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The east coast of Africa was part of a huge trade network, driven largely by the gold of Great Zimbabwe and extending as far as China. The trading partners of the coastal Swahili were Arabs and Persians. Many coastal rulers had converted to Islam; Christianity held little allure.
BREAKING ARAB TRADE
In the long term, the Portuguese attempted to breach the Arab trade monopoly. They tried to force coastal rulers to take an oath of loyalty to the Portuguese crown. Then they built fortresses at Kilwa, Mozambique and Sofala. Later, in 1593, they built Fort Jesus, the biggest fortress of all in Mombasa, hoping to crush the opposition of the sultan permanently.
Moving inland, the Portuguese seized Swahili trading posts at Sena and Tete. This meant they were able to deal directly with the ruler of the Mutapa state, the Monumutapa (Mwene Mutapa, meaning 'master pillager') and carry out trading on the Zimbabwean Plateau.
For a time, a satisfactory trading relationship was maintained. But this was not enough for the Portuguese and they tried to gain total control of the gold mines. In 1571, they launched all out war, but were defeated by the Monumutapa. Thereafter, the Portuguese paid tribute to the Mutapa state in return for the right to limited mining.
With the defeat of the Swahili traders in the Zambezi Valley, Portugal asserted its commercial presence through the African-Portuguese prazeiros (estate owners) who settled in the area.
In the 17th century the Mutapa state fell into decline. Other states emerged, such as Barwe, and most noticeably the Butwa state under its ruler who held the title of Changamire. In 1684, the Changamire called Dombe defeated the Monumutapa and went on to take control over a huge gold producing area.
On the coast the Portuguese enjoyed considerable power for over 30 years, until 1631 when the Portuguese garrison at Fort Jesus was massacred by the ruler of Mombasa, Dom Jeronimo Chingulia, or Muhammad Yusif bin Hassan - his Muslim name.
He was one of the many Swahilis whom the Portuguese attempted to convert to Christianity. In his case he was actually sent to Goa to study, but reverted to Islam as soon as he returned to Africa. Fort Jesus was rebuilt but finally fell to the Arabs of Oman in 1698.
Once more Arab sea power dominated the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese meanwhile were confined to the coastland of what is today modern Mozambique, and experienced a late flush of prosperity when the British banned slave trading off the West African coast.
The intervention of the Portuguese was periodically highly disruptive, but the people they encountered on the east coast had a more profound effect on them than vice versa. The Portuguese became in many ways Africanised, while the people of the Swahili coast retained their culture with remarkably little change over the centuries.
Click here to listen to Paul Bakabinga reading a letter from King Affonso, Manikongo, to King Manuel I of Portugal