How Mozambique went from Portuguese colony to “complicated” independent country

mozambique history

mozambique history

Review: Myrna Robins

A Short History of Mozambique, by Malyn Newitt (Jonathan Ball Publishers)


Malyn Newitt, who has penned more than 20 books on Portugal and its colonial history, is one of the leading historians on the former colony and now independent Mozambique.

Presently retired, he was deputy vice chancellor of  Exeter University in the UK and – given his background – one expects his latest title to be academic in tone and content.

It is, but the text is very readable, and not bristling with intrusive footnotes. This book is not only for academics, but for all involved in any capacity with Mozambique’s government and those doing business in that country.

And – if you’re thinking of heading to its ocean shores for unique wild and wonderful  holidays  – you too may enjoy exploring the background to the transition from Portuguese colony to independent country.

The boundaries of modern Mozambique were drawn in 1891, giving a territory that is 800 306 sq kms in extent (compared with Portugal’s 92 100 sq kms). Its long coastline gives way to a low-lying hinterland leading to a plateau, and on to the high mountains on its borders with South Africa, Zimbabwe and Malawi.

Drought and famine punctuate its history and have much influenced its development, while serious floods did much to displace people and kill their cattle. Much of the lowlands are infested with tsetse fly, preventing communities from farming cattle,

The monsoon winds not only bring rain but link the coastal communities with ports of the Red Sea, the Hadramaut, the Gulf, India and the islands of Comoro and Madagascar.

Dhows visited the coast to trade for Central African gold and cargoes of skins, turtle shell, ivory, mangrove poles and slaves. The Portuguese began coastal settlements at the start of the 16th century and for some 300 years a pattern of life was established: ivory and gold traded through Islamic middlemen in return for imported cloth, beads and metal ware.

In the 19th century a series of droughts caused major conflict and migrations and fed the slave trade until it was abolished in Britain and Europe. However the slave trade continued, largely serving markets inside Africa. The rising demand for labour in South Africa led to the slave trade of the south evolving into the  export of contract labour.

The  Boers, moving away from British occupation in the Cape, founded ad hoc republics in the north of present-day South Africa , with Delagoa Bay as their nearest sea port for the recently discovered gold and diamonds .

Frontiers drawn in 1891 gave Portugal control of British Central Africa’s access to its ports and routes for roads and railways. The country was ill-equipped to deal with governing such a vast territory. Many Portuguese emigrated both from Portugal and its islands to Brazil, but once the railwas line from the Rand to Lourenco Marques was built things improved in the colony and the city expanded rapidly.

In 1930 Antonio Salazar, now in power in  Lisbon, overhauled colonial policy and this was followed by the Great Depression . Cotton and rice became major crops, supplying Portugal and receiving imported goods in return. Portugal remained neutral during World War II, after which Mozambique benefited from infrastructure projects and basic education policies while whites were encouraged to leave their home country and settle in rural subsidised settlements.

The first modern movements seeking independence for Mozambique started  among exiles livingsin Tanzania, Malawi and Rhodesia. Frelimo was formed for the liberation of Mozambique in 1962.

In 1970 Samora Machel became president of Frelimo and while the Portuguese army seemed at first to be successful in clearing Frelimo bases, a military coup in Lisbon in 1974 overthrew the Portuguese regime, leading to that country withdrawing from its African colonies. Guerrilla forces won by convincing officers that a war that could not be won was pointless.

Subsequent events in Mozambique are within memory of many adults today. Divisions in politics split along regional rather than ethnic lines. Cashew nuts became the most valuable export. But after independence in 1975 up to 90 % of the population of European origin as well as many skilled Africans and Asians left the country, causing a severe skills shortage.

Frelimo took over and Samora Machel became first president in June 1975.The economy came to a virtual halt. Economic policies based on Eastern Bloc practices were introduced to counteract this, but instead the country slipped into a violent and destructive civil war which lasted until 1992.

Machel was killed in an air crash in South Africa in 1986 and it was widely suspected that the South African military was to blame.

The final two chapters focus on the country’s complicated politics post 1992, and the economy and society since 1994.

Today there is, according to the author, an increase in communal ceremonies connected with ancestors and bringing of rain not only in rural areas but also in towns. Some years ago there were reports of trafficking in body parts – whether or not for traditional medicine – but just as these occur regularly in South Africa, they are not likely to surprise South African readers.

Illustrations are limited to a handful of black and white photographs. A comprehensive list of titles is suggested for further reading and a fairly detailed index complete the text.




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