Friday, 7 October 2011

Portuguese Conquistadors in Africa

The Portuguese were not the first colonisers of East Africa by any means. For 100s of years the coast had been controlled by Arab trading empires, especially the Kilwa Sultanate, an Omani/Swahili clan based in Kilwa (Quiloa in Portuguese), in modern Tanzania. By the time the Portuguese started to arrive, the various trading stations had a certain amount of independence and wanted more, a situation the Portuguese were only too happy to exploit. In fact the Portuguese conquest of East Africa has similarities with the Spanish in Mexico - a rich but declining empire, divisions to exploit, and the ruthless application of force.

The jewel in the Kilwan empire, and the source of much of it's wealth, was Sofala


The reason for Sofala's importance was simple, gold. It lay surrounded by mangrove swamps, at the mouth of the Buzi river which flowed down from the great gold fields of Zimbabwe. Since the 900s Somali merchants had established a small town there, and in the 1180s it was seized by the Kilwa. Not only did they control the distribution point, they subsequently controlled much of the river trade, using dhows to ferry the gold to the coast.

Vasco de Gama

A Portuguese spy, Pêro da Covilhã, had entered Sofala disguised as an Arab and sent back a report of its riches to Lisbon, but Vasco de Gama´s 1498 expedition had failed to find it from the sea (he did manage to reconnoitre the Island of Mozambique though, see below). In 1501, Sancho de Tovar managed to find it, and when Vasco de Gama returned in 1502 he sent Pedro Afonso de Aguiar to investigate. De Aguiar gained an interview with the octogenarian Sultan, Isuf. Now, although it looked like Isuf was the ruler, that wasn´t strictly true. The land, technically, belonged to the Bantu kingdom of Monomatapa, whilst the traders were under the Sultanate of Kilwa. Isuf however, had other ideas, and he signed a political and economic treaty with Portugal. Not that de Aguiar could hang around to enjoy it, de Gama had already set sail for India and he had to hurry to catch up. But Sofala was not ignored in Lisbon, far from it.

In 1505 a powerful little fleet set sail from the Tagus with orders to establish a trading post, or "feitoria" at Sofala, and, significantly, a fortress. Three large carracks of 300-400 tons (the Espirito Santo, Santo Antonio and an unknown flag ship), and three smaller caravels of about 100 tons (Sao Joao, Sao Paulo and again an unknown), under the command of a Castilan, Pêro de Anaya, who was to be become Captain of Sofala. Once established, he was to send the carracks and one of the caravels to Cochin to pick up spices, the other two caravels remaining "on station".

The journey down was not a huge success, the ships getting separated in a storm, the captain of the Santo Antonio fell over board and the officers of the Sao Paulo were massacred by natives on the South African coast. De Anaya meanwhile sailed so far south to avoid the Cape of Good Hope that several sailors died from the cold.

A Portuguese carrack about 1540

Anyway, de Anaya collected the survivors together and anchored at Sofala, requesting an audience with Isuf. What de Anaya "requested" was permission to build a factory and a fort. Now, Isuf didn't actually have the right to grant this, but he was well aware that Kilwa had already been attacked by Francisco de Almeida with 500 men and the ruler there desposed. Monomatapa was a long way away and the Portuguese were in the harbour, he agreed.

The Portuguese immediately started constructing a fort, Fort Sao Caetano. A square was laid out 120 paces long on each side, and then a moat dug "12 palms wide and 12 palms deep". Vegetation was cleared around to give a clear field of fire, and the main wall was constructed within the moat. From September, everyone in the crew was working on the fort, including de Anaya, but by November it was ready, the Portuguese were established. De Anaya assumed the title of Captain of Sofala and is generally considered the 1st Portuguese Governor of East Africa.
Now, the next problem was that although there were plenty of things the Portuguese wanted, from gold and ivory to food, there were little they could give in exchange. The Arabs had often used Somali cotton or fine Indian goods, but Portuguese cloth was of a much lower quality and their craftsmanship couldn't compare to the Indians. What saved them were ship loads of "confiscated" Kilwan goods from India.

As per the original plan the caravels were sent on to India and the two remaining caravels used for local patrols. Unfortunately de Anaya puts them under his son Francisco, who captured two Kilwan cargo ships carrying ivory and Indian calico (and murdered the crews), but in 3 separate ship wrecks lost everything except one small cargo boat. With this he managed to reach Kilwa where the Portuguese base commander promptly put him in jail.

Sofala ("Cefala" in Portuguese) later in 1572, with Fort Sao Caetano

Meanwhile, the Portuguese garrison in Sofala is struck down with malaria, leaving just 30 able bodied soldiers. De Anaya now has virtually no army, and no naval support whatsoever, and suddenly does not look quite so intimidating. Two groups of nobles lobby Isuf - Mengo Musaf wants to expel the Portuguese, "Acute" (or Zacote)) wants to leave them alone. Isuf is only too aware that the Portuguese fleet could return, but as Mengo points out, they could shelter in the fort, so Isuf has what probably seemed a good idea at the time. Instead of attacking directly he persuades a local Bantu chief of the Makonde tribe to come to the town with "5-6000 warriors" and take the fort, promising him anything he finds there. The Makonde were a fairly fearsome warrior people with long experience of fighting Africans and Arabs. Their chief ,"Moconde", agrees. De Anaya though gets prior warning from Acute, and the fort was filled with refugees who were more scared of the Bantu than the Portuguese. This boosts the garrison considerably.

Moconde arrives and, with Mengo´s forces starts besieging the fort, filling the moat with branches. Then, suddenly, de Anaya sallies out with everything he's got. The Bantus are completely surprised, and take heavy casualties, fleeing the field. This is not what Moconde signed up for, and in fact he strongly suspects he´s been tricked. He leaves the scene, burning some of the town as he goes.

Either in hot pursuit, or later that night (depending on the sources) de Anaya makes his way to the palace with a picked force of Portuguese and kills Isuf, taking his head to display outside the walls of the fort. Leaderless, and without their Bantu allies, the Sofalans start fighting amongst themselves for the succession. Somehow, de Anaya turns kingmaker, and manages to put his own client on the throne (either Sulieman, a son of Isuf, or Acute, though possibly they are the same person).

Despite leading the resistance and the raid on Isufs palace, de Anaya must have been a sick man, as he died a few days later from malaria. He had won much glory for himself and Portugal, but in a way his efforts were in vain. In late 1507 the centre of administration , and much of the garrison, was transferred to the island of Mozambique, which had a much healthier atmosphere, not to mention a better port.


Mozambique, or "Musa Al Big" was in fact the Island of Mozambique, about 2 miles off the African coast. It isn´t very big, and is mostly sandy and barren, but it had an excellent harbour. For a maritime power like the Portuguese it was perfect.
Like most of the coastal traffic, it was Arab controlled. In 1498 Vasco de Gama visited with a small fleet of 4 carracks. Nervous of the locals he posed as a Muslim, but nonetheless the local Sultan forced his little fleet to flee. As a Parthian shot, de Gama fired his cannons into the city as he left.

Mozambique Island 1506

The should have been a warning. Within 10 years the Portuguese had established the island as their own, building Fort Sao Gabriel in 1507 and in 1522 they built the Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte, the oldest surviving European building in the Southern Hemisphere. The Portuguese settlement grew and in 1558, they started work on Fort São Sebastião, steadily increasing the defences so that when attacked by the Dutch in 1607 and 1608 it was strong enough to resist.

The Interior, and the Muzimba crisis

The situation at Sofala and Musa al Big was mirrored all along the East African coast, the Arab conquerors being in turn displaced by the Portuguese. In the 1530s various prospectors & adventurers ("sertanejos" or backwoodsmen) penetrated inland with the aim of finding their own gold, or at least controlling the trade. They made many contacts amongst the local rulers, and intelligence flowed back to Mozambique. Settlement of the area was encouraged by the use of huge land grants (prazos) and the Portuguese set up garrisons and trading posts along the main trade routes, especially along the River Zambezi like Vila de Sena (now Sena) and Tete. Tete, on a crossing point in the river (at least at certain times of the year), was 260 miles from the sea.

In 1591 Portuguese rule along the Zambezi was severely threatened. Tete by now had became a flourishing centre for the gold and ivory trades. The commandant, Pedro Fernandes de Chaves, had control of eleven local rulers, who were obliged to supply up to 2,000 armed men if required. With a mixed force of natives and Portuguese he had recently marched against the Mumbo tribe at Clicaronga about 30 miles away, heavily defeating them them and slaying their chief. His luck was about to run out.

Chaves's colleague at Sena, Andre de Santiago, had marched against the Muzimbas, a Ngoni tribe who lived near the Zambezi. A related tribe has been descibed as fighting in the classic "horned" formation made famous by Zulus centuries later, with a strong central block, but "horns" which spread out to the side and around the flanks of the enemy. This may have been the way the Muzimbas fought, but they also showed a remarkable propensity for fighting from fortifications or in ambush. They had tried to take on the Portuguese earlier by sheltering behind a thorn hedge, which didn't work very well against guns. They had learnt.

The Muzimba village was heavily fortified, with a moat and embankment on which stood a wooden palisade. The earthworks effectively made it cannon-proof. Santiago found it much too hard a nut to ctack and he sent to Chaves for aid. Chaves came down from Tete with about 100 Portuguese, and local auxiliaries lagging behind. Maybe they knew or guessed what was about to happen, but anyway the Muzimbas ambushed Chaves and slaughtered him and the Portuguese, taking their bodies for food - the auxiliaries fled back to Tete. Encouraged, the next day the Muzimbas moved against Santiago, carrying Chaves's head on a stick. Unnerved, Santiago tried to retire, but the Muzimbas fell on his forces as they crossed a river and destroyed them. In all 130 Portuguese had been killed in just a few days.

The Captain General in Mozambique 200 miles away, Pedro de Sousa, now faced losing the Zambezi completely. His first attempt met with disaster, losing many men and having to abandon his cannon, so he organised a powerful force of 200 Portuguese and 1,500 natives and besieged the Muzimba capital with cannon. Again the Portuguese made little headway, and de Sousa had to storm the place, filling the moat with logs. Still the Muzimba held out, showering the native auxiliaries with hot water so they fled, and and de Sousa had to retire. There now spread a rumour in the Portuguese camp that Sena was under attack, though whether this was spread by the Muzimbas or reluctant Portuguese is unclear. A virtual mutiny forced de Sousa to send a large part of his force to relieve the "siege", only for it to ambushed in a gorge and destroyed.

Kilwa ("Quiloa") in 1572. Although appearing an island, in fact the channel could be crossed at certain points. A Kilwan traitor showed the Muzimba the route, only to be later cast into a pit as a reward for his trechery.

The Muzimbas now moved against their neighbours, and either as allies or slaves, made an enormous army of reportedly 15,000 men. They took Kilwa, murdering the inhabitants and sacking the city and headed north to Mombasa. By chance a Portuguese fleet was in the harbour and so Mombasa was delivered, but the Muzimba then went back south, to Melinde ("Melinda" in Portuguese). Melinde was allied with the Portuguese, and in fact had been one of the few towns to give a friendly welcome to Vasco de Gama when he first arrived off the coast. They now had the assistance of 30 Portuguese under Matheus de Vasconcellos, a mixture of soldiers and traders. Anyway, they managed to hold out until a local tribe known to the Portuguese as the Mosseguejos arrived with 3,000 men. The Mossegusjos attacked the Muzimbas from behind and routed them. The Muzimbas by now were a long way from home and had inflicted much cruelty on other tribes as they passed, they now reaped the whirlwind - very few Muzimbas made it back to their city alive, so few that they were no longer a threat. The Portuguese could return to the Zambezi.

Lorenço Marques

In 1544 another Portuguese, Lorenço Marques, was sent to explore the bay around the Estuário do Espírito Santo (Holy Spirit estuary), where the rivers Tembe, Umbeluzi, Matola and Infulene drain into the Indian Ocean. He established various small trading posts and spent most of his life there with an African wife and their children. The bay was named Baía de Lourenço Marques in his honour by order of the Portuguese king, John III.
A small start for the city destined to be the captial of Portuguese East Africa.

Further reading

A general history and collection of voyages and travels, arranged in systematic order:forming a complete history of the origin and progress of navigation, discovery, and commerce, by sea and land, from the earliest ages to the present time (Google eBook). W. Blackwood 1824

Universal history, ancient and modern: from the earliest records of time, to the general peace of 1801. William Fordyce Mavor 1802

Modern History of all nations by Thomas Salmon, 1746

Moçambique and its “decreasing inhabitants”: population censuses in portuguese east Africa in the second half of the 18th century
Author: Ana Paula Wagner Journal: Diálogos Year: 2010 Vol: 11 Issue: 1 e 2 Pages/record No.: 239-266

There is an excellent article on the taking of Sofala on Wikipedia,_1505%29

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