Sofala, at present known as Nova Sofala, used to be the chief seaport
Mwenemutapa Kingdom, whose capital was at Mount Fura. It is
located on the
Sofala Bank in
Sofala Province of Mozambique. It was
founded by Somali merchants and seafarers.
Sofala in Somali literally
means “Go dig”. This name was given because the area is rich with
1.1 Portuguese arrival
One of the oldest harbours documented in Southern Africa, medieval
Sofala was erected on the edge of a wide estuary formed by the Buzi
River (called Rio de
Sofala in older maps). The Somali merchants from
Mogadishu, the capital of the Ajuran Empire, established a colony in
Mozambique to extract gold from the mines in Sofala.
Buzi River connected
Sofala to the internal market town of Manica,
and from there to the gold fields of Great Zimbabwe. Sometime in the
Sofala emerged as a small trading post and was
incorporated into the greater global monsoon complex. In the 1180s,
Sultan Suleiman Hassan of Kilwa (in present-day Tanzania) seized
control of Sofala, and brought
Sofala into the
Kilwa Sultanate and the
Swahili cultural sphere. The Swahili strengthened its trading
capacity by having, among other things, rivergoing dhows ply the Buzi
and Save rivers to ferry the gold extracted in the hinterlands to the
Sofala's subsequent position as the principal entrepot of the
Mwenemutapa gold trade prompted Portuguese chronicler
Thomé Lopes to
Sofala with the biblical
Ophir and its ancient rulers with
the dynasty of the Queen of Sheba. Alternately, in the late
1800s and early 1900s,
Augustus Henry Keane
Augustus Henry Keane argued that
Sofala was the
Biblical Tarshish. Since the early 1900s, both notions have been
discarded. The name
Sofala is most probably derived from the Arabic
for 'lowlands', a reference to the flat coastlands and low-lying
islands and sandbanks that characterize the region.
Although the revenues from Sofala's gold trade proved a windfall for
the Sultans of Kilwa, and allowed them to finance the expansion of the
Swahili commercial empire all along the East African coast,
not a mere subsidiary or outpost of Kilwa, but a leading town in its
own right, with its own internal elite, merchant communities, trade
connections and settlements as far south as
Cape Correntes (and some
across the channel in Madagascar). Formally,
Sofala continued to
belong to the Kingdom of Mwenemutapa, the Swahili community paying
tribute for permission to reside and trade there. The Sultan of Kilwa
had jurisdiction only over the Swahili residents, and his governor was
more akin to a consul than a ruler. The city retained a great degree
of autonomy, and could be quite prickly should the Sultan of Kilwa try
to interfere in its affairs.
Sofala was easily the most dominant
coastal city south of Kilwa itself.
Main article: Portuguese expedition to
Sofala (Anaia, 1505)
Portuguese explorer and spy Pêro da Covilhã, travelling overland
disguised as an Arab merchant, was the first European known to have
Sofala in 1489. His secret report to
Sofala's role as a gold emporium (although by this time, the gold
trade was quite diminished from its heyday). In 1501
scouted from the sea and its location determined by captain Sancho de
Tovar. In 1502, Pedro Afonso de Aguiar (others say Vasco da Gama
himself) led the first Portuguese ships into
Aguiar (or Gama) sought out an audience with the ruling sheikh Isuf of
Sofala (Yçuf in Barros Çufe in Goes). At the time, Isuf was engaged
in a quarrel with Kilwa. The minister Emir Ibrahim had deposed and
murdered the legitimate Sultan al-Fudail of Kilwa, and seized power
for himself. Isuf of
Sofala refused to recognize the usurper and was
looking for a way to shake off Kilwa's lordship and chart an
independent course for Sofala. The Portuguese, with their powerful
ships, seemed to provide the key. At any rate, the elderly sheikh Isuf
realized it would be better to make allies rather than enemies out of
them, and agreed to a commercial and alliance treaty with the Kingdom
Sofala, from Manuel Faria e Sousa, Asia Portuguesa, vol. 1, 1666
This was followed upon in 1505 when
Pêro de Anaia
Pêro de Anaia (part of the 7th
Armada) was granted permission by sheikh Isuf to erect a factory and
fortress near the city.
Fort São Caetano of
Sofala was the second
Portuguese fort in East Africa (the first, at Kilwa, was built only a
few months earlier). Anaia used stone imported for the purpose from
Europe. (It was subsequently reused for construction of Beira's
The Portuguese fort did not last very long. Much of the garrison was
quickly decimated by fevers (probably malaria). In late 1507, the new
Portuguese captain of Sofala, Vasco Gomes de Abreu, captured the
nearby island of Mozambique. Gradually, much of the
officers and operations were transferred to the island, reducing Fort
Sofala to a mere outpost. Nonetheless, colonial governors of
Mozambique would continue to bear 'Captain of Sofala' as
their primary official title.
If not for its gold trade,
Sofala would likely have been avoided by
both the Swahili and the Portuguese. The entrance to
was blocked by a long moving sand bank, which was followed by
hazardous shoals, allowing boats to approach safely only at high tide.
The shores of
Sofala were a mangrove swamp, replete with stagnant
waters and malarial mosquitos. As a harbor, it was less than suitable
for Portuguese ships, which is why the Portuguese were quick to seize
Mozambique Island in 1507, and make that their preferred harbor.
The gold trade also proved to be a disappointment. The old gold fields
were largely exhausted by the time the Portuguese arrived, and gold
production had moved further north. Market towns were erected on the
Zambezi escarpment, to which
Sofala was less convenient as an outlet
than the rising new towns of
Quelimane and Angoche.
The shifting sands and boundaries of the Buzi estuary have since
allowed the sea to reclaim much of old Sofala. There are very few
ruins in modern New
Sofala to suggest the town's former grandeur and
In its heyday, the town of
Sofala itself was formed by two towns, one
close to the water on a sand flat, the other on higher and healthier
ground. The Sofalese also had a satellite settlement to the north at
the mouth of the
Pungwe River called Rio de São Vicente in old maps.
As grand old
Sofala sank into the ocean, modern Beira was erected on
the site of that outpost.
Sofala lost its remaining commercial preeminence once Beira was
established 20 mi (32 km) to the north in 1890. The
harbour was once reputed to be capable of holding a hundred vessels,
but has since silted up due to deforestation of the banks of the river
and deposition of topsoil in the harbour.
^ The Horizon History of Africa, vol. 1, p. 143.
^ pg 4 - The quest for an African Eldorado: Sofala, By Terry H. Elkiss
^ Portuguese chronicler
João de Barros
João de Barros (Dec. I, Lib. 10, Cap. 2 (p.
388 ff.) relates the fable behind the conquest: Mogadishu merchants
had long kept
Sofala a secret from their Kilwan rivals, who up until
then rarely sailed beyond Cape Delgado. One day, a fisherman caught a
large bite off Kilwa and was dragged by the fish around Cape Delgado,
Mozambique Channel, all the way down to the
The fisherman made his way back up to Kilwa to report to the Sultan
Suleiman Hassan what he had seen. Hearing of the gold trade, the
sultan loaded up a ship with cloth and immediately raced down there,
guided by the fisherman. The Kilwan sultan offered a better deal to
the Mwenemutapa, and was allowed to erect a Kilwan factory and colony
on the island and nudge the Mogadishans permanently out.
^ dos Santos, Fr. João (1609). Ethiopia Oriental. reprinted in Theal,
vol. 7, p. 3 ff.
^ a b c Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Sofala". Encyclopædia
Britannica. 25 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
^ Lopes, Thomé (1504) Collecção de noticias para a historia e
geografia das nações ultramarinas, que vivem nos dominios
portuguezes, ou lhes são visinhas, Academia das Ciências de Lisboa.
p. 163 at Google Books
^ The Gold of
Ophir - Whence Brought and by Whom? (1901)
^ 16th century chronicler
Gaspar Correia insists it was Aguiar;
Osório, only mildly corroborated by Barros, suggests Gama.
^ Newitt, 1995: p.10.
João de Barros
João de Barros (1552–59) Décadas da Ásia: Dos feitos, que os
Portuguezes fizeram no descubrimento, e conquista, dos mares, e terras
do Oriente., esp. Dec. I, Lib. 10, Cap. 2 (p. 388ff.)
Thomé Lopes (c.1504) "Navegação as Indias Orientaes, escrita em
Portuguez por Thomé Lopes, traduzida da lingua Portugueza para a
Italiana, e novamente do Italiano para o Portuguez", trans. 1812 into
Portuguese, by Academia Real das Sciencias in Collecção de noticias
para a historia e geografia das nações ultramarinas: que vivem nos
dominios portuguezes, ou lhes são visinhas, Vol. 2, Pt. 5
Newitt, M.D. (1995) A History of Mozambique. Bloomington: Indiana
Theal, G.M. (1898–1903) Records of South-eastern Africa collected in
various libraries & archive departments in Europe, 9 vols.,
London: Clowes for Gov of Cape Colony.
Theal, G.M. (1902) The Beginning of South African History. London:
The 2006 Britannica
Coordinates: 20°09′S 34°43′E / 20.150°S 34.717°E