This past weekend I went to Ilha de Mozambique – the Island of Mozambique. For its small size, Ilha has played a much larger role in Mozambican history than you would think. Before Vasco de Gama made it around the Cape of Good Hope, Arab traders (and probably traders from India, Madagascar, and Persia as well) had been working along the East African coast for years. Swahili, spoken throughout much of East Africa, was a language created out of the native African Bantu languages and Arabic and is a remnant of those earlier trading relationships. From Mombasa in northern Kenya down to northern Mozambique Arab and Muslim culture have been in Africa much longer than European. Ilha, this small island of the coast in a natural harbor, was one of these trading centers and has long melded its African-ness with Arab, Indian, and Muslim influences.
After the Portuguese made their way around the southern tip of Africa, they made Ilha the capital of their southern African presence. They built churches and a huge fort (apparently the largest complete fort in southern Africa today) on the island and it remained the capital of Portuguese East Africa until the late 1800s. They shifted the capital to what is today Maputo (and was then Lorenzo Marques, named after the Portuguese explorer who “discovered” it) in 1898.
Today Ilha is a UNESCO World Heritage site and consists of two parts – the older “Stone Town” is the old Portuguese part and has the fort, a museum in what was once the governor’s palace (and is meticulously maintained, with some of the original furnishings!), churches, and other old colonial buildings. The other half, which I didn’t see as much of, is Makuti Town – where most of today’s islands inhabitants live. Makuti Town consists of more traditional thatched houses, though many are also cement and have iron roofing, and is where many of the island’s fisherman and dhow sailors live.
After the Portuguese left, the historical Muslim presence came back a bit and today the majority of the people on the Island are Muslim. As the church bells and the call to prayer ring across the small island you can sit and watch the sails of the dhows out on the water and it’s hard to not feel like you could kind of be in another century when the ships coming in from Goa or the southern Mozambican coast came with stories of new adventures and carried all sorts of treasures.
One of the museums on the Island is the Maritime Museum and goes into lots of detail about a shipwreck that has been excavated off the island – probably a ship coming from somewhere in the Middle East carrying gold, spices, and lots and lots of Chinese porcelain. Though the spices have washed away in the years between the ship sinking and the excavation much of the gold and the porcelain have stayed and in the case of the porcelain, have stayed in remarkably good condition. One can see how even in the mid-1500s the global trade was bringing goods from all over the world to East Africa.