Balthasar Springer pillages East African cities (1509)

Balthasar Springer (also Sprenger) took part in one of the earliest circumnavigations of Africa, sailing to India with a Portuguese fleet only a few years after Vasco da Gama first completed the trip. A born Tiroler, he was a representative of an Augsburg trading house looking for other trading partners than the Italian city-states. The trading firm developed close ties with Portugal, and this led Springer to receive a commission from the Portuguese King Manuel I to carry out a trading mission into the Indian Ocean. In 1505-1506, traveling with the fleet of Francisco de Almeida, he visited numerous cities in East Africa and India and became famous for publishing his travel diary in 1509. Through this mission and his travel diary, Springer shows two means by which Central Europeans took part materially and virtually as Europeans engaged in global trade and conquest.

Springer’s travel report was one of the first in German to describe such distant lands. His detailed ethnographic descriptions, supplemented by high-quality woodcut illustrations by the well-known artist Hans Burgkmair, offered new observational details about lands that were otherwise shrouded in the mists of legend and fantasy. At the same time, the focus on the strange and the use of labels like “savage” illustrate how the direct encounter with unfamiliar peoples and customs, many of whom impressed travelers with their sophistication, occasioned far-reaching discussions over the definition of “civilization” and Christian Europe’s place in the world.

In these excerpts, he describes the fleet’s violent encounters with wealthy, “heathen” (Muslim) trading cities along the East African coast. These show his keen eye for natural resources as well as the fleet’s enthusiasm for plundering, which their superiority in arms made possible. Most local rulers resisted the fleet’s demands, while some were content to pay tribute and see their rivals destroyed. These encounters differed dramatically from the encounters with the supposedly simpler “savages” encountered along the West African coast. 

Jeff Bowersox


In this land there are strange sheep with broad, short tails in which they carry their fat. Otherwise they have no fat on their entire body. The cows are small and fat and have a hump on the back. The deer of this land are like goats and are as large as horses. There are manz fields with fruits like beens and peas. There are also palm trees growing, from which the people get wine, vinegar, oil, water, nuts, honez, sugar, etc., and they also get so many uses out of these trees and so many other wonderful things that it would be too tedious to name them all and also would take too much time.

On night of the ninth of August we were greatly afraid and concerned that one or two foreign ships might ram us. We lay near the coast, which only increased our concern, and there we encountered eleven ships. But God Almighty protected us with his divine grace so that we escaped from the ships unharmed. On the thirteenth day of the same month we entered the harbor of Monbase [Mombasa] with ten ships, but the people of this area were hostile to us. This land had a particularly attractive harbor or approach, and at one point on the coast they had built an unspeakably strong fortification, whence they fired at us and caused much damage and even almost put us in serious danger. But through the providence of Jesus Christour Saviour we persevered through it and chased them out of the fortification into the city, along with their possessions. There was another fortress outside the city, built on a cliff, and we sailed on past to the city. We did not find many enemies therein, landed at the fortress and fired at them with great earnestness until our enemies were driven out.

On the 14th of August int he afternoon we came to the city. There they fired with bows and rifles and through rocks at us and seriously wounded quite a few of our crew. But it was all in vain. We shot fire into the city in two places and burned many of them out of their houses. Before we did this, they defiantly drove–in order to frighten us–twelve elephants all around at at us. We also found three camels in the city and in front of it on the field. The strongly secured city with narrow alleys was almost not to be taken. But, calling for the help of God the Almighty, we formed two units and attacked our enemies in the city with great courage and on the fifteenth of August braved the storm. As we passed through the narrow streets and alleys of the city, no one wanted to give any ground to the other. But without delay we forced our way through with force. The moors and heathens threw themselves against us so inhumanly that we could have thought that it would be impossible to get into the city if it had not been the clear will of God. But through God’s providence and determination there was left many a heathen dead, of our own only two met their end. We conquered and occupied thee city with great joy and thanked God the Almighty.

When we had secured the city and gotten ready to plunder, we noticed that the king had gotten himself out of the city and there strengthened his force with a number of moors and heathens. We had to take care in order not to get immediately thrown back out of the city again. We ordered that the streets had to be patrolled so that we could not be ambushed unawares, and began to plunder. We found the previously mentioned great treasures, so much that it is impossible to count it all up. God be praised forever and to Him be glory and honor, amen.

Now, from Killi [Kilwa] to Bombasa [Mombasa] it is seventy miles and from their yet another twenty-five miles to another city called Milyndi [Malindi]. This is its own kingdom, and this king was kindly disposed to us, a friend who was in ceaseless enmity at war with the king of Bombasa [Mombasa]. He accorded our people great honors. His captain sailed a good five miles to us with five ships so that we did not have to come through Milindy [Malindi]. The king was very satisfied that we had plundered, destroyed, and burned the aforementioned city. After the plundering we had burned everything else, except what we had discarded and the cambered, walled houses that were so strong that we could not burn them down.

Source: Balthasar Springer, Die Meerfahrt, edited by Andreas Erhard and Eva Ramminger (Innsbruck: Haymon Verlag, 1998), 40-45. ©Andreas Erhard and Eva Ramminger. Translated into the English bz Jeff Bowersox.

The original can be found here: Balthasar Springer, Die Merfart vn erfarung nüwer Schiffung vnd Wege zu viln onerkanten Jnseln vnd Künigreichen von dem großmechtigen Portugalische Kunig Emanuel Erforscht funden bestritten vnnd Jngenomen (Oppenheim, 1509), Bayerische Staatsbibliothek VD16 S 8379.

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