitled, in Swahili, 'Mpango wa Maisha katika Uislamu' (1976). He also edited the translation of the Qur'an done by Cheif Kadhi Sh. Abdalla Saleh Farsy. Still during the 1960s, he worked for the Arab League branch in Nairobi as translator. Then, in 1970 he came to the UK to work at the School of Oriental and African Studies with the support of Prof. Wilfred Whiteley. Once at SOAS he worked together with many Swahili scholars, including Jan Knappert and Joan Maw. He went back to Kenya a few times during the 1970s, to finally settled in England in 1976, where he currently lives. Sh. Yahya has published many articles about Swahili language and culture, in collaboration with various scholars.

J.W.T. Allen was born in Chalfont-St-Giles, Buckinghamshire, in 1904. He was the son of Roland Allen, a missionary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, in North China, as well as being a radical critic of the Church. Allen was educated at Westminster School and then proceeded to study Classics at St John's College, Oxford. In 1927, he was sent to Sudan to work on the Gezia Cotton Scheme Project for the Sudan Plantations Syndicate as Assistant Inspector of a cotton plantation. Whilst there he began to learn Arabic and developed an interest in Islamic culture and the Islamic world. In 1929, he returned to England and entered the Colonial Service as Superintendent of Schools in Tanganyika and he became increasingly interested in the Swahili language. In 1932, he gained distance learning's Diploma in Swahili from the School of Oriental and African Studies. Between 1947 and 1952 he became Political officer and then Deputy British Agent in the Western Aden Protectorate. In 1953, Allen returned to Tanganyika, but in 1958 he decided to leave the Colonial Service, and by 1959 he was the Secretary of the Inter-territorial Swahili Language Committee. Since then he focused on the study of the Swahili language and he began collecting and editing Swahili and Arabic manuscripts from the most outstanding Swahili writers, the most notable being Shabaan Robert. He was helped by his wife Winifred 'Winkie' Ethel Emma Brooke who he had married in 1930. Overall, he made extensive collections on the East African coast in connection with his academic post of Research fellow at the University College, Dar es Salaam, and in conjunction with the East African Swahili Committee. Finally, between 1968 and 19070 he became Director of the newly established Institute of Swahili Research at the University of Dar es Salaam, and after he retired he set up the special Swahili language programme at the Danish Volunteer Training Centre in Tengeru, near Arusha, with the help of his wife. He died in 1979. His publications include, 'Maandiko ya Kizungu yaani kitabu cha kusomea herufi wanazozitumia wazungu (Swahili-Arabic reader)' (Longmans. 1938); 'Utenzi wa Vita vya Wadachi Kutamalaki Mrima: the German conquest of the Swahili coast' (Beauchamp Printing Co, Arusha, 1955); 'The Swahili and Arabic manuscripts and tapes in the Library of the University College, Dar es Salaam: a catalogue' (Brill, Leiden, 1970); 'Tendi: six examples of a Swahili classical verse form' (Heinemann Educational, 1971); 'The customs of the Swahili people: the Desturi za Waswahili of Mtoro bin Mwinyi Bakari and other Swahili persons' (University of California Press, 1981); 'A Poem concerning the death of the prophet Muhammad: Utendi wa kutawafu Nabii, a traditional Swahili epic' (Edwin Mellen, 1991).

Wilfred Howell Whiteley was born in Liverpool on 19 November 1924. He was educated at King Edward's High School, Birmingham, with the last two years at Lancaster Grammar School. His education was interrupted by a period of National Service, which took him to East Africa for a time. This lasted until the end of the War, when he became a student at the London School of Economics, graduating in Anthropology in 1949. He was then appointed as Research Assistant at the International African Institute, but after a short time he accepted the post of Government Anthropologist, in Tanganyika. His duties took him mainly to the Southern province, where he became interested in the local Bantu languages. During this period, he was also in touch with the East African Institute of Social Research at Makerere, Uganda. When his contract as Government Anthropologist ended in 1952, he was appointed Research Fellow at the Institute until 1958. During his time in East Africa, Whiteley concentrated mainly on linguistic research, with the help of the eminent African linguist, Malcolm Guthrie, and he focused specifically on the languages to the east of Lake Victoria in both Kenya and Tanganyika. The material collected was used for his doctoral thesis in Linguistics awarded by the University of London in 1955. Because of his knowledge of Swahili he became Secretary of the East African Swahili Committee that was formed in 1930 at Kampala to co-ordinate work on Swahili throughout the then British East Africa. He also promoted the standardisation and nationalisation of Swahili at the time when the territories were gaining independence. In 1959 he was appointed as the first Reader in Bantu Languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies, and he focused on teaching and research in Swahili. Between 1961-1962 he conducted fieldwork in Nyasaland among the Yao people where he began to study their language, as well as conducting research among the Kamba people of Kenya. After this two year research leave, he spent one academic year as visiting Professor at the University of Wisconsin. He then returned to Tanganiyka in 1964 when plans were finalised to the opening of the Department of African Languages and Linguistics at the University College of Dar es Salaam, of which he became a member of staff and Head of Department between 1964-1967. He also became Director of the Institute of Swahili Research, which was established on his recommendation to take over the functions of the East Africa Swahili Committee. At the end of 1967, he returned to the School of Oriental and African Studies and he succeeded Malcolm Guthrie as Head of the Department of Africa. However before taking up the position he had to complete his appointment as member of the Survey of Language Use and Language Planning in East Africa that was conducted in Kenya. Also, when M Guthrie retired in 1970, he succeeded him to the Chair of Bantu Languages. Whiteley's main interest and field of work was socio-linguistics, but he also made significant contribution to the study of Swahili syntax. He died suddently on 16 April 1972 at the age of 47, whilst on a lecture tour to Indiana University, USA. Much of Whiteley's works have been published, which include 'Studies in Iraqw-an Introduction' (Kampala, 1953); 'A practical introduction to Kamba' (OUP, 1962); 'A Study of Yao Sentences' (Clarendon, 1965); and 'Some Problems of Transitivity in Swahili' (SOAS, 1968).

Thanks are due to Susannah Rayner, Head of Archives & Special Collections at SOAS, and to Rosemary Seton, her predecessor, for their help in the preparation of this microfilm edition.




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