Thriving Kilwa (Quiloa) Invaded by Portuguese

City of Kilwa, 1572.* (Source.)


Duarte Barbosa (Ramusio), 1515.

After passing this place and going towards India, there is another island close to the mainland, called Quiloa [Kilwa], in which there is a town of the Moors, built of handsome houses of stone and lime, and very lofty, with their windows like those of the Christians; in the same way it has streets, and these houses have got their terraces, and the wood worked in with the masonry, with plenty of gardens, in which there are many fruit trees and much water.

This island has got a king over it, and from hence there is trade with Sofala with ships, which carry much gold, which is dispersed thence[11] through all Arabia Felix, for henceforward all this country is thus named on account of the shore of the sea being peopled with many towns and cities of the Moors; and when the King of Portugal discovered this land, the Moors of Sofala, and Zuama, and Anguox, and Mozambique, were all under obedience to the King of Quiloa, who was a great king amongst them. And there is much gold in this town, because all the ships which go to Sofala touch at this island, both in going and coming back.

These people are Moors, of a dusky colour, and some of them are black and some white; they are very well dressed with rich cloths of gold, and silk, and cotton, and the women also go very well dressed out with much gold and silver in chains and bracelets on their arms, and legs, and ears.

The speech of these people is Arabic, and they have got books of the Alcoran, and honour greatly their prophet Muhamad.

This King, for his great pride, and for not being willing to obey the King of Portugal, had this town taken from him by force, and in it they killed and captured many people, and the King fled from the island, in which the King of Portugal ordered a fortress to be built, and thus he holds under his command and government those who continued to dwell there.

This excerpt is from Henry E. J. Stanley's translation of Ramusio: A Description of the Coasts of East Africa and Malabar in the Beginning of the Sixteenth Century, published for the Hakluyt Society, London, 1867. The book is available in multiple formats at Gutenberg.org.


* Quiloa - bird's-eye view of the city of Kilwa (Tanzania) from Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg's atlas Civitates orbis terrarum, vol. I, 1572.

A Mystery Play, Kilwa Diari

When, in 1500, the Portuguese reached Kilwa, an island city-state on the East African coast, they marveled at the tall buildings made of coral stone and noted how the islanders wore fine clothes of cotton and silk, as well as jewelry of gold and silver. Kilwa was so wealthy that its rulers and nobles could afford luxuries from around the globe. Porcelain from China is still found among the island’s excavated remains.

When the first volume of the Civitates Orbis Terrarum was published in Cologne in 1572, it contained 546 engravings of cities from across the world. Among them was Quiloa, the Portuguese spelling for Kilwa. Readers of the atlas must have dwelled on this engraving, since the mysterious Islamic city, which no one had heard about, appeared as a magnificent agglomeration of palaces and towers, occupying most of a verdant island framed by two sailing caravels. It looked like a German medieval city, transplanted to a land of coconut trees and baobabs.

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