Portuguese gilded bronze medallion.
Portuguese gilded bronze medallion.

Some Early Portuguese Relics from Dambarare, Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe) 

Written by P. S. Garlake. Historical Monuments Commission, Salisbury (today Harare)

Portuguese traders, administrators and missionaries were living in permanent settlements in many parts of Mashonaland at least throughout the seventeenth century. The goods they traded with the local people are well attested and consisted largely of cloth and beads. Cloth, of course, would decay quickly in most circumstances but Portuguese trade beads and imported ceramics are found at many sites in Rhodesia, particularly in important ruins such as Khami and Dhlo Dhlo.

Finds of more personal relics belonging to the first European settlers of Rhodesia are, however, surprisingly rare. In 1967 a small area of the church at Dambarare, one of the most important Portuguese centres, twenty – six miles north – west of Salisbury, was excavated to reveal a large number of burials alongside the walls and beneath the floors of the building. In several, personal possessions and items of dress were preserved. These are worth describing if only because they are almost unique in the African interior.

At least ten Portuguese men were buried at various times within the church itself. Almost everything except the bones had perished but on six bodies metal ornaments had survived. Around the neck of one man was a gilded bronze medallion. On one side is the profile of a female head wearing a crown and encircled by a halo with the inscription S. ELISABET R. LUSITANIA (Fig 1, right. All figures are reproduced actual size).

On the other side is the bust of a cloaked, tonsured and haloed man in profile contemplating a figure of the Christ Child standing on a pedestal. Around is the inscription S. ANTONII.-V with ROM – in the exergue (Fig 2, right).

Elizabeth, 1271 – 1336, was the wife of King Denis 1 of Portugal, founder of the famous military Order of Christ which frequently played a prominent part in the Portuguese Conquests. She was closely associated with the town of Coimbra and was canonised in 1625. The medallion must have been struck between 1625 and the abandonment of Dambarare in 1693, presumably in Rome for the name does not take the normal Portuguese form Isabella but is close to the Latin Elisabeth. The reverse represents Antony of Padua, 1195 – 1231, who was born in Lisbon and lived in Coimbra before leaving Portugal. This representation of St. Antony with the Christ Child was missing text century. Resting on the pelvis of the same body was a hollow, tapered, cylindrical bronze rod with eight facets, with a small clenched right fist at its tip. The interior is partly filled with red wax (Fig. 3, left).

This is an aiguillette – an item of seventeenth century male dress which formed the ornamental end of a cord tying together portions of armour, or doublets and hose. The practical importance of these fastenings is illustrated by Shakespeare when Falstaff describes his conquest of the thieves in “buckram suits” : “Their points being broken – down fell their hose” (Henry IV, Pt.1, Act II, Sc. IV). The only other object with this body was a gold ring, found on the little finger of the left hand, decorated with two horizontal grooves.

Aiguillettes were found at the hips of the other two men. One, of silver, is grooved spirally round its entire surface with four vertical flutes and has a beaded rim at each end (Fig. 3, right). It contains a small bar across the interior of one end for the attachment of the cord. The other is again a tapered cylinder of bronze with a clenched fist at its tip and red wax in the interior. (Fig. 3, centre). In the latter burial, the plain bronze casing of what was presumably a bone or wood pin, lay close to the aiguillette. It forms a hollow, tapered cylinder, 35mm. long and 2.5mm. wide at the base. The torso of this body has been reburied after disturbance by a later burial and amongst the bones was a tiny bronze hook and eye exactly like those produced today (Fig. 4, right)

A fourth man had at his waist not an aiguillette but a small silver buckle engraved with a series of ten Maltese crosses or four leafed rosettes within oval frames (Fig. 4, left). A bronze epaulette rested near his left shoulder : this is a thin, copper plate curved to the shape of the shoulder with a latticed strip on the outer face, through which a strap (10 mm. wide, almost the same as that of the buckle) was presumably laced (Fig. 5).

He also had a tiny copper pin at his chin and the silver casing of a further pin, 29 mm. long and 3 mm. wide at its base with a tiny ball decorating the tip, was found on his breast. Two further bodies were found wearing gold finger rings : one a plain circle, the other bearing nine diamond shaped facets round its exterior face.

Immediately outside the church, African and Coloured women and children were interred. The African women were heavily adorned with copper and bronze bracelets and anklets. One also wore a splendid girdle of shell and glass beads. Hanging from this was a rosary of small carved ivory beads and attached to them, a tiny, heavily worn bronze medal. It bears on one side a full length female figure, possibly with a halo, standing beside an unidentified object and an inscription which appears to read G. EATIS (Fig. 1, left). The other side bears a barely distinguishable figure standing on a crescent moon, surrounded by rays and probably crowned, presumably representing the assumption of the Virgin (Fig. 2, left).

In the same area, just outside the church, three Portuguese men had also been buried. There was nothing with them except a rectangular tablet of fine clay found beside the right upper arm of one man. This bears an impression of the Virgin in glory, crowned, holding the Christ Child, and standing on a crescent moon and clouds. Below is an armorial shield, apparently bearing only a single crescent, surmounted by a three armed cross – the lowest arm of which is considerably shorter than the others – and supported by two brackets which also support the clouds. The interpretation of the symbolism or the armorial bearing is unknown. This tablet must have been contained in a pouch or bound to the wearer’s arm for there is no means of attachment on the tablet itself.

There is clearly little intrinsically remarkable in these relics. Their craftsmanship is ordinary and the medallions at least were clearly mass produced to stereo typed designs. The silver and gold adornments were of no higher quality and have a high copper content. Their interest lies only in their rarity and in the link they provide and the light they shed on the earliest European settlement of Rhodesia.

The only other relics of the Portuguese that have been found in Rhodesia are a small gold bracelet of the Sacred Heart found some 70 years ago in the Dhlo Dhlo ruins and an ivory statuette of the Virgin from an “ancient working” near Chakari, (not far from a seventeenth century trade post, identified and excavated in 1965). Both have been described by Mr. R Summers of the National Museum, Bulawayo (in Mocambique nos. 63 and 83). The statuette was originally said to be of the Assumption of the Virgin, but it is now known to represent the Immaculate Conception, a theme in Christian iconography that was extremely popular in Southern Spain in the seventeenth century, and one represented on two of the six religious medallions recently recovered in excavations at Fort Jesus, Mombassa, one of the most important centres on the east African Coast at the time of their settlement in Rhodesia.

About Marco Ramerini

I am passionate about history, especially the history of geographical explorations and colonialism.