The Story of Africa


- Great Zimbabwe


- Kongo


- Trade


- Portugese intervention in the West


- Portugese intervention in the East

Portugese intervention in the East


Fort Jesus, Mombassa
The people of the east coast of Africa were not to be as easily impressed by European ways as those of the Kongo. They had, after all, already been importing ceramics and textiles from India and China for many centuries.

The leader of the Portuguese expedition round the Cape, Vasco da Gama, was not intending to stay anyway, being on his way to India. But the prosperity of Mombasa and Malindi, and the existence of gold made east Africa worth more than an occasional stopping off point.

Gorgeously attired
"The king wore a robe of damask trimmed with green satin, and a rich turban. He was seated on two cushioned chairs of bronze, beneath a round sunshade of crimson satin attached to a pole. An old man, who attended him as a page, carried a short sword in a silver sheath. There were many musicians... two trumpets of ivory, richly carved, and of the size of a man, were blown from a hole in the side, and made sweet harmony..." - Vasco da Gama's description of the ruler of Malindi, 1498.
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.

Mutapa state

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.

Before the Portuguese...

"It is a fair place, with lofty stone and mortar houses, well aligned in streets after the fashion of Kilwa. The wood is well-fitted with excellent joiner's work. It has its own king, himself a Moor. The men are in colour either tawny, black, or white and also their women go very bravely attired with many fine garments of silk and gold in abundance. This is a place of great traffic, has good harbour, in which are always moored crafts of many kinds and also great ships."

... and after

"The king of this city refused to obey the commands of the King our Lord (of Portugal) and through this arrogance he lost it, and our Portuguese took it from him by force. He fled away, and they slew many of his people and also took captive many, both men and women, in such sort that it was left ruined and plundered and burnt.

Of gold and silver great booty was taken here, bangles, bracelets, ear-rings, and gold beads, and also a great store of copper with other rich wares in great quantity, and the town was left in ruins."
- Portuguese trader, Duarte Barbosa, writing in 1517-1518
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.

Sultan's revenge

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.

^^ Back to top Back to Index >>