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Part 1: The Taylor, Hichens and Werner Collections

The Library at SOAS houses the largest collection of Swahili manuscripts in Britain.
Dating from the 1790s to the 1970s, and providing a record of a much older oral tradition, this famous resource will be of great interest to all those studying:


  • African culture and history
  • The Swahili language
  • The literature and thought of the people of East Africa
  • Relations between Arabic and African scholars


Swahili is the official language of DR-Congo, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, and is spoken by more than 100 million people; yet there is a lack of resources for its historical study. This new publication will help to fill that gap and will fuel much new scholarship across a variety of disciplines.

The manuscripts come from seven collections brought together by a number of leading Swahili scholars who have deposited their papers in the SOAS Library.  The contributing scholars are W E Taylor, William Hichens, Alice Werner, Jan Knappert, W H Whiteley, J W T Allen and Sheikh Yahya Ali Omar.

Part 1 covers the first three of these collections and includes 81 manuscripts. 
The version of the Hamziyya featured in the Hichens collection is said to be the only copy of the Swahili Hamziyya in Europe, and the oldest Swahili manuscript in any collection. This epic Islamic poem tells the story of the Prophet Muhammad's life. It was translated into Swahili by Sayyid Aidarus bin Athman Al Sheikh Ali in 1792.

There are a number of important manuscripts relating to the Liyongo saga, which dates back to the 12th century.  It is an account of the life and works of Liongo Fumo wa Ba-Uriy, prince, poet and warrior – a “dramatic account of heroism, wit and strength… believable and identifiable with contemporary and socio-political set-up” (Makokha, 2000).  Set piece scenes, such as this description of a feast, are wonderfully evocative:

Wakatandika na zari                   They spread golden linen

na nzuri za hariri                         And also silken cloth

wakaimba mashairi                     They sang poetry

ngoma kusi kwa umoya            As they clapped and drummed

Na mashairi ni haya                    These are the poems

Walokwimba kwa umoya          They sang in unison

na watu walipokeya                     The people sang in chorus

na Liyongo yu pamoya              And behold! Liyongo was with them

There are also African aphorisms, Giryama proverbs, hymns in Swahili, and substantial numbers of individual poems, histories and other prose works.  Many are contextualised by the scholar who collected them and we have also included their notes on customs, literary traditions and regional histories, as well as their letters and drafts of published and unpublished books.  Many works are accompanied by translations.

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.

We have reproduced all of the manuscripts described in the online catalogue of the Taylor, Hichens and Werner collections. 

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

William Ernest Taylor was born in Worcester, England, in 1856. He was first educated at King's School, Worcester. In 1873 he won a scholarship to Hertford College, Oxford, where he was awarded a 3rd class honour degree in classical honour moderations. Between 1879 and 1880 he attended the Medical Faculty of the University of Edinburgh, but he did not complete his degree and instead became a deacon, in 1880. He served the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in East Africa, first between 1880-1884, and he returned as a missionary in 1885 until 1889. Since his first appointment in East Africa he had begun to learn Swahili and became acquainted with eminent Swahili scholars, poets, and writers, and began collecting Swahili manuscripts, both poetry and prose. He also travelled extensively among the Giryama people of whom he studied the language and collected oral material. In 1892 he returned to England and married Catherine Tesseyman, in Hull. He served again in East Africa between 1892 and 1896, but was then posted to Cairo and Khartoum between 1898 and 1903. In 1904 he resigned from the CMS and subsequently held a succession of clerical appointments, the last at Holgate, Lincolnshire. He retained his interest in Swahili, examining for the War Office and translating for the Salvation Army. He died at Bath in 1927. The most relevant publications include: African Aphorisms, or Saw from Swahili-land (1891) Giryama vocabulary and collections (1891) The Groundwork of the Swahili language (1898). He contributed to Burt's Swahili Grammar and Vocabulary (1910), Stigman's A Grammar of Dialectic Changes in the Kiswahili language (1915), and Ukumbosho wa Uongozi (Memorandum of Guidance for East African Field Officers) (1925) and made translations of the Bible into Swahili and Giryama (1889-1909).

William Hichens, of whom we have no certain date of birth, was in East Africa during the first decades of 1900 as an employee of the Kenya colonial administration. While based there he began collecting Swahili manuscripts, and he edited many of them. His collection of manuscripts, dating 1792-1943 (some undated), was gathered thanks to his collaboration with scholars like Sir Mbarak Ali Hinawy, Liwali of the Coast, Muhammad bin Abu Bakr Kijumwa of Lamu, and Alice Werner, herself a Swahili manuscripts collector. His interests included the history of the Swahili poetry and he produced a manuscript bibliography of Swahili poets with relevant poems, some of which he translated and published himself at his Azania Press. He also compiled a biography, with poems, of the famous Mombasan poet Muyaka bin Haji al-Ghassaniy (Johannesburg, 1940). His other publications at Azania Press include The Azania classics (1932-34), edited with Alice Werner, and The Advice of Mwana Kupona upon the Wifely Duty (1934). His interests also touched upon the history of the East Africa Coast. He died in 1944 in Mombasa, Kenya.

Alice Werner was born in Trieste, Italy, on 26 June 1859, and died in London on 9 June 1935. In her youth she lived in New Zealand, Mexico, USA and Europe, and she was educated partly in Germany, and later in England, where she attended Newnham College at Cambridge University. Her interest in Africa began with visits to Nyasaland in 1893 and Natal in 1894, and in 1899 she began teaching Afrikaans and Zulu in London. Her special interest in the Swahili language and culture began in 1911 when she toured East Africa for two years. In 1917 she joined the School of Oriental and African Studies as one of the first members of staff, initially as Lecturer then Reader and eventually she became Professor of Swahili and Bantu languages until her retirement in 1930. She also taught at Oxford and Cambridge, in co-operation with her sister Mary Werner. In 1928 she received the D.Litt and in 1930 the title of Emeritus Professor, both awards from the University of London. She was also awarded the Silver medal of the African Society, of which she was Vice-President, in 1931. Specifically to the SOAS Swahili Archives collection she is remembered for her collection of Liongo songs and poems. She also made contributions on African subjects to the Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, in addition to other journals. Her published works include, The Native of British Central Africa (1906), The Language Families of Africa (1915), Introductory Sketch of the Bantu Language (1919), The Swahili Saga of Liongo Fumo (1926), Swahili Tales (1929), Structure and Relationship of African Languages (1930), The Story of Miqdad and Mayasa (1932), and Myth and Legenda of the Bantu (1933).


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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