Armies and enemies of the Portuguese in Africa 1415-1670

This review of warfare focuses on south central Africa, from what is Angola (west central Africa) today to Mozambique (south-east Africa). This area is what the Portuguese referred to as a the Pink Map during the Scramble for Africa although I do a small diversion to Ethiopia. The review is not complete but I figured I should publish it as is and refine over time. This is the period before the Scramble for Africa, the early period of the Portuguese explorers – the period some historians call Medieval Africa.


In the sixteenth century west central Africa comprised the Kingdoms of Kongo, Ndongo, Loango, Benguela, Nziko, “Seven Kingdoms” of Kongo dia Nlaza, Matamba (Thornton, 1988, 1999). Of these the Kingdom of Kongo dominated and we know more about Kongo and Ndongo because of the Portuguese involvement.

In central southern Africa, Greater Zimbabwe superseded the earlier the Mapungubwe civilisation in the fourteenth century (Reid, 2012). As Greater Zimbabwe faded in the fifteenth century, a new state emerged further north at Mutapa. By the fifteenth century Mutapa controlled the Shona and central Zambezi valley to the coastal lowlands.

From Kongo to Greater Zimbabwe, broad patterns of warfare are discernible (Reid, 2012). Centralised and expansionist states with an army comprising royal regiments under the direct control of the King supported by provincial forces under local warlords. Military campaigns, often to support the slave trade, were far flung. Armies, small and large, were highly mobile and supported by a large baggage train largely comprised of women. The shifting frontiers produced highly militarised societies-at-arms including the predatory and mobile Imbangala of Angola and the sedentary but no less martial Mutapa on the Zimbabwe plateau.

Portugal's Pink Map
Portugal’s Pink Map in the Scramble for Africa

West central Africa is south of the tropical rainforest and is a large savannah, with plains and flat plateaux, split by frequent mountain ranges. This should be great cavalry country but horses died quickly so infantry dominated.

Infantry were divided into light and heavy with the proportion of light infantry vastly exceeding that of that of the heavies (Thornton, 1999). In west central Africa only Kongo and Portuguese armies had heavy infantry. The heavy infantry fought in tight formations with shields and/or armour.

In the sixteenth and seventh centuries, central Africa soldiers were primarily, and for many kingdoms exclusively, light infantry (Thornton, 1999). These were loose formation archers that also carried hand-to-and combat weapons such as axe, club and/or stabbing spear. In the absence of cavalry the troops generally formed in a loose order. The lightly armed central African soldiers used sanguar for defence, i.e. physical agility, with leaps and twists, to dodge arrows and spears. The Imbangala were particularly renowned for their sanguar ability. Despite being “archers” typical tactics was to shoot a few arrows then close to hand-to-hand combat. This meant the bravest warriors entered battle with only one or two arrows. Some archers, but not all, poisoned their arrows. Battles were quickly decided with one side breaking and fleeing after a short engagement. The losers might flee to their homes or reform a day or two away from the scene of the battle.

Central Africa armies quickly adopted European firearms but were slow to replace their traditional weapons (Thornton, 1999). Firearms were seen as just another missile weapon (Reid, 2012). It took until the late eighteenth century for bows to be replaced by muskets. Tactics changed with the new weaponry. Armies were more inclined to have extended fire fights rather than close to hand-to-hand.

In the absence of cavalry, fleet footed infantry performed scouting and pursuit duties (Thornton, 1988).

Generally armies had to carry their own supplies so were accompanied by a large number of “womenfolk and useless people” (mulheiro e gente inutil) (Thornton, 1999). In one instance an army of Kongo has half again the number of people as the fighting force and this may have been typical.

Kings were spiritual war leaders, with links to the war gods, and royal regalia usually included blacksmith tools (Reid, 2012).

The trans-Atlantic slave traded started in the sixteenth century with about 4,000 slaves being transport a year from the 1530s to the 1630s (Reid, 2012). The area of Angola and the Kingdom of Kongo were major sources of slaves. After that, with the arrival of English, Dutch and French traders, the numbers of slaves transported increased rapidly.

Portuguese Angola

In the area of modern day Angola the Portuguese encountered and fought two major kingdoms (Kongo and Ndongo) and a variety of smaller entities. They also faced the savage Jaga and Imbangala.

Portuguese in Angola

The Portuguese followed the model of Kongo with a central core of heavy infantry, in this case Portuguese, and a mass of lightly armed Africa auxiliaries equipped with bows (Thornton, 1999). Even as late as 1659 Portuguese soldiers were noted for their armour including “breast plate, backplate, morion and corselet” (Thornton, 1988) although I would have thought a corselet included breast plate and backplate.

The African soldiers serving the Portuguese were collectively known as the black army (guerra preta) (Thornton, 1999). The Portuguese also acquired 8-10,000 professional archers (kimbari or “chorimbaris”) from Ndongo and these formed the backbone of their forces. The majority of light infantry were raised from sobas who had switched their loyalty from Ndongo. Empacaceiros were professional soldiers recruited from Africans, and may have been elite troops like their Ndongo name-sakes.

Nobles from Kongo often joined Portuguese forces as mercenaries, even operating in Ndongo (Thornton, 1999). These would bring armed slaves with them. Similarly Portuguese residents would bring their own slaves when joining the army.

After 1600 the Portuguese forces included Imbangala mercenaries (Thornton, 1999).

Like other central African armies, relatively few of the Portuguese forces had firearms (Thornton, 1999). In 1585 a Portuguese army under Andre Ferreira Pereira had 130 Portuguese musketeers to 8,000 African archers. Even as late as 1734 a force sent into Kisame had only 100 musketeers compared to 1,000 archers. From the seventeenth century the Portuguese used artillery for sieges and in the field. The Portuguese artillery was used to break up enemy attacks with grapeshot, or shell fortified villages and other fortified places. Often the fire from the big guns was enough to force African opponents, who could not reply, to withdraw.

Like other armies in Angola, Portuguese baggage train was called the kikumba (Thornton, 1999). At the battle of Cavanga (1646) they placed the kikumba in the middle of their force so the risk to their wives encouraged the troops to fight harder.


The Kingdom of Kongo emerged in the fifteenth century with the Congo river and its tributaries providing a fertile heartland (Reid, 2012).

Militarily Kongo differed from other west central African Kingdoms in two main ways. First the King controlled the military and secondly the core of each army was shielded heavy infantry (Thornton, 1999).

The military of Kongo was under strong central control (Thornton, 1999). Local officials raised troops but the King appointed the officials and could remove them as well. Regional forces comprised village nobles (fidalgos mobatas) and villagers (mobates) (Thornton, 1999). The nobles were probably heavy infantry and the other light infantry. The majority of each army were light infantry. For example, in 1623, the Duke of Mbamba faced a Portuguese invasion with 200 heavy infantry and 2,000-3,000 archers.

The armies of Kongo featured shield bearing heavy infantry (adargueiros in Portuguese) (Thornton, 1988, 1999). These were elite troops, the best troops in Kongo, and formed the core of the army. They probably nobles and were professions paid for by the state. However, their numbers were limited and most Kongo armies seem to have had no more than 1,000 shield bearers. Duarte Lopes describes the shields of Kongo as large made from African Buffalo hide, which covered great part of the body. Apparently the shield was used by the Kongo heavy infantry, warriors from Bamba province and the Anzicos (Bateke). The shields of Kongo were a way for outsiders to distinguish them from the armies of Ndongo and the Imbangala.

All men had to respond to to a general military call out (Thornton, 1999). However, initially only the professionals were expected to fight. The others might be retained as porters or sent home. In the turbulent times in the late seventeenth century, local rulers might retain a greater proportion of the call out to bolster their numbers. For example, in the late 1680s a call up in Soyo could produce 20-25,000 potential soldiers.

Kongo units fought under flags (Thornton, 1999).

Armies of Kongo typically had a centre, two wings, and a reserve (Thornton, 1988). The heavy infantry were positioned in the reserve to defend the baggage train and reinforce threatened area.

The Portuguese arrived in Kongo in 1483 and Portuguese mercenaries served in the army of Kongo from 1491 (Thornton, 1999). The Jaga invaded in 1568 and drove the King from his throne. A strong Portuguese force from the colony of Sao Tome intervened in 1571, restored the King, but left in 1576; I guess this is the 700 men under Dias de Novais that subsequently served Ndongo. In the 1660s the Portuguese from Luanda and Kongo clashed over the mountainous Dembos region between Kongo and Ndonga. The Portuguese defeated King Antonio I of Kongo at the battle of Mbwila in late October 1665. This was one of the largest battles in central African history. Portugal then invaded Kongo but were defeated by the army of the Soya, a province in Kongo, at the battle of Kitombo in 1670.

Slaves were a primary interest of the Portuguese from the beginning and Kongo was a major source of slaves from the 1530s (Reid, 2012). Portugal provide soldiers and arms to support Kongo’s slave taking expeditions.

Kongo asked the Portuguese for “bombards and muskets” as early as 1510 but still had armies which were largely archers in 1702. When firearms were few the musketeers fought alongside the heavy infantry. In 1685 King Antonio I had 800 shield-bearers and 190 musketeers in an army supposedly 100,000 strong (but probably much less). By 1781 all soldiers Kongo had musket. Kongo was alone of the central Africa states to adopt artillery on a regular basis. Artillery was seen for the first time in in 1702 as part of the army of Soyo, perhaps weapons captured in 1670. In 1790 the Portuguese were still facing Kongo troops with artillery.

An Imbangala band formed a state in Kasanje on the Kwango river (Thornton, 1999). In the mid-seventeenth century Kasange’s troops carried bows and used hardenedd wooden lances. However, they also had firearms in abundance, supplied by the Portuguese. Kasange’s musketeers were considered on a par with the Portuguese.

Unlike other slaving states, Kongo let the Portuguese settle in the capital (Reid, 2012). This contributed to instability in the kingdom as rebels had equal access to European support as the king did himself. By the end of the sixteenth century Kongo was fundamentally unstable. Kongo suffered civil war every time a strong king died. Pedro IV restored central authority in 1709 but the 1760s and 1780s saw periods of instability (Thornton, 1999).


Ndongo was south of the kingdom of Kongo and was major another slaving state (Reid, 2012). The Ngola, the king of Ndongo, built up his military capacity to support Portuguese demand for slaves. Portugal established tentative relationships with Ndongo in 1520 and Portuguese renegades were active in the court from that time (Thornton, 1999). More solid relationship were formed in 1560 and increased with the Jaga invasion of Kongo in 1568. Dias de Novais established a Portuguese colony at Luanda on the Angolan coast. The small Portuguese army, 700 men under Dias de Novais, served the Ndongo from 1575 to 1579. In 1579 the renegade Portuguese, threatened by the official colony of Luanda, persuaded the King of Ndongo to evict Dias de Novais. Dias de Novais held his ground on the Angolan coast. He had limited support from Kongo, who launched an unsuccessful invasion. Dias de Novais built up an army from dissident subjects of Ndongo and by the late 1580s was attacking Ndongo. These initiatives stopped with the Ndonga victory at the battle of Lukala.

In Ndongo local lords (sobas) raised their own troops and an army was formed from combination of these. There were more than 100 sobas in the area of Ndongo. Although many sobas brought few troops some could raise as many as 3,000. These troops remained as separate units, under the control of the sobas, even within a larger army. The king could not replace or remove sobas so had relatively little control over the military compared to the king of Kongo.

The king did, however, have a number of units that answered only to him. Ndongo had a force of professional light infantry archers called kimbaris (plural imbare; Portuguese quimbares) (Thornton, 1988, 1999). These men were professional in that they were “a relatively small group of people possessed special skills and training and served as soldiers for the rest, even though they may not have been full-time military specialists who lived at public expense in barracks”. They were recruited from among both the free population and slaves specially trained for war.

Ndongo had an elite force were chosen for their courage and skill and included members of the royal family and the court (Thornton, 1999). Initially they were called the gunzes and, in 1585 at least, were known as the “flower of Angola”. By 1644 the gunzes had been replaced by empacaceiros armed with muskets.

The armies of Ndongo never adopted the Kongo shield system, in spite of its utility (Thornton, 1988). So, aside from any firearms, all troops fought with bow and hand-to-hand weapons (axe, club and/or stabbing spear). Initially only the Portuguese mercenaries had firearms. Once fighting the Portuguese they had to find their own and in 1585 they had 40 musketeers.

The infantry scouts of Angola were known as pombo (Thornton, 1988). These were were lightly armed soldiers who could run fast. The Portuguese referred to them as scouting troops (gente escoteira) and light-footed troops (gente de bom pé). In addition to reconnaissance and skirmishing, the pombo also pursued enemies once battles were over.

Ndongo armies formed into three or four massed units called mozengos or embalos comparable to medieval European battles (Thornton, 1999). Typically there would be three, a centre and two wings, although there could be a fourth as a reserve or flanking formation. Smaller formations called lucanzos could be dispatched for specific tasks. The elite gunzes typically lead any attack. Drums and trumpets were used to signal commands.

The soldiers were organised into units with flags or standards (Thornton, 1988). The units were permanent and the leaders were called kilamba (plural ilamba; Portuguese quilambas).

1670-79 Kongo - Soldiers - Ezio Bassani
1670-79 Kongo – Soldiers – Ezio Bassani

In Angola the baggage train was called the kikumba (Thornton, 1999). The kikumba was in the middle of a marching column. In battle the general would decide where to place the kikumba.

Angola possessed no walled towns, and fortifications were generally composed of complex patterns of trenches, obstacles, and palisades (Thornton, 1988). These were intended to let the garrison repel attacks over a few days. Typically neither attackers or defenders had appetite for a longer investment.

From 1615 some Portuguese were inviting Imbangala bands north of the Kwanza river to help in their own wars with Ndongo (Thornton, 1999). For example, the Portuguese governor, Luis Mendes de Vasconcelos, used several Imbangala bands in his successful war against Ndongo in 1617-21. Imbangala bands fought on both sides of the war between Portuguese and Ndongo of 1626-9. The loser, Queen Njinga of Ndongo, fled to the eastern region of the Kingdom, conquered Matamba in 1631, rebuilt her army in the Imbangala model, and proceeded to harass the Portuguese colony until her death in 1663.

1670-79 Kongo - Queen Nzinga with Her Entourage - Ezio Bassani
1670-79 Kongo – Queen Nzinga with Her Entourage – Ezio Bassani
1690 Kongo - Queen Nzinga meeting with the Portuguese - Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi
1690 Kongo – Queen Nzinga meeting with the Portuguese – Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi

The Dutch intervention of 1641-48 saw a three way battle for Ndongo: Dutch, Queen Njinga, and the Portuguese with their Ndongo allies (Thornton, 1999). The Dutch were driven from the Kingdom in 1648 and in 1655 the Queen and Portugal reached an agreement.

Kingdom of Benguela/Ovimbundu

The Kingdom was based in the central highlands of modern Angola (Thornton, 1999). The people were Ovimbundu (Reid, 2012). Thornton calls this the Kingdom of Benguela but Reid the Kingdom of Ovimbundu.

The Imbangala destroyed the kingdom and surrounding area before 1600 (Thornton, 1999).

In 1617 the Portuguese established a colony at Benguela on the coast, near the border of the central highlands (Thornton, 1999).

By the mid-seventeenth century the Imbangala has settled down and formed some new states alongside some that had survived the earlier turbulence (Thornton, 1999). Two of the larger states were Bembe and Muzumbo a Kalunga.

By the middle of the eighteenth century Bembe was displaced by two new kingdoms, Viye and Mbailundu. These kingdoms fought with Portugal until Portuguese puppets were installed on the throne of both.


The Jaga were probably from beyond the eastern border of the Kingdom of Kongo (Thornton, 1999).


In the 1570s and 1580s the Imbangala destroyed the Kingdom of Benguela and surrounding area, and invaded the coast (Reid, 2012; Thornton, 1999). They probably originated south of the Kwanza river, in the Kingdom of Benguela, probably at the northern edge of central highlands. The oldest traditions associate the Imbangala with a renegade section of the “regular” army of Benguela.

The Imbangala were professionals, in the sense that they were just soldiers and nothing else (Reid, 2012; Thornton, 1999). They lived in armed camps and travelled constantly. Each roving band was under a single leader and lived by pillaging the countryside. They had no real civilians including only combatants and support personnel. They practiced infanticide and replenished their numbers of incorporating captured slaves, particularly adolescent boys who they trained to fight. They were also, at least initially, cannibals.

The marauding Imbangala bands of the early seventeenth century entrenched at every stop (Thornton, 1999). Imbangala forts were quite strong with palisades of sharpened stakes, bulwarks, ditches, trenches, and covered roads protected from fire. When a band entered a new territory they would build a fort and wait for the locals to attack. After some days of assaults the locals would be tired and the Imbangala would sent out about 1,000 men to attack the locals from the rear as the main force sallied from the fort.

The Imbangala were renown for their sanguar ability and lacked shields (Thornton, 1988, 1999). Their fighting ability made them popular as mercenaries amongst both Europeans and Africans (Reid, 2012).

Queen Njinga’s destruction of a Imbangala force from Kasanje gives an idea of their internal structure (Thornton, 1988). The number of captures standards suggests the 2,000 were divided into four units of 500 with a total of 16 sub-units of about 125 men.

The Portuguese were trading with the Imbangala by 1600 (Thornton, 1999). The Portuguese called this people Jaga but they had no relationship with the Jaga that invaded Kongo a quarter of a century earlier. Some Portuguese (and at least one Englishman) served as mercenaries with the Imbangala. From 1615 some Portuguese were inviting Imbangala bands north of the Kwanza river to help in their own wars. For example, the Portuguese governor, Luis Mendes de Vasconcelos, used several Imbangala bands in his successful war against Ndongo in 1618-21. Imbangala bands fought on both sides of the war between Portuguese and Ndongo of 1626-9.

My the mid-seventeenth century Imbangala bands settled all through west central Africa and formed states (Thornton, 1999). In the central highlands, where they originated, they formed new states alongside some that had survived the earlier turbulence including Bembe, Muzumbo a Kalunga, and Gando. They also formed Kasanje on the Kwango river.


The origin of the Lunda Empire was in the Shaba region of modern Congo-Kinshasa (Thornton, 1999). Lunda began expanding in the first half of the eighteenth century and was fighting the Kwango river by the 1750s, particularly against Matamba and Kasanje. By the end of the century Lunda was a huge empire to the east of Kongo and Ndongo. Lunda armies were equipped with lance (which I think means a stabbing spear), sword and shield. They lacked firearms; a Portuguese report on 1756 explained that the Lunda thought firearms were cowards’ weapons and refused to use them.

Portuguese East Africa

The Portuguese subdued a number of Zanj towns along the Swahili coast and then penetrated inland into what is now Mozambique.

Portuguese in East Africa

Laband (2013) mentions crossbow and arquebus in the early Portuguese attacks on the Swahili coast.

A schematic representation of Dutch East India Company’s victory over the Portuguese in November 1612 at Swati (Swally) off the coast of Gujurat shows Portuguese pike and shot (Laband, 2013, Plate 9).

Zanj / Swahili Coast

The civilisation on east coast of Africa was a mix of African and Arab. Arab traders had settled in the area and married African women. They called themselves Zanj and spoke a unique language, blended from Arabic and Africa languages, called Swahili. The rulers and some of the population were muslim. The Zanj were not particularly warlike. For defence against the Africa tribes they tended to build their cities on islands off the coast and any fortifications tended to be towards the landward side (Laband, 2013).

In 1498, when Da Game reached the island of Maçambique, the town had no fortifications (Laband, 2013). Only as relationships with the Portuguese degenerated did the locals “throw up a makeshift palisade of wood, banked up by earth, to defend their town” (p.53). The ruler had “no soldiers to speak of” (p.53) although did fill some boats with bowmen to oppose the Portuguese, although they didn’t put up much of a showing and quickly fled. Maçambique also lacked fresh water, it had to be boated from the mainland, and was unhealthy.

On 24 July 1505, when the Portuguese stormed Kilwa, “the people of Kilwa barred their doors, and from their high houses desperately rained stones and arrows down on the Portuguese, who were tightly jammed in the narrow streets” (Laband, 2013, p. 60). At the palace, apparently built like a fortress with defensive towers, the Portuguese found the hundreds of the ruler’s (maliki) best warriors. These also fought with arrows and stones. But the 700 men of the Portuguese landing force quickly drove them back into the fortress with firepower (crossbows and arquebus). The locals then surrendered and, if they could, tried to abandon the town. The battle was not hard fought and few casualties were suffered on either side. Arab mercenaries retook Kilwa in 1512 and it was independent for a long time, until 1597.

On 14 Aug 1505 the Portuguese reached Mombasa (Laband, 2013). The ruler (mfalane) had a slave bodyguard of 500 African archers. He also brought 1,000 Africa auxiliaries onto the island to help defend against the Portuguese. The Portuguese again attacked with crossbow and arquebus. Portuguese armour meant they suffered few casualties from the defenders stones, bows, and spears. In the storm and sack they lost about thirty men, mostly from poisoned arrows. The defenders lost 1,500 killed and 1,000 captured although the captives included women (subsequently released).

In 1505/6 the ruler (maliki) of Sofala let the Portuguese build a fort (a double stockade with sand between). The rulers attacked once the Portuguese were reduce by fever to 40 sick men. The attackers included 1,000 men of Sofala and African auxiliaries from inland. They attacked by shooting flaming arrows, spears (perhaps javelins as they were thrown), stones and other missiles. The Portuguese stopped the attack by crossbow and arquebus fire at short range, sallied out of the fort and took the town.


An early twentieth century illustration of the 1572 battle between Portuguese and Tonga, shows the Tonga naked and equipped similarly to Zulu (Laband, 2013, Plate 15). They have short stabbing spears and shields like a pointed oval.


By the fifteenth century Mutapa controlled the Shona and central Zambezi valley to the coastal lowlands (Reid, 2012). Mutapa came into direct contact with the Portuguese following the Portuguese capture of the Swahili trading posts of Sena and Tete in the 1530s. The Portuguese invasions of Mutapa of 1571 and 1574 were disasters. Mutapa declined in the seventeenth century due to succession disputes.


The Maravi state, at the southern end of Lake Malawi, had origins in the early sixteenth century (Reid, 2012). Maravi (or Malawi) meant ‘flames’ (Laband, 2013). This term was used for the aristocracy who had originated from the Luba Kingdom to the northwest in Central Africa. They had conquered their non-Maravi subjects in the fifteenth century.

In the late sixteenth century the Maravi paramount chief (karonga) nominally ruled three major federations of Maravi chiefdoms (Laband, 2013). The Portuguese thought all the Maravi chiefdoms to be ‘very warlike’ and they were feared by their African neighbours.

One of these federations was based in the Shire river valley to the north of the Zambezi river (Laband, 2013). The ruler of this confederation was the Lundu ruler (mambo). The Lundu king used ‘compact and implacable bands of warriors armed with swords and spears’ (p. 115) to exact tribute from their neighbours. Tribute included ivory, grain, cattle, and iron tools and weapons. Lundu hunters also trapped elephants for their ivory; the tusks were traded down the Zambezi. In 1589, upset at Portuguese interference in the ivory trade, the Lundu king let loose his warriors against the Portuguese and the coastal people. This, according to Laband, is the origin of the Zimba.

Between 1600 and 1650 Maravi developed into a major military power under King Masula (Reid, 2012). At this time it controlled southern Malawi, northeast Zambia and northern Mozambique. It’s wealth came from the ivory trade. Maravi disintegrated into competing chiefdoms after Masula’s death.


Zimba is an African word meaning “marauder” (Laband, 2013)

About the same time as the Imbangala were ravaging Angola and the western coast, a ‘Zimba’ were sweeping along the East Africa coast (Reid, 2012). They attacked settlements as far north as Mombasa. Like the Imbangala the Zimba were famed for brutality, lack of mercy, and cannibalism. The cannibalism applied to both those they killed in battle, war captives that were no longer able to work, and their own sick and badly wounded (Laband, 2013).

The origin of the Zimba is much debated but Laband (2013) argues that they were warrior bands from the Maravi kingdom of Lundu. Unleashed in 1589 to punish the Portuguese for interfering in the Ivory trade. The bands were probably supplemented by slaves who escaped from Portuguese in the Zambezi valley, refugees from the famine in central Africa, and other Africans who wanted to avoid being killed.

Tradition gives the name of the Zimba leader as Tundu (Laband, 2013).

A Portuguese eye witness, Father João dos Santos, described the Zimba:

A … as a rule are tall, well proportioned, and very robust. The arms they carry are battle-axes, arrows, assegais [spears], and large shields with which they entirely cover themselves. These shields are made of light wood covered with the skins of wild animals which they kill and east. They are in the habit of eating the men they kill in war, and drinking out of their skulls, showing themselves in this boastful and ferocious. (Quoted in Laband, 2013, p. 116)

One Zimba band headed south into the Zambezi (Laband, 2013). Defeated in battle the Portuguese withdrew to their forts at Sena and Tete.

Another Zimba band headed north up the coast (Laband, 2013). New recruits swelled the numbers of this band to several thousand. At Kilwa the Zimba could not cross the sea channel between the island and the mainland. However, after several months, a traitor showed the Zimba where a ford existed at the low ebb of the spring tide. The Zimba sacked the town and ate all the inhabitants they captured.

The Zimba then headed north to Mombasa (Laband, 2013). At the time town was held by an Ottoman privateer called Ali Bey. Ali Bey’s two galley’s defended the Makupa ford with gun fire. However, hearing news of the sack of Kilwa, the Portuguese sent a squadron from Goa which anchored at Mombasa on 5 March 1589, a few days after the Zimba had arrived. The heavily armed Portuguese captured the Ottoman ships, landed, sacked the town (the 3rd time), and returned to their ships. The Zimba leader, possibly Tundu of legend, opened negotiations with the Portuguese Admiral, da Sousa Couthino. On 15 March 1589 the Portuguese let the Zimba cross at Makupa ford unopposed and the Zimba launched themselves on the defenceless Mombasans. Relenting of his agreement with the Zimba da Sousa Couthino allowed the Portuguese to pick up several hundred Swahili plus Ali Bey. The rest were rounded up by the Zimba and eaten.

The Portuguese sailed away leaving the Zimba to head further north to Malindi (Laband, 2013). Unusually this town was on the mainland and protected by a low wall. Aside from the locals the town was defended by 30 Portuguese soldiers and merchants with fire arms. The Portuguese held the initial Zimba assaults but were on the point of collapse when several thousand Segeju, allies of the Sultan, intervened. The Segeju attacked the Zimba from the rear and put them to flight. Tradition has it that only 100 Zimba made it back through the areas they had previously ravaged to their home, however some historians believe the Zimba leaders established chiefdoms in the areas they conquered.


The Mijikenda were a Cushite-speaking people driven south from the Horn of Africa by the Oromo who had settled to farm in fertile hills and valley inland from the the Swahili towns (Laband, 2013). They lived in large fortified villages. They fought with bows and poisoned arrows. The Swahili towns paid tribute to the Mijikenda to prevent raids. On occasion the Swahili paid the Mijikenda to help in inter-town wars.


The Segeju was pastoralists and, like the Mijikenda, were driven south from the Horn of Africa by the Oromo (Laband, 2013). They wore skins, anointed themselves with clay and oil, and covered their hair with clay which they polished to resemble a helmet. They were warlike; a Segeju achieved manhood by killing a man in war and displaying his foreskin as a trophy.


The Khoikhoi were the people of southern Africa when the Portuguese arrived (Laband, 2013). They fought with bows, and throwing spears, stones and small stick. Their name meant ‘men of war’ but there were not particularly warlike being more admire for their hunting. None-the-less they killed de Almeida and 50 other Portuguese who where returning to Portugal in 1510. These men were waiting for boats to take them off shore, but were weighed down by armour and bogged down by deep sand, and presumably could not respond effectively to the Khoikhoi.

Horn of Africa

The Portuguese sort out Ethiopia and faced a variety of Muslim opponents from the Horn of Africa, who sometimes with Ottoman support.

Portuguese In Ethiopia

In early 1541 Cristóvão da Gama, fourth son of Vasco da Gama, landed at Massawa in Ethiopia (Laband, 2013). He has 400 Portuguese soldiers and 130 armed slaves from India (apparently good fighters). In addition he had 1,000 matchlocks and eight pieces of light artillery. The Portuguese viewed themselves as crusaders, even Christian martyrs as they did not expect to be returning alive from Ethiopia. They marked to a fife and pipe band under the banner of the Order of Christ.

The Portuguese army in Ethiopia in 1541 seems to have only had arquebusiers (Laband, 2013). The army flag was the royal standard of he crimson Cross of Christ on a white background. Other flags were those blue and white damask with red crosses.

On 2 Feb 151 the Portuguese captured Amba Senait at the top of mountain (Laband, 2013). The garrison was small but the Ethiopian Queen Mother advised against the attack as being too much for so few attackers. The Portuguese had other ideas. The defenders used bows and rolled rocks down the mountain paths. The Portuguese used their gunpowder weapons to good effect and then stored the summit. The Portuguese lost eight men and put the entire muslim garrison to the sword. Christian women captives were released but the Ethiopian Queen Mother had the muslim women executed.

On 1 April 1541 Da Gama had advanced 80 km further and was on the Antalo plain in Wajarat when he heard Grañ was approaching with a large army (Laband, 2013). Da Gama had about 350 Portuguese, 100 armed slaves, and 200 Ethiopians. Grañ had a typical Ethiopian army except for the addition of Ottoman arquebusiers. According to Portuguese accounts Grañ’s army contained 15,000 infantry, being either archers or men with spear, sword and shield, 1,500 cavalry, and 200 Ottoman arquebusiers. Despite the odds Da Gama chose the hold his ground an pitched camp on a hillock in the plain. On 3 April Grañ’s army invested the Portuguese camp and some courtly but insulting negotiations ensued. Enraged by the Portuguese suggestion that he was a women, Grañ attacked with his Ottomans and cavalry. The Ottomans had pushed forward to some stone breastworks within range of the Portuguese camp and began to harry the defenders. The Portuguese sortied several times and eventually evicted the Ottomans with “push of pike and arquebus fire” (Laband, 2013, p. 98). On 4 April Da Game broke camp and marched south with the Portuguese arquebusiers forming a hollow square with the non-combatants, wagons, and artillery, in the centre. Portuguese fire drove off the Grañ’s cavalry but in turn the Portuguese square faltered when it came under fire from the Ottomans. A Portuguese shot wounded Grañ and the muslim host withdrew. The Portuguese had suffered 11 killed and 50 wounded. Grañ had lost far more, and the killed included four captains, 30 of the Ottoman matchlockmen, and 40 horses. The Portuguese camped on a nearby range of hills until Sunday 16 April. Having received many reinforcements Grañ advanced to the attack again. Da Gama marched his small force out the face the on coming horde. The Portuguese were in close order and their fire drove off attacks by Grañ’s spearmen and then his cavalry. The cavalry attack was broken when the Portuguese used firebombs and powder pots that scared their horses. With the Portuguese square unbroken the Muslim broke. The Portuguese had lost a further 14 killed and 60 wounded but captured Grañ’s camp – the traditional sign of victory. Grañ retreated to a fortified camp at Zabu 145 km away.

On 29 August 1541 Grañ brought a much stronger army against the Portuguese base at Wofla (Laband, 2013). In exchange for the promise of tribute to the Ottoman Sultan, Grañ had acquired an additional 900 Ottoman matchlockmen and 10 field bombards. 600 Arab volunteers crossed the Red Sea to join him. Da Gama still had about 350 Portuguese but the number of his armed slaves were no longer recorded so presumably numbers had declined. He also had 30 Ethiopian horsemen and 500 foot however these decamped as soon as the saw the Muslim host. The Portuguese forlorn hopes on nearby hills (three of arquebusiers and one battery) were quickly overrun. Small groups of Portuguese sallied from the palisade with pike and shot to drive the Muslims from threatened sectors. In these cases the Muslims would retreat quickly and the Ottoman matchlockmen would shoot down the Portuguese from a distance. By nightfall the muslims had wounded Da Game, and killed half the Portuguese, including four of the five captains. The survivors had to abandon the 40 wounded and flee up the wooded hill. The Muslims infantry pursued up the hill but broke off when the hospital with the wounded blew up in the camp below. Da Gama and 14 wounded companions were captured at first light. Grañ tortured and killed Da Gama. About 200 of the Portuguese were killed and all the leaders. Two groups of Portuguese escaped, one of 50 men and another of 120. The larger group joined the Ethiopian king, Galawdewos.

On 22 February 1543 Galawdewos faced Grañ at Weyna Dega (Laband, 2013). Galawdewos had 8,000 Ethiopian infantry (with bow or sling or spear, sword and shield), 500 horse, and the 120 Portuguese arquebusiers that survived the defeat at Wofla (half of whom had acquired horses). In an attempt to dodge his tribute obligations Grañ had released all but his traditional 200 Ottoman matchlockmen but he still had at least some of the field artillery. The Muslim army also had 1,200 cavalry and 14,000 infantry. Galawdewos advanced in two battles. The vanguard battle had the Portuguese in the centre, under the banner of Sancta Misericorda, and half the Ethiopians (250 horse and 3,500 foot) split on either side. The rearguard, under Galawdewos, had the other 250 Ethiopian horse and 3,500 foot. Grañ also formed two battles. The vanguard battle had 200 matchlockmen and 600 cavalry in the centre with 7,000 infantry split on the flanks. The rearguard had another 600 cavalry and 7,000 infantry. The Muslims tried to envelop the Ethiopians and pounded them with missile weapons. Meanwhile, in the centre, the Portuguese horsemen, supported by their Ethiopian peers, forced their way into the Muslim host and fatally wounded Grañ. The Muslim army broke. Only 40 of the Matchlockmen escaped and 300 horsemen of the guard. The other Muslim men were killed. The women and children in the Muslim camp were spared, particularly since many were Christian slaves or concubines. Grañ’s sultanate collapsed.


The Ethiopian king (negus) award land grants to the nobility called gults (Laband, 2013). Gult holders, in turn, raised troops in time of war. Ethiopian nobility held warfare in high esteem similar to the knights of Europe. Many noble gult holders had permanently embodied mounted forces. A fighting man of any station was known as a chavas (active warrior). In the sixteenth century a chavas road a horse in battle, carried a number of weapons, and either wore armour or carried a shield. Weapons were javelin with a narrow iron blade, a broad bladed lance for hand-to-hand combat, a double-edged, sickle-shaped sabre, and finally a long dagger or club of hard, heavy wood. For hunting they carried a bow. Armour included a helmet and a long coat of chainmail (which the Portuguese thought poor quality). Their round shield was made from tough buffalo or hippopotamus hide with a raised, central boss and turned up rim. Rich warriors would decorate their shield with silver or brass.

Although the gult holders and their chavas retainers were the professionals, Ethiopian armies could also be swamped by unreliable peasant levies (Laband, 2013). These were armed with a sword (low quality), bow, sling, spear and/or shield. They had a tendency to shoot and run.

Ethiopian honour demands that armies fought in the open field, hand-to-hand (Laband, 2013). Urban centres were small and unfortified. Ambushes and night attacks were considered treacherous. Armies formed with a closely formed vanguard in the centre, where the king was positioned, a rearguard in close support, and two wings in loose order.

Arab states of the horn of Africa

Adal was the muslim state threatening Ethiopia (Laband, 2013). From the 1490s the real power in Adal was Mahfuz, the Amir of Harar. In 1508 Mahfuz claimed religious leadership and declared jihad on Ethiopia. His army comprised Somali pastoralists and fanatical volunteers from Yemen. By Ethiopian standards Mahfuz fought dishonourably. He attacked in Lent with the Christian Ethiopians were fasting, he avoided pitched battles, and instead relied on surprise and mobile tactics. Mahfuz’s army had consider success, carrying off much booty and slaves, until 1517 when the Ethiopians under their new young king crushed them and killed the iman.

Mahfuz’s son-in-law, Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi (known as Grañ) took over the power based, army, and (by overthrowing the sultan) the kingdom (Laband, 2013). Grañ declared jihad in 1527. The volunteers from the Hejaz road large Egyptian or Arab horses, had cuirasses in the Spanish style or close fitting mail, helmets, carried spears, sabres and small battleaxes in the Turkish style. The Ottomans saw Grañ as a useful regional ally and sold him firearms and hired out Ottoman arquebusiers. When Grañ attacked he was not content with raids but with a full conquest (futah) and by 1540 he had take the country.


Laband, J. (2013). Bringers of War: The Portuguese in Africa during the Age of Gunpowder and Sail from the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Century. London: Frontline.

Newitt, M. (2010). The Portuguese in West Africa, 1415-1670. Cambridge University Press.

Oliver, R., and Atmore, A. (2001). Medieval Africa 1250-1800. Cambridge University Press.

Reid, R. J. (2012). Warfare in African History. Cambridge University Press.

Thornton, J. K. (1988). The Art of War in Angola, 1575-1680. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 30(2), 360-378.

Thornton, J. K. (1999). Warfare in Atlantic Africa, 1500-1800. London and New York: Routledge.

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