The trade grounds today. Luanze, Zimbabwe. Author and Copyright Chris Dunbar
The trade grounds today. Luanze, Zimbabwe. Author and Copyright Chris Dunbar

Old Portuguese Ruins in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe)

Written by Manuel Simoes Alberto (of the “Sociedade de Estudes de Mozambique”)

It was made known recently by the “Rhodesia Herald” , of Salisbury, that the ruins of an old Portuguese Fort, located on the banks of the Angwa river, had been declared a National Monument, and placed under the control of the “Natural and Historical Monuments and Relics Commission” of Southern Rhodesia.

This led the author of this communication, based on a Portuguese Map published in 1889, to locate by approximation the areas of the places where there once existed similar forts built by the Portuguese in the territory of Southern Rhodesia. He considered worthy of historic interest two forts which should have existed in an area between the towns of Shabani and Fort Victoria, another which he locates in the ‘TATI CONCESSION”, and a fourth fort which should be sought – (if that has not yet been done) – a few miles from Bulawayo. If these forts, their ruins or simply their traces, have not yet been discovered, his opinion is that it would be interesting to investigate their existence, and if it were known, to consider them likewise National Monuments and to place then under the control of the “Natural and Historical Monuments and Relics Commission’ of Southern Rhodesia.

The Salisbury newspaper, the “Rhodesia Herald”, in its issue of the 14th November, 1952, published the following news item, which aroused great interest among the Portuguese of Mozambique who devote themselves to historic study – “An ancient Portuguese fort, which may have been the site where the Portuguese missionary, Father Silveira was martyred in 1561, has been proclaimed a National Monument and has been placed under the control of the ‘Natural and Historical Monuments and Relics Commission’.”

Mozambique Portuguese old map (1889)

Mozambique Portuguese old map (1889)

The “Rhodesia Herald” explains that the fort is to be found near the Angwa river, on Two Tree Hill – (Extension No.2 Farm) – near one of the banks of that river and close by old alluvial gold prospecting grounds. It further explains that the road from Salisbury to Chirundu, about 110 miles from Salisbury, passes less than seven miles south – west of this fort, and that there are more ruins of old Portuguese forts in the vicinity of the Angwa river, but that this is perhaps the only one in a good state of preservation.

I do not share the opinion that the missionary Silveira was killed in 1561 in the fort now placed under the control of the ‘Natural and Historical Monuments and Relics Commission’ of Southern Rhodesia, seeing that there are coeval chronicles and documents of the event that contradict the legends of the natives now living in the region. Our aim in this modest contribution is not to clear up that detail. Our purpose is mainly to try and determine by approximation the places where there still exists ruins or traces of other Portuguese constructions, built by groups of Portuguese explorers or traders, who during the period between the 17th and the middle of the 19th century, proceeded from the coast zone which is still Portuguese today, to the inhospitable and unknown interior which was to become Southern Rhodesia.

The Rhodesias are relatively new nations, whose occupation and land – clearing history is the continuation of the history written by the Portuguese since the end of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th century in this part of the African continent. Hence we think that any help in throwing light on the past of these territories, destined to have a great future, is of mutual interest to the nations that are today our neighbours and friends. After we took part in the 1950 Congress of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science in Salisbury, and after having visited the Archives of which Mr. Hiller is the Chief Archivist, we sent him the tracing of a very interesting and rare map, of which there are only two specimens in Mozambique, one of them being private property. We made tracings from the latter, and one of them will be used by us as the basis to this present contribution.

That map was published by the Portuguese Cartographic Services in 1889, and it locates, with an approximate accuracy for the cartographic methods of the time, several villages now vanished, as well as the whole hydrographic net of the Rhodesias and Mozambique, the main mountain ranges, the division of the old Portuguese districts and the location of the main settlements of the different native tribes. The map was drawn by Portuguese cartographers, engraved and printed in Erhard’s fres, workshops, 35 bis, Rue Denfert Rochereau, in Paris – hence it is an official document. We can see from it that Portuguese effective colonization does not seem to have reached the Matabeleland plateau, but only Mashonaland, although some groups of Portuguese gold – seekers and traders did advance more to the west, reaching the lands which form today the “Tati Concession”, south of the 21 degrees parallel and west of the 28 degrees meridian. The present town of Tati was built over Portuguese ruins. (Tati is in present day Botswana)

If we examine the tracing of the part of that Map which is of interest to our communication, just as it was drawn and published over sixty years ago, and place upon it a transparency in which present communication routes have been drawn in the same scale, we notice, even upon a slight analysis:- At the time, the western border of the old Portuguese district of Sofala followed a line parallel to the 30 degrees meridian, from its crossing with the 21 degrees parallel until it reached the Selukwe (Shurugwi), about 19 degrees 40 minutes south, where it turned to the north – east.

The Portuguese built two forts on this line of the old Sofala border, which we believe to have been identical to the one now discovered on the banks of the Angwa river. These forts, or their ruins or traces, can be found – (if that has not yet been done by accident) – the one, near and south – east of Shabani (Zvishavane), a railway head, and the other north – north – east of the same town, about 12 or 13 miles from Shabani (Zvishavane) and approximately 30 miles west of Fort Victoria. In the present “Tati Concession”, near the source of a sub- tributary of the Shashi river, there once existed another Portuguese fort which protected a settlement of Portuguese alluvial gold – seekers; 14 odd miles south – west of Lobengula’s town or kraal – (i.e., of the present city of Bulawayo) – and among outliers of the Matopo Hills, near the sources of some tributaries of the Gwaai river, there once existed another Portuguese fort, the traces or ruins of which should be sought a little north of the road and railway from Bulawayo to Mafeking.

The most important stronghold built by the Portuguese in the 18th century or beginning of the 19th century – (perhaps the most recent – was the fortress of St. Francis Xavier on the right bank of the Kafue river and a little north of its confluence with the Zambezi. This fortress protected the usual passage of the warlike tribes from the north and prevented them from attacking the Portuguese settlements which stretched from the confluence of the Kafue to the confluence of the Sanyati on the left bank of the Zambezi – (today Northern Rhodesia) – opposite Chirundu (on the right bank, Southern Rhodesia) – that is to say, on the bank comprised between the two angles made by the Zambezi, the first rising from east to south and the second rising from the north to west.

As the “Rhodesia Herald” said on the 14th November, 1952, there are several ruins of old strongholds built by Portuguese on the banks of the Angwa river, and therefore between the modern towns of Sipolilo (Guruve) and Miami in Southern Rhodesia, north of Zawi (head of the Sinoia (Chinhoyi) railway extension). As this fort has already been located it is natural that the four most important ones we have mentioned in this communication should have already been located, too; they are: Two between Shabani (Zvishavane) and Fort Victoria (Masvingo), one in the present “Tati Concession”, and another, perhaps the most important, a few miles from Bulawayo. The latter was feared by the famous Lobengula, whose moves it watched, protecting the Portuguese gold – seekers and traders coming from Tete and Sofala. If they have not yet been located, our wish that it should be done and that everything be tried to achieve it, seems to us only natural. If they have already been located, we present the suggestion that these ruins be also considered national monuments and placed under the control of the “natural and Historical Monuments and Relics Commission”.

* Paper read to the 51st Congress of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science in Bulawayo, July, 1953.

About Marco Ramerini

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