The Lowveld was a landscape rich in human and natural resources sufficient to sustain permanent stratified agricultural, pastoral and mining based societies for over two millennia prior to the arrival of Dutch and British settlers.
Prior to Portuguese control, Tsonga people traded goods that the Arab and Indian dhows (possibly also some from as far as China) had landed at the coast with people living inland. They are recorded to have traded as far west as the Western Transvaal by the 1830s.
From A.H.J. Prins' "Sailing from Lamu". Assen Publishers, 1965.
The local produce of the interior included animal hides, gold, copper and ivory, and these were sourced from modern South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana before being carried down the Limpopo River to the coast.
Commodities such as glass beads from India and Arabia, cotton, cloth, iron nails, spices, cowries and many other types of goods from the East were exchanged for local products. This barter-trade is likely to have commenced around 1000AD and the Kingdom of Mapungubwe was a central node in this no later than 900AD.
Phalaborwa, as a region manufacturing iron agricultural implements, weapons, wire and ornaments, benefited in turn from an influx of the trade goods for which these products were bartered. Locally exploited salt, ivory and hardwood resources comprised additional tradable items. Phalaborwa was also strategically situated to supply the nearby city states of Thulamela, Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe to the north as well as the coastal ports of Sofala, Inhambane and Delagoa Bay.
The remains of the Kingdom of Thulamela are in the far northern section of the Kruger. The Kingdom gives its name to a major sub-continental trading network, the Thulamela culture. Indian beads and Chinese porcelain have been found here, alon g with locally manufactured iron, copper and gold artifacts. The site was rediscovered in the 1980s and subsequently excavated. Tours of Thulamela from Punda Maria Camp are often taken by guides who were involved in the work and can cast a fascinating insight into the process. Thulamela was active between the 13th and 17th centuries.
The trade during this period was controlled by the mighty Sultans of Kilwa who later also subjugated the gold trade in the province of Sofala (the area between the mouths of the Sabie and Zambezi rivers in Mozambique).
Their dhows, loaded with goods, made use of the seasonal monsoons to explore and trade with the indigenous coastal population. This continued for hundreds of years until the Portuguese established themselves as traders in Delagoa Bay in 1544 after the founding of a fort there.
The African interior promised immense riches in the form of natural resources, and the Europeans with their "triple C" approach of bringing "commerce, civilisation and Christianity" used the rhetoric of the second two C's to justify an attempt to pillage these resources for their own benefit.