Jul 23, 2008

Book Review: The Quest for an African Eldorado: Sofala, Southern Zambezia, and the Portuguese, 1500-1865

Elkiss, Terry H.
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.


Anonymous said...

While it is a useful to comment on the historiographical significance of a particular text, to provide a critique on a volume published 27 years ago seems an unduly gratuitous and supercilious exercise. The volume has been superseded by recent explorations of archives in Lisbon, Goa, and Mozambique as well as the publication of numerous new studies. Moreover, it is specious to raise issues as to what the author selected to research in contrast to what the reader would have liked him to pursue.

historymike said...

1. Internet surfers lack access to scholarly book reviews, Anonymous, since reputable sites like JSTOR charge for access unless a person searches through a network - like a university or library computer - that subscribes. Therefore, I publish my book reviews for free on this site as an effort to fill a niche, as well as to drive traffic here (I'm not completely altruistic).

2. My contention about the failure to include more information about Prester John gets to the role of myth in history, especially the history of European exploration and expansion. In the cases of the Mutapa El Dorado myth and the Prester John myth, European actions were influenced by beliefs about myhtical figures and mythical lands. To ignore a comparison with the Prester John myth only serves to miss an opportunity to strengthen this book.

3. Yes, there are many newer and better researched books, ranging from authors such as MN Pearson to RJ Barendse to Glenn Ames to Sanjay Subrahmanyam. Yet the Elkiss book remains on shelves, and people might still have some interest, even decades after its publication.

4. Also, I do not necessarily subscribe to the "newer is better" philosophy, as I find older texts sometimes have references to archival materials that get ignored in newer books. Older texts also tend to be free from modern methodological and rhetorical fads, though admittedly they carry their own quirks and biases. I sometimes like to read authors from an earlier era to compare how the discipline has changed, or when I get annoyed with overuse of trendy terms like "paradigm shift," "empowered," or when a writer becomes so obsessed with postmodern analysis that the text becomes unreadable.

5. Finally, our discipline - like many others - has an obsession with staying focused on new research, rather than on excellent research. I think that too many researchers fear getting tagged as out-of-date by referencing older texts, which is a disservice to earlier historians, and instead focus on making sure that everything written in the last 5-10 years gets a mention, especially since some of these folks will likely be doing the book reviews.

Anonymous said...

Alas, the "perfect wave" for the multitude of benighted "Internet surfers" searching for scholarly book reviews on the cheap. Instead of directing readers to reviews by actual scholars (for which the volume in question has a plethora), one is served a bargain-basement commentary by a history buff who admits to less than altruistic motives. How else would he explain a review that omits the volume's date of publication and, consequently, neglects the historical influences and period in which the work was written. Indeed, the reviewer may have uncovered an overlooked "gem" but he offers the reader paltry assistance in understanding the volume in its historiographical context (which is how a scholar references an older text). In truth, this review is the "disservice to earlier historians."

historymike said...

Hmmm.. we have now morphed from a friendly discussion about why I use the blog format for book reviews into the realm of personal attacks.

Sorry - not interested in playing. Have a good day, Anonymous.

historymike said...

However, setting aside your swipes at my credibility as a historian, I did amend the review to add the publication date, which is a fair criticism. I normally include this information, but neglected to do so in this review. Thank you for pointing out this omission.

Anonymous said...

I am sorry that my comments were viewed as unduly harsh or uncivil, but I regard the neglect of a date of publication in a book review as either a critical failing or an attempt to misrepresent the volume under consideration.

I realize it was the former, not the latter. Thanks for amending your review.

Anonymous said...

Great review Mike...we Toledo guys got to stick together! Did you find the book years ago at Frogtown or it did happen to fall off of Glenn Ames shelf? I am wondering about the map of Zimbabwe though...it's not a very accurate representation of the extended kingdom (check with Ted Natsoulas).

38693869 said...

Actually, I would love to know what other works out there really focus on this rather obscure topic. The other authors you mentions do discuss trade on the Arabian Sea, but dwell mostly on India and offer only limited discussion of Monomotapa. Further, I actually do have access to JSTOR and other scholarly archives and find that most articles start from 60 and to to 90. Meaning, I want a general history of this region before I start reading about the disbursement of inland trading routes and political scuffles between Portuguese and Swahili raiders. This is actually the only book I have come across that deals specifically with the Portuguese on the Zambezi. If you happen to know of others that are more contemporary, I would love to hear about them, especially as this book sells for about 150 USD on the used market.

Also, thank you for the review. Anonymous seems a bit self absorbed and does not seem to realize that others may enjoy this work without feeling the need to write a dissertation on the topic.

Kevin Brown

Anonymous said...

This text is outdated that it omits the newer informations unearthed by Tudor Parfitt and geneticist Trevor Jenkins on the ancient capital city of the kingdom of Sofala: Sayuna and its fascinating connections with the jewish communities of the Hadhramaut and the Lemba (baLemba)tribes of southern Zimbabwe.
The last 10 years have contributed more to the historical, ethnological and archeological knowledge of this area than the previous 200.

Anonymous said...

Don't get me wrong though, I still have your blog among my favorites