History of Northern Mozambique

The first written record of Mozambique dates from the 10th century AD, when Arab writer al-Mas'udi mentioned the town of Sofala (south of present-day Beira) and the iron-using people called the Wak Wak who lived there.

Long before that time, perhaps as early as the 3rd century AD, Bantu-speaking peoples from central Africa migrated to the region, where they grew crops and raised cattle. Their settlements took on increasing complexity.

By the 10th century, settlements featured stone enclosures, and their inhabitants played an important role in intra-African trade to the west. Over the next several centuries, traders from north-eastern Africa and later from the Middle East and Asia arrived by sea, prompting ports along the Mozambican coast to flourish. Sofala, among the most prominent ports, developed as a trade center for gold from the interior.

Commercial settlements also developed to the north of Sofala at Angoche, Moçambique Island, the Querimba Islands, and the mouth of the Zambezi. The beads, cloth, and other goods brought by Arab and Asian traders attracted caravans of agrarian-based traders from inland Mozambique.

They in turn distributed the goods to the African interior. A struggle for control of this trade developed, and it was soon won by the cattle-owning chiefs of the Karanga in the south and the Makua in the north. Slave trading was also common throughout this period, in both the coastal and interior regions.

Europeans Arrive

In 1498 Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope and stopped in Mozambique en route to becoming the first European to visit India by sea. His arrival initially made little impact on Mozambique, but soon afterward a small stream of European traders began to visit the coast of Mozambique.

In 1505 the Portuguese occupied Sofala, establishing a fort and installing a friendly Arab ruler there. However, the gold trade was already in decline and Sofala was ill-suited as a port, so the Portuguese moved their base north to Moçambique Island. Over the ensuing years the island developed as an important seaport and way station on the route to India.

By the mid-16th century, European settlers had begun to penetrate the Mozambican interior, occasionally encountering stern resistance from inhabitants.

In 1561, for example, Gonçalo da Silveira, leader of the first Jesuit mission to eastern Africa, was killed by Shona people whom he had tried to convert. In response, the Portuguese sent a large army, which from 1569 to 1575 attempted to conquer the central African gold-mining region.

Most of the soldiers died of disease, and little was achieved beyond the occupation of the lower Zambezi Valley and the establishment of two new bases on the Zambezi at Sena and Tete. Thus by the close of the 16th century, much of Mozambique was still beyond Portuguese control.

In fact, despite Portuguese presence along the Zambezi, Maravi chiefs had established the powerful chiefdoms of Karonga, Undi, and Lundu in the region north of the river.

In 1607 and 1608 the Dutch twice tried to seize Moçambique Island from the Portuguese, failing both times. The assaults nonetheless made the Portuguese aware of their precarious hold on Mozambique and prompted them to try again to subdue the interior.

This time the Portuguese used locally recruited armies and by 1632, after prolonged warfare, they occupied a wide swath of land from the Mozambican coast to the northern half of present-day Zimbabwe.

Portugal maintained control of the region by ceding prazos (land grants) to European colonists. The prazos made their owners virtual lords of African fiefdoms, with nearly complete control over Mozambican labour and resources. In modified form the prazo system lasted until the 1930s.

The Portuguese established fortified mining camps in the highlands of western Mozambique and northern Zimbabwe, but Portugal had difficulty attracting European settlers into the area. Partly as a result, the Rozwi chief Changamire was able to lead a revolt in 1693 that succeeded in expelling the Portuguese from most of the highlands.

Ivory and Slaves

Despite their eviction from the highlands, the Portuguese gradually extended their control up the Zambezi Valley and north and south along the Mozambican coast. In 1727 they founded a trading post at Inhambane, on the southern coast, and in 1781 they permanently occupied Delagoa Bay, an important location farther south on the site of modern Maputo.

Dutch and Austrian traders had briefly settled at Delagoa Bay, and English and American traders had hunted whales and traded ivory with the nearby Nguni and Tonga chiefs. From Delagoa Bay, Portugal controlled a prosperous ivory trade, which in turn attracted caravans from the interior.

At roughly the same time as the rise of the ivory trade, climatic changes and the rise of the slave trade had even greater effects on Mozambique. The trade in slaves, which had existed at a low level before the arrival of Europeans, continued throughout the colonial period, under the hand of African and European traders.

By the late 1700s, however, demand for slaves had grown. When prolonged droughts started in Mozambique in the 1760s and became endemic from the 1790s, crops failed, cattle suffered, chiefdoms faltered, and traditional patterns of long-distance commerce were disrupted. Banditry and slave raiding increased, and large numbers of slaves were brought to the coast.

By 1800 Mozambique had become one of the world's major slave-trading centers. Hundreds of thousands of Mozambicans were sold to slave traders and sent to the Americas. Until at least the 1870s, no other form of commerce generated as much profit.


Pemba is in Cabo Delgado the most northerly province of the country and is the home of the Makonde group of people, who are concentrated on the Mueda Plateau. Pemba town sits at the mouth of the world's second largest natural harbour.

See our Pemba Travel Guide

The view of the bay from Pemba's heights is spectacular and there is hardly a view to compare with this place on the Southern African coast. Most basic food supplies and alcohol can be bought in Pemba town, there is a good local market selling vegetables, fruits and street food. Hotel accommodation is available in the town but most travellers head 5 km south for the palm fringed beach at Wimbe.

On this beach there is a hotel /restaurant and bungalow complex - 'the Nautilus' and other basic tourist facilities are in place. Part of the complex houses a PADI dive school with resident instructor, boat and equipment hire, most water sports etc. Excellent seafood is available on the beaches 3 restaurants. The reef is within striking distance of the beach and allows for safe, protected swimming, snorkelling and diving.

Other places of interest to see are the lighthouse - south of Wimbe and Pemba's boat yard. The Makonde craft co -operative has an excellent collection of their unique sculpture work in ebony - the prices are high so be prepared to haggle! The Makonde are known as master carvers throughout East Africa, and their work can be found being sold in tourist markets and in museums alike.

The Makonde of Tanzania and Mozambique are separated by the Rovuma River and are culturally distinct. Immigration from Mozambique to Tanzania has resulted in a blurring of ethnic identities and a sharing of certain ideas. Because of the relative isolation of their homeland, the first contacts with Europeans did not occur until 1910, and then they were very sporadic.

The coastal location of the Makonde, however, indicates that they were involved with Swahili slave traders for centuries. Recently, enclaves of Makonde have developed on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam and of Kambia in Kenya, although they seem to limit their interaction with outsiders, preferring to identify with their own cultural traditions.

In the traditional homelands of the Makonde the primary source of food comes from slash and burn farming. Crops include maize, sorghum, and cassava. This is often supplemented by hunting. Carving for the tourist trade has become a major industry for Makonde artists along the coast and near the cities.

Individual settlements recognize a headman who has inherited his position matrilineally, based on his family's position of power within the community. There is no ruler of all the Makonde peoples, as each village maintains a certain degree of independence. The Makonde have retained their traditional religion despite centuries of influence by Islamic traders. Their practices center around the celebration and remembrance of the ancestors.

Ibo and the Quirimbas

There are 27 islands between Pemba and the Rio Rovuma, which forms the border with Tanzania and for the adventurous traveller that has the time to explore, the area remains one of the last undiscovered places in Africa.

Ibo island (part of the archipelago) was formerly the capital of Cabo Delgado the northern province. Ibo's architecture and history rank closely to Ilha de Mozambique but its atmosphere and rustic charm is certainly unique.

It is one of the most ancient settlements in Mozambique with Muslim traders actively established in the area before the 15th century. The main fort still houses a handful of traditional silversmiths and their handmade jewellery is found no where else.

In the 18th century Ibo was a major supply point for slaves from the interior and it soon became a major trading post for the Portuguese. The ancient trade buildings are still visible to this day.

Ibo boasts 3 forts, a beautiful old catholic church and numerous old administration buildings. Access is difficult, it is the quietness and the islands atmosphere that makes it so special. WildLife Adventures owns and is restoring a lodge and camp on Ibo Island.

Ibo Island

Ibo Island is a stunning, remote island in Mozambique, which has remained untouched by commercial developments. It is a romantic island geta...more

Pemba Travel Guide

Pemba is also known as the gateway to the Quirimbas Archipelago and is fast becoming a top diving and water sports destination in Mozambique...more
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