Where: Mozambique Island, Nacala Coast, North East Mozambique, South East Africa
When: From 16th century onwards
History: One of the few parts of Mozambique to escape the ravages of war with elegant Portuguese colonial grand architecture
Best sights: Palace of Sao Paolo in Stone Town, a 17th century palatial paradise
Where It’s At
Mozambique Island (Ilha de Moçambique), two miles off the Northeastern coastline of mainland Mozambique, is connected to the mainland by a two-mile bridge. The island is only one-and-a-half miles wide and one mile long.
Mozambique Colonial History in Mozambique Island
Mozambique Island is a UNESCO heritage site. It is the oldest European settlement in East Africa, then controlled by the Portuguese, and was formerly the capital of Mozambique. Once dubbed ‘Africa’s meeting point of civilizations’ for its crossing points with Persians, Indians, Arabs Portuguese, Dutch and English, this is one of the main trading points in the Indian Ocean.
The beautiful Portuguese colonial architecture pays testimony to the terrible ruling hand of the Portuguese. Vasco de Gama arrived in Mozambique in 1498 when the Portuguese made a concerted effort to colonize the land. They were experiencing hostility from the Arab traders who had already settled in the country well over a thousand years ago and wanted to secure their trade in gold and ivory. As the trade flourished they required slaves to work for them; many Mozambican men were enslaved and sent to neighboring countries. Many centuries later people fled from here when the fascist leader Antònio Salazar was in power between 1932 and 1968 in Portugal. An already failing Mozambican infrastructure was crippled by the introduction of cash crops. These events eventually helped to trigger the war of independence.
The ensuing war between the liberation front in Mozambique and the Portuguese lasted ten years and was followed by 20 years of instability when the Portuguese suddenly withdrew from the country creating economic and social chaos. Mozambique Island went from being the main artery into mainland Mozambique to being totally cut off from the mainland, which allowed its historic sites and architecture to be preserved.
Visiting Mozambique Island Today
Mozambique Island has an exotic atmosphere from hundreds of years of trading between many cultures. The island is a mass of narrow streets which beg to be strolled around to soak up the vibe.
Most of the historic sites are in Stone Town in the north of the island where life seems to have changed little in the last 400 years.
– The Palace of Sao Paolo has been restored to its former glory. Its European architecture is an example of incredible faded grandeur from when it was the residency of the governor in the 1700s. Arab chairs, carpets, Chinese porcelain, Portuguese wall-hangings and chandeliers adorn the building and it gives a great insight into what upper-class life was like in the island’s heyday in the 18th century.
– The 400-year-old Sao Sebastian Fort is the jewel in the crown of the UNESCO treasures on the island. This important defense fort to protect against invasion was built by thousands of slaves. 400 cannons still point out to sea. The Portuguese converted many of the Bantu people in Mozambique to Catholicism.
– The Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte is the oldest European building in the southern hemisphere and is within the walls of the fort. There is no fresh water on the island and one of the most interesting aspects of the fort is the roof which was designed to collect rainwater. This was then channeled down to underground vaults and the locals still collect and use water from here today. It was this water collection system that allowed the Portuguese and the islands 11,000 residents to successfully be under siege for a period of four years by the Dutch.
Other Things to See and Do
When strolling around the island you’ll feel that the rhythm of life feels like it has been unchanged for centuries. Among other sights you’ll notice the Makua women with their faces painted white. This is both a cultural practice and a beauty routine which helps to protect their faces from the sun.
When you are exhausted from your day of discovery, the Reliquia is a real travelers’ hangout – if there are any others around that is! The Restaurante A Reliquia is the social hub of the island. There are cabaret shows, drama, and live music at the weekends. This is a laid back joint that typifies the slow pace of island living here. Ask the other travelers here to enlighten you about the unusually employed man with the megaphone on the beach!
It is a usual but unpleasant sight to see locals relieving themselves on the beach so watch wear you sit down. Another beach activity you’ll see is local boys digging in the sand for beads. These are hundreds of years old and were once brought to the island by the Portuguese who used them to trade with the Mozambicans, convincing them that they held great value. Many ships were wrecked off the coastline and so thousands of beads still wash up on the beach and the locals make them into necklaces, selling them back to modern day European travelers.
Where To Stay
Hotel Omnuhipiti, Mozambique Island
Telephone: 00258 661 0101
At the far north end of the beautiful Mozambique Island lies the Hotel Omnuhipiti. The north end of the island is like a time-warp with abandoned Portuguese colonial buildings everywhere. The Omnuhipiti, a brand new 4-star hotel, really stands out in its surroundings, although it has been built to mirror the island’s architecture. It is a real treat to stay somewhere with such excellent facilities in such a dusty, hot environment. Rooms are spacious and the bar in the lobby is a real meeting place for visitors to the island. Highly recommended.
Patio dos Quintalinhos, Mozambique Island
If on the other hand you want to stay somewhere with oodles of stylish character, the Patio dos Quintalinhos is perfect. Run by Gabriele Melazzi, an Italian architect, and his dog Dumbo, the guesthouse is small and cosy but the rooms are very large; some have hanging beds, others have their own roof terrace. Gabriele will make you feel at home and his assistants make a fantastic breakfast. The guesthouse is situated on the border between Stone Town and Makuti Town, the two completely different halves of the island, and so is perfectly placed to go wandering around either.
Images of Mozambique
Photographic examples of the Portugese architecture on Mozambique Island.
By Faye Welborn