From the book: Book 1: Ancient Civilizations and Global Trade commissioned by The Department of Education

Turning points in history are not fixed. We decide when they occur, to a large extent on the basis of where we are in the present. Apartheid history made up turning points where none existed. We can see this by looking at a word that is used very often today - globalisation. When in its historical journey did South Africa first link up with the rest of the world and make the important turn towards globalisation?

Some argue that globalisation occurred in the recent past - with the development of computers, the microchip, digital technologies and the Internet, which has connected us with the people of the world in an instantaneous timeframe. Others look further back to the time when Africa was forced off its own path onto the highway of imperialism. Another approach looks for the turning point among the inventions which underlay the imperialist attacks on Africa in the late nineteenth century - the technologies of the industrial revolution, such as the steam engine and the rifle - and the way in which they were used to advance European power. But I want to push the point when we linked up with the rest of the world back further than this - back to the time when we made our first contacts beyond Africa's coastline. I want to examine our earliest interplay with other peoples, religions, trade goods and ideas. This was a time when the first traders realised that Africa contained enormous wealth and set out to acquire a share in it.

imperialism- a policy of extending a country’s power and influence through colonisation, the use of military force, economic domination or other means

colonialism- the practice of acquiring political control over another country, occupying it, and (usually) exploiting it economically

In Chapter 1, I argued that the arrival of the first farmers was a significant turning point in the history of South Africa - a fundamental change in the way in which people had lived since the beginning of time. We refer to these first farmers as people of the Early Iron Age. Archaeologists have found plenty of evidence at many Early Iron Age sites of trade between various Early Iron Age societies. All sorts of objects have been found a great distance from where they originated; they must have been moved as trade goods. For example, shells were used to make beads and pendants. Marine shells, different from freshwater shells, have been found at sites far from the sea. The existence of marine shells shows that there were links between these inland Early Iron Age communities and the oceans.

Today, the word globalisation is often used to mean international integration, especially in terms of world trade, financial markets and communication technology. This is often associated with the dominance of the world’s wealthy countries. In this chapter, the term is used more generally to mean economic and other linkages with the world outside South Africa.

Archaeologists have also found evidence of external trade. For example, glass beads - which were not made in Africa but in Asia and Europe, especially India and Italy - have been found at a range of Early Iron Age sites stretching from Botswana, the Kruger Park, into Natal. One bead from the Thukela valley has been dated to the ninth century and another from the Mngeni valley near Durban to the eighth century. A trading site called Chibuene has been discovered in Mozambique near Beira (Sofala), which existed at about the same time. These people had beads and pottery that match specimens found at Kilwa and other Arab trading sites which were being established on the East African coast in what is now Kenya and Tanzania.

More than this: a piece of eighth-century pottery found just outside Durban has been shown to come from present-day Iran.

Evidence of sea shells and beads show that these early farming societies in what became South Africa were not isolated. By the eighth century they had links with East Africa, the Indian Ocean and beyond. This raises a number of interesting questions: How were these links made? Who was involved? What impact did they have on South Africa's first farmers? If we are to begin to answer such questions, we must look more carefully at the historical evidence.

Where do we find the evidence?

The first documents

Conventional history depends very much on written sources and documents. The earliest references to south-east Africa can be found in the writings of the classical Greek historian Herodotus (485-425 BC). He wrote that an Egyptian king had ordered an attempt to be made to sail around Africa. The attempt was made by Phoenicians, a middle-eastern sea-faring people. Herodotus’s account has been rejected by most historians, who believe that it is a myth rather than history. Nonetheless, it is still widely believed that Africa was circumnavigated in ancient times.

Our first eyewitness account of the east coast of Africa is to be found in The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (see box for an excerpt about the coast of East Africa). Written in about 100 AD, this book is a sailor's and trader's

From Oponoe the coast stretches away more to the south, and first are what are called the Lesser and Greater Bluffs of Azania, where there are anchorages, extending for six courses towards the south west. Then the Lesser and Greater Strands, of another six courses, and after them in succession the courses of Azania.... The island of Menouthieas is encountered, about 3000 stades from the mainland, low and covered with trees, in which are rivers and many kinds of bird, and mountain tortoise. Of wild animals there are none except crocodiles; but they hurt no man. There are in it small boats sewn and made from one piece of wood, which are used for fishing and catching marine tortoises. In this island they catch fish with a local form of basket trap instead of nets stretched across the mouths of the openings along the foreshore”¦ From here after two courses off the mainland lies the last mart of Azania, called Rhapta, which has its name from the aforementioned sewn boats, where there is a great deal of ivory and tortoiseshell.

Source: The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, London, The Hakluyt Society, 1980, pp.29-30

course- the distance a boat must sail before it can find a safe place to land
The Periplusis the first time the name Azania was used. In modern times, certain political organisations have used it to refer to South Africa. Here you can see that in its original usage it refers to the coast of East Africa between modern Somaliland and Tanzania.

Menouthieas- either modern-day Pemba or Zanzibar

stade (pl. stades)- an old measurement, approximately 1.8 metres

basket trap- Fish traps of this kind can be found in Kosi Bay to this day, and were used in Durban bay centuries ago.

mart- market, trading place
The location of Rhapta is not known. Scholars think it might have been either Dar es Salaam, or the Rufiji delta

guide to the coasts of India, the Far East and East Africa from the Horn of Africa to modern-day Tanzania (see Map 2.1). The Erythraean Sea is the name given by the Greeks to the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.

Maps 2.1 The Indian Ocean rim and Azania to 1000 AD

The Indian Ocean

From the preceding section, it is clear that the Indian Ocean has been a place of active trading for thousands of years. In fact, it is useful to see the Indian Ocean not as a barrier, but as a means by which the peoples of its islands and the continents on its rim made contact with one another for a long period of time. We see this in the Periplus, which discusses in detail the coasts of Arabia, India and East Africa. Sailing ships not only kept to the coast but were able to travel across the Indian ocean by making use of the monsoon winds. These trading routes have remained in existence ever since, although the traders changed with the shifts of power in Africa, Arabia and India.

There are also signs of other early connections. The Chinese traded in the Indian Ocean. Sometimes they traded directly and sometimes indirectly. Vast amounts of Chinese glazed pottery have been discovered at sites on the rim of the Indian ocean. The language of Madagascar suggests links with Indonesia, and it was from Indonesia that the domesticated banana reached Africa in about the second century.

A significant shift took place in the eighth century. It was associated with one of the most momentous events in history - the life of the Prophet Mohammed (570-632 AD), the rise of Islam, and its spread during the centuries that followed. It united the people of Arabia, east to Persia and India, north through the Middle East, west into the Mediterranean, and through North Africa to Spain.

In the Indian Ocean, Islam spread largely through the activities of traders, very often from India. It reached Malaysia and Indonesia, and beyond to China. Most importantly for our purposes, it spread down the east coast of Africa. The belief in the Prophet Mohammed and in the Holy Qur'an as the Word of God and a guide to life provided unity through a common set of beliefs and religious practices. It also brought the East African coast into contact with the great cultural achievements of the Arabs, including Arab travellers and geographers, thereby providing us with important historical sources.

The Arab geographers

Al-Mas'sudi was an early Arab traveller. He was born in Baghdad and died in Cairo in the tenth century. He made his journey in 916 AD.

monsoon- the reliable wind patterns which blow towards the East African coast in the northern winter and towards India in the summer

916 ADis the same as AH 304 in the Islamic calendar

He wrote an account of his travels (see box).

Al-Mas'sudi's writings

The sea of the Zanj reaches down to the country of Sofala and of the Waqwaq which produces gold in abundance and other marvels: its climate is warm and its soil fertile....

The land of Zanj produces wild leopard skins. The people wear them as clothes, or export them to Muslim countries. They are the largest leopard skins and the most beautiful for making saddles.... It is there that the Zanj built their capital: then they elected whom they called Waklimi. This name ...

has always been that of their sovereigns. The Waklimi has under him all the other Zanj kings, and commands 300 000 men....

The Zanj use the ox as a beast of burden, for their country has no horses or mules or camels and they do not even know these animals. Snow and hail are unknown to them as to all the Abyssinians. Some of their tribes have sharpened teeth and are cannibals. The territory of the Zanj begins at the canal which flows from the Upper Nile and goes down as far as the country of Sofala and the Waqwaq. Their settlements extend over an area of about 700 parasangs in length and in breadth; this country is divided by valleys, mountains and stony deserts; it abounds in wild elephants but there is not so much as a single tame elephant....

Although constantly employed in hunting elephants and gathering ivory, the Zanj make no use of ivory for their own domestic purposes. They use iron instead of gold and silver....

To come back to the Zanj and their kings, the name of the kings of the country is Waklimi which means supreme lord; they give this title to their sovereign because he has been chosen to govern them with equity. But once he becomes tyrannical and departs from the rules of justice, they cause him to die and exclude his posterity from succession to the throne, for they claim that in thus conducting himself he ceases to be the son of the Master, that is to say of the king of heaven and earth. They call God by the name of Maklandjalu, which means Supreme Master....

The Zanj speak elegantly, and they have orators in their own language. Often a devout man of the country, passing in the midst of a numerous crowd, addresses to his listeners an exhortation in which he invites them to serve God and submit to His orders. He points out the punishments which disobedience must entail, and recalls the example of their ancestors and their ancient kings. These peoples have no code of religion; their kings follow custom, and conform in their government to a few political rules. The Zenj eat bananas, which are as abundant with them as in India, but the basis of their food is dorrah, a plant called kalari which they take from the ground like a truffle, and the elecampane root....

They also have honey and meat. Each worships what he pleases, a plant, an animal, a mineral. They possess a great number of islands where the coconut grows, a fruit that is eaten by all the peoples of the Zanj. One of these islands, placed one or two days' journey from the coast, has a Muslim population who provide the royal family; it is the island of Kanbalu....

[Tusks from the country of Zanj] go generally to Oman, and from there are sent on to China and India. That is the route they follow and were it otherwise, ivory would be very abundant in Muslim countries. In China the kings and their military and civilian officers use carrying-chairs of ivory; no official or person of rank would dare to visit the king in an iron chair, and ivory alone is used for this purpose.... Ivory is much prized in India; there it is made into handles for the daggers known as harari ... as well as for the hilts of curved swords.... But the biggest use of ivory is in the manufacture of chessmen and other gaming pieces....

Sources: This text has been constructed out of two documentary sources to give you an impression of what they are like. The serious student might like to read the original versions. The first source is Basil Davidson, African Civilization Revisited: From Antiquity to Modern Times. Trenton, NJ, Africa World Press, 1991 pp.132-4. The second source is G.S.P Freeman-Grenville, The East African Coast. Select Documents from the First to the Earlier Nineteenth Century, London, Rex Collings, 1975, pp.14-17.

Documentary evidence

How can one make use of these texts and yet remain critical of them? For example, there is much important information in Al-Mas’sudi’s writings which confirms other evidence. The region called Sofala, for example, was extremely important as the centre of the gold trade. However, much of this information is of doubtful validity and some quite clearly is ridiculous. Nevertheless, we should not just accept those facts in a document which confirm what we know or prove what we want to prove, and simply ignore those facts which do not do this.

With all their problems, these documents from Arab travellers confirm the deep history of trade on the east African coast. They are invaluable.

Another Arab geographer, Al'Idrisi, lived at the court of Roger II of Sicily. He compiled his geographies from written and oral sources. Al'Idrisi also wrote about the land of the Zanj. He and other writers confirm the existence of extensive trading networks and cities on the East African coast. Products of the trading states of the Indian Ocean - beads and glazed pottery of Arabic and Chinese origin are particularly important - were exchanged for African products like wild animal skins, ivory and gold.

The intermingling of Arab, Indian, Islamic and African influences led to the development of the Swahili culture in the coastal trading cities where Africans absorbed the lifestyles of the traders. The Swahili language is made up mostly of Arabic and Bantu words. Malindi, Kilwa, Mombasa, Zanzibar, Pate, Pemba and Sofala were all trading towns or regions which developed in the first centuries of the last millennium. From there, the goods of the African interior were exchanged with those of the Indian Ocean and beyond to China (see Map 2.1).

The greatest of all Muslim travellers of this period was Muhammad ibn Abdullah ibn Battuta (13031377). He visited West and East Africa, middle India and China. His eyewitness account of the city states of East Africa is one of the great early documents of African history. Ibn Battuta travelled down the coast of Africa from Mogadishu to Mombasa, and then to the town of Kilwa, which he reached in 1331. At this time, 700 years ago, Kilwa was the dominant city state on the coast. Today only ruins of Kilwa and its great mosque remain.

Muhammad ibn Abdullah ibn Battuta’s visit to Kilwa, 1331

Then I set off by sea from the Town of Mogadishu for the land of the Swahili and the town of Kilwa, which is in the land of the Zanj. We arrived at Mombasa, a large island two days' journey from the land of the Swahili. The island is quite separate from the mainland. It grows bananas, lemons, and oranges.... The people do not engage in agriculture, but import grain from the Swahili. The greater part of their diet is bananas and fish. They follow the Shafi'i rite, and are devout, chaste, and virtuous....

We spent a night on the island of Mombasa and then set sail for Kilwa, the principal town on the coast, the greater part of whose inhabitants are Zanj of very black complexion. Their faces are scarred, like the Limiin of Janada. A merchant told me that Sofala is half a month's march from Kilwa, and that between Sofala and Yufi in the country of the Limiin is a month's march. Powdered gold is brought from Yufi to Sofala.

Kilwa is one of the most beautiful and well-constructed towns in the world. The whole of it is elegantly built. The roofs are built with mangrove poles. There is very much rain. The people are engaged in a holy war, for their country lies beside that of the pagan Zanj.

Source: Basil Davidson, African Civilization Revisted: From Antiquity to Modern Times. Trenton NJ, African World Press, pp. 142-3.

Ibn Battuta also mentions Sofala as the source of Kilwa's gold. Sofala was a port in what is today Mozambique, in the vicinity of the modern city of Beira. It seems that the reason for Kilwa's dominance in the mid-fourteenth century was the trading links it established with people who lived inland and who produced gold. For our purposes, this is particularly interesting. Where was this gold coming from? Who was producing it?

The answer to this question is very complicated. It is very important, however, for it provides an insight into some of the most significant questions about the history of the people of south-east Africa. Let us begin to answer the question by moving away from the documents of Arab travellers to another form of historical evidence - archaeological evidence.

Archaeological evidence

Archaeological research is absolutely essential when examining the history of oral societies that have left no written records. Skilful archaeological research can also be used together with written evidence to throw light on oral societies. Consider the following example.

A few years ago archaeologists were digging in the great stone ruins from which the modern African state of Zimbabwe got its name. The archaeologists at Great Zimbabwe discovered a small coin upon which was inscribed in Arabic the name Al-Hasan bin Sulaiman. We know he was the Sultan of Kilwa from about 1320-1333. In other words, this coin was made in Kilwa at exactly the time when Ibn Battuta visited that city state and wrote about the gold trade with areas inland from Sofala. This evidence suggests strongly that there were trading links between Zimbabwe and Kilwa, that it was Zimbabwe and its people that lay inland from Sofala, and that gold played an important part in the relationship between Kilwa and Zimbabwe. Perhaps the people of Zimbabwe were "the Yufi of Limiin" referred to by Ibn Battuta.

Thus the combination of documentary sources - the Arab written accounts reproduced above, and in particular the account of Ibn Battuta - and the archaeologists’ discovery and identification of the coin shows that there was contact between Great Zimbabwe and Kilwa. The discovery suggests that this contact was based on trade, probably in gold, which might well be a factor in the creation of the huge stone walls of Zimbabwe. In other words, 700 years ago there was a significant economic relationship between the people of the south-east African interior, the city states of the Indian ocean, and the vast Asian economic world.

If we place this evidence in a context that uses other forms of historical evidence, an even fuller picture of the roots of the history of south-east African societies begins to emerge. It is clear that in the first millennium Indian ocean trade had a profound effect on southern Africa's farming societies. Let us look at some of the evidence for this.

What were the early southern African societies like?


One of the most useful techniques developed by archaeologists is the use of aerial photographs. From the air, it is possible to pick up patterns on the earth - of buildings and old settlements - which cannot be seen at ground level. One archaeologist, James Denbow, was interested in large light-coloured patches on aerial photographs of eastern Botswana, not far from the upper Limpopo valley. He discovered that they were due to a certain type of grass which grew on vast deposits of ancient cattle-dung. They marked villages from many centuries ago.

Some of these villages were excavated and analysed. Now called Toutswe, they indicate the existence of large, cattle-keeping chiefdoms built on the Central Cattle Pattern (see Chapter 1). The majority of the population lived in the more open valleys, while the chiefs and nobles lived on easily-defended hilltops. It is argued that these different levels of settlement reflect different levels of power and political status. The Toutswe chiefdoms of eastern Botswana developed about 700 AD and ceased to exist about 1300 AD.

The economic foundations of these large African states appear to have been built on the capacity of cattle herds to expand rapidly when the environment was suitable - in this case, a dry grasslands region. Of course, grain and trade were also important. In one of the villages a pot was found containing thousands of ostrich-eggshell beads, as well as thousands of glass beads which must have come from Indian Ocean trade. However, the huge cattle population suggests that the economy was founded on stock keeping. This factor may have been the cause of both the rise and the decline of the Toutswe states. After 1300 there is little evidence of a thriving society in this area. Most archaeologists believe that the over-exploitation of the natural environment, grazing in particular, possibly in combination with droughts and perhaps disease, were factors that brought an end to these important African states of the eastern Kalahari.


About 200 kilometres to the east of Toutswe, where the Shashe River enters the Limpopo, near the place where the modern borders of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe meet, there is evidence of the growth of another set of African states. Again, the basis of these societies seems to have been cattle.

We have seen that Islamic traders were present on the coast by the eighth century. We know also that glass beads have been found in many southern African settlements dating from this time. The sites on the Limpopo share these features, but the evidence of trade is much stronger. They contain not only beads but also evidence of two local resources much desired by Islamic traders - ivory and gold.

The Limpopo valley was ideal country for elephants, and the sites here show that ivory was collected and worked. The rivers coming into the Limpopo from the north drain the Zimbabwean plateau - a gold-bearing region; gold had been deposited in the river beds.

The name Zimbabwe comes from the Shona words dzimba dzamabwe, which mean stone buildings.

Archaeologists have also found evidence of external trade. For example, glass beads - which were not made in Africa but in Asia and Europe, especially India and Italy - have been found at a range of Early Iron Age sites stretching from Botswana, the Kruger Park, into Natal.

One bead from the Thukela valley has been dated to the ninth century and another from the Mngeni valley near Durban to the eighth century. A trading site called Chibuene has been discovered in Mozambique near Beira (Sofala), which existed at about the same time. These people had beads and pottery that match specimens found at Kilwa and other Arab trading sites which were being established on the East African coast in what is now Kenya and Tanzania.

Archaeologists have excavated a series of sites in this region which suggest growing trade with the Indian Ocean, and with it an increase in the size of the African chiefdoms. Carved ivory objects and glass beads have been found at a site called Schroda. Nearby at another site called K2, dating to about 1000 AD, there is evidence of a huge trade in beads and ivory. These sites were soon abandoned, probably because they could no longer support the increasing population, and new sites were founded close by. About 1200 AD the hill we know as Mapungubwe was occupied.

Mapungubwe first attracted attention in modern times when gold beads, bangles, bowls and figurines were discovered on the summit. Since then, Mapungubwe has been carefully excavated. Once again we have evidence of an extensive African farming society based on cattle keeping and agriculture, but in this case trade played a specially important role. Glass beads, metals and jewellery were among the goods imported, and all show links with the trade of the Indian Ocean. There is evidence at Mapungubwe of the manufacture of bone and ivory for trade. Gold plate, studs, bowls, figurines and weaving all suggest a rich trading culture. Ivory and gold are clearly very significant and of course link up with the references in the Arabic sources that were quoted above.

A very interesting development was the change this wealth seems to have brought to the Central Cattle Pattern. The political rulers of Mapungubwe separated themselves from the cattle kraals and from the homesteads of commoners. Mapungubwe hill is an elite settlement, for occupation without cattle, protected and set apart by stone walls and passages. When its occupiers died, they were buried with rich gold ornaments. This separation from the common homesteads at the foot of the hill, it is argued, is a unique move which demonstrates the emergence of a highly-stratified society, with a political and bureaucratic elite with considerable social distance from the commoners.

Like the cattle-dominated societies further west at Toutswe, which existed at about the same time, Mapungubwe also began to decline in the thirteenth century. In about 1290 Mapungubwe hill was abandoned. Archaeologists speculate whether the environment was unable to sustain a society of this size and density. However, it is clear that environmental factors, drought and disease could not have been the only factors in Mapungubwe's decline. Equally if not more important was the fact that the people at Mapungubwe lost their control over the trading links with the coast, and therefore with the Indian Ocean and the Asian world.

The state which replaced Mapungubwe lay further to the north. We know it as Zimbabwe, predecessor of the modern state with the same name.


First let us clarify what we mean by zimbabwe. It is a Shona word derived from dzimba dzamabwe meaning “stone buildings”. It refers to the many ruined stone walls which marked the existence of Shona towns centuries ago - the houses and cattle kraals were separated and surrounded by stone walls. The best known of these, and the largest, after which the modern state of Zimbabwe is named, is usually referred to as Great Zimbabwe.

Mapungubwe Hill in Limpopo province (Source:

Great Zimbabwe, near present-day Masvingo, is perhaps the best known of all Africa's archaeological sites. It was the thriving capital of a huge state stretching from the Indian ocean to the Kalahari and beyond the Limpopo and Zambezi Rivers. However, no written accounts exist of Great Zimbabwe during the centuries in which it was at the height of its power. Thus - and the same of course applies to the other states I have referred to in this chapter - its name is a recent invention and we have no idea what it was called by the people who lived there.

The presence of huge stone buildings in the interior of central Africa excited the imagination of the first nineteenth century travellers and the colonists who followed them. Colonial historiography, as we have seen, could not accept the idea of essentially African achievements - all historical developments were perceived as having come from external origins. Given the fact that Rhodesia remained a colony until 1979, it is hardly surprising that there is an extraordinary historiography of Great Zimbabwe which does everything to deny the fact that it was of African origin. It was widely believed in the nineteenth century that Great Zimbabwe dated from biblical times. Some said it was where the Queen of Sheba came from; others said that it was gold from Great Zimbabwe which was used in King Solomon's temple. For others, it was the work of Phoenician, Egyptian, Arab or Indian civilisations.

All these theories have been disproved by the steady work of archaeologists over the years. In spite of the difficulties placed in their way by the early colonists, who destroyed much of the evidence in their search for gold, and in later years by racist politicians, they established beyond doubt that Great Zimbabwe was the work of the ancestors of the Shona people.

Great Zimbabwe was ideally situated for cattle-keeping people. It was built on the edge of a healthy, well-watered plateau giving access to good grazing in the low-lying regions to the south and east. This area has been occupied by farming peoples for some 1 500 years, from the Early Iron Age to the nineteenth century. Archaeologists have identified five major periods of occupation, but the stone walling we identify with Great Zimbabwe and which marks the height of its power was built over a comparatively short period of time - about 200 years from 1250 to 1450.

There are many books which illustrate the remarkable remains of the building at Great Zimbabwe. They show the still-dramatic complex of stone walls occupying a valley which is dominated on its northern side by a steep hill on which the great granite boulders have been incorporated into a single structure by intricate stone walling, creating enclosures and passages. These are known as the Hill Ruin. The valley to the south is dominated by the Elliptical Building - massive stone walling enclosing other walls, passages and a stone tower 30 metres high.

The Hill Ruin and the Elliptical Building are only the most obvious of a mass of other walls and ruins. Excavations have shown that they were not the walls of now-ruined buildings, nor were they built for defensive purposes. They divided and marked off the living areas of the people of Great Zimbabwe who lived in houses set among these walls. The rulers or the elite lived on the hill and the common people in the surrounding valley.

We have come across this pattern already, at Mapungubwe. Indeed, there is no doubt that Zimbabwe was the successor state to Mapungubwe. The dates fit - Mapungubwe was abandoned about the same time that Great Zimbabwe was settled. It is at Mapungubwe that we first see walling of this kind, as well as the elite structures on the hill with the bulk of the population in the valley below. Furthermore, it is clear that Great Zimbabwe took over the trade links with the coast which were previously controlled from Mapungubwe.

Zimbabwe was an even greater power than Mapungubwe had been. It is estimated that about 20 000 people lived at Great Zimbabwe. It was the centre of a state with outlying provinces. There about 40 other zimbabwe on the interior plateau, not as vast as Great Zimbabwe but nonetheless reflecting similar settlement patterns and building styles. Other zimbabwe can be found further to the east and west, near the coast in modern Mozambique and in modern Botswana.

historiography- the study of the writing of history and of written histories

Zimbabwe was a development of trends we have already seen in the states to the south. The society was founded on farming, with the keeping of cattle being of prime importance. The settlement pattern - Central Cattle Pattern but with a large elite structure high on a hill - is understandable within the historical context of Mapungubwe. It was the combination of trade with this cattle-keeping society, however, which allowed the creation of the surpluses upon which the state was built. There are still many signs of the ancient gold mines of Zimbabwe in which gold-bearing ore was followed down from the surface and removed with metal picks and shovels, often having first been loosened by the application of fire. This gold, together with ivory and wild animal skins, was transmitted to the coast and traded for cloth and the glazed ceramic ware of the east, from China in particular.

Great Zimbabwe (source: Hall, M. 1987. The Changing Past: Farmers, Kings and Traders in Southern Africa, 200-1860)

What is particularly important for the purposes of this chapter is the fact that the period of greatest prosperity of the Swahili trading city of Kilwa coincides with the period of Great Zimbabwe's dominance. The trading routes of the Indian Ocean - from the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the states of India across the Malaysian peninsula, through the Straits of Mallaca to China - reached Kilwa. From there, coastal traders moved south to different ports. In Sofala contact was made with the cattle-keeping farmers and traders of the Zimbabwean state. There African gold, ivory and animal products were exchanged for cloth and ceramics. In the process were created the surpluses and the social status which allowed for the development of a complex, highly-stratified African state with its many houses built among huge, decorated stone walls, dominated by the largest of them all, Great Zimbabwe.

It is within this context that we can situate just one of the many important artefacts found at Great Zimbabwe - the coin identified as being minted at Kilwa, and which bears the name of Al-Hasan bin Sulaiman, the Sultan of Kilwa from 1320-1333.

By about 1450, Great Zimbabwe lost this dominance. A possible cause was that the gold deposits had been exhausted. The most widely-held explanation, however, is similar to the one used in the cases of Toutswe and Mapungubwe - that overgrazing led to the deterioration of the pastures, that firewood had been depleted, and that the natural environment could no longer sustain the demands made by such concentrations of cattle and people.

This is not to say that the Shona farming-trading societies had come to an end. Another zimbabwe state developed, this time concentrated at Khami. It was followed by the Torwa state, also to the west, which in turn was overtaken by Mutapa to the north (see Map 2.2).

From our ships the fine houses, terraces and minarets, with the palms and trees in the orchards, made the city of Kilwa look so beautiful that our men were eager to land and overcome the pride of this barbarian, who spent all that night in bringing into the island archers from the mainland. [The Portuguese attacked Kilwa and drove out the Sultan.] Then the Vice-General and some of the Franciscan fathers came ashore carrying two crosses in procession and singing the Te Deum. They went to the palace, and there the cross was put down and the Grand-Captain prayed. Then everyone started to plunder the town of all its merchandise and provisions.

Source: Kevin Shillington, A History of Africa, revised edition. London, Macmillan, 1995, p.134.

What was the impact of the arrival of Europeans?

By this time south-east Africa was being overtaken by fresh historical developments of the utmost significance. In 1487 three small boats rounded the Cape of Good Hope. They belonged to Bartolomeo Diaz, the Portuguese explorer who had been sent out to search for a sea route to India. The rise of the Islamic states had blocked the trading routes across the Middle East between Europe and Asia. European monarchs depending on trade were trying to discover a way to reach India by sea. They hoped to find a way of breaking into the Indian trade and to obtain the jewels, silks and spices so desired in Europe. In 1492 Columbus travelled west and reached not Asia, but America. In 1497 Vasco da Gama left Portugal to see if it was possible to find a sea route to India.

Da Gama rounded the Cape towards the end of the year. On Christmas Day he gave the coastline he was passing the name of Natal. Travelling northwards, he entered the trading world of the Swahili city states on the east coast of Africa. He missed the important ports at Sofala and Kilwa, but he did make contact with the Sultan at Mombasa and persuaded the Sultan at Malindi to give him a pilot who would guide him to India. In less than a month the Portuguese had reached the port of Calicut on the Indian subcontinent.

The Portuguese had entered the Indian Ocean trading world with its long-standing network of links from the East African coast to Indonesia and on to China. The European merchants intended to break these links and to establish Portuguese economic and religious dominance. The Swahili traders were characterised as Moors, whom it was a Christian duty to destroy. In 1503 the Portuguese attacked the coastal traders and forced Zanzibar to surrender to Portuguese dominance. Two years later Barawa, Mombasa and Kilwa itself were attacked.


A new period of African history had come into being, the beginning of European dominance. However, this was part of a much longer process of the globalisation of southern Africa. In the centuries which preceded the arrival of the Portuguese, African societies in the region had been turning to face the outside world. Asian trading contacts had interacted with southern Africa's farming societies to create wealth and surplus, which in turn facilitated the growth of complex states. As archaeological research continues, we see patterns of development which confirm the existing written records. We still only have an outline of the story, but in the years to come archaeology will give us even greater insights - confirming in some cases what we already know, forcing us to revise some of our accepted theses, but adding to our knowledge of the way different turning points have been taken in our history in our long journey through time.