Stories from the Rift Valley
By James Egremont – Lee
Visitors to Rift Valley's banana producing operation in Northern Mozambique might have been fortunate enough to stop over at nearby Ilha da Mozambique, just an hour and a half's drive away. Those that have, will testify to the remarkable experience that awaits; an extraordinary, tangible fusion of Africa's East coast culture with Arab and European history from medieval times.
As soon as one arrives, usually by car from along the unfeasibly long, single-lane concrete bridge that has connected it to the mainland since the 1960's, one is met with a palpable sense that some extraordinary events have shaped this unique, if tiny island. Those familiar with the 'scramble for Africa' and the appetite of empire that sprang from Europe to impact the African interior in the period following the Industrial Revolution, might have a grasp of mainstream colonial history, but are often awed by the much longer story of Ilha. The well-known and exquisitely-penned European tales of Victorian exploration in Africa, which herald the rapid political establishment of most colonial territories, are after all events within a relatively recent chapter of history; still within a step or two's reach of living memory. What strikes the visitor to Ilha, is that this island has seen European influence for many centuries prior to the famous adventures of Livingstone and his kin. Although the island and its natural harbour had been used as a major base for Arab traders since the 8th century, it is that this island functioned as the capital of Portuguese East Africa for nearly four centuries, which makes for an astonishing revision of history.
Following the arrival of Vasco da Gama in 1498, the strategic importance of this island over the next four hundred years cannot be ignored as it echoes vividly from the buildings and architecture that are remnant illustrations of wealth and influence. Dominating the island, is an unprecedented and colossal illustration of Portuguese sway - the massive and intact stone fortress of São Sebastião, the oldest complete fort still standing in sub-Saharan Africa. Construction began in 1546, and about 50 years later the final stones were laid, all having been gruellingly hewn and carried by hand from the centre of the island, which remains a prominent hollow to this day. Just beyond the fort, at the island's tip and accessed via the fort entrance, is the tiny Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte. Built in 1522, it is considered to be the oldest European building in the entire southern hemisphere and one of the best examples of Manueline vaulted architecture in Mozambique.
The island rapidly assumed prominence in Portugal's wider campaign to dominate European trade with India and the East Indies, maintaining vital control of commodity flows including gold, spices, ivory and slaves. Alongside an unrestrained slave trade, the island also became an important missionary centre, supporting extraordinarily
remote churches within the interior as far as the Luangwa Zambezi confluence. Ilha alone therefore held tremendous influence on a stretch of coastline with very little other safe harbour for vessels making voyage to the dominions of the East. And it reaped the benefits as such.
Economic gains motivated an enormous effort over the centuries to protect the island. Despite the imposing and impregnable edifice of the fort, it did not go unchallenged, although it seems that only once in its history was it seriously under threat. In the early 17th century the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was determined to make an end to the Portuguese trade hegemony on the Indian Ocean. This rivalry was both economically and politically motivated: Firstly, the traders of both nations were competing to control access to the various valuable resources in the East. Secondly, the Eighty Year War (1568-1648) fought between the Dutch and the Spanish Empire meant the Dutch were also at war with the Portuguese. In this context the newly founded VOC attacked Ilha in an attempt to take-over the island. In 1604 the first blockade was posed by the VOC, but the Portuguese did not surrender. In 1607 and 1608 the Dutch attacks were more severe and the island and fortress were heavily damaged during the fighting. The Dutch forces outnumbered the defenders by far, but due to losses suffered through disease, and the persistence of the Portuguese who remained self-sufficient of fresh water and smuggled supplies within the fort, they did not succeed to conquer the island. It would take more than a century before the VOC would make their presence on Mozambican soil again.
With the opening of the Suez Canal, the island's fortunes waned. In 1898, the capital was moved to Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) on the mainland and by the middle of the 20th century the new harbour of Nacala took most of the remaining business. However, Ilha's remnant wealth remained, with influential Portuguese families maintaining a sophisticated presence there until 1976. Mozambican independence was of course a watershed for the island, with the wholesale and rapid departure of all Portuguese and their accompanying economy. What is surprising to the visitor today, is the evidence of how rapidly the harsh maritime elements can lay waste to solid and time-honoured structures in such short order. Without customary maintenance, roofs soon collapsed and masonry has since seemed to melt into ruin, leaving the island scattered with the carcasses of once grand homes and businesses.
'Stone Town', the quiet, timeless northern half of the island is where the majority of the decayed, or recently restored, historic buildings can be found. Most were constructed between the early 16th and late 19th centuries. Albeit the architecture on the island shows diverse Arab, Indian, and Portuguese influence, it maintains an unusual visual homogeneity, perhaps the result of access, over generations, to the same building materials (primarily locally quarried limestone, indigenous wood, and palm leaves) and similar structural plans (including a preponderance of symmetrical, six-roomed, rectangular structures with flat roofs). Graceful praças rimmed by once-grand churches, colonnaded archways and stately colonial-era buildings line the quiet, cobbled streets. The hospital, a majestic neo-classical building constructed in 1877, with a garden decorated with ponds and fountains, was for many years the biggest hospital south of the Sahara and is now being restored.
Other notable buildings on the island include the church of Our Lady of Mercy (1635), the symmetrical quadrilateral town market (1887), an impressive 19th-century Hindu temple, a 19thcentury mosque, and St. Paul's Palace (1674), which served as the governor's residence from 1763 until 1935 and is now a museum and the island's historical showpiece. The museum interior gives a remarkable glimpse into what upper-class life must have been like during the island's 18thcentury heyday. In addition to artefacts from Portugal, Arabia, India and China, there are many pieces of original furniture, including an important collection of heavily ornamented Indo-Portuguese pieces. The adjacent chapel includes a pulpit made in the 17th century by Chinese artists in Goa. On the ground floor is a small but fascinating Maritime Museum, with gold coins, ships compasses, Chinese porcelain and other items recovered from the numerous local shipwrecks.
Today the crescent-shaped island has a crowded but not overwhelming population of over 12,000 inhabitants, most of whom live in the bustling 'Makuti Town', the island's younger, more colourful southern half. This area dates from the late-19th century, with its thatched-roof huts and narrow alleyways resonant with the sounds of children playing, chickens squawking and fishermen sitting on the sand repairing their long, brightly coloured nets. Both Stone Town and Makuti Town are UNESCO listed in light of their significant architecture and cultural tradition.
Mozambique Island, part slowly reawakening ghost town, part lively fishing community, is ultimately a picturesque and exceptionally pleasant place to visit. As investment slowly returns to the island, largely in the form of tourism capital in the development of hotels, restaurants and bars, there is a sense that its heritage will somehow be preserved and its place in modern Mozambique secure. Whether there is lure enough for it to thrive as a mainstream and profitable tourist destination is not clear, but for now, those who can tackle the journey to this not easily reached place, will be swept up in its unique charm forever.