Thursday, 19 January 2012

The old Port of Sofala

On the East-coast of Africa just 35 kilometers south of Beira in Mozambique, lie the forgotten remnants of the port of Zofala. Once the busiest port in Southern Africa and for many decades the main seaport for the Kingdom of Monomotapa. The old harbour at the mouth of the Sofala river, is the oldest harbour in southern Africa. The strong flowing Sofala river in those days gave access to dozens of ocean-going ships and hundreds of Swahili dhows that plyed their trade between Zofala and the markets along the river on the way to the capital of Monomotapa at Mount Fura.
Today it is called the Buzi river but the Portuguese called it Rio da Sofala and it is on the northern banks of this estuary that the city developed. The oldest documented harbour in Southern Africa was most probably used in Biblical times already but it is recorded that the Arabs founded it as Zofala in circa 700 AD. The word Zofala is probably derived from the old Arabic word for "low lands" and not the Swahili because then it would be "tambarare". The name described the mangroves and flat coastal plains around the Bay of Sofala.
This map taken from Google Earth indicates the estuary and the bay south of the port city of Beira in Mozambique.

Zofala was considered a safe harbour that could hold up to a 100 ocean going ships if it needed to. The Sofala river connected the harbour with the gold producing region of Manica and its markets. Swahili dhows ferried the ivory and gold from the interior to the coast and returned with luxury goods from India and China, that was traded into the interior of Southern Africa as far as Kuruman.
Thome Lopes that sailed with Vasco da Gama on his second visit to India, wrote about the possibility of Zofala being the Biblical land of Ophir and the home of the queen of Sheba. We know from the Bible that there was some economic co-operation between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (and that they got along very well). They established a fleet of ocean going ships with the help of the Phoenicians and that these ships took three years to make their round trip to the land of Ophir and back. Bringing with them tons of gold and silver for the Temple. One gets the impression that they might have had some kind of presence in the area already and that they sent these "Tharshish ships" to collect the cargo and bring it back to Israel. Tharshish was then a city in present day Spain and the name "Tharshish ship" referred to the ships sea-going capabilities.

The King James Version (KJV) of the Bible states in I Kings 10:22: “For the king had at sea a navy of Tharshish with the navy of Hiram: once in three years came the navy of Tharshish, bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks” Hiram was the king of the Phoenicians and he supplied the wood, craftsmen and sailors to help King Solomon to establish his fleet of ships. In I Chronicles 29:4 (KJV) it says:“Even three thousand talents of gold, of the gold of Ophir, and seven thousand talents of refined silver, to overlay the walls of the houses withal.“ These ships made this trip many times and every time they brought between 400 and 500 talents of gold at a time. In order for them to take three years for a round trip, this land of Ophir must have been a little bit further away than Nubia, Ethiopia or Yemen.
My feeling is that the East Coast of Africa is the perfect distance away. We know that there is to this day lots of gold in Southern Africa and ancient stone cities like Great Zimbabwe show that there must have been some thriving African Kingdoms in the interior that they could have traded with. Therefore the port of Zofala could easily have been a port of call for these Biblical fleets. Take a closer look at this old map and note the number of African Kingdoms that existed when this map was drawn.

Interesting that one of these is called the Kingdom of Sabia, just south of the "Estates of Monomotapa". Keep in mind that there was some economic co-operation between Solomon and Sheba, yet she is not mentioned in the operation of the fleet of ships. One could form the opinion that she was on the supply side of the gold and silver, almost like she would supply these precious metals to them if they sent their ships to come and buy it. Could her Kingdom of Sheba have been part of the land of Ophir? Or did the land of Ophir form part of her kingdom? Did she have a gold producing colony in southern Africa? Is that why it is named as the destination in the Bible and why the Queen of Sheba played no real role in the running of these fleets that went to Ophir to collect the gold. Is it possible that the flow of the Sofala river allowed bigger ships to sail up-river closer to the gold producing areas of Manica? How could the Queen of Sheba's influence have extended all the way to South-East Africa?

Understandably the fleet didn't set sail for Ophir without stopping along the way. There is specific mention of the spices that were brought to Solomon by the Queen of Sheba almost like nobody had seen them before. The Arabian spices and even some African spices from the Land of Punt (present day Somalia) were known at the court of Solomon but not these that came from the land of Ophir. Could they have been spices from the Indian Ocean islands like Zanzibar? Is it possible that the fleet crossed the Indian Ocean to India on the return journey and picked up some spices and specimens of the peacock there? Probably not, the risk with such a valuable cargo would not justify such an adventure. It is more likely that there were already peacocks on the East African coast because they have been trading with India for thousands of years before that. Besides the peacocks the rest of the recorded cargo could quite easily be explained as originating on the African continent.

The Queen of Sheba arrives at the court of King Solomon and if the attention given to her is any indication, she must have been a very powerful women, visiting from an equally powerful country. Therefore it was not just a social visit, I am sure the economic ties between the two kingdoms were also strengthened in the process. If she only reigned over the territories of Yemen, Ethiopia and even Egypt as some people suggest, why would Solomon need ocean-going ships to trade with them? Therefore her influence must have stretched much further than the areas around North Africa and Arabia.

The driving force behind this fleet of ocean-going ships was an economical one. We tend to focus on the gold for the Temple but how did they pay for all these treasures when they got to the land of Ophir? The biblical authors focused more on the romantic and political side of her visit but it is my guess that there was a lot more economic negotiations and far less hanky panky. I would like to propose that Solomon and Sheba agreed to form probably one of the first international “companies” that we know about and that it was mutually beneficial and made both of them a lot richer than they were before. Obviously this clever young queen saw the strategic importance of Israel where it lay on a small strip of land between East and West. Caravans over land could cross further to the north and miss Israel but any maritime trade between East and West most probably had to pass through Israel one way or another. It is said that she brought a fantastic gift of “Ophir gold”, gold of the highest known quality to Solomon. Perhaps we overlooked the fact that Sheba was the first “venture capitalist” when she made this investment of high grade gold in their new maritime trading company.

Did she manage to connect East with West in a deal that used the strategic location of Israel, the maritime expertise of the Phoenicians and her own people's skill in mining and trade? It is difficult to imagine what Solomon could have exported from Israel, maybe wine, olive oil or some dates but that would not have been sufficient to pay for all the gold and silver that they brought back from Ophir. Therefore they must have used their fleet as cargo vessels to transport goods between the major centres in and around Arabia and the Indian Ocean. If we look at where the major market was for the gold of East-Africa, it is my feeling that the Queen of Sheba's fleet was already sailing from Ophir directly to India (possibly as far as China in some cases) and then on the trade winds to their own harbours in Yemen and Ethiopia. In terms of trade this anti-clockwise routing of ships would have been the most lucrative. But as Sheba probably suggested to Solomon, it did leave the opportunity for another fleet to sail the clock-wise route on the opposite trade winds.

This clock-wise routing, starting at the port of Ezion-Geber (inland from Eilat on the Red Sea) would take Solomon's fleet, first to the Indian continent then across the ocean to East-Africa for the gold and then along the African coast back to their home base in the Red Sea. This routing was better suited for Solomon's fleet that needed gold for the Temple but opened opportunities for trade from Arabia directly to India, cutting the time to market by a whole year. If you traded frankincense and myrrh from Yemen to India for example, it would have been carried by the Shebean fleet first to East Africa and then to India. Now with Solomon's fleet it could go directly to India. Solomon's fleet would dock at all the major trading centres along the way before loading its main cargo of trading goods in India. One could imagine that they loaded beads, pepper, spices, cotton and silk cloth from the harbour cities in India. If they didn't go any further they could also have bought ceramics and other products brought by traders from the Far East and China. This would put them in a far better position to "pay" for the gold and other treasures once they got to Ophir.

Does this painting show the arrival/departure of the Queen of Sheba to have happened by sea? Therefore it is quite plausible to argue that she and her Kingdom of Sheba were no strangers to shipping or trading by sea.
Due to their proximity it is understandable that the Arabs have been frequent visitors to the Bay of Sofala. The East African coast towards the Land of Punt must have been a very lucrative and exciting trading route for them. It is possible that the curious Queen of Sheba joined one of her trading vessels to visit the Land of Ophir or was it like some writers suggest her place of birth? Either way at the hight of its glory it must have been an impressive harbour with an assortment of ships from all over, possibly as far away as China. Even on this Google Earth picture one can make out structures on the beach and in the shallow water that dates from more glorious times.

A thousand years ago it was recorded that the Arabs visited the east coast of Africa in search of ivory, gold and rhino horn. They also found a lucrative market for their cottons and beads and it is not surprising that they encountered competition from Persian traders that came and settled at Zofala in the year 1020 AD. After this Zofala became the strategic southern outpost of the Islamic sultanate of Kilwa, at least for the next two centuries. By this time there were mighty inland states like those of the Monomotapa that flourished on this trade with the Arabs and other nations visiting the port of Zofala. These African cities of gold were known, even in the courts of Europe and the King of Portugal really wanted to get his hands on some of that gold.

Not surprising that the Portuguese mounted many secret expeditions to find these African cities of gold and in 1480 a spy Pedro da Covilha, disguised as an Arab merchant visited Zofala in search of the origins of the gold. His secret report to the King of Portugal identified Zofala as the main gateway to the riches of the interior. Many other similar attempts were made to reach places like Blouberg and Mapungubwe but the results still remain a secret and probably led to the demise of those unfortunate individuals. What we do know is that the Portuguese were really serious about reaching the Indian Ocean and in 1498 Vasco da Gama visits Zofala on his first voyage to India looking for a pilot to guide them across the Indian Ocean. We already know about his second visit in 1502 when it sparked the speculation about Zofala being the Land of Ophir. What dit they see to give them such an impression or who did they speak to, that would make them think like that?

This wall constructed in the estuary of the Sofala River, is it an ancient harbour wall or part of a Portuguese fort?
In 1505 Pedro de Anaia occupied Zofala for the King of Portugal and built a fort in the hope of capturing the trade in gold away from the Arabs.

Next time we will look at the Portuguese occupation of Zofala and how it affected the trade around the Indian Ocean.


  1. I loved your article. I live in Beira and enjoy learning about and discovering the history of the place, exploring the streets and old buildings and looking up old photographs to see how things have changed. I have been wanting to go round to exlore the Zofala/Buzi area and your article has really sparked my interest even more. Thank you for sharing such accurate and interesting information.

  2. We are planning a trip to Beira and I was wondering if it was worth going to Sofala if there is nothing left of the old town.

  3. Somali seafarers were the first to establish the trading port of Sofala. The name Sofala derives from the Somali language and literally means 'go dig.'


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