Portuguese Reach the Swahili Coast Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Armed Portuguese merchant ships appeared along the Swahili coast of East Africa, subdued unarmed local traders, and inaugurated a brief period of dominance by Portugal of the trade in spices and luxury products in the Indian Ocean region.

Summary of Event

Swahili culture Swahili culture developed along the coast of eastern Africa and reached its peak during the early centuries of the second millennium. Along the Swahili coast, there emerged a string of city-states that traded a range of commodities, making the communities interdependent among themselves and with other regions around the Indian Ocean basin. When the Portuguese arrived in 1498, the Swahili social and economic structure had reached its height, extending from the port of Mogadishu, in southern Somaliland just above the equator, to the port of Sofala, on the Mozambique Channel. Exploration and colonization;Portugal of Africa Dias, Bartolomeu Gama, Vasco da Cabral, Pedro Álvares Dias, Bartolomeu Gama, Vasco da Cabral, Pedro Álvares

The Swahili were tribal Africans from the interior of the continent who had settled along the coast. Progressively, they developed a way of life much different from their original lifestyle. They elaborated a network of trading patterns with the interior and along the coast from small ports that developed into cities and towns. Their common African root language was Bantu. However, their trading network included Islamic merchants from the north along the coast of the Arabian Peninsula and Islamic and Hindu merchants from the east along the western coast of India. Thus the African coastal Bantu language began to absorb many words of Arabic and some of Hindi. Trade;Africa with Asia

It was this integrated language, mixing Bantu, Arabic, and Hindi, that came to be known as Swahili or Kiswahili. The culture underlying this language was further solidified and defined at the beginning of the second millennium, as its members converted to Islam. Swahili culture, then, consisted of an Islamized African population settled in port cities along the eastern coast, which supplied materials for prosperous and complex trade relations around the western half of the Indian Ocean. Religion;Africa

The monsoon winds over the Indian Ocean formed the maritime basis for Swahili trade. During the summer, these winds blew eastward from Africa to India; during winter, they blew westward from India to Africa. Swahili merchants obtained items for trade from the African hinterland that included gold, ivory, slaves, animal skins and tusks, timber, and minerals. Swahili craftspeople also produced textiles and smelted iron.

The African raw materials were traded to India. In India, their value increased as they were transformed into jewelry, luxury goods, medicinal products, and finely carved woods. Swahili merchants were the middlemen for trade with the African continent, and Arabian merchants were the middlemen for trade between the African coast and India. Arab and some Hindu merchants had representatives in the African cities, adding to the cosmopolitan complexity of the Swahili coast.

Throughout the fifteenth century, the Portuguese steadily advanced down the dangerous and unknown coast of West Africa. By 1488, Bartolomeu Dias had reached the southern tip of the continent. The Portuguese were eager to establish a monopoly trade route to the rich commodities of India and the Far East, especially the spices, in high demand throughout Western Europe, for which the East was the only abundant source. For Europeans, the spice trade occurred only through the Mediterranean Sea, which was dominated by Islamic merchants. The Portuguese believed in a legend holding that beyond the eastern Mediterranean there was a lost Christian kingdom. If they could find it, such an ally would be decisive in defeating Muslim dominance.

In the summer of 1497, a fleet under the command of Vasco da Gama set sail to open a Portuguese route to India. By Christmas, it had reached southern Africa, naming the region Natal. Proceeding slowly northeastward in January, 1498, the fleet came to the mouth of the Zambesi River and the beginning of the Swahili coast. Da Gama encountered hostility at numerous ports, but the Portuguese gradually learned that they were the only traders who sailed on armed ships. All others in the Indian Ocean basin were unarmed and therefore easily overpowered. Uncertain of the winds and currents in the Indian Ocean, da Gama contracted a local Arab pilot to guide him finally to the Indian port of Calcutta, reaching it in May. Many in the region would later consider this pilot a traitor.

The Portuguese intention was to establish a monopoly on oriental trade. With their superior command of force, they intimidated Swahili, Arab, and Hindu competitors. Along the Swahili coast, they built a string of fortifications, establishing strongholds from Mozambique to Mombasa. Bombarding ports, the Portuguese shattered the delicate balance of Swahili markets. They also spent much ultimately futile effort in trying to occupy the interior and thus control the gold mines of the Zambesi Plateau. Portuguese missionaries evangelized in the region, and some Swahili, including rulers, converted. Swahili culture was thus further ruptured.

With superior firepower over unarmed merchant vessels in the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese easily seized control of the trade routes between Swahili Africa and the states of the Indian Ocean basin. Their dominance was ensured when Pedro Álvares Cabral led a second Portuguese voyage to India in 1500. A third voyage, headed by Dias, left behind a patrol of Portuguese boats with orders to prevent any Arabic traders from challenging the Portuguese monopoly on Indian trade.


Ultimately, the Portuguese so interrupted the delicate balance of markets and trade along the Swahili coast that they destroyed it. By the middle of the sixteenth century, Swahili cities became shadows of themselves. Moreover, the Portuguese could not maintain a monopoly on trade in the Indian Ocean. During the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Dutch, French, and English all entered and became progressively more powerful in, the area. The Swahili city-states appealed to the advancing power of the Ottoman Turks and eventually came under the control of the Omani Arabs. To manage Omani suzerainty over the Swahili coast, the sultanate shifted its seat in the nineteenth century from its traditional homeland on the southern Arab peninsula to Zanzibar, an island midway along the East African coast.

The lasting consequence of Portugal’s entry into the Swahili coast was the establishment of the Portuguese-speaking country of Mozambique and the ruins of a string of fortresses, such as Fort Jesus, which still rises over the harbor of Mombasa, Kenya. Just as the mercantile city-states of Italy could not revive their preeminence after their decline in the sixteenth century, so also the Swahili maritime trading states never recovered their full commercial influence or wealth.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Freeman-Grenville, G.S.P. The Swahili Coast, Second to Nineteenth Centuries: Islam, Christianity, and Commerce in Eastern Africa. London: Variorum Reprints, 1988. Examines the interaction of religion and trade along the east coast of Africa for the past two millennia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kusimba, Chapurukha M. The Rise and Fall of Swahili States. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 1999. Succinct reevaluation of the nature and extent of Swahili culture and history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Middleton, John. The World of the Swahili: An African Mercantile Civilization. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992. Examines the worldview, life cycle, and patterns of Swahili culture over time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nurse, Derek, and Thomas Spear. The Swahili: Reconstructing the History and Language of an African Society, 800-1500. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985. Reassesses the factors in and nature of Swahili linguistic and cultural development during its most vibrant period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pearson, Michael M. Port Cities and Intruders: The Swahili Coast, India, and Portugal in the Early Modern Era. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. Measured reexamination with tables, charts, and maps of Swahili commerce and culture.

Late 15th cent.: Mombasa, Malindi, and Kilwa Reach Their Height

1481-1482: Founding of Elmina

c. 1485: Portuguese Establish a Foothold in Africa

Aug., 1487-Dec., 1488: Dias Rounds the Cape of Good Hope

1490’s: Decline of the Silk Road

16th century: Worldwide Inflation

1505-1515: Portuguese Viceroys Establish Overseas Trade Empire

Aug. 4, 1578: Battle of Ksar el-Kebir

Dec. 31, 1600: Elizabeth I Charters the East India Company

Categories: History