Forgotten African empire: The conquest of Kilwa.
First hand accounts of an episode during the birth of modern Imperialism
Today one endlessly hears hype about globalization and the worlds new interconnectedness. If globalization as practiced today seems to have few merits for either the first or third worlds; creating joblessness, poverty and hunger in both the "underdeveloped" and developed worlds; at least it can be made to sound new and exciting. As we shall see global trade is nothing new. 500 years ago trade flowed between the Arab world, East Africa, China and India. My source for this article is a book published in 1964 but even back then archaeologists had discovered greek, roman, arab, and byzantine, Chinese and Indian coins in east Africa. Thus east Africa had been an important center of trade between southwest Asia (the middle east) Africa, China and India. In China the aristocracy did not dare to appear before the Emperor without being carried in chairs made of African Ivory. In India african Ivory was imported too make wedding bangles for brides only the african elephant had wide enough tusks. In addition Africa exported gold, Iron, and complex and colorful fabrics, among other things. Thus massive global trade had been ongoing for almost 2000 years when the Portuguese arrived in 1497. They were on their way to India (unlike Columbus they succeed) and had sailed along the west coast of Africa and around the cape of good hope. Columbus had discovered some islands off the coast of the Americas, and the Portuguese were to begin the process to subjecting the real Indians to yet another foreign conquest. But while the conquest of the new world is fairly well known and most have heard of the Aztecs or the Maya Kilwa has been largely forgotten. I find it interesting that imperialism in Asia, Africa and the Americas all began around 500 years ago. It may have something to do with the fall of Constantinople 40 years earlier when Europe lost valuable access to the eastern trade routes. In any case I think it shows the ways in which undevelopement is imposed from outside. Where there could be an African, Hong kong or new york there are now ruins. Centuries later Europe would pretend that Africa had never known civilization, forgetting what they had once known. Thus presented below with a few comments are some first hand accounts intended to rescue Kilwa from obscurity. It was one of a number of such cities in Africa now forgotten. They come from the book "The African Past: Chronicles from Antiquity to Modern Times" by Basil Davidson.
We are lucky enough to have an account of what the Kilwa themselves thought of the Portuguese. From the Kilwa Chronicle. But first a brief description from Ibn Battuttah a north African who was the Greatest medieval traveler going not merely to China like the more famous Marco Polo but India and Africa as well.
Kilwa is one of the most beautiful and most well constructed towns in the world. The whole of it is elegantly built.- Ibn Battutah
During al-Fudail's reign there came news from the land of Mozambique that the men had come from the land of the Franks. [A blanket term for europeans in arab and byzantine accounts acquired during the crusades] They had three ships and the name of the captain was al-Mirate. [Admiral Vasco da Gama] After a few days there came word that the ships had passed Kilwa and had gone on to Mafia [another island] The lord of Mafia rejoiced for they thought they [the Portuguese] were good and honest men. But those who knew the truth confirmed that they were corrupt and dishonest persons who had come only to spy out the land only to seize it. And they determined to cut the anchors of their ships that they should drift ashore and be wrecked by the Muslims. The franks learned of this and went on to Malindi [A trading city on the Kenya coast] When the people of Malinindi saw them, they knew they were bringers of war and corruption, and were troubled with very great fear. They gave [the Portuguese] all they asked, water, food, firewood, and everything else. And the Franks asked for a pilot to guide them to India, and after that back their own land - God curse it! - The Kilwa chronicle
I can't resist juxtaposing the description of the Malindi's views with this Portuguese account of Malindi
The king and people of this place ever were and are friends of the king of Portugal, and the Portuguese always find in them great comfort and friendship and perfect peace, and there the ships when they chance to pass that way, obtain supplies in plenty.
Also notice that the Portuguese were able to "discover" India soley thanks to help from Africa. This is a seldom remarked aspect of imperialism stealing the technical expertise of a population. This remanins Ongoing as pharmaceutical companies try to steal indigenous medical secrets, and agricultural products.
Here is a beautiful account of life in Kilwa by a Portuguese sailor.
Going along the coast from this town of Mozambique, there is an island hard by the mainland which is called Kilwa, in which is a Moorish town with many fair houses of stone and mortar, with many windows after our fashion, very well arranged in streets with many flat roofs. The doors are of wood, well carved with excellent joinery. Around it are streams and orchards and fruit gardens with many channels of sweet water. It has a Moorish king over it. From this place they trade with Sofala [another prosperous african trading city] whence they bring back gold, and from here they spread all over Arabia Felix...
Before the King our lord sent out his expedition to discover India the Moors of Sofala, Cuama, Angoya and Mozambique were all subject to the king of Kilwa, who was the most mighty king among them. And in this town was great plenty of gold, as no ships passed towards Sofala without first coming to this island. Of the moors there are some fair and some black, they are finely clad in many rich garments of gold and silk and cotton, and the women as well; also with much gold and silver in chains and bracelets, which they wear on their legs and arms, and many jeweled earrings in their ears. These Moors speak Arabic and follow the faith of al koran, and have great faith in Muhammed.
This town was taken by from it's king by the Portuguese, as, moved by arrogance, he refused to obey the king our lord. There they [meaning WE the portuguese] took many prisoners and the king of Kilwa fled from the island, and his highness [the king of Portugal] ordered a fort to be built there, and kept under his rule and governance. Afterwards he ordered that it should be pulled down, as it's maintenance was of no value nor profit to him, and it was destroyed by Antonio de Saldanha. -Duarte Barbosa
The last part about the fort is revealing, due to the sophistication of it's merchants and rulers who were able to tax a large portion of east african trade Kilwa became incredibly wealthy but once the portuguese sacked the city (among others) all the trade dried up. The island became worthless which is why the fort is destroyed. There is a long and boring portuguese account in the same book describing in detail how. The kilwa tax system and their methods for enforcing it as well as lamenting that since the conquest it is no longer in operation. However I will not reproduce it here. The projection onto the other prevalent in the media today is priceless it is not the Portuguese who are arrogant for demanding obedience rather it is the king of Kilwa for refusing it.
Here is a second account of Kilwa and it's destruction.
The introduction by Basil Davidson is worth qouting first.
Early Portuguese intentions on the East coast may be fairly summarized as being, first to plunder the Indian Ocean trade; secondly to put the seaboard towns in tribute; thirdly, to accumulate personal loot. In one way or another all these designs were briefly realized.
In Kilwa there are many strong houses several stories stories high. They are built of stone and mortar and plastered with various designs. As soon as the town had been taken without opposition, the Vicar-General and some Franciscan fathers came ashore carrying two crosses in procession and sing the Te Deum. They went to the palace and there the cross was put down and the grand Captain prayed. Then everyone started to plunder the town of all it's merchandise and provisions. [Two days later D'almeida fired the town, destroying as the account in de Barros explains, "the greater part of this city of abomination"]-Hans Mayr.
This requires comment how bizarre these portuguese seem to us engaging in a religious ceremony before pillaging Kilwa. But today we still bow down before our ideal blessing ourselves with terms like Democracy, Human rights, or slightly more honestly free trade before proceeding to pillage some country whether it be in Africa or even Europe. Also the reader will have to imagine for themselves how much murder, rape enslavement ,and mindless destruction went on summed up in the simple word plunder.
The conquest of Kilwa was only one such episode in the history of European "Exploration" modern Indian scholars more accurately label Vasco de Gama as a Pirate. The portuguese would move from looting the wealth of the islands to enslaving the people of the mainland a topic I may deal with at a future date. There are many forgotten cities like Kilwa. The portuguese would maintain their African possesions until the 1970's. Most of Africa would remain unconquered until the late 19th century. Instead Europeans would establish trading posts along the coast to sell slaves to replace those who died as a result of the conquest of America either inadvertently through disease or as a result of the cruel slavery imposed by the spanish and portuguese. A new global trading network founded on genocide and slavery had been born. Scholars believe that the gold and silver looted from America using african Slaves allowed the birth of Capitalism and the Industrial revolution. Ironically today America is still interfering with the renewed Trade between Africa and Asia with it's wars in Africa and Naval provocations in the South China sea. And it is still using murder and robbery to seize Africa's resources. Once again the west has lost it's trade advantage over the East relying instead on brute force. The hypocrisy and brutality of the empire live on 500 years later.