Waltham, MA: Crossroads Press, 1981, 121 pages
Left: Map of the kingdom of Great Zimbabwe, circa 1400
An outgrowth of dissertation work by the author, The Quest for an African Eldorado examines the development of the first Portuguese settlement in what would become Mozambique. Elkiss argued in particular that the concept of a “Golden Sofala” – a mysterious land of incredible wealth – was “largely a myth created by Arab and Persian writers and perpetuated by the Portuguese.” The author also maintained that this mythical African El Dorado changed the nature of Luso-African relations, as the Portuguese obsession with finding the source of the gold that trickled down to Sofala influenced their regional interests for several centuries. This out-of-print and rather short text nonetheless contains a solid overview of Portuguese colonial history in the region Elkiss described as Southern Zambezia, and – more importantly - the author recognized the importance of myth and legend in the early centuries of European expansion.
Elkiss dated to the thirteenth century the fascination that Muslim writers developed for the idea that Sofala and its hinterlands were a region of unparalleled wealth. He included accounts from the Arabic historian Ibn al-Wardi, who claimed that “‘one of the wonders of the land of Sofala is that there are found under the soil, nuggets of gold in great numbers.’” Noted Muslim scholar Ibn Battuta visited Kilwa, and learned from a passing merchant that “ʻthe city of Sufāla lies at a distance of a half month’s journey from Kūlwa…and from Yufi, gold dust is brought to Sufāla.’”
Elkiss argued that the fifteenth-century exploration voyages of the Portuguese – culminating with the 1488 rounding of the Cape by Bartolomeu Dias and the 1497-99 expedition of Vasco da Gama - changed the political and economic dynamics of the Indian Ocean. The author attributed the near-decade that elapsed between the Dias and Gama voyages to a “desire by the crown to await the detailed reports of two agents [Pero de Covilhã and Afonso de Paiva] dispatched overland at the same time Dias was setting sail for Africa.” Elkiss, quoting Portuguese historian João de Barros, noted that Gama viewed with apprehension the Mozambican seaboard:
Vasco da Gama feared the waters would draw him in and that it was some deep bay from which he would not be able to get out. This fear made him so cautious in keeping far off the shore, that he passed without seeing it, the settlement of Sofala, so celebrated in these parts.The author described gold mining by Shona societies in Sothern Zambezia as a “high-risk, low-return investment.” The influx of New World bullion, maintained Elkiss, drove down the value of Sofalan gold, and the Mutapa imposed strict controls to reduce unauthorized mining. The reason why the Shona did not put forth a high level of energy toward gold mining had little to do with use-values or economic backwardness, argued Elkiss, nor did it represent what a seventeenth-century English writer attributed as the Shona “being extremely lazie themselves.” Instead, the work of mining gold carried with it significant health and safety risks from mine flooding and cave-ins, and the simple fact that the gold trade was not especially lucrative for Shona miners:
Yet, the Shona laborer’s output of gold rarely exceeded a few ounces for an entire season’s work; in return he obtained only a few pieces of cloth or some beads. This unequal exchange was in itself a natural disincentive to gold working, even without the influence of royal prohibitions.
Left: sixteenth century map of the port of Sofala
The text is not without its problems, however, such as an examination by Elkiss of the 1569 voyage to Mozambique by Francisco Baretto, who was expected to lead an attack on the Mutapa in retaliation for the execution of Jesuit priest Gonçalo da Silveira. Elkiss described Baretto’s decision to stop first at Brazil as “unnecessary and unusual, since few vessels sailing to the orient stopped in Brazil,” and the author cited a 1565 Crown prohibition prohibiting India-bound ships from wintering Brazil. Yet it is precisely because of the Crown prohibition that we know this was not a rare practice, as the Crown would not be likely to enact a law in response to an activity that did not exist. Moreover, most historians on the Estado recognized that such stops in Brazil were indeed quite common; CR Boxer noted that the Crown’s decision to try and prohibit Brazil landings by Carreira vessels was “fear that the Indiamen might lose their voyage by doing so, and the high rate of desertion from such ships as did call there.” Glenn J. Ames identified such stops at Brazilian ports like Bahia as an “increasing allure” that interfered with the “swift and successful completion of Carreira voyages,” adding that such Brazilian visits “often facilitated illegal trading of products like cinnamon that were ideally a Crown monopoly.” More importantly, though, this remark by Elkiss ignores the fact that Portuguese ships routinely sailed on a southwesterly course toward Brazil on the outbound voyage to take advantage of the prevailing winds, as a voyage due south will send a ship directly into the dreaded calms off the Gulf of Guinea. Moreover, the Portuguese discovery of Brazil by Pedro Álvares Cabral was a direct result of this sailing tradition, and Baretto was thus behaving in a well-established (if indeed officially-prohibited” manner by stopping in Brazil.
The Quest for an African Eldorado is a useful book for undergraduates needing a brief summary of the early Portuguese colonial efforts in southeastern Africa, and general readers will find the text accessible. However, graduate students and specialists in the Estado da India will find little new in this text, and would likely find texts by other historians to contain a greater depth of narrative and a wider variety of sources. The book would have also benefited from more than its brief treatment of a related theme of European obsession – the medieval legend of priest-king Prester John and its effects on European exploration and expansion – but Elkiss elected to pass up this opportunity to compare the ways in which these legends were similar.