Tanzania: Portuguese dominance (1500-1698CE)

Updated September 2010

When Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape and sailed into the Indian Ocean his arrival spelled the end of a period of peaceful trade and prosperous development that had characterized East Africa hitherto; he was the harbinger of a time of destruction and dislocation that was to weaken Swahili culture and make it ripe for domination by outsiders (Columbia Encyclopaedia 2004). In 1498 Vasco da Gama reached the Swahili coast where the Christian intruder's trading activities received a hostile reception from Muslim merchants. On his second voyage, in 1502, he was much reinforced and repaid previous opposition with great brutality. He forced tribute from Kilwa and harassed Muslim trading, plundering and destroying as he progressed up the coast. Francisco d'Almeida, who followed on Da Gama, captured and sacked Kilwa in 1505 and Sofala was seized and fortified. By 1506 the East African littoral was largely under Portugal's control (Columbia Encyclopaedia 2004, Jones 1998).

The Swahilis, for their part, were not equipped to deal with the aggressor. In the years of peace that proceeded Portugal's intrusion fortifications had been allowed to decay and military forces were reduced in numbers and in capability. With their relatively large, fast and well armed ships the Portuguese could besiege and bombard the coastal settlements into submission without any resistance. The small principalities were unable to coordinate a general resistance, nor were the wide variety of traders able to synchronise a defence of their trade. The coordinated attempt by Egyptian and Diu rulers to expel the Portuguese in 1509, and the Turkish efforts at stoking rebellion in the 1580s, were both smashed by the superior Portuguese artillery (Columbia Encyclopaedia 2004, Jones 1998).

Unlike their predecessors, the Portuguese did not come to trade so much as to plunder and extract. In line with the mercantilist thinking of their time, the goal was not to engage in building up mutual relations of exchange of benefit to both parties, but to "increase treasure" at the expense of the other; this they pursued with brutality and vigour. The effect of these activities was to disrupt the established trade routes that formed the basis for local prosperity; economic activity declined, settlement populations fell and people migrated to escape poverty and Portuguese rapacity. They did, however, introduce new South American crops, corn, manioc, cashew, tomato and tobacco, which were to be of enduring value (Columbia Encyclopaedia 2004).

In the mid and late 1580s the expanding Turkish Empire sent naval forces under Ali Bey to Mombasa to organise a Muslim resistance to Portuguese power (Jones 1998). The rebellion was suppressed in 1590 by a Portuguese fleet from Goa, in alliance with the Zimbas, a marauding band from the Zambezi area. The Zimbas had earlier, in 1589, sacked Kilwa and ravaged its unfortunate inhabitants. From then on the central African position in the Indian Ocean trade shifted from Kilwa to Zanzibar (Byrne undated). The Portuguese for their part began a massive fortification in Mombasa in 1593, to act as a bulwark against any further Turkish intrusions. Fort Jesus, as it was known, was completed in the 1630s (Jones 1998).

Portugal's involvement with the Thirty Years War (1618-48) distracted her from East Africa and consumed her resources. In this weakened condition a resurgent Oman was able expel the Portuguese from Muscat in 1650 under the leadership of Sultan bin Saif. Although Portuguese were able to retain dominance over the East African littoral for half a century, his son Saif bin Sultan laid the basis for the final expulsion of the Portuguese by building ties with the various Swahili communities (History World undated).


BYRNE, P UNDATED "A Short History of Mafia Island", IN Nabataeans in Africa, Nabataea.net, [www] http://nabataea.net/mafia.html [opens new window] (accessed 23 Feb 2010).

COLUMBIA ENCYCLOPEDIA 2004, Sixth Edition, "Tanzania", [www] http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=101273670 [opens new window] (accessed 23 Feb 2010).

HISTORY WORLD UNDATED "History of Oman" [www] http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ad54 [opens new window] (accessed 23 Feb 2010).

JONES, J 1998 "Timeline of Portuguese Activity in East Africa, 1498-1700", IN African History to 1875, West Chester University, [www] http://courses.wcupa.edu/jones/his311/timeline/t-port.htm [opens new window] (accessed 23 Feb 2010).