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The Establishment of a Portuguese Factory at Malindi

Within ten years of their arrival in the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese had forcibly taken control of most of the towns of the coast of eastern Africa. Their purpose was to obtain a monopoly on the trade in the western Indian Ocean, especially the gold from Sofala. Consequently, Kilwa which controlled the Sofala gold trade was sacked by Francisco d’Almeida in 1505. A fort was built at Kilwa the same year and occupied by the Portuguese troops. But the climate was so atrocious, the ocean currents so unfavourable for ships unloading their cargo and the revenue so poor, that by 1507 the fort became run down. Also in 1505, the town of Sofala was taken by Pedro d’Anaia, and a fort and factory were constructed in there the same year. However, since the entrance to the harbour of Sofala was very poor, Mozambique was soon chosen as the capital of the southern headquarters for the Portuguese in eastern Africa, and the main port providing provisions and water. It was a strange choice. Although the harbour was far superior to that of Sofala and its island position easier to defend, there was no water on the island, food was often difficult to obtain, and the climate was appalling. Nevertheless, in 1507 a fortress was commenced at Mozambique, along with a hospital, a church and a factory.

To consolidate their position in the northern part of their territories, the Portuguese decided in 1508 that a factory should be opened in Malindi in order to ensure their monopoly on all trading commodities, and in particular to collect a tax on cloth and beads from Cambay. They also wanted to supervise the transhipment of these goods to Mozambique. Therefore, in April of the following year the first factor of Malindi, Duarte de Lemos, arrived. The factor of Mozambique, Diogo Vaz, complained to him that large quantities of cheap cloth98 coming from Malindi were bypassing the port of Mozambique to avoid having to pay Portuguese customs duties. One Arab vessel alone brought in 100,000 pieces of cloth. The Swahili living along the southern coast were, in turn, exporting gold and ivory for this cloth, which was also against Portuguese regulations since they wanted to control the gold and ivory leaving this part of their territories.

The factory in Malindi had been in existence for only one year when, in 1510, there were serious doubts whether it ought to be continued. The necessity of a factory in Malindi was questioned by the Portuguese crown in June, since now among its possessions was the port of Hormuz where the supply of Cambay cloth to Kilwa could be more easily regulated. Even the factor at Malindi, Duarte Teixeira, wrote in the same year that he thought the customs house should be closed down. Again in 1511, Affonso de Albuquerque, who was probably the most eminent Viceroy of India, suggested that the factory be shut, but unfortunately, his reasons are not recorded as both Duarte Teixeira’s and Affonso de Albuquerque’s letters only exist in forms summarized by the Secretary of State.

The main reason why the Portuguese were contemplating the closure of the factory was that the Sheikh of Malindi, who had always been friendly to the Portuguese, had lost control of the town’s trade and consequently much revenue. And because the factory was not very profitable and the Portuguese did not want to offend further their only strong ally on the coast, the factory was closed by the Portuguese in 1511 or 1512. Significantly, even with their factory, the Portuguese were never able to stop the clandestine trade in cloth and gold from Sofala; even well into the 1560s, the Captains of Mozambique and Sofala complained bitterly that they were being swamped with goods from Malindi. After 1512 the Captain in Malindi took over the factory’s responsibilities and established a Portuguese monopoly on cotton imports and on the export of coir, gum copal, ambergris, beeswax, and ivory.

Under this new trading arrangement, the Sheikh had control of the remaining trade items such as the importation of wheat, silk, spices and gold, and the exportation of foodstuffs. Although the Sheikh now was able to raise more revenue, he was shabbily treated by the Portuguese in another way. The Portuguese in Malindi often behaved appallingly by insulting the Arabs and occasionally stealing from them. Francisco d’Almeida, Viceroy of India, was fully aware of these provocations and complained to the King of Portugal as early as 1508. But it is doubtful whether these complaints received much attention. Even if the King had issued some verdict against the behaviour of the Portuguese, Almeida or any other Viceroy would have been unable to enforce it. To illustrate the ludicrous turn that Portuguese actions sometimes took, in Pemba any chicken that happened to wander into the Portuguese compound was seized; the explanation given was that the chicken wanted to become a Christian.

1512 was a critical year for Malindi as well as for the Portuguese on the north coast. Not only was the trading factory at Malindi shut down, but the Portuguese evacuated their base at Kilwa which had never been a successful venture and retreated south of Cape Delgado to Sofala and Mozambique. With the rise of the latter after 1507, many of the ships which would have stopped at Malindi put into Mozambique instead. There were two major reasons: the port of Mozambique was far superior to that of Malindi; and because of the monsoonal system, it was quick (especially on the return journey to Portugal) to sail directly to or from Mozambique and avoid Malindi altogether. Not until 1593, when the construction of Fort Jesus at Mombasa was begun, did the Portuguese again show much interest in their East Africa possessions north of Mozambique.

After 1512, the sole administrative office on the northeast coast maintained by the Portuguese was that of the “Captaincy of the Malindi Coast” whose headquarters were based in Malindi town which consequently became the capital of Portugal’s northern possessions in eastern Africa. The Captain of Malindi’s task was to look after Portugal’s interests on this part of the coast but most of the Captains were more concerned with obtaining the maximum customs duties than carrying out administrative duties. The Captains made a large amount of money from their official position at the Arabs’ expense, and they were sometimes supported by the Viceroys of India. In 1561, Manoel Travossas, the Captain of Malindi, obtained permission from the Viceroy to check systematically every ship coming to the Malindi coast for contraband and to require all vessels to obtain from him personally permission to sail farther south. In spite of these decrees, however, smuggling continued on a large scale, and the Arab coastal trade flourished throughout the sixteenth century during the previous century.

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