Kwasi Konadu

East Africa in the 16th Century: Kilwa and Mombasa

Kwasi KonaduComment

This selection is a facsimile reproduction of the garbled Flemish translation of Balthasar Springer's Latin account of Francisco de Almeida’s expedition to the Portuguese colony of India in 1505, with an English translation by Mr and Mrs. Barwick interleaved. Springer traveled with Almeida in 1505. Springer was a German merchant and an agent of the Welser and Fugger trading company who had close ties with Portuguese monarchy. Springer’s account of the voyage was published in 1508.

The excerpt from Springer’s account focuses on the Swahili city-states of Kilwa and Mombasa, both of whom maintained strong ties with seaborne merchants in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. The shipping and commercial port at Kilwa was a part of a network of key trading posts that also included Zanzibar, the gold supplying area of Sofala, and the harbor and commercial port of Mombasa. Mombasa became the only one to mount a series of resistance against the Portuguese, though it was later defeated and burned. The excerpt describes some of these events.


… in the fifteenth week on nineteenth day of the month of July we beheld fishes in and not long afterwards in about two hours we the land between Sofala and Mozambique. [However,] we did not make the land there but passed on to another [that] is a hundred and fifty miles further off and in land the capital is called Quiloa [Kilwa] and it is a [non-Islamic and non-Christian society.] On the twenty-second day of July, we cast anchor the town of [Kilwa] and on the following day, we went [in] force with all our boats into the harbor before the house to discover if they were friendly to us and if would give tribute but there was no sign of friendship. [On] the contrary they were ready to fight furiously against us…. [On] the morning of the twenty-fourth day of this month. We went quickly with our whole force being eight ships all armed to the town and did kill all the [Africans] and plundered the town of great store of gold, silver, pearls and precious stones and beautiful garments. And on this same day we found outside the town a castle with four towers [of] which was fully half built. [On] the twenty seventh day of this month, the king of this town had fled away with many [Africans] after we had taken possession of it and thereupon our captain Francisco de Almeida did make another king with very great honor and crowned him with a golden crown as it is beseeming to do unto a king and restored unto him the kingdom with all his rights on condition that he should be faithful and true to the king of Portugal and should keep the kingdom open for all his needs and commands.

On the fourth day of August the lawful king of the country who had been expelled by the king whom we had previously driven out did repair unto us and entreated nothing of us save that he might be a duke until such time as the king should die and then become king and receive the crown and he did desire it solely because the king had brought him up when he was a child and that was as much as to say that he was a father to him for the king was his father's brother and because the king had brought him up therefore he loved the king. And thereupon according to his desire he was made duke with great honor as thereto [belonged] in the presence of many great princes and lords. Afterwards on the sixth day of August being all assembled together we went on board with all our people and came no more to land And after that we sailed right away into Mombasa. [On] the thirteenth day of this month, we came with ten ships into the harbor of Mombasa where they were hostile to us. This town has a beautiful harbor and on one extremity… thereof they had [built] a [defensive wall] out of which they did shoot [however] they made no stand but all who were therein fled away into the town. The [barricade] was a little wall leading from the town into the sea and was built upon a rock. Then we sailed along until we arrived before the town wherein we had not many friends for they were all enemies. So we kept as close together as we could and shot into the town with all our might.

And on the fourteenth day of August in the afternoon we sailed up to the town and they thereupon shot with [arrows] and bows and with stones very terribly and wounded many of our people but we shot fire into the town at two places on different sides so that many of the houses were burnt. [A] little while before this in their vexation and anger they did drive two elephants against us. We found three camels in the town and others also in the fields in front thereof. It was a strong town with narrow streets and it would not have been at all possible to take it without God's help. On the morning of the fifteenth day of August which was our Lady's Day we attacked the town in two companies and stormed it the streets thereof were so [exceedingly] narrow that one man could not pass another but we forced ourselves through the strongest parts yet did the [Africans] and Moors [Muslims] shoot so murderously that had not our Lord God and his Blessed Mother protected us we should not have held or conquered this town. Many [Africans] were left there dead but we lost two men only. When we had taken possession of the town and the king had fled unto a wood in front, thereof wherein lay a wondrous number of Moors we set a watch before it that they should not fall upon us while we were plundering it. And we found therein such great booty of gold of silver and pearls of golden pieces and of sundry precious wares that it was impossible to reckon their value.

On the twenty third day we set sail with five ships but there were eleven ships when we captured the town ten of them arrived first and the eleventh remained behind for a day in great distress as I wrote before and this ship was called Raphael. The Flemish merchants had three ships there the first was called Hieronimus, the second Raphael, and the third St Leonard. These three ships were in all our actions and conflicts. The king of Portugal had at first no more than three ships of his own the others belonged to the Flemish merchants and the Lombards likewise had some ships there. [It] is seventy miles from [Kilwa] unto Mombasa and from thence it is two hundred and fifty miles unto another town called Mellinda [Malindi] which is a kingdom in itself. Now they were friendly to us here and did mightily honor our people and their king [wars] continually with the king of Mombasa. And our captain did sail thither in the night about five miles with five ships so that we did not come thereunto and it pleased the king thereof mightily that [we] had thus smitten and burned the other town for after that we had entirely plundered it we did set fire thereto and burned up all that was not already consumed save the large houses with vaulted Walls. [On] the twenty third day of August, we again sailed away from Mombasa keeping along the coast for a long time from our first sight of land until the twenty seventh day of August. Then we set sail over the great sea and gulf of [Madagascar] with fourteen ships. And it is seven hundred miles from [Malindi] unto India. After that we journeyed on the sea until the twelfth day of September when we again descried land and this was the beginning of India….

[another account]

Barbosa, Duarte, The book of Duarte Barbosa; an account of the countries bordering on the Indian Ocean and their inhabitants, written by Duarte Barbosa and completed about the year 1518 A.D. Translated from the Portuguese text,first published in 1812 A.D., by the Royal Academy of Sciences at Lisbon, in Vol. II of its collection of documents regarding the history and geography of the nations beyond the seas, and edited and annotated by Mansel Longworth Dames (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1918-1921), 17-21

Going along the coast from this town of Moçambique, there is an island hard by the mainland which is called Quiloa, in which is a Moorish town with many fair houses of stone and mortar, with many windows after our fashion, very well arranged in streets, with many flat roofs. The doors are of wood, well carved, with excellent joinery. Around it are streams and orchards and fruit-gardens with many channels of sweet water. It has a Moorish king over it. From this place they trade with Çofala, whence they bring back gold, and from here they spread all over Arabia Felix, which henceforth we may call by this name [even though it be in Ethiopia] for all the sea-coast is well-peopled with villages and abodes of Moors. Before the King our Lord sent out his expedition to discover India the Moors of Çofala, Cuama, Angoya and Moçambique were all subject to the King of Quiloa, who was the most mighty king among them. And in this town was great plenty of gold, as no ships passed towards Çofala without first coming to this island. Of the Moors there are some fair and some black, they are finely clad in many rich garments of gold and silk and cotton, and the women as well; also with much gold and silver in chains and bracelets, which they wear on their legs and arms, and many jewelled earrings in their ears. These Moors speak Arabic and follow the creed of the Alcoran [Qur’an], and have great faith in Mafamede [Muhammad].

This town was taken by force from its king by the Portuguese, as, moved by arrogance, he refused to obey the King our Lord. There they took many prisoners and the king fled from the island, and His Highness ordered that a fort should be built there, and kept it under his rule and governance. " Afterwards "he ordered that it should be pulled down, as its maintenance was of no value nor profit to him, and it was destroyed by Antonio de Saldanha [correction: Francisco Perreira in 1507]."


Further on, an advance along the coast towards India, there is an isle hard by the mainland, on which is a town called Mombaça. It is a very fair place, with lofty stone and mortar houses, well aligned in streets [after the fashion of Kilwa]. The wood is well-fitted with excellent joiner's work. It has its own king, himself a Moor. [The men are in colour either tawny, black or white and also] their women go very bravely attired with many fine garments of silk and gold in abundance. This is a place of great traffic, and has a good harbour, in which are always moored craft of many kinds and also great ships, both of those which come from Çofala and those which go thither, and others which come from the great kingdom of Cambaya and from Melynde [Malindi]; others which sail to the Isles of Zinzibar [Zanzibar], and yet others of which I shall speak anon.

This Mombaça is a land very full of food. Here are found many very fine sheep with round tails, cows and other cattle in great plenty, and many fowls, all of which are exceeding fat. There is much millet and rice, sweet and bitter oranges, lemons, pomegranates, Indian figs, vegetables of divers kinds, and much sweet water. The men thereof are oft-times at war and but seldom at peace with those of the mainland, and they carry on trade with them, bringing thence great store of honey, wax and ivory.

The king of this city refused to obey the commands of the King our Lord, and through this arrogance he lost it, and our Portuguese took it from him by force. He fled away, and they slew many of his people and also took captive many, both men and women, in such sort that it was left ruined and plundered and burnt. Of gold and silver great booty was taken here, bangles, bracelets, ear-rings and gold beads, also great store of copper with other rich wares in great quantity, and the town was left in ruins.

Source: Charles Henry Coote, ed. and trans., The Voyage from Lisbon to India, 1505-6: Being an Account and Journal by Albericus Vespuccius (London: B. F. Stevens, 1894), 24-29.