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African Rivalries and Racial Diffusions on Africa's Eastern Seaboard

During the 1500s and 1600s the Portuguese were trading in south-eastern Africa, where a variety of city-states were populated by people of mixed African, Arab, Persian and Indian ancestry. There, the Portuguese established a base on the coastal island of Mozambique and at Sofala, which were ports of call for their ships traveling to India. And in pursuing trade, the Portuguese moved through the Zambezi River basin.

The area south of the Zambezi River was dominated by the Mutapa Empire, a century or so old, but politically fragmented, with various chiefs ruling over and drawing tribute from lesser chiefs. Taking advantage of wars within the empire, Portuguese trader-adventurers, to be called Prazeros, sided with one chief or another, winning favor and grants of land from their new allies. Some of them took African wives, and they maintained their own small armies.

The Portuguese fought for and won control over coastal trading points, and they established a presence at the trading center at Sena, on the south bank of the Zambezi River. There were about 50 Portuguese and around 750 Indians in addition to racially mixed Africans. The Portuguese operated trade fairs, exchanging beads and cloth for African gold and ivory. But Portugal's presence south of the Zambezi, inland and along the coast, diminished, ravaged by malaria and the hostility of local peoples. And in 1592 the area, including Sena, was overrun by tribal warriors, who eventually withdrew. The Prazeros and their mixed heritage offspring remained – outside the control of agents of Portugal's crown.

Portugal shifted the center of its east coast operations to a three-mile-wide coastal island that was eventually to be called Mombasa, and there, in 1593 they began building a fort – Fort Jesus – from which they hoped to administer influence over Kilwa, Zanzibar, Pemba and other coastal trading centers north of Cape Delgado. They intended to have all trade pass through customs at Fort Jesus, with import duties to be at six percent of value of the goods in question.

The coastal city-states above Cape Delgado were politically divided and in conflict with one another, which helped the Portuguese extend their domination. In the first decades of the 1600s they won some tribute paid to the king of Portugal. And amid this success, Augustinian friars came to Fort Jesus – the first Portuguese missionaries to arrive on Africa's east coast.

The success was short lived. In the 1630s Portugal's influence north of Cape Delgado began to decline. A local leader, who had been converted to Christianity, relapsed and rebelled. He attacked Fort Jesus, killing the captain in charge of the fort and most of its garrison. The Portuguese were able to regain the fort after a little more than a year, but by now the Dutch had weakened Portuguese naval power along the coast and on the Indian Ocean, and along the coast a number of cities were opposing the Portuguese. These Africans invited a naval force from the Arabian principality of Oman to the area to drive the Portuguese away. Oman's navy came, in 1652, 1660, 1667 and 1679, and they harassed the Portuguese rather than drive them away.

A New Power South of the Zambezi

In 1623 an invasion by the Mariva from north of the Zambezi River into the Mutapa Empire south of the Zambezi added to the chaos. The Mariva withdrew but there followed a war of succession among the Mutapa, in which the Portuguese intervened in favor of the side that offered to remove trading restrictions on them.

After that fighting ended – favorably for the Portuguese – trouble for the Portuguese arose from a new Mutapa chief. The Portuguese gathered private armies together and drove away the offending chief. A new Mutapa chief, Filipe, at least pretended to be Christian. He pledged vassalage to the king of Portugal and promised Christian missionaries and Portuguese traders everything they wanted.

In the second half of the 1600s the Portuguese became involved in more warring within the Mutapa Empire. Some areas were depopulated. More peasants became hostile toward the Portuguese. And gold mining – which had been declining because mineshafts had reached the water table – declined further.

With the insecurity of war, common people sought protection from those who were rich and had their own armies: men who owned large herds of cattle. Young men offered to join the army of such men in exchange for enough cattle to pay for a bride. And the wealthy, with their enlarged armies, were able to resist the Portuguese, to protect their herds and grazing lands and to make raids against their neighbors.

One cattle owner emerged supreme. This was Changamire Dombo. On the ashes of the Mutapa empire he built an empire of his own. In 1684 he began expelling the Portuguese from his empire. The new empire – to be known as the Rozvi Empire – came to include what had been Zimbabwe. The Rozvi emperors controlled gold production and guarded as secrets the location of new mines, the disclosure of which was punishable by death, while much of the available gold was crafted by local goldsmiths into jewelry for the Rozvi court.

Arabs, the French to Madagascar, the Portuguese and Prazeros

By now the sea off the coast of eastern Africa was dominated by pirates. In the 1690s another naval expedition from Oman arrived near Fort Jesus, and in 1698, after a thirty-three-month siege, a naval expedition overran the fort, killing around 1,000 Portuguese. Portugal lost its hold on Fort Jesus and the coast north of Cape Delgado. Arab power along this coast was accepted as supreme, and the island with Fort Jesus was renamed Mombasa, after a place in Oman.

South of Cape Delgado, across the Mozambique Channel, France had taken possession of Madagascar, King Louis XIV having officially annexed the island in 1686. In the coming decades the French built a plantation economy on Madagascar, increasing the demand for slaves.

In 1710 along the Zambezi River, the Rozvi Emperor allowed the Portuguese to maintain a trading post at Zumbo. The Rozvi emperors wished to avoid becoming over-dependent on foreign trade, but they wished to maintain trade with the Europeans, to acquire for themselves chinaware, beads, umbrellas, brass bells, brandy and other goods. Cattle raising remained a large part of the wealth of the Rozvi kings, while common folks remained engaged in subsistence farming. Some of the crops that were grown had originated in Europe and Asia: rice, yams, sweet potatoes, melons, cucumbers and pineapples and lemons.

The Portuguese still held the little island of Mozambique, consisting of several thousand Christians – white, black and brown. And at Sena and Tete the Portuguese still operated trading fairs. By now in this area, Dominicans and Jesuits owned vast tracts of land and were supporting themselves by collecting taxes and dealing in slaves. The Prazeros were still powerful as small-scale warlords with slave armies. And racially they were becoming only distantly European.

The authority of the Prazeros had been ill-defined, and in the second half of the 1700s, after having demanded taxes, having pushed people around and having committed bloody atrocities trying to enforce their power, they faced revolts. Some of the people the Prazeros had tried to subjugate moved away. The power of the Prazeros declined, and their opulent lifestyles disappeared.


A History of the African People, by Robert W July, 1998

Africa: A Biography of the Continent, by John Reader, 1999

Portugal in Africa, by James Duffy, Penguin African Library, 1963

General History of Africa, Volume V, UNESCO, edited by BA Ogot, 1992

Additional Viewing

The African Americans, by Henry Lewis Gates, Jr, PBS, 2013

Copyright © 2001-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.