Our Planet Reviewed - Expedition Papua New-guinea


Story of mozambique

A rapidly coveted country


On his first expedition, Vasco da Gama passed the Cape of Good Hope and stopped over at the mouth of the Inharrime River (the future site of Lourenço Marques which would become the country’s capital: Maputo) to stock up with water. He was received well by the Bantus and set off again northwards, but the health situation of some of the crew meant he had to stop at the mouth of one branch of the Zambezi, where the town of Quelimane was developed. In March 1498, he reached the island of Mozambique, near to the coast facing Madagascar, situated on the 15th parallel south, where the Arab merchants stored gold and ivory from the hinterland; this created a new ambition for the Portuguese, legitimised by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, which put Africa in their sphere of influence. Possession of gold mines in the hinterland would allow the purchase of spices and fabrics in India. It was a question of dislodging the Arab merchants and occupying the island, which they did in 1507. The Portuguese discovered coconuts there, which cured the scurvy and enabled them to make hawsers for their caravels. They built a fortress, a storehouse, a clinic and a church, and the island was to function as a Portuguese commercial hub in the Indian Ocean. It would become the capital of Mozambique in 1752 until 1894.

Map of Africa in 1812 by Arrowsmith and Lewis – Printed in Boston by Thomas & Andrews.

Map of Africa in 1812 by Arrowsmith and Lewis – Printed in Boston by Thomas & Andrews.


Birth of the prazos


Other trading posts were set up on the coast and small groups of adventurers, Jesuits and Portuguese captains penetrated into the interior of a geographical area they called Mozambique, from the name of the island already occupied, and ended up by imposing a treaty of vassalage in 1629 on the King of Monomatapa in the south of the Zambezi Valley. Under the control of a metropolitan governor, the Portuguese gained access rights to the mines and lands of the region. Once the deposits were exhausted, despite the efforts of neighbouring small kingdoms to push them back, they developed their activities to the south of the region, which had riches such as ivory, rhinoceros horn and amber, and northwards towards Malawi, the ivory trade of which was controlled by the monarchs. The Malawi kingdoms crumbled in turn.

In 1752, the territory of Mozambique was equipped with a colonial administration based on a structure of military occupation, under the arbitration of representatives from the mother country. It was only present in the island of Mozambique and the country’s four towns (Quelimane, Sana, Sofala and Tete). The Portuguese presence was concentrated in the Zambezi valley where a very original type of colonisation was born. Organised along traditional lines, little bodies, formerly vassals of large kingdoms, were to be absorbed by the Portuguese into the framework of the prazo. The prazo was a large area offered to the Portuguese governor of Mozambique, who ceded it back to the colonists. The colonist, with a long-term lease, paid a licence fee in gold to the governor and reclaimed the privileges of the traditional former chiefs, the free African peasants continued to work their lands and grow their food and slaves recruited as soldiers protected the territory. These prazeiros little by little became Africanised. They married Africans, adapted to the customs and respected the ancestral religions. This mixed race community was to reconcile its putting down of African roots and its fidelity to Portugal by organising into veritable dynasties. But gradually, this system was to weaken. It then became a victim of the abuses of power of the prazeiros, which were too much for the peasant serfs, who fled to neighbouring kingdoms. The spectacular development of the slave trade, which enriched the prazeiros, depopulated the territories and reduced food production at the very time a series of serious droughts ruined this type of colonization once and for all. The last remnants of the prazos would be dismantled by the attacks of the Nguni populations, who came from the Zulu kingdoms of South Africa, around 1830. Portugal from then on would have to reckon with European ambitions in the region.