Five hundred years ago an act of force and terror symbolised a key turning point for all of Africa’s people. Portuguese adventurers sacked the city of Mombasa in what is now Kenya, slaughtering many of its inhabitants and destroying great cultural treasures.
The butchery announced that European rulers were beginning a new phase in their relationship with Africa. It was a grim forerunner for the five centuries of domination and cruelty that followed.
The regions the Portuguese assaulted were places of high culture and development. The earliest description of the east coast of Africa was written in the second century AD. It comes from a sailor’s guide, probably compiled in Alexandria, in modern Egypt. Called the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, it demonstrates that routes along the coast of East Africa were, at the time of writing, well sailed and important for trade.
The document shows respect for East Africans. It talks of the land of Azania (Africa) where “there is much ivory and tortoiseshell. Men of the greatest stature inhabit the whole coast and at each place have set up chiefs.”
From the earliest times East Africa began to make links with the rest of the continent and with the Middle East. Arab migration brought Islam to East Africa. Its spread, from about 700 AD, was mainly a peaceful process of gradual conversion. A society grew up that was both African and Arab.
Long after he had travelled through East Africa in 1331, the Moroccan scholar Ibn Batuta could still remember the town of Kilwa as “one of the most beautiful and best constructed towns in the world” — and by that time he had seen the cities of India, China and his own Moorish countries. Trade grew with China, symbolised by the arrival of a giraffe in Beijing as a present for the emperor in 1415.
Then the Europeans arrived in East Africa. The Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama is still often described as “the discoverer of the sea route to the East Indies”. In fact his skill lay in “discovering” knowledge held by others.
Da Gama first arrived on the east coast of Africa in 1498 and began looking for a route to India. When the Europeans and the Africans met, the Portuguese were impoverished in comparison with the well dressed African merchants.
Historian John Reader writes, “When the fleet anchored in Mocambique a sheikh sent a sheep and great quantities of oranges, lemons and sugar cane to the ships. In return he was presented with a string of coral beads. This was a gross insult, akin to offering a lump of coal to the owner of a coal mine.”
Da Gama’s followers turned to force. They bombarded the town of Mocambique with cannon and took two Arab hostages.
To extract information from the Arabs, the Portuguese dropped boiling oil on to their skin.
Sailing on, da Gama was fortunate to find and hire the most famous Arab pilot of his age, Ahmad Ibn-Madjid. It was Ibn-Madjid who took da Gama’s fleet to Calcutta, India. Da Gama then returned to Africa where, with his crews almost on the verge of extinction through scurvy, he was saved by the kindness of Africans. Once re-equipped, the Portuguese returned home.
But now they knew the riches that existed in East Africa, they resolved to return with a far more murderous force. The Portuguese attempted to justify their plunder by reference to religious morality.
Much of East Africa was Muslim, so Christian rulers said there was a duty to win it back. Pope Nicholas V, who had already blessed the Portuguese assault on Africa, confirmed that it was justified to enslave non-believers. Such an ideology led to many atrocities.
When they arrived at a city in their heavily armed vessels, the conquering forces would demand that the rulers accept Portuguese control and pay huge annual tributes. Cities that refused were attacked, burned and much of their populations killed.
The Portuguese attacked Zanzibar first. In 1503 the sea captain Ruy Luourenco Ravasco, working on his own initiative, blasted at the townspeople with his ship’s cannon until the sultan of Zanzibar agreed to pay an annual tribute. For the rest of that year Ravasco and his companions sailed up and down the coast, seizing ships and ransoming them for payment in gold.
This was followed by the officially organised assault. Francisco d’Almeida was sent with a fleet of 11 ships to seize control of the more important towns and cities.
The sultan of Mombasa refused to pay tribute to the Portuguese and continued to maintain direct trading contacts with Arabia and the Persian Gulf.
Because of this defiance, the city was partially destroyed in 1505 and then was subject to two further sackings in 1528 and 1589. After the third attack the Portuguese built a huge fortress at Mombasa which they called Fort Jesus.
Completed in 1599, Fort Jesus became the main centre of Portuguese authority in Eastern Africa for the next century.
Its massive, threatening walls symbolised the violence with which Portuguese domination of the trade along the East African coast was maintained for much of the 16th and 17th centuries.
The Portuguese attacks of the 16th century were typical of embryonic forms of market societies, pointing towards capitalism.
Africa was not yet drawn into a world system of competitive imperialist accumulation, but the Portuguese raids were early examples of outside powers seeking to dominate whole societies — just as Columbus had done in the Americas.
The terrible events of 1505 were almost nothing compared to the barbarities of the Atlantic slave trade and colonialism which would come later as capitalism grew stronger.
But 1505 demonstrated an attitude which opened the way to much worse. It should not be forgotten that around a third of the 12 million Africans who were transported from Africa between 1500 and 1800 were taken to sugar plantations in Brazil by the Portuguese.
Those of us who have suffered the pains of colonialism, and still suffer from the way that the powerful dominate the globe, can see that 1505 was a terrible and crucial year.