Mozambique: Sofala & Chibuene

Welcome once again dear readers to another entry in our ABC of World History. Today I am taking you back to Africa to the area of Mozambique in yet another effort to make this blog less eurocentric. I really hope the importance of this area comes across because as I was doing my research I still found so many sources about Mozambique and the Swahili coast of Africa that seem to ignore anything noteworthy before the European colonialists swinging by. So today I am bringing you some details about the development of Mozambique in the middle ages and the importance of this area for the development of trade.

As you may know, the Indian ocean key for trade in Africa since ancient times, and Mozambique is an important enclave. Evidence suggests however that since the collapse of the roman empire, sea trade may have declined for people living on the east coast of Africa and this may have powered the growth of the interior of countries such as Mozambique. But changes again with the arrival of Islam into Africa in the 7th century when the Indian ocean becomes again a prime hub for the exchange of goods, people and culture. Although it has been debated for a very long time how much interaction and mingling was between the Bantu and Swahili peoples of Mozambique and surrounding areas, it seems to transpire that there was a fair interaction and integration between the Arab newcomers and the natives. Briggs and Edmunds argue that the best evidence of this is in the language. Although Islam triumphs in terms of religious conversion, Swahili became the language used overall, even if with some Arabic borrowings. Now that you have some context I would like to use the following sections to 2 different enclaves in Mozambique that highlight the importance of trade and that show how active this part of the world has been for such a long time:

10th-century sources written by Ali Masudi hint at the idea that they were aware of the importance of gold resources in the region, highlighting the settlement of Sofala which is located in central Mozambique by the estuary of the Buzi River, which is the largest river on the east African coast between the Sabi and the Pungue. Sofala is arguably one of the oldest port and trading settlements in the area, however, it has since then been lost. The clearest reason for the loss of this settlement is a recurring issue in this area of shifting sands: the Buzi river can be quite temperamental and its course can change and vary causing floods, sand shifts, the ea comes in and takes away from the dunes, and this gets particularly bad during the changes of the seasons, so settlements in this area are known to have to be rebuilt and slightly change locations. This area by the estuary of the Buzi would have been, otherwise, a popular place to settle and live due to its ideal conditions for life. Newitt suggests that by the time the Portuguese arrived in Mozambique in the 16th century, Sofala would have counted with around 10000 inhabitants.

We know that the gold traded from Sofala most likely came from the site of Manica in western Mozambique, as well as potentially some gold coming through trade from Zimbabwe. Al Idrisi in the 12th century also mentions Sofala and refers to it as a key enclave for the trade of iron, gold and animal skins. One of the great enablers for the success of trading through different water channels in this area is the dhow ships. Al Idrisi also states that by this moment in time, Mozambique and the rest of the eastern African coast are trading with places such as China and India. Moreover, Newitt suggests that the connection between Sofala and Madagascar was crucial for this engagement with the far east, as Sofala had always had a trading partnership with Madagascar and this enabled their goods to reach further afield destinations.

This is an archaeological site of great value in the south of Mozambique. Just like Sofala, Chibuene was an important trading enclave. There seems to have been a farming community in Chibuene since 400 AD. However, the evidence for the proper occupation of the area and development of trade comes from the 7th century. The large amounts of shellfish found in the different archaeological layers of the site suggest that this may have been an important source of food and protein despite the animal husbandry. This will change later in the middle ages with the Arab influence and development of places like Sofala. Sites further south along the coast of Mozambique like Chibuene seem to have been the original key connector in the Indian Ocean trade network however, the shift to sites further north during the developments of the high and later middle ages cause Chibuene to suffer a decline in trade and population by proxy. These changes seem to have driven the population back to farming during the later middle ages, and seemingly caused intermittent occupation and even abandonment of the site for long periods at certain given times.

However, the importance of Chibuene and trade network is without doubt of great importance for the development of the inland and the growing civilization of Great Zimbabwe. According to Ekblom and Sinclair, Chibuene may have attracted trading partners due to its status as a free zone with connections into the southern African interior and out into the Indian ocean. This place would have been the primary gateway for goods coming across the ocean and into the deeper parts of the country. The archaeological evidence points out that ceramics played a significant role in the development of Chibuene and trade. Most of these were Islamic glazed wares possibly originating from the area of Sanjan in Gurajat (India), according to Nanji. But the most remarkable item that was brought to Chibuene by the Indian Ocean trading network was Zhizo-style glass beads of Persian origin. According to Ekblom, by the 15th century, the settlement was exporting animal skins, ivory and even slaves for these beads.

Now that you know about these sites and a bit more about Mozambique, I hope this inspires you to do some research into the more distant past of Africa. See you in the next post!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s