A Natural Wonder
The Zambezi River
The Victoria Falls
Ecology of the Victoria Falls
Formation of the Victoria Falls
People of the Victoria Falls
Enter the Ndebele
Discovery of the Victoria Falls
In Livingstone's Footsteps
Development of the Rhodesias
Development of the Railway
Development of Tourism
Development of Victoria Falls Town
Recent History
Further Information
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To The Victoria Falls

Discovery of the Victoria Falls

Early European Explorers

'At the beginning of the nineteenth century, European maps of Africa were still largely blank. Yet, over the course of the latter half of the century in particular, these empty spaces were gradually filled in as a host of European explorers sought to shine light on the 'dark continent'.'

The indirect effects of foreign activities and settlers had been felt in the region for many decades, if not hundreds of years, before the first Europeans penetrated the area in middle of the 18th century. Arab traders from the north had for many centuries exploited the African coast and their influences penetrated deep into the interior.

Early in the nineteenth century, pressure from rapidly expanding European settlement in South Africa has been identified as one of the contributing factors towards the difaqane and the northwards migration of the Makololo, which resulted in the conquest of the Lozi state (and subjugation of neighbouring peoples) in the 1830s, and also the displacement of the Ndebele before they finally settled in what is now southwest Zimbabwe.

By this time, the Lozi had come into contact with the Arab-Swahili and Portuguese influenced west coast traders, and the availability of imported cloth and firearms, together with new world crops such as maize. Archaeological evidence indicates that the people of the region were receiving trade goods, principally glass beads from India, imported into Africa via the east coast as early as the seventh century.

Many goods were bought and exchanged, but the most significant import was to be firearms, and the most important exports were slaves, not to mention ivory, and historically gold. Often in collaboration with powerful chiefs and tribes, traders captured and transported many peoples from the interior of southern Africa.

Arab Trade Routes

Between AD 1000 and 1500 the Arab-influenced Bantu founded several major settlements along the coast, from Mogadishu (in present day Somalia) to Kilwa in Tanzania, including Lamu (Kenya) and Zanzibar (Tanzania), producing a mixed culture heavily influenced by Islam and the development of the Swahili language. The Swahili-Arabs pushed into the interior, and developed a network of trade routes across much of east and southern Africa – ivory and gold were always sought after, but demand for slaves continued to grow.

Very few contemporary written records survive. The earliest known records, published in the tenth century by the Arab traveller Masudi, describes the eastern coast of Africa, along which the Arabs had already developed a well-established trade route, centred at Kilwa, right down to the region of what was known as Sofala (the low-lying place), on the Buzi River, south of the Zambezi delta. Beyond this the Arabs knew the coast as far as the end of Africa, but it was commercially uninteresting to them.

Masudi, and subsequent Arab writers, such as Ibn al-Wardi also referred to the trade in gold, the latter describing Sofala in the eleventh century as "as very large city; it sells plenty of gold and iron, exporting the latter to India, but its inhabitants prefer copper ornaments to gold". Nothing remains of this ancient settlement, and when Portuguese explorers arrived at the end of the fifthteenth century there was little more than a declining Arab trading port.

Although Arab traders were familiar at least with the mouth and immediate reaches of the Zambezi, nothing of the interior of this region, its people or their cultures, is recorded.

Early Portuguese Explorers

Portuguese scholars, versed in Arabic, soon discovered the Arab descriptions of the east coast of Africa. These records not only confirmed the belief that it was possible to sail around the tip of Africa, but also revealed the trade riches of Kilwa and its companion cities, specifically the trade in ivory and the gold of Sofala.

Long before the Portuguese explorers rounded the African Cape, it had quickly become legend in Europe that Sofala was connected to the Ophir of the Bible, the source of the Queen of Sheba's riches and tribute to King Solomon. The identification of Ophir with Sofala in Mozambique is also mentioned by Milton in 'Paradise Lost'. Modern researchers place the location of Ophir on the shore of the Red Sea, with the name perhaps being derived from the Afar people of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti.

The first Portuguese navigators rounded the Cape of Good Hope, led by Vasco de Gama at the end of the fifteenth century, having explored the western coast of Africa. On 2 March 1498, European explorers met Arab traders on the east coast of Africa for the first time.

De Gama, named the Zambezi ‘the river of good omens’, not perhaps because he thought the river itself held any special promise, but more likely because the presence of Arab dhows at the delta showed he was nearing the Indo-African trade routes which he sought. Intent on reaching India, de Gama had little time for Africa and did not stop at Sofala itself.

The second Portuguese fleet to arrive, led by Peter Cabrel however sailed under specific instructions "to find the great mine that is now Sofala, and that some believe to be the Ophir from which the most wise King Soloman drew 420 talents of gold for the building of the Temple of Jerusalem". These tall orders came, not surprisingly, to little.

In 1502, Vasca de Gama, on his second trip to the East, visited Sofala himself, finding a disappointing small town trading only moderate amounts of gold. But it was enough to convince the Portuguese however that indeed the inland mines existed, and that Arabs must still in control of the trade.

Vasco da Gama's companion Tomé Lopes reasoned that Ophir could have been the ancient name for Great Zimbabwe, the main center of sub-African trade in gold — although the ruins at Great Zimbabwe are now dated to between the 9th-12th centuries, long after Solomon is said to have lived.

In September 1505, Pero de Naia arrived with six ships intent on taking Sofala from Arab hands. They offered little resistance. Kilwa soon followed. However Portuguese control over Sofala still resulted only in a trickle of gold. Successive commanders of Sofala left without gaining control of the gold their masters desired.

Exploration of the Lower Zambezi

Convinced that gold was being smuggled down the Zambezi, the Portuguese moved north and established a base at the mouth of the river, aiming to use the Zambezi themselves as a trade route into the interior. In 1531 they occupied the Arab river ports of Sena and Tete. Upstream of Tete, the Cabora Bassa rapids formed an effective barrier to further navigation. The main interest of the Portuguese trading posts was not the Zambezi however, but stories of the gold-rich regions to the southwest.

The river did indeed forge greater access to the interior, and the first Portuguese Missionary, Gonsalo de Silveira, ventured into the lands of the Shona kingdom of the Mwana Mutapa under the leadership of Tshisambaru Nogomo. There he met several Arab and Portuguese traders, already entertained by the kings court, and it is recorded that: "The king was overcome with surprise to find a man among the Portuguese who did not want gold, provisions, or people to serve him."

The Jesuit missionary even managed to baptise the Mwana Mutapa, before Arab whispers of him being a white witchdoctor sent to weaken the king resulted in his untimely death.

Despite all the evidence pointing to the exhaustion of the goldfields and the decline of the old trade routes and ports, the Portuguese still persisted with their dreams of gold and tales of Ophir, where gold "is not only found among stones, but grows up within the bark of trees". On 16 May 1570, an expedition of seven hundred men, under the command of Francisco Barreto arrived on the coast, determined to find the goldfields.

There was much debate within the expedition on the best route into the interior. Majority opinion favoured Sofala, but a priest, Fransisco Monclaro argued successfully for them to De Silveira’s route up the Zambezi.

They arrived at Sena on 18 December 1571, at the height of the rains, and many died of fever, which was still unassociated with mosquitoes. Eventually, on the 19th July 1572 they set out from Sena and travelled 120 miles up the banks of the Lower Zambezi.

Barreto had determined to break the spirit of a tribe known to them as the Mongaze, and who had made a nuisance of themselves by disrupting traders. Marching up a tributary of the Zambezi, the Ruwenya and another, the Mazowe, they reached the principle village of the Mongaze, capturing it with ease and occupying it for several days.

Barreto's Expedition
Barreto's Expedition

At dawn on the third day, about to depart, they encountered an army said to be of 16,000 Africans, and the resulting battle was the first large-scale act of war between white European and black African in southern Africa. Over 4,000 Africans reportedly died under the fire of musketry and barrage of cannonball, before the remaining fled the field. The next day peace emissaries arrived bringing tribute to Barreto.

Despite only loosing 40 men in the battle, the Portuguese were dying two a day from fever, and Barreto decided to return to the Zambezi and await the envoys of the Mwana Mutapa. He turned his back on the legendary goldfields and returned to Sena.

The envoys of Mwana Mutapa arrived, and having heard of the defeat of the Mongaze, offered eight bracelets of very fine gold as a present for the king of Portugal, and asking for terms of permanent peace and trade. Three Portuguese ambassadors returned with them, with the conditions of peace entailing the final expulsion of the Arabs from the country, freedom for the teaching of Christianity, and surrender of the goldmines. The Mwana Mutapa ceded to these demands, however soon after the ambassadors returned to Sena, Barreto himself died of fever, on the 1 June 1573.

With their numbers reduced to only 180 men, the expedition, now under the command of Vasco Homen, retreated to the coast and planned a new approach, marching inland from Sofala, to find the goldfields for themselves.

In March 1575, with reinforcements totalling over 400 men, Homen, made his way inland to examine for themselves the Mbire (place of mines). Expecting to find gold nuggets sprinkled on the ground, they were disappointed, but at least one mining engineer was present who could access the potential value of the reefs, which was modest at that.

With this finding the expedition returned to Sofala, negotiated mining rights and, after the loss of many men, the end came not only to the expedition, but also Portuguese dreams of Ophir. There was no attempt to prospect or mine with machinery the gold deposits secured by the expedition, perhaps bitter that they found no gold just waiting to be taken away or growing on trees.

An official known as Chief Warden of the River was based at the mouth of the Zambezi to control trade, while upstream Sena and Tete continued as trading posts, with Tete the end of regular navigation. Some 500 kilometres of the middle Zambezi, and the Victoria Falls themselves, remained unknown to the outside world until the middle of the nineteenth century.

Portuguese influence continued for nearly 300 years, with missionary priests controlling successive Mwana Mutapa rulers. However during this time the Portuguese Empire had crumbled, as did their hold over the region.

After a brief period of insurrection against the Portuguese, successive Mwana Mutapa leaders, their power and control much weakened, moved their capitals closer to the river forts of the Portuguese, who they now relied on for protection, establishing bases firstly in the valley of the upper Mazowe and then Tete, and vacating their traditional lands.

Exploration of the Upper Zambezi basin

First known European to explore the Zambezi basin, Portuguese explorer Dr Fransico de Lacerda reached the Kazembe-Luanda Kingdom, having previously visited the region, in 1796. He died soon after arrival in 1798 and before he could meet with Mwata Kazembe Lukwesa to negotiate establishing trade routes.

In 1802 two 'pombeiros' (slave traders) Pedro João Baptista and Amaro José traversed the African continent from Luanda in Angola to Tete in Mozambique. On the way they passed through Kazembe, where the king of the Lunda detained them for four years (1806-1810).

In 1831 two Portuguese army officers, Major José Monteiro and Captain António Gamito, sough a route from coast to coast, but from Mozambique they could not proceed beyond Lake Mweru (on the present day border between Zambia and Democratic Republic of the Congo), as the reigning Mwata Kazembe Kalaka would not allow then to pass through his capital as he considered them a threat to his interests. The expedition journal, written by Gamito, was however a major pioneering contribution to the ethnography and history of Central Africa and northern Zambia.

Other explorers to visit the region included António da Silva Porto, who set off from present day Angola through central Africa in an attempt to reach Mozambique. He only managed to reach Bulozi in Barotseland, where in 1846 he met Litunga Mubukwana, who was at the time in exile after the Lozi had been overthrown along the Zambezi and in the region of the Falls by the Makololo. Silva Porto would later meet the British explorer David Livingstone and assisted him with supplies and information.

Making Maps

Many early European maps of the African continent often contained creative elements based on classical beliefs - for example seventeenth century maps show the Nile flowing from two lakes fed by streams rising in snow-capped mountains. The cartographical features were formalised by Ptolemy during the second century, whose work formed the basis of much early Arab geography.

Ptolemy lived in Alexandria and wrote on such subjects as astronomy, astrology, music, history, optics, and geography. His Geographia, written around 160, was a manual on the construction and drawing of maps. Fortunately copies of it survived in Greek manuscripts dating between the 12th and 14th centuries and brought to Italy around the year 1400 on the collapse of the Byzantine Empire. These manuscripts were divided into eight books and contained mapmaking instructions with the first fully worked out map projections, tables of towns and physical features with their latitude and longitude coordinates, and twenty-seven maps: one world map, ten of Europe, four of Africa, and twelve of Asia.

Of the maps of Africa, only the fourth dipped below the equator, showing the fabled Mountains of the Moon and two lake sources for the Nile, as well as unidentified, vaguely located mountain groups in the west. Virtually nothing else of the continent was known or conjectured. So pervasive was the influence of Ptolemy’s work that printed editions continued to appear across Europe for 250 years (1477-1730), with modern maps added by prominent cartographers to the nucleus of twenty-seven “ancient” maps.

The Portuguese explorations of the coast of Africa were gradually incorporated into the maps of the period, although the largely mythical interior details remained. A French world map produced in 1546 shows the mouths of the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers, within half a century of the first reconnaissance of the East African coast by the Portuguese. Both rivers however are shown as branches of the same stream, rising in one of Ptolemy’s two lakes. The same blend of fact and myth occurs in Abraham Ortelius’s well known map of Africa published in 1570.

Some discoveries were much slower to make their mark on contemporary cartography – for example Lake Malawi was known to the Portuguese by 1616 but did not appear on a printed map until a French map printed in 1722. The trading posts of Tete and Sena seem not to have appeared on any printed map until two centuries after their foundation.

Nicolas de Fer’s 1715 map of southern Africa apparently show the falls clearly marked in their correct position. It also has dotted lines denoting trade routes that David Livingstone followed 140 years later. There also exists a map from c.1750 drawn by Jacques Nicolas Bellin for Abbé Antoine François Prevost d’Exiles marks the falls as 'cataractes' and notes a settlement to the north of the Zambezi as being friendly with the Portuguese at the time.

By the nineteenth century most map-makers had discarded the last remnants of the mythical or imaginary features, no longer fearing to present large blank areas reflecting the unknown interior. Gradually the gaps were filled as increasing numbers of European travellers penetrated into what was, to them, one of the last remaining extensive unknown regions of the world.

Next page: David Livingstone

Life and Death at the Old Drift, Victoria Falls 1898-1905

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'To The Victoria Falls' aims to bring you the wonder of the Victoria Falls through a look at its natural and human history.

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