South Africa - Ian D. Colvin

The Queen Of Sheba's Mines

It is a little hard to realise that the Portuguese were exploring East Africa when the English were still fighting the Wars of the Roses, and that an army was being led three or four hundred miles up the Zambesi when Shakespeare was little more than a baby. It was the fate of the Portuguese to spend their blood and treasure looking for gold among the fever-stricken jungles and mangrove swamps of South-east Africa. The tales of death and massacre, of battles with cannibals and wild beasts to be found in the old Portuguese records would take a volume to themselves. The Portuguese believed that Ophir, where the Queen of Sheba got her gold, was somewhere in the interior, inland from Sofala. At Sofala itself they had built a fort in a mangrove swamp on the edge of a fever-haunted river, and there Pedro d'Anhaya had first fought the savages, then massacred the Moors of the neighbouring village, and last of all died of fever with most of his men and was buried alongside of them in the hot, foetid, squelching mud of the river-banks. But all the gold that was brought down from Sofala was a little dust sealed up in quills, which the natives sold for striped cloth and strings of blue and yellow beads made of potter's clay. It came from mines far inland, and the Portuguese thought if they could only reach these mines they would find more wealth than the Spaniards had got in Mexico.

The stories grew as the years went on, until fifty years after Pedro d'Anhaya was sung to his last sleep by the frogs of the Sofala river, all Portugal was in a fever to find the gold-fields. The stories were prodigious. The gold, says one writer, was so plentiful that great lumps of it were forced up out of the ground by the trees, and were to be found in the forks of the branches. Diego de Couto tells of a nugget "like a large yam "that in its rough state weighed twelve thousand cruzados, and of places where nuggets lay on the ground like ginger in the Indies. That this mine could be no other than Solomon's Ophir was plain, for "the Kaffirs call it Fur or Fura, and the Moors Aufur, and altering a few letters in both names, with little change in pronunciation—which these barbarians corrupt—the sound is very similar to Ophir."

It was to find these mines that young King Sebastian sent his greatest soldier, Francisco Barreto, with a splendidly equipped army to Mozambique. Francisco Barreto had fought the Moors in North Africa and had been Governor of India. He was a man advanced in years, and was as true a gentleman as he was a soldier. At the time he was appointed to the command of the expedition he was general of the galleys, and his soldiers and sailors, who loved him like a father, mobbed his vessel in their eagerness to be enrolled. The force was to consist of three ships and a thousand soldiers, and of the six hundred in Barreto's ship half were noblemen and two hundred servants of the king. So many men applied, indeed, that the officers sorted out the best of them in the galleys, and there were enough left over to man another fleet. Of all that brilliant assemblage which set out that brave day of April 1569 with so much pomp, with processions of priests, and waving of banners and blare of martial trumpets, only a few fever-stricken wretches were destined to see Portugal again.

Of the expedition we have two excellent accounts, one by Diego de Couto, himself a soldier, who had been in the Indies and East Africa and had conversed with the leaders of the expedition though he had not taken part in it. It is a clear and graphic narrative, and agrees in the main with the other account by the Jesuit Father Monclaro, who accompanied the expedition.

Where the two differ is that the first is, as we should say now, anti-clerical. The king, Dom Sebastian, was young, and leaned much upon Jesuit advice, and de Couto says that Monclaro, who represented the power behind the throne, was the malign influence of the expedition, upsetting all the plans and bringing upon it all the disasters from which it suffered. Upon this side of the story Father Monclaro, as might be expected, maintains a discreet reserve.

The affair began badly. One of the ships had to put back into port, and Barreto had to winter in Brazil. Then when the force got to Mozambique there was vexatious delay. De Couto says that Barreto and all his officers desired to go by way of Sofala, the most direct route to the mines; but Monclaro, by pressure and intrigue, forced the general to go up the Zambesi so as to march to the mines through the territories of the Monomotapa. A Jesuit father had been killed by that great chief, as we shall see in our next chapter, and de Couto says that the Jesuits wanted to revenge his death and to find his bones to keep as relics. This, the soldier adds scornfully, was impossible, since the body of the holy father was thrown into the river where "it was immediately devoured by the iguanas and crocodiles, therefore it could not appear excepting at the last universal judgment." That de Couto is likely to be right may be gathered from a remark of Monclaro's that one of the chief motives of the expedition was "the unjust death of Father Gonšalo da Silveira, whom the Monomotapa caused to be executed, being thereto persuaded and bribed by the Moors of those parts." The fact that after the failure of the Zambesi route, the expedition was taken by way of Sofala also seems to add point to de Couto's allegation.

However that may be, Barreto seems to have been loth to start upon the journey inland. He put off a great deal of time on the coast, putting down a rebellion and collecting arrears of tribute, and then he was very nearly sailing to India on hearing that Chaul was being beleaguered. It appears, indeed, that the old man's heart was not in the work. Perhaps he already knew that he had embarked upon a wild-goose chase.

Barreto had arrived in Mozambique on the 16th of May 1570, and it was not until November 1572 that he set out for the Zambesi. By that time a hundred of his men were dead of fever; and though they were replaced by twice the number from the hospital, the expedition had lost a good deal in many ways by the long period of waiting. Still Barreto had not been idle. He had built boats and wagons, he had gathered together oxen and horses, and even asses and camels from Arabia, he had collected clothing and tents, water-bottles and provisions, and it was a brave and well-found little army of more than seven hundred arquebusiers, experienced in war and well officered, more in the humour to fight Turks or other skilled soldiers than Kafirs."

The Zambesi filters through its mangrove swamps into the Indian Ocean by several mouths, and it was by the largest of these, the Cuama, which long before had been called by da Gama the River of Good Omens, that Barreto took his way into the interior. The great fleet of boats crawled slowly along shores lined with dense thickets, peopled by "apes the size of grey-hounds," and savages who ground their teeth to a point and wore their hair made up into horns a foot long "The higher the rank of the negroes here," says Monclaro, the more red ochre mixed with oil they put upon their heads to make them look like figures from hell, and they use many other stinking things, which smell sweetly to them. Their lips are all pierced, and they thrust pieces of copper through the holes, so that their lips being dragged down by the weight they are always slobbering." The soldiers shot at the hippopotamuses and crocodiles that wallowed on the sand-banks, and made fine breastplates of crocodile skin.

It was a slow journey: the boats were dragged up hand over hand by ropes anchored ahead of them in the stream; but at last they got to Sena, "a small village of straw huts in a thicket," nearly two hundred miles up the Zambesi, where the river, at this point two miles or so broad, emerges from the steep hills which tower above its dark waters farther upstream.

In this village of Sena lived some twenty peaceful Arab traders, some of whom had grown rich by selling beads and cloth for gold dust and ivory, and they gave Barreto and his army a cordial welcome. And here the Jesuit's zeal led the general into an abominable crime. Monclaro, as we have seen, believed that the "Moors" were responsible for the death of Gonšalo—how slight was his proof will be seen in our next chapter. He thirsted for revenge, and was ready to believe any evil of the Mahomedans, and when he got to Sena he found the opportunity. "The oxen," he says, died suddenly, though fine and in good condition, and were given to the soldiers for food. When I saw this I always suspected the cause, and maintained that it was poison, so that the governor was vexed and cast black looks upon me when I spoke to him." Of course, the animals were really dying from the tsetse fly. This is clearly shown by the fact that, as Monclaro tells us himself, the oxen of the country, "escaped the poison of the Moors;" were, in fact, "salted." But as the imported oxen and horses came to a mysterious end poison was a simple explanation, and a wretched groom, on being tortured, "confessed" that the Moors were guilty. "The governor," says Monclaro, "was almost forced to give leave to put the groom to the torture; while they were setting about it, the groom bade them desist, saying that he would speak the truth, and he made known the whole plot of the Moors; and the governor, convinced at last, ordered them to be arrested." The men had been dying as well as the cattle, among them Ruy Franco Barreto, the governor's own son, and this was also attributed to the wretched Arabs. They had been kind; they had treated the soldiers with a generous, though no doubt interested, hospitality, and one of them, Balthazar Marrecos, was endeavouring to accommodate the general with a loan of three thousand miticals of gold when he was arrested. Monclaro tells us of their end with cruel delight. The soldiers, he says, arrested them willingly, "for besides being revenged on the Moors, most of the gold which they had fell to their share, of which more than fifteen thousand miticals went to the king." Seventeen of the principal men were taken, among them the sheik, "and one of the plotters of the death of Father Dom Gonšalo." And then in a passage which makes one shudder to read the Jesuit describes the wretched end of these people:—

"These were condemned and put to death by strange inventions. Some were impaled alive; and some were tied to the tops of trees, forcibly brought together, and then set free, by which means they were torn asunder; others were opened up the back with hatchets; some were killed by mortars, in order to strike terror into the natives; and others were delivered to the soldiers, who wreaked their wrath upon them with arquebuses." Only one, we are told, abjured his faith, and, poor devil, he did not gain much thereby. He was baptized with the name of Lourenšo. The fathers offered him "great consolation," and he was then hanged, "accompanied by the crucifix."

That horses and cattle and men continued to die after this massacre just as before does not seem to have altered Monclaro's opinion in the least—so true is it that people believe what they desire to believe. We must remember that the life-and-death struggle between Cross and Crescent was still raging. While the Portuguese were on the Zambesi they heard the news of the battle of Lepanto.

Then, at the end of July 1572, the general marched up the river, keeping on the high ground along the right bank. On the river itself were twenty boats laden with provisions, merchandise, and ammunition. Twenty-five wagons drawn by oxen of the country—"as big as the large oxen of France and very tractable"—accompanied the army, which now consisted of six hundred and fifty trained men, while there were more than two thousand slaves, and a number of camels and asses. Barreto rode a horse that escaped the poison at Sena," and was "always clad in a thick coat of mail." Strange, is it not, to think of those sixteenth-century soldiers, with their shining steel helmets and breastplates blazing in the sun, marching along the mountain banks of the Zambesi into the heart of Africa!

At that time the supreme chief of those regions was the Monomotapa, whose territory, the Portuguese believed, was bounded by Prester John, and whose army numbered a hundred thousand fighting men. Little wonder if Barreto desired to be at peace with this formidable lion in his path. As it happened, there was a subject tribe known to the Portuguese as the Mongas, which had rebelled against the Monomotapa, and had also given the Portuguese traders a good deal of trouble. Barreto adopted the same policy as the Boers later on used with the Zulus; to conciliate the Monomotapa he offered to punish his troublesome rebels. As the Mongas lived south-west of Barreto's position on the river, the Portuguese left their many sick with the boats at an island and marched across country, now only some five hundred strong. It was a terrible march, the soldiers broiling in their steel and buff, breaking through thorns and clambering over rocks hot with the sun. The water was scarce and bad, and many of them fell out through thirst and dysentery.

But at last, after marching for nine days, they saw the enemy, at first only scouts, who raised a great cloud of dust by "whirling sticks with buffalo tails attached to them," and then upon a level plain covered with grass and tall reeds they came upon an army of ten or twelve thousand men. It is very interesting to note that Barreto drew up his men in a hollow square, two companies before the wagons, two on the sides, and one behind, so that the baggage was in the centre, and the artillery seem to have been placed round the square much in the modern manner. "He commanded," says de Couto, "a swivel-gun (swivel-falcon, Monclaro calls it) to be placed in the rear, cannon and demi-cannon on the flanks, and three field pieces loaded with cast-iron balls in the vanguard." Indeed Barreto marched exactly in the same way against the Mongas as Lord Chelmsford three centuries after marched against the Zulus at Ulundi. And the Mongas adopted the same tactics as the Zulus. "They advanced in the form of a crescent," says Monclaro, "and almost surrounded us on every side." Both accounts speak of the enemy using arrows, but it is easy to understand how these might be confused with the thrown assegai. In the various fights the Mongas charged bravely, advancing almost to the guns.

"The Kafirs," says de Couto, "approached in a semicircle, preceded by an aged woman whom they looked upon as a great sorceress. When near our army she took a small quantity of dust from a gourd which she carried, and threw it into the air, by which she had made Mongas believe all our men would be blinded and fall into their hands. This they so firmly believed that they had brought many ropes with which to bind them. The governor, seeing the old Kafir woman making antics before them all, thought that she must be a sorceress, and commanded the gunner to fire the falcon at her, which he did, taking such good aim that the ball shattered the wretched creature, which seemed to stupefy the Kafirs, as they believed her to be immortal. For this the governor took off a handsome gold chain which he wore, and put it round the gunner's neck. This did not prevent the Kafirs from falling upon our men in savage disorder, with great cries and shouts, brandishing their swords and darts which they call pomberas."

The swords may have been stabbing assegais, and it is worth noting that the Mongas also carried the knobkerry.

As for Monclaro, he led the fight with his crucifix, like the fanatic he was. "It was noticed that wherever I was with the crucifix, although the arrows were numerous, no one was wounded by them within ten or twelve paces of it; and, looking up in some fear of the arrows, I observed that though many seemed falling on my head, the Lord, whose image I carried in my hands, diverted them, so that they left as it were an open space, within which no one was wounded, although I was in the front, and they came with great force, the wind being now in their favour."

Barreto fights Kafirs


Barreto's generalship and his arquebuses and cannon were too much for the Mongas. They thought that the white men were wizards, who had "medicine" too potent to be overcome. When the smoke of the guns enveloped the little square in a cloud, "the enemy was astonished, saying that we were great wizards, since we could turn day into night." At last, after a fight in which Barreto defended a laager made of tree-trunks and brush-wood, and after more than four thousand of the enemy had been slain, the chief sued for peace. Barreto received the ambassadors in state, seated in a velvet-covered chair. "The governor wore a strong coat of mail with sleeves, with a sword ornamented with silver hung crossways, and a page stood near him with a shield of shining steel. When the Kafir was brought before him he was so overcome with amazement that he could not speak or answer any of the questions put to him, but trembled from head to foot." The natives were still more frightened when they saw the camels, which, they were assured, fed upon human flesh, and they agreed to Barreto's terms with the most respectful alacrity.

Nevertheless, in this first great campaign between the black man and the white in South Africa, it was the white man that was really beaten. The Portuguese were encumbered by sixty wounded and many sick; they were short of provisions and water; in front of them was a wilderness of scrub and rock. Barreto ordered the retreat, and fell back upon the boats.

It was a disastrous retreat. The only water was that of the "stagnant pools left from the winter, exposed to the sun, and covered with green slime; and even this was scarce." "It was crawling, and it stank," and so many fell sick that there were none to carry them. "Even Francisco Barreto carried the sick behind him on his horse." Thus they retraced their steps a weary seventy miles, and at last, starving and tottering, the little army reached the boats.

This was but the beginning of disaster. Barreto heard that there was intrigue against him at Mozambique, so he left his little force at Sena and hastened to the coast. At the fortress he found the aged governor, whom he had himself installed, had drawn up lying statements against him addressed to the king, and had forced many to sign them. Barreto took the governor, an old sinner of eighty, to a little chapel—"the hermitage of the Holy Ghost, which faces the old fortress on a rock overhanging the sea, and is reached by a bridge." There they went alone and prayed mid heard Mass. Then Barreto came out again, and, "leaning his back against a support, he drew Antonio Pereira to him. Some persons told me," says de Couto, "that they saw Francisco Barreto prepare a dagger which he wore in his belt, and that Antonio Pereira Brandao fell on the ground and clasped him round the legs two or three times. The governor bent down and raised him, and, putting his hand into his pocket, he drew out the papers that had been directed to the king. Upon seeing them Antonio Pereira was astounded and burst into tears, and, falling at the governor's feet he begged for mercy with sobs which could be heard by those who had remained at a distance. The governor, who, was very kind-hearted and compassionate, turned his back and went towards the fortress with his eyes full of tears, as if it had been he who was the culprit. He was so fatigued that he seemed as if he had been engaged in some laborious task."

Poor Barreto! He himself was an old man. After sailing he heard that his wife had died of the pest in Lisbon. His son had died at Sena. Now his friend had proved a traitor, and he knew that his army was dying by inches in the swamps of the Zambesi. He did what could be done. He collected comforts and provisions for the sick, and returned up that dolorous river. When he reached Sena his heart must have been like to break. On the river bank fifty soldiers waited to receive him. They could hardly stand, and they had no captains or other officers; but they held aloft the four banners and saluted their general. "Passing by the hospital," says the Jesuit, we saw the sick seated in the huts, looking more like dead men than living beings, but rejoiced at our coming. They had the arquebuses on the ground, and one who was a little stronger than the rest fired them all, for the others were unable to do it." Not one man was in good health, and most of them were dead. "The colonel came to the bank upon a horse with men to lead it, but had a severe seizure there, so that we took him for dead. The doctor was dying at the time of our arrival, and all were in such a state that it was evident everything was at an end."

Everything was indeed at an end. Barreto went about among the sick, tending them with his own hands; but eight days after his arrival he also was struck down, and after a week's illness the brave old general died. "I went to see him in the morning," says Father Monclaro, "and found his pulse imperceptible and dead and his arms and feet cold. I gave him the holy unction, he being still conscious, and sent for Vasco Fernandez Homem to come and see him before he died, for his decease was certain. He came and remained to assist him, though he himself was suffering from fever and ague nearly every day. Close upon midnight he yielded his soul to God, in a straw hut, and we could not find in his desk or elsewhere as much as a cruzado for his obsequies or for the benefit of his soul."

He was buried next morning in the chapel of St. Marcal, "where as the building was full of fresh corpses so that there was no room for him, it was necessary to make a grave crossways along the altar, even this being wanting at his death to a man who had been so prosperous, and who had ruled India with so much pomp."

Of the army only one hundred and eighty remained alive, and they were sick and dying fast. Homem, the new commander, withdrew this remnant to Mozambique, where he formed a new army, and with great toil and suffering in the end reached the country of the mines by way of Sofala. At last they had reached the Eldorado, the Ophir of Solomon. The men's eyes glistened. They expected, says de Couto, to see everything gold, "to find it in the streets and woods and to come away laden with it." But when they got to the mines they found only a few deep holes in the earth with some Kafirs painfully at work. "With the earth which they dug up they filled their basins and went to wash it in the river, each one obtaining from it four or five grains of gold, it being altogether a poor and miserable business."

There was nothing to be done but to retreat and leave the Kafirs working in their holes. So ended the great expedition, conducted with a gallantry and skill that seemed to deserve a better fortune. But it may serve as typical of the sojourn of the Portuguese in South Africa. They ventured out bravely with trumpets and banners, they fought in the style of heroes; but all that they gained was "a poor and miserable business"; a few tusks of ivory, a few lumps of ambergris, a few miticals of gold dust—and a hole in the ground.