1.1  The Red Sea and Ethiopia

Through further exploratory and trading voyages Portugal gained more information about the Indian Ocean seaboard which was dotted with ports making up a vast and thriving Arab Muslim commercial network.  Vasco da Gama employed a Muslim pilot in his Indian Ocean explorations, but Portuguese national feeling towards Muslims was instinctively hostile, remembering Arab occupation of their country, and was ready to use the “advancement of Christianity” as a cover for getting rich quickly by plundering the Muslim ports.

After initial Portuguese action against Kilwa and Mombasa, Afonso de Albuquerque took over the fleet in 1506 and attacked Arab shipping, turning the Indian Ocean into a Portuguese lake.  In 1507 the Portuguese took Soqotra, and island inhabited by Christians off the horn of Africa,1 Hormûz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, and on the Arabian side of the gulf, Suhâr and Muscat in `Umân.  In 1510 they took Goa in India and made it a base for operations in Africa and the Far East.  In 1513 they took Karaman, an island at the entrance to the Red Sea.  The Red Sea attracted the Portuguese because it was the trade route to Egypt.  They took the port of Massawa on the Eritrean coast, but found navigation in the Red Sea difficult because of winds from the northwest from April to July.  Ocean caravels were unsuitable, and the galleys thaat were needed did not come.  Albuquerque’s dying counsel to Don Manuel in 1517 was “Close very securely the doors of the Strait,” but this advice on the security of the Red Sea was disregarded.

In the meantime some Franciscans and other Italian visitors had been coming to Ethiopia in a steady stream through Egypt since around 1440.  In 1450 Zâr’a-Ya’iqob even sent an embassy to Alfonso of Aragon (ruler of Naples and Sicily) which visited Pope Nicholas V.  The popes hoped to draw Ethiopia into the union declared at the Council of Florence (1439) with other eastern Churches, but nothing was effected.  King João II of Portugal sent Afonso de Paiva and Pero da Covilham overland to Ethiopia in 1487; the first died in Cairo and the second reached Ethiopia in 1494.  The queen Illénî (Helen) saw the danger Ethiopia was in because of its isolation and encirclement by hostile Muslim powers and around 1511 sent an Armenian named Matthew to King Manuel to secure an alliance with Portugal.  He arrived in Lisbon in 1514 and was sent back with Duarte Galvão and Francisco Álvares.  The embassy arrived in Ethiopia in 1520, but Queen Illénî had retired and the king, Libnä-Dingil, had just defeated Sultan Muammad of Adal who was invading Ethiopia from the east.  King Libnä-Dingil would not accept Matthew nor the Portuguese, and after waiting six years they left, taking Säga Zâb as ambassador to Portugal.

The next event was the great devastation of Ethiopia beginning in 1531 by the imâm Amad ibn-Ibrâhîm al-Ghâzî, known to the Ethiopians as Amad Grañ (“the left-handed”).  He first gained control of the Muslim areas of Harar and Somalia, southeast of Ethiopia, and then prepared his followers for a jihâd against Ethiopia.  The Ottoman government of Egypt supplied him with firearms in order to counter the Portuguese in the Red Sea.  The Spanish too, at Zailâ, supplied the Muslims with arms to counteract the Portuguese.

Within a short time Amad overran nearly the whole of Ethiopia, driving the king from one mountain refuge to another.  The Muslim occupation lasted only from 1531 to 1543, but the amount of destruction in this short time “can only be estimated in terms of centuries.”2 Churches were pulled down, their riches plundered, their books and paintings burnt, and the clergy massacred.  The people turned to Islam in droves; “hardly one in ten retained his religion.”3  Some were allowed to keep their Christianity and pay the jizya, but most were given the choice only of death or becoming Muslim, and any who put up resistance were massacred.

Final disaster was averted only by the intervention of the Portuguese, to whom the Ethiopians appealed for help.  In 1542 Cristovão da Gama led 400 men into Ethiopia.  After fourteen months of successful campaigning Cristovão and 250 of his men were killed in a battle against Amad and the Turkish reinforcements sent to help him.  Fifty of the surviving Portuguese thought all was lost and returned to Massawa.  The remaining 100 regrouped with King Gäladéwos (1540-59) and attacked and killed Amad in his camp in 1543.  With his death Amad’s troops dispersed.  Ethiopia was free, but never the same again.

As soon as the war was over a massive and irresistible wave of pagan Galla immigrated from the west, covering the southern and as yet unassimilated provinces of Ethiopia.  They also overran Harar to the east, causing all Muslim power southwest of Ethiopia to disintegrate.  In the north, however, the Turks continued their harassment, and in 1557 captured Massawa and all the other Red Sea ports.  Yet by the end of the 16th century, as the Ottoman Empire began to decline, the Turks withdrew from the Eritrean shores.

The Portuguese who had rescued Ethiopia hoped to maintain a continuing influence there.  Their presence was welcome at first, but very soon resented.  The Ethiopian ambassador in Lisbon, Säga Zâb, was asked to write a book about Ethiopian beliefs.  he did, and it was translated into Latin as Fides, religion moresque Aethiopum (Louvain, 1540).  The Inquisition detected 41 “errors” in it and put it on the index of forbidden books.  The Ethiopians were then officially considered heretics who had to be converted.

A Jesuit mission was sent by St. Ignatius Loyola which was unsuccessful.  A later mission, led by the Jesuit Pero Paez, arrived in 1603 and succeeded not only in introducing printing and other European inventions and skills, but also in effecting the long desired union with the Pope.  There was not much difficulty in accepting the Pope, a vague and almost mythical figure a full year’s journey away, but Pero’s successor Afonso Mendes SJ, who came in 1626, set about reordaining Ethiopian clergy, rebaptizing the people, and Latinizing all the Church customs.  A revolt ensued, and the Emperor Susenyos was forced to declare a return to the traditional ways.  In 1634 relations were broken with Portugal, the Jesuits were expelled, and the Ethiopians sought the help of Muslim powers to keep the Portuguese out.  For 100 years the Portuguese had searched for the legendary Prester John, for 100 years they tried to convert him, then separated in failure.4

1.2  The northern coastal towns

            Military intervention

The proud and prosperous Arab settlements on Africa’s east coast at first treated the Portuguese visitors with cool disdain.  Their days of distress began in 1505 when d’Almeida took and sacked Kilwa, the most flourishing of these city-states, and went on to sack and burn Mombasa and in the next year Brava.  Zanzibar paid ribute and was not attacked, while Malindi became an ally of the Portuguese.  By 1530 the whole coast was under Portuguese direct or indirect rule.

Portugal in fact did not gain much by controlling these towns.  Taxes and repressive measures all but killed the trade and prosperity of the area.  The townspeople naturally resented Portuguese rule, and when `Alî Bey came in 1585 claiming to represent the Turks and promising aid to the towns that would revolt, Mombasa and all the towns to the north except Malindi did so.  The promised aid did not come, and in 1586 `Alî sailed off with a ship full of gifts and loot.  In 1587 the Portuguese reimposed their authority on the towns, sacking Mombasa and destroying Faza (on Pate island).  In 1588 `Alî Bey returned once more and the towns rose again in his support.  `Alî tried unsuccessfully to take Malindi which remained loyal to the Portuguese, and then tried to fortify Mombasa.  The Portuguese arrived again and stormed the town, but the migrant Zimba people, who had destroyed Kilwa the year before and massacred its people, turned on Mombasa and eliminated `Alî’s base.  The Portuguese then decided to make Mombasa their central base for the northern coast and in 1593 began building Fort Jesus on Mombasa island.  But their control of the northern coast did not revive its prosperity and by 1600 Portuguese power in the Indian Ocean was in serious decline.

            The Franciscans and Augustinians

Franciscan chaplains accompanied the first Portuguese explorers and settlers.  The Muslims of the coastal towns were not receptive to their preaching, and the Franciscans did not venture into the mainland.

Towards the end of the 16th century Portuguese Augustinians were active in Mombasa and Malindi.  Seeing the openness to Christianity of the non-Muslim Africans surrounding the Arab-Swahili towns, and feeling the need to pursue their evangelization seriously, one Augustinian in 1590 asked for the creation of a separate diocese for East Africa, independent of the archdiocese of Goa.  Although an Apostolic Vicariate was established in 1612 for Mozambique, Mombasa and the rest of the north continued to be administered by a representative of the archbishop of Goa.  In 1624 this administrator, who was an Augustinian, reported that in Mombasa and the towns of Faza and Pate there was a total of 1,000 Black Christians, while on Zanzibar island there were 500, and in Kilwa a large number.

1.3  The south coast: evangelization and colonization

The Portuguese in 1505 took the trading port of Sofala and established trading outposts at Delagoa Bay and Quilimane.  In 1507 they took Mozambique island and in 1558 built a fort on it, making it their central base in the south, just as Mombasa was in the north.  The Swahili who formerly conducted all the trade with the interior were quickly displaced by the Portuguese, who after 1550 moved up the Zambezi river and founded settlements at Sena and Tete.  These towns were in territory belonging to the kingdom of Mwanamutapa (also the title of the king) whose capital was near Mt. Darwin in present day Zimbabwe.  Relations between the Portuguese and the people of Mwanamutapa were at first very cordial, but quickly deteriorated.

            The Jesuits

In 1541 St. Francis Xavier SJ, who did not stop in West Africa at all on his way to the East, made several stops in East Africa, holding discussions with Muslims in Malindi before going on to India.  In 1555 Manuel Fernandes, another Jesuit on his way to India, stopped at Mozambique and complained that Portuguese oppression was deterring the Africans from the faith.5

One day in 1559 the son of the king of Inhambane came to Mozambique island.  Treated honourably and given baptism, Prince Sebastião returned home and convinced his father and his people of the advantages of Christianity and friendship with the Portuguese.  King Gamba sent his son back to Mozambique to ask for missionaries.  In 1560 three Jesuits came from Goa.  After three weeks of instruction they baptized the king and everyone in Tonga his capital.  But the fame of Mwanamutapa beckoned onwards, and Fr. Gonçalo da Silveira left behind Fr. Fernandez and the brother who accompanied them and went on to the king of Mwanamutapa.  After twenty-five days he baptized the king and a large number of his people.  Then some Swahili Muslims told the king that the Jesuit was a sorcerer and plotted his downfall.  Fr. Gonçalo was then strangled in the night and his body thrown into the river.  Back in Inhambane Fr. Fernandes found King Gamba and his people refractory to the ethical demands of Christianity.  Fr. Fernandes was consequently abandoned to grope in his ignorance of the language and customs of the people and, after selling even his Mass equipment to buy food, he pulled out.  Other Jesuits who were waiting to join the first group then changed their minds.

In 1571 the Portuguese sent an expedition to Mwanamutapa to avenge the death of Fr. Gonçalo and capture the gold mines, but the soldiers had to turn back because of hunger and sickness.  Some Jesuits who accompanied this expedition found the people whom their predecessors had baptized completely disinterested in Christianity.  In 1573 the Portuguese succeeded in extracting from King Nogomo of Mwanamutapa the concession of a number of gold mines and possession of a strip of territory on the south bank of the Zambezi from Tete to the ocean.  More and more Portuguese settlers came to take advantage of African land, resources and labour.

            The Dominicans

In 1577 the Dominicans established a house on Mozambique island which was made a priory in 1579.  From this priory they went up and down the coast, in the north to Mombasa and Malindi, where they worked among African non-Muslims as well as the Portuguese, and in the south to Quilimane and Sofala and up the Zambeze river to Sena, Tete and the Mwanamutapa heartland.  In 1609 João dos Santos OP, who had been a long time in East Africa, published his Ethiopia Oriental, an important work on East Africa at that time.  He himself had baptized 1,644 “kafirs” (the name given by the Muslims to the pagan Africans which has survived to this day in South Africa as an appellative for a Black man), and noted that in 1591 the baptism books of Sena and Tete registered 20,000 baptisms.  In Sena town there were 800 Christians, of whom only 50 were Portuguese; in Tete there were 600, including 40 Portuguese.  João dos Santos was concerned about the purity of faith of the African Christians who continued to take part in the practices of their traditional religion or of Islam.  In trying to meet this challenge the Dominicans did not begin schools, as the Jesuits were to do, but promoted prayer and catechetical societies, such as those of the Rosary, the Holy Name of Jesus, the Immaculate Conception and St. Anthony of Padua.

            Events of the 17th century

In the meantime the Dominicans were losing their zeal and in 1605 had to be warned against accumulating private funds and sending the money home to their relatives.  The competition of the Jesuits, who returned in 1607, was good for them.  The Jesuits began a school in Chemba, on the Zambeze river, where among other things they had the children sing their catechism in their won language.  In 1624 they had eight stations in the Zambeze region, including Sena, Chemba and Tete, with twenty priests.  In the same year they started a college on Mozambique island, taking over the hospital building of the Brothers of St. John of God, who had been there since the middle of the 16th century.6  In 1628 this college had twelve Jesuit teachers.  The students, however, as in other Jesuit colleges in Africa, were almost exclusively the sons of Portuguese settlers.  At the same time there was a house of eight or nine Augustinians in Mozambique, while the Dominicans had thirteen stations in the Zambeze region with twenty-five men.  Eleven diocesan priests also served the region.

In 1623 Miguel Rangel OP reported that the Mwanamutapa king Gatsi Rusere (1596-1627) allowed his sons Filipe and Diogo to be baptized.  Yet he said the progress of evangelization faced two obstacles: the efforts of Muslims to subvert it and the oppression and enslaving practised by the Portuguese.  Portuguese-Mwanamutapa tensions came to a head in 1628 when the Portuguese refused to pay their annual tax.  The king Kapararidze took punitive action, and the Portuguese, who got little help from Mozambique, raised a citizens army of 250 Portuguese and many thousand Africans, led by Luiz do Espirito Santo OP.  In 1629 they deposed Kapararidze and installed his uncle Mavura as king.  After eight months of daily instruction Mavura was baptized, taking the name Felipe (after the Spanish ruler of Portugal), and signed a capitulation which made him a vassal of the king of Spain and Portugal, and gave the Portuguese many privileges.  He also agreed to expel the Swahili Muslims within one year.  The new king’s son and nephews were baptized and the son sent to Goa for education.  The deposed king Kapararidze with a band of followers succeeded in capturing and killing Luiz do Espirito Santo and another Dominican in 1633, but King Mavura defeated him afterwards in battle.  Kapararidze’s brother Miguel, who was a friend of Luiz do Espirito Santo, entered the Dominican Order and was ordained a priest.7

Also in 1633 and East African Dominican priest called “Dominicus Africanus” finished a long period of studies in Italy and returned to his homeland.  In 1652 the new king of Mwanamutapa, Mavura’s son, was baptized with the name Domingos.  His son entered the Dominican novitiate in Goa, taking the name Constantin do Rosário.  He served as prior and vicar provincial and taught for a long time in the Goa House of Studies.  In 1670 the Master General of the Order honoured him with the title “Master of Sacred Theology”.8  Another Dominican priest of Mozambique is recorded in the 17th century named Lucas do Espirito Santo.9

1.4 Madagascar

The Portuguese discovered Madagascar in 1500 and called it the island of San Lourenço.  They had intermittent contact with the island and raided Arab trading stations several times.  In the south they built two small forts or shipping posts.  In 1570 seventy Portuguese with their Dominican chaplain were invited to a feast where most of them were murdered.10 In 1585 some other Dominicans made the first serious attempt to preach the Gospel to the people when they accompanied some Portuguese traders to the west of the island.  The preaching was terminated in 1587 when some Muslims attacked the Portuguese and poisoned Fr. Joãõ de São Tomé.

Because the French, Dutch and English were visiting Madagascar frequently, the Portuguese sent another exploratory expedition in 1613 which included two Jesuits, Pero Freire and Luis Mariano.  At Antanosy in the southeast of the island they persuaded the king to allow evangelization and to send his son Ramaka to Goa.  Baptized with the name André, Ramaka returned in 1616, accompanied by more Jesuits.  In the meantime the king held two Jesuits hostage while the Portuguese sent his nephew to Goa.  The latter returned in 1617, baptized with the name Jerónimo.  By this time the king tired of the Portuguese and forbade his people to help them or to have anything to do with them.  The Jesuits left for Sahadia on the west of the island, where other Jesuits had begun working the year before.  They had to leave that place too in the same year because Muslim influence and the reputation of the Portuguese turned the people against them. The Jesuits returned several times in the following years but did no more than visit.

n 1642 the French took over from the Portuguese and established Fort Dauphin in the southeast as their main centre.  Attempts to get Carmelites and Capuchins to come ended in failure because of the intrigue of many parties.  In 1648 St. Vincent de Paul sent two priests of his society.  One died within a year and the other after two years.  The latter, Charles Nacquart, learned the language, enjoyed the respect of André Ramaka who was now king, and had great success.  But after Nacquart’s death the French came to war with the natives and pillaged their land.  Rival shipping companies made it impossible for more Vincentians to come until 1654, and the newcomers only lived a few months.  One, Fr. Bourdaise, succeeded in reestablishing peace during his three months of work, but after his death in 1657 war broke out again and King André was killed.  Shipwrecks and other difficulties prevented any more priests from coming until 1663.  Fr. Étienne and a few companions resumed the work that had been interrupted and started a seminary which had 20 students in 1672.  But many obstacles led the Vincentians to pull out of Madagascar.  Only two brothers were left in 1674 when all the remaining Frenchmen on the island were either massacred or fled.  The Vincentians continued their work on Réunion and Mauritius islands, but no more evangelization was attempted in Madagascar until the 19th century.

1.5  The decline of Portugal in East Africa

By 1600 Portugal had fallen far behind England, France and Holland in sea power.  But these countries were not interested in East Africa and did little to bother the Portuguese.  Nevertheless fewer and fewer Portuguese ships made the trip to East Africa.  This decline occurred largely because of Portugal’s being annexed to Spain from 1580 to 1640.

In 1630 a new king came to power in Mombasa named Jerónimo.  Converted from Islam by the Augustinians and baptized as a young man, he was educated in Goa.  After his accession to power he was persuaded that he could not have full power as king unless he reverted to Islam and expelled the Portuguese, who had killed his father in 1614.  Entering Fort Jesus with a few followers, he killed the unsuspecting Portuguese captain and took control of the town.  Yûsuf ibn-asan, as he was called once again, then gave all the Portuguese and African Christians the choice of becoming Muslim or death.  Sixty Portuguese and about two hundred Africans or mulattoes were martyred.  Four hundred were sold in slavery to Muslim sea merchants.  The Portuguese tried and failed to retake Mombasa in 1632, but Yûsuf then fled from fear and abandoned the city to the Portuguese.  After Portuguese reprisals against the people of Pate for helping Yûsuf there was a rising in Pemba in 1646 in which all the Christians were killed.  The greatest threat to the Portuguese, however, was to come from abroad.

The Portuguese lost Hormûz in the Persian Gulf in 1620, then in `Umân the fort of uâr in 1643 and the town of Muscat in 1650.  The revived `Umân kingdom developed a navy and in 1652 landed on Zanzibar and sacked the Portuguese town.  The Queen of Zanzibar and rulers of some other towns rallied to the `Umânîs, but the Portuguese from Mombasa quickly repelled them, and there was a respite from `Umânî attacks for a time.

As for the Church on the north coast at this time, a report by the Dominican Vittorio Ricci in 1654 says that Mogadishu was in Muslim hands and the Augustinians had left it; Augustinians were still in Mombasa, while on Zanzibar and the islands to the south there were Christians under the care of Augustinians and Dominicans.  In 1657 in Ampaza (Faza on Pate island) an Augustinian was sending young converted slaves to Goa so that they could grow up without danger to their faith.

In 1661 the `Umân forces again attacked Mombasa, but left because they could not take Fort Jesus.  In 1670 they attacked Mozambique island but here also were unable to take the fort.  In 1678 the Portuguese mounted a punitive expedition against Pate, Siu (also on Pate island), Lamu and Manda, but `Umânî ships landed and chased the Portuguese out before they finished.  In 1694 Pemba island rebelled successfully against the Portuguese, and in 1696 the `Umânîs once more besieged Mombasa.  Although the Queen of Zanzibar sent aid to the Portuguese, Fort Jesus fell in 1698.  The Portuguese lost the whole north coast, and were left only with Mozambique island and stations to the south.  In the north the Portuguese made a last try in 1728, taking Mombasa but losing it the next year.

In the south the land of Mwanamutapa fell to pieces under the vigilante rule of Portuguese settler barons.  The Church was doing no better.  Someone was always proposing to found a seminary for indigenous priests, but like elsewhere in Portuguese Africa no action was taken.  The Jesuit visitator Manuel Barreto in 1667 complained that the Dominicans would only take posts with good revenues.  The Dominicans also shunned any cooperation with other orders and succeeded in keeping the Carmelites and Capuchins out of Mwanamutapa.  The only new foundation was the return of the Brothers of St. John of God to Mozambique island in 1681.  They wanted to take local novices to help in their hospital work, but the King of Portugal refused, saying they should get religious personnel from Portugal.11

In the meantime the Portuguese position on the Zambeze grew steadily weaker.  From 1684 a local chieftain named Changamire threatened to take over the whole territory.  The Portuguese took some emergency steps to defend their settlements, and by 1690 the gold trade was doing well again.  Then in 1693 Changamire made a surprise attack on Dambarare, a remote trading post, and massacred all the foreigners.  He took the skins of two Dominicans and some other Portuguese to display in front of his army in further attacks.  Against the ruling king of Mwanamutapa, who was cooperating with Changamire, the Portuguese supported the succession claims of Pedro, son of the former king.  No real peace came, however, until Changamire died in 1695.

Pedro died around 1698.  His son Constantin was deprived of the throne by his uncle; so his Dominican friend Francisco da Trinidade wrote to Portugal in 1709 to see if the young man could be restored.  The Portuguese government would do nothing; so Constantin turned to religious life, becoming a Dominican along with his brother João.12

Candidates such as these, however, which had to be sent to Goa for training, did not prevent East Africa from entering a dark age.  The Portuguese treatment of the local people and their general mismanagement led to a political impasse and economic depression.  Many people on every level of society were committed Christians, but indigenous Christian leadership was lacking.  The Mwanamutapa kings and other Christian officials were dependent on the Portuguese for their position and supported Christianity to suit the Portuguese, to the extent that this was expedient.  Two hundred years were to go by before another serious attempt was made to introduce Christianity to southeast Africa.

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1 In the 13th century Marco Polo asserted that Soqotra was inhabited by Christian people.  Juan Augur says that Martin Fernandez de Figueroa conquered the island from a Christian people who were originally from Fataque, a land of Arabia (Documentos, III, 627).  St. Francis Xavier describes the “St. Thomas Christians” of this island in 1542 (Freeman-Grenville, 1975, 135-7).

2Tamrat (1972), 301.

3Trimingham (1952), 88.

4Sanceau (1944), 230.

5Documentos, VII, 303.

6Brásio (1950), 271-9.

7Axelson (1964), 71 and note 73.  See also the anonymous report written around 1655, in the Dominican General Archives (Santa Sabina, Rome), XIII, 56900, p. 23.  Most other Dominican records of African missions are lost.

8Loedding (1974), 102; Brásio (1963), n. 10.  Brásio, however, following Lucas de Santa Caterina, VI, 335, gives the Dominican’s name as Miguel.  This must be a confusion with Kapararidze’s brother, whom Brásio does not mention.  The report in the Dominican Archives (supra cit., p. 24) says that Domingos had three sons, named Philip, Alexius and John.  There is no mention of a Miguel.

9Brásio (1963), n. 11.

10Jadin (1973), Loedding (1974), 100, and Rommerskirchen (1951), 1786, place the event in 1540.

11Ferraz (1973), n. 358, for the year 1681.

12Brásio (1962), n. 9; Ferraz (1973), n. 244.