Religion and colonisation: Part 10…as Portuguese evangelists milk Africa dry


AFRICA is the fountainhead of human genetic diversity. 

East Africa in particular, is believed to be the area where modern humans first appeared, evidenced by some of the earliest hominin skeletal remains found in the broader region, including fossils discovered in Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania. 

Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, northern Somalia and the Red Sea coast of Sudan are considered the most likely location of the land known Punt; first mentioned in the 25th Century BC.  

The old kingdom had close connections with pharaonic Egypt who claimed that they, and their religion, had come from the land of Punt.  

Punt is generally accepted today to have been Somaliland south of Nubia that produced the frankincense used in the ceremonials of all ancient kingdoms.  

Punt was, in fact, called the ‘Holy Land’ by the Egyptians.  

The Kingdom of Aksum was a trading empire centred in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia.  

It existed from c. 100–940 AD.; growing from the proto-Aksumite Iron Age period c. 4th Century BC, to achieve prominence by the 1st Century AD.   

The kingdom was an important market place for ivory, which was exported throughout the ancient world.  

The Aksumite state established its control over the declining Kingdom of Kush on the Arabian Peninsula, regularly entering the politics of that kingdom; eventually extending its rule over the region, by conquering the Himyarite Kingdom.  

To facilitate trade, the Aksumite rulers minted their own currency.  

From these ancient people arose the oldest traditions and rites and from them sprang the first colonies and arts of antiquity. Some scholars have erroneously attributed the building of the ancient MaDzimbahwe to the Himyarite Kingdom. 

In the 15th Century, beginning with the great Ming voyages sponsored by the Yongle Emperor of Ming China, and led by Admiral Zheng He, (1405-1421), various powers had sought to establish, with limited success, regional hegemony on the waters of the Indian Ocean.  

The Kingdom of Portugal was the first after the Ming, to attempt maritime dominance, which established a militant thalassocracy in the 16th Century, but did not survive the challenges by the Omani Arabs, the Dutch, and the British in the 17th Century; joined eventually by the French as a lesser contender for Indian Ocean.  

Between the 19th and 20th Century, East Africa became a theatre of competition between the major imperialistic European nations of the time. 

The European voyages of discovery, along the Atlantic and Indian Ocean coasts of Africa during the 15th and 16th Centuries, were sanctioned by Christian popes.  

They presaged Africa’s involvement in a new and expanding world.  

The key development of the 15th Century was the arrival of ships carrying traders and missionaries from Christian Europe. Religion was used as a tool to subdue the people. 

Missionaries were sent all over Africa to preach Christianity to make Africans submissive prior to being carted as slaves to the Americas and elsewhere.

The arrival of the Portuguese on the African continent marked the beginning of the end of almost 5 000 years of the continent’s illustrious history.  

Portuguese navigators-explorers, armed with Pope Nicolas V’s Papal Bull, arrived in Africa with the Vatican’s consent, to plunder its wealth and enslave the people. 

They methodically and violently destroyed the Empire of Kongo (Kongo dia Ntotila), the very rich East African Coast and the vast Munhumutapa Empire that was the lighthouse of Southern Africa.  

Their presence had a detrimental impact on the Empire, affecting some of its trade; coupled with a series of wars, entering the 17th Century in decline.  

By the mid-17th Century, the Portuguese controlled the Empire and were forced off the Plateau by 1690. 

Papal Bull Romanus Pontifex, (1455), read: “We had formerly with letters among other things, granted King Alphonse with the whole ability… to attack, to conquer, to defeat, to reduce and to subject all saracens, pagans and other enemies of Christ, wherever they are, their kingdoms, their duchies, principalities, domains, properties, piece of furniture and all the goods they possess; to reduce them into permanent servitude. To take those kingdoms, duchies, lands, principalities, properties, possessions and goods which belong to these unfaithful saracens and pagans.” 

It confirmed the authorisation granted to Portugal to start the European slave trade and the destruction of Africa.  

Popes wielded immense political power. 

Their authority decreed whole continents open to colonisation by particular European kings, namely; Portugal and Spain, whose churches sent missionaries to convert to Catholicism indigenous people of many continents, including Africa.

Religious zeal played a large role in missionaries’ overseas activities. 

On January 8 1454, Papal Bull Romanus Pontifex, which reinforced the previous Papal Bull Dum Diveras of 1452, granted all lands and seas discovered to King Alfonzo V of Portugal and his successors, as well as trade and conquest against Muslims and pagans, allowing them to, ‘reduce pagans and other enemies of Christ to perpetual slavery’

In 1456, Pope Callixtus III, successor of Nicolas V, added the words: “The whole Guinea, to the Indies,” to his Papal Bull

Although Christianity and missionisation’s main thrust was directed mainly to the New World, missionaries were also active on the ‘dark continent’.  

Thus, in the framework of deceitful missions of evangelisation, the Portuguese, along with missionaries, entered a very rich and civilised Africa.  

In 1462, Pope Pius II assigned the evangelisation of the Portuguese Guinea Coast of Africa to the Franciscan Order, led by Alfonso de Bolano.  

They established a church in Benin, in 1485, at the request of the King of Benin, after coming into contact with them.

Portuguese rule in the African Great Lakes region in East Africa, focused mainly on a coastal strip centred in Mombasa. They took and destroyed the town despite vigorous resistance. Its large treasures went to strengthen the resources of Almeida. Attacks followed on other coastal towns until the western Indian Ocean was a safe haven for Portuguese commercial interests.  

They built forts at several places on the route and adopted measures to secure their supremacy.

Portuguese naval vessels were very disruptive to the commerce of Portugal’s enemies within the western Indian Ocean.  

Their presence served to control trade within the Indian Ocean and securing the sea routes linking Europe to Asia. 

Their strategic control of ports and shipping lanes enabled them to demand high tariffs on items transported through this sea route.

The loss of their northern African coastal possession to the Omanis in 1699, led the Portuguese to focus on their holdings in Mozambique where they arrived in the late 15th Century and found that Swahili traders had already occupied the tiny Ilha de Moçambique, which eventually gave its name to the whole colony.  

The Swahili traders of Mozambique Island, Arab by extraction and Muslim by religion, were thoroughly ‘Africanised’.  

They were linked by marriage and descent to the lineages of the territorial chiefs along the trading routes of the interior.  

They spoke more ‘Bantu’ than Arabic and appeared, to the Portuguese, virtually indistinguishable from the African peoples of the coast.

In the north, Angoche upheld its independence from Portugal. An attempt by the Portuguese to take the city in 1860, failed, but its trade in rubber, ivory and slaves flourished while enterprises relocated there to escape Portuguese taxes and duties. 

To secure the supply of slaves, Portugal expanded into the interior, setting up bases to control trade routes.  

In the second part of the 19th Century, the island emerged as a centre of Islamic expansion into the interior looking to Sultanates in Zanzibar and the Comoros for juridical guidance, the schooling of local scholars and support.  

The Yao lost their trade monopoly and were subjected to slave raids by the Lomwe-Makau. 

Ravaged by migrating Ngoni, they were forced to migrate from their homeland in large numbers and settle in Malawi, bringing Islam. 

Violence and conflict subsequently wracked the interior, entire areas were depopulated, societies disintegrated and local economies collapsed.  

A long-lasting drought precipitated famine in the early 1830s, and in 1831, the Island of Mozambique was forced to import food.

The rise and expansion of the Zulu kingdom in the first three decades of the 19th Century unleashed a series of migrating raiding groups across the sub-continent two of which penetrated Mozambique; killing and plundering, adding to the misery and economic chaos created by the slave trade and drought.

The independence of Brazil from Portugal in 1822, led to renewed interest on the part of the Portuguese in their African possessions.  

But achieving actual control was another matter. 

The Gaza Kingdom of the Shangaan in the south, the Barue in the centre, the Prazos in the Zambezi Valley and the Makua in the north as well as the Sultanate of Angoche rejected Portuguese claims and resisted attempts to enforce them. Portuguese authority only became effective over the territory the 1920s.

The Shangaan were defeated in the 1895-1897 war, the Gaza kingdom subjugated and the King was exiled. 

The Nyanja were incorporated between 1897 and 1900. Angoche was subdued in 1910 and the Yao were conquered in 1912.  

Dr Michelina Rudo Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant and is a published author in her field.  

For views and comments, email:


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here