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Early Trade   

800-1893

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.


Swahili in culture, a Jahazi Dhow, 20m in length with a tonnage of 50 tons was the standard trading vessel for over a thousand years on the ĎAzanianí coast 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.


Bead work found on hill sites around the Phalaborwa complex: small red beads said to be of Indian origin dating to the 12th century; large blue beads of VOC (Dutch) provenance (1700s)

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.


Sefale, 1700. Established in the first millenium as the gateway to the central plateau mining regions (A six day journey to the south eastern Savannahs)

For 150 years the Portuguese traded with the people inland but because of piracy they were forced to give up their trading station in 1701.

Twenty five years later the vessel Heeren XVII of the Dutch East India Company decided to re-establish a trading post under the protection of a new fort. Fort Lijdzaamheid was a base designed to enable expeditions to be sent into the hinterland in search of gold.

In an attempt to better understand the natural riches on offer, an expedition under the leadership of Jan Stefler left Delagoa Bay in August 1723 to find the legendary "Iron Mountain" (most probably Phalaborwa).

The group consisted of 17 soldiers, a number of tribesmen and three pack oxen. A few days in to the expedition, they crossed the Lebombo Mountains but were attacked by local villagers. Stefler and his sergeant were killed and a number of the others wounded. The leaderless survivors returned to Delagoa Bay. This is the first documented entry by white people into the Transvaal region.


Monomotapa: Zatta and Figli's 1784 Map

In 1725, a well-armed expedition led by Francois De Kuiper, who was the second in command of the station, made its way into the Transvaal on a march that took them through part of what is today the Kruger National Park. They crossed the Crocodile River that July, and penetrated almost as far as the Sabie River.

The Dutch East India Company abandoned their trading station and left Delagao Bay shortly afterwards, only to be replaced by the Austrians who also tried their luck. A trading company based in Trieste attempted to establish a trading post but were repulsed by the remaining Portuguese.


Like a re-enactment of an age old scene from antiquity, the Waterfront at Maxixe, Inhambane, 1937. From H Manners' "Kambaku". Ernest Stanton Publishers, 1980.

The goods taken to the coast for bartering along these routes remained unchanged for centuries, but the goods brought back from the Bay differed. It depended largely upon who was in control of the bay at any given time.

Coloured glass beads from various locations in Europe replaced beads from India. After 1850 or so, when muzzle loading guns became obsolete in Europe, the traders still found a willing market in sub-Saharan Africa. As a result of that, gunpowder, flint, lead and moulding tongs to cast the balls became highly desired articles in the region. Other tradeable commodities included mirrors, brass for ornaments, copper and iron wire, knives, hoes and small metal bells.

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