The search for the fabled gold mines of Monomotapa (Mutapa)

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King Sebastian of Portugal gave Francisco Barreto the job of leading an expedition to Monomotapa (present day Zimbabwe) to take over the empire's legendary gold mines. The Portuguese wished to copy Spain’s discoveries with its fabulous gold mines in Peru and silver mines in Mexico as Portugal’s colonies in Asia were not creating sufficient wealth. Barreto was given instructions to "undertake nothing of importance without the advice and concurrence" of the Jesuit Priest Francisco Monclaros.

Barreto set sail from Lisbon on April 16, 1569, with three ships, 1,000 men, and the title of Conqueror of the Mines, bestowed upon him by the King. The first boat arrived in Mozambique in August 1569; Barreto's on March 14 of the next year, and the third ship months later. Barreto preferred to take the easier route, via Sofala to the location of the mines. However the Jesuit Priest Monclaros demanded that the expedition take the Sena route, rather than the Sofala route, as this would lead them to where another Jesuit, Goncalo da Silveira had been thrown into a river and martyred in 1561. Montclaros view prevailed and so the expedition set out for Chipangura (also Macequece or Massi-Kessi, now Manica) the reputed location of the great mines, via the Sena route.

The expedition sailed up the Cuama River (actually the Zambezi River, but the Swahili traders called one of their outposts Cuama and early explorers confused this with the name of the river) armed with weapons and mining tools, and arrived in the Sena region on 18 December 1571. Barreto sent an envoy to the Emperor of Monomotapa with a request for permission to attack a people called the Mongas, whose territory lay between the Portuguese and the gold mines. The emperor granted Barreto permission to attack them and even went so far to offer his own men. Barreto, however, declined assistance, and marched onward upriver.

The Portuguese fought several battles against the Mongas, victorious in all of them despite the overwhelming numbers, due to their guns. When the Mongas King sent ambassadors to Barreto in hopes of securing a peace, the soldier tricked him into thinking that the camels used by the Portuguese, animals unknown in south eastern Africa, subsisted on flesh, leading the Mongas to provide the Portuguese with beef for the camels.

Before the expedition could further progress further, Barreto was recalled to the Island of Mozambique to deal with António Pereira Brandão, who Barreto had appointed as commander at Mozambique and was now spreading false information about Barreto. The governor removed him from duty as commander of the São Sebastião fort, and returned to Sena where his men were waiting.  At this point, however, many of the men were sick with malaria and Barreto too fell ill and died at Sena on July 9, 1573.

Homem continues the search

Barreto's deputy, Vasco Fernandes Homem, succeeded him as Captain of Sofala and Governor and returned with the remaining company to the coast. After the Jesuit Priest Monclaros had left for Lisbon, the expedition to Chipangura (now the modern day town of Manica) was resumed via the Sofala route to assess the potential of gold mining in Manicaland. Chipangura was the pre-Portuguese capital of the Manica Kingdom and the site of a gold fair; the centre of the gold trade with the Swahili merchants, and the major objective of Barreto’s failed expedition in 1570. Vasco Homem did reach Chipangura in 1575 and as the town is only 30 kilometres east of Penhalonga, obtained permission to visit the mines.

The mines, when finally reached, did not resemble the legends, as the ore was scarce and the labour requirments were enormous, with the natives only producing very small amounts of gold. After searchinh for and failing to find further mines in a neighbouring kingdom, Homem abandoned the search for gold. His report to the King was not encouraging, as he believed the project required machinery and trained miners, and in 1577 he was replaced.

However, his contacts with Chipangura resulted in good trade relations with the ruling Chicanga rulers and from then on Portuguese traders regularly visited the gold fair. In the 1630's there were some 50 Portuguese traders at Chipangura with a Portuguese Captain and a resident Priest. Subsidiary settlements were at Matuca and at the Bvumba. Portuguese dominance continued until the Rozvi crossed from modern day Zimbabwe in 1695 and destroyed the town. 

By 1720 a new trade fair had been established at the former Chipangura, now called Macequece (or Massi-Kessi) under the joint rule of a traditional Chicanga ruler and a Portuguese captain. Actual gold mining remained a Chicanga monopoly, but ivory, gemstones, copper, iron and cattle were also traded. gradually the trade fell off and by 1835 Macequece was abandoned.  

In the 1850's the Portuguese tried to re-establish the gold fair, but by then ivory was a more important trade item. Macequece was renamed Manica by the Portuguese who tried to revive the gold trade and built a Fort on the site in 1890 due to tension with the BSA Company over the territorial boundaries with Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe)  


F.C. Danvers. The Portuguese in India. Volume 1: 1481 – 1571. Asian Educational Services 1992

P. Briggs. Mozambique. Bradt Travel Guides

M.Newitt. A History of Mozambique. C. Hurst and Co. London 1995

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Historical background to the area
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