Saturday, 17 March 2012

The old Port of Zofala (Part 2)

While our intrepid explorer, Coenraad de Buys lived amongst the Xhosa on the south-east coast of Africa he became romantically involved with the mother of Gheika, the young Xhosa king. They eventually got married and in our story he received a silk cloth from Yese, the queen mother, as part of his wedding gift. The silk cloth was found in a small wooden box that washed ashore on the Wild Coast hundreds of years before. The silk cloth was very well preserved and when Coenraad opened it, he realized that it was a map of Southern Africa. Three hundred years ago maps were very hard to come by and for an uneducated pioneer like Coenraad this silk map could just as well have been spun out of gold. The silk even looked like gold to him and for many hours he would stand over this map dreaming about exploring the interior of Africa...

Silk map of Africa

It is not unrealistic to assume that maritime trade could have been going on in and around the Indian Ocean for thousands of years. Unfortunately we have no historical record of that or of the people that could have been involved in it. We previously speculated about the biblical land of Ophir and the possibility that it could have been located in south-east Africa about 3000 years ago. Rock art and archaeological evidence lead us to believe that the earliest inhabitants of Southern Africa were small groups of hunter gatherers like the Bushmen and Hottentots. These nomadic peoples were eventually pushed south by the Bantu-speaking tribes that came into the area from the north-west almost 1500 years ago. At that time the Maya civilization was already in its Classical Era and China was in its Three Kingdoms Period. In India the Kushan Empire had been replaced by the Gupta Empire, the Roman influence was on the decline and the Persian Empire was getting stronger. In the eighth century, Arab traders began establishing trading posts along the east coast of Africa moving further and further south. By the fourteenth century, those settlements along the coast had developed into independent city-states and were the main political and commercial centres in the area. By the 1500's the trade in gold and ivory that passed through Zofala probably reached its peak and as a result inland African kingdoms developed that were known, even in the courts of Europe and the King of Portugal really wanted to get his hands on some of that gold.

The Arab influence

More than a thousand years ago, Al Masudi recorded that the Arabs visited the east coast of Africa in search of ivory, gold, rhino horn and slaves. Masudi, and subsequent Arab writers, such as Ibn al-Wardi made special mention of the trade in gold, the latter describing Zofala in the eleventh century as a "very large city; it sells plenty of gold and iron, exporting the latter to India, but its inhabitants prefer copper ornaments to gold". Early Arab and Swahili traders settled along parts of the east coast of Africa, mainly at Lamu (in Kenya), Kilwa (in Tanzania), the island of Zanzibar, Cuama (near the Zambezi estuary), Zofala and as far south as the site of present-day Inhambane in Mozambique. This co-operation between the Arabs and Bantu peoples produced a mixed culture that was heavily influenced by Islam and led to the development of the Swahili language. Part of the reason why the Muslin faith spread so rapidly along the African coast was its unspoken benefit as an "insurance" against being taken into slavery. Individuals and communities that displayed their alliance with Islam were immediately seen as allies by the Arabs while those without ties to Islam became the targets for slavery.
 Portuguese fort on an island in the Sofala River

The Swahili-Arab alliance pushed into the interior, and developed a network of trade routes across much of east and southern Africa, looking mainly for ivory and gold, but the demand for slaves continued to grow. They used their cottons, beads and manufactured steel and copper goods to trade for the gold and ivory and over time developed a lucrative market for their goods. The location of the rich deposits of gold and the convergence of the Southern African trade routes made Zofala ideally suited for these imports and exports of trading goods. More and more vessels from an increasing number of trading countries began to visit Zofala. I am sure that Indian merchant ships docked there looking for gold and possibly other ships from as far as China. (If anyone could direct me to information about ancient trade with India, I will really appreciate it.) We know that Persian traders even settled at Zofala in the year 1020 which led to bitter rivalry between them and the Arabs. In order to keep Arab control, Zofala became the strategic southern outpost of the Islamic sultanate of Kilwa, at least for the next two centuries. The trade in gold, ivory and other base metals prospered in Arab-Swahili hands and probably reached its peak in the 15th century. 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.

African Kingdoms of gold
From India Al Masudi travelled south to the island of Madagascar and the eastern seaboard of Africa. He described Shofala as a city of gold and the cities of Africa as rich and prosperous. These African cities of gold were known even in the courts of Europe. None of them got the excitement going like the Kingdom of Prestor John. After years of hostilities between Christian and Muslim countries around the Mediterranean this fabled Christian kingdom was seen as a possible ally against the threat of Islam. Apparently the Pope corresponded with Prester John and many attempts were made to send emissaries to the court of this famous African leader, without any success. More information to follow.

Trade with India

More research is needed.

Visits by the Chinese fleets

China it seems always had this love hate relationship with the sea. Dependant on the seafood from the shallow waters of the Yellow, East China and South China seas they were also afraid of those sea monsters that lurked in the deeper oceans. However it was the Chinese leadership and the philosophies that they supported that had the biggest influence on their navel power. Those unlucky mariners that set sail in an easterly direction past the islands of Japan either came back empty handed or were never seen again. Voyages in a westerly direction were more profitable and most probably culminated in the Treasure Fleets that were commanded by Admiral Zhang-He.

Admiral Zhang-He
Chinese sea-going junks probably visited the east coast of Africa long before him but Zhang-He sailed down the east coast of Africa with a fleet of 300 ships and made a lasting impression on all that gazed at the might of the Chinese fleet. The fleet was made up of many different vessels of different size, with the impressive flag ship junks that were more than a 100m long. This fleet was equipped to sustain itself at sea for months at a time. Click on this link for an introduction to the voyages of Zhang-He or on the second link for a one-and-a-half hour video from National Geographic.  or

Zhang-He's Flagship Junk
On his voyage down the east coast of Africa the chances are very good that they stopped at the "trading city" of Zofala and even rounded the Cape decades before the Portuguese. If any of the Portuguese explorers sailed next to Zhang-He's flagship junk, it would have looked tiny in comparison. Gavin Menzies in his controvertial book "1421: The year China discovered America", proposes that the Chinese travelled to all corners of the earth in an attempt to map the world. This means that the Chinese discovered America decades before Columbus and that these Portuguese exploreres even used maps that had their origins in Chinese works. Unfortunately the decline of the Ming Dynasty and the strengthening of Confucianism, led to the suspension of exploration and many of the maps and ships logs were burnt by the Emperors decree. Those marvels of maritime technology were left to rot at their moorings while China closed its windows to the world and turned inward on itself.

Portuguese sailed into the Indian Ocean

The Portuguese burst into the Indian Ocean like a bull into a china shop. In contrast to the Chinese gentle demonstration of size and power the Portuguese arrived in smaller ships that were armed to the teeth and with Captains that didn't hesitate to use that fire power for King and Christ. The discovery of the route around the "Cape of Storms" to the riches of India can be traced back to the eternal struggle between the Cross and the Crescent. Portugal was a tiny country fighting the Moors in North Africa as part of the greater war between the Christians and Muslims that raged around the Mediterranean. Two of the Royal Infants of Portugal, the brothers Prince Henry and Prince Ferdinand fought valiantly against the Infidels, they captured the Moorish town of Ceuta, but lost the battle of Tangier. Prince Henry eventually withdrew to Portugal but his brother died a captive in the Sultan's dungeons. This had a profound impact on the young prince that realized the Muslims strength lay in their domination of the trade routes to the East. Read more about this at:

Picture of Prince Henry the Navigator

Prince Henry was a patient but determined man. He read everything he could put his hands on and accumulated maps and expertise from all over the world in an effort to break this stranglehold on the trade with the East. Two things gave him hope, he learnt about a great Christian King, called Prester John, that ruled over vast areas of Africa and India and he wanted to make contact with him. He also saw maps that indicated the possibility to sail around the southern tip of Africa on the way to India. While Prince Henry the Navigator was building up his nautical capabilities he was also sending out secret expeditions to explore these possibilities. The secretive nature of these investigations makes it very difficult for any historians to discover but some of it did come to light.

Picture of Diaz

We know that Duarte Pacheco sailed around West-Africa into the Gulf of Guinea and tried to reach Prester John via the rivers of central Africa. Pedro Cavilhao and Afonso de Paiva went via North-Africa in search of Prester John and India. Bartholomew Diaz was most probably shown the secret map of Africa and asked to find a route around the southern tip of Africa. We know that Diaz was partly successful and did manage to round the Cape before his crew threatened mutiny. On his return trip none of his messengers found Prester John and he picked up Duarte Pacheco on the coast of Guinea seized by the "fever-demon". None of them had news of Prester John but Diaz did find a way around the southern tip of Africa. Cavilhao and Paiva took different routes in their search with very different results. Cavilhao travelled from Egypt through Arabia and took a ship to India where he learned the secrets of the Indian Ocean trade. He sailed from India to Africa and saw the Port of Zofala from where he sailed north again and returned to Cairo. There he learned that Afonso de Paiva was dead and after the sad news wrote a letter to his king that changed the course of history. This is more or less what he wrote: "Keep southward: if you persist Africa must come to an end. And when ships come to the Eastern Ocean, let them ask for Zofala and the Island of the Moon, and they will find pilots to take them to Malabar."

Vasco da Gama

Pedro Covilhao's 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 visited the east-coast of Africa in search of a pilot to guide them across the Indian Ocean to India. Da Gama and his men were well received and they even named the area Terra da Boa Gente ("Country of the Good People"). Most of the sailors they met knew the way to India but was not keen to sail to India at that time of the year. He eventually found a pilot at Malindi in Kenya which reluctantly helped him and they got to India in just over three weeks. More to follow...