Mozambique: Mozambique Island
14th May - 4th June 2002
I crossed the narrow 3km long, one-lane bridge in the back of a crowded pickup truck that connects this tiny, though historically important island to the mainland. At intervals along the bridge there were passing sections, but as the bridge is so narrow, traffic is restricted to cars and there were very few crossing this morning. The island is crescent shaped and only 3km long and is 500m across at its widest point covering an area of approximately 1 sq km. The island is a coral formation and is covered in white sand. It is completely urbanised and divided in two, to the north, Stone Town and to the south Makuti Town. The bridge joins onto the island at the southern tip, just north of the cemetery from where we drove north along the main street, Avenida 25 de Junho through the centre of the island and was dropped off in the centre of Makuti Town. A couple of young lads, Jackson and Gibson showed me the way to the guesthouse Casa de Luis, also known as The Private Gardens, just off Travessa Dos Fornos. Without their help I would never have found this place, as there were no signs, not even on the building. I had found that this lack of signs had plagued my trip through Mozambique since I crossed the border from Malawi. Finding places was never an easy task. Apparently I later heard from another traveller that the locals don't bother with signs because everyone knows where everything is, so there is no need; obviously they don't get many tourists in the north of the country. I checked into a small room at the guesthouse and fell asleep for the morning. It was 10.15 and I was happy at last to be on this island after all the kilometres I had travelled.
The island was an important trading centre for many hundreds of years. The Arabs, who colonised both Pemba and Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania, also reached this island and established a base here as well as further south along the coast at the town of Quelimane. From here they developed a network of trade routes through East and Southern Africa trading in gold and ivory and later in slaves. The first Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, landed on the island in 1498 and in 1507 the first permanent Portuguese settlement was established. The Sheik, who ruled in the King of Quiloa's name on the island up until then, was forced to leave the island when confronted with the superiority of the Portuguese military strength.
The island prospered under Portuguese control as both a strategic naval base and as a commercial centre. The island was used as a staging post along the long sea route from Europe to Persia, India and beyond via the Cape of Good Hope. The trade in gold and ivory continued with the East in return for exotic spices that were coveted back in Europe as well as the trade in slaves from the interior of Central Africa. One of the oldest surviving buildings from the Portuguese era is the recently renovated Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte, built in 1522 at the far northern tip of the island. It is said to be the oldest European building in the southern hemisphere and it is where the early settlers came to give thanks to God when they completed their long and arduous voyage, as many people fell ill and died during the voyage. Dominating the whole northern end of the island and overshadowing this small chapel with its huge stone ramparts is the Fort of São Sebastião. The fortress was constructed to defend the Portuguese interests on the island. Construction started in 1558 and it was finally completed in 1620. It is the oldest complete fort still standing in sub-Saharan Africa and was the largest fort in Southern Africa. As well as its economic and strategic position the island also became a major missionary centre with the various religious orders establishing churches here and mingling with the predominately Muslim and Hindu communities.
Stone Town, on the northern half of the island, became the administrative centre and capital of the colony of Portuguese East Africa until 1898, when the capital was moved south to Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) after the discovery of gold in the Transvaal. The architecture of Stone Town reflects the islands diverse heritage with an almost unique mix of European, Arabic, Indian and African influences. Stone Town contains the majority of the historic buildings on the island, about four hundred houses, which includes thirty monuments and administrative buildings; the majority of these were built between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. During this time the local residents were banished to the mainland. The churches and the facades of the buildings are the most evident influence of the Portuguese, but the construction of most of the buildings was mostly influenced by Arabic architecture with all the buildings having flat roofs. Drains lead from the roofs to cisterns to collect rainwater, as there was no freshwater or groundwater on the island. The courtyards and gardens of the buildings are also very Arabic in origin and design. The Indian influences came mostly from the Goa region with the carved doorways and ornamentation of the facades that decorated some of the buildings, although I saw very little evidence of this left today.
Stone Town developed over hundreds of years but remarkably the buildings show a uniformity of style as the Portuguese adopted the local building techniques of using masonry walls and wooden beams to hold up the floors and flat roofs. They quarried the local coral limestone and used local timber and utilised these raw materials and methods continuously throughout the years, even keeping the detailing of the facades consistent. The floor plans of the buildings remained the same and are characterised by a rectangular layout, with the main entrance in the centre of the building leading to a corridor that connects the street with an inner courtyard; all rooms of the building are accessed from this corridor. This floor plan was also used in the buildings of Makuti Town in the southern half of the island, as well as using the same raw materials and construction methods. This part of the island is much newer and dates back to the late 19th century when the indigenous population were allowed to return to the island. There are about 1,200 houses divided up into seven quarters in Makuti Town. It is a mostly residential area and the whole district is a lot more crowded than the north of the island. The reed and mud huts look very different to the grand buildings to the north, but they still share this basic floor plan. This gives the island an amazing degree of architectural cohesiveness, even through to today. This almost unique architectural legacy was one of the main reasons it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.
I spent three days on the island exploring the narrow streets and alleyways of Stone Town and this extraordinary hybrid mix of architectural styles. Today the island is no longer a major commercial centre or port and is very much a backwater place. The economic decline of the island went in gradual stages and began a long time ago with the abolition of the slave trade in the late 19th century. With the discovery of gold in the Transvaal the capital was moved south in 1898 to present day Maputo. The opening of the Suez Canal also reduced the importance of the sea route around The Cape and ships no longer stopped here as a way station on their voyages to and from the East. The development of Nacala nearby on the mainland as a major port also added to the general economic decline of the island. In 1975 after independence the Portuguese pulled out almost overnight and the majority of the buildings in Stone Town were never officially transferred to new owners. This left the island almost divided in two, with the local town of Makuti thriving and the grand buildings of Stone Town falling into disrepair. The majority of the local people didn't move to Stone Town because of the lack of transfer deeds for the properties and also because these huge buildings were not really suitable for the local people who did not have the money to maintain them.
As the island became economically insignificant and the population decreased, less and less maintenance was carried out; this situation was exasperated after independence. It didn't take long for Stone Town to fall into ruins as drains from the flat roofs became blocked, roofs became waterlogged, the timbers rotted and roofs and floors collapsed. The lime plaster on the facades dissolved and soon vegetation and trees began growing in what were once grand buildings. The civil war that raged for seventeen years during the 1970's and 80's caused a large influx of refugees to the island. Timber from these historic buildings including floors, windows and doors were chopped up and used as fuel for cooking fires. Today as I walked along the sandy, dusty streets and alleys I felt like I was walking through a ghost town as whole streets of houses lay abandoned. The floors had collapsed and the walls crumbled; the windows were missing, just large black holes, like empty eyes looking out onto the street. Some buildings had completely collapsed; all that remained was a pile of rumble.
It was easy to imagine what this town must have been like during its heyday as I wandered around. Some of the buildings had been restored with help from UNESCO; these included the bank, a school and most impressively the Palacio São Paulo near the northern end of town. Jesuit priests originally built the Palacio São Paulo in 1610 as a college; the college was destroyed by fire in 1670 and was rebuilt in 1674. The Jesuits were thrown out of Portugal and the colonies in 1759 and the college was adapted to serve as the Governor Generals residence from 1763 until 1898. After 1898, with the moving of the capital, the building became the residence of the District Governor until Nampula superseded Stone Town as district capital in 1935. The building then stood empty for a number of years until it was renovated and converted into a residence for the Portuguese President and his ministers in 1956. In 1969 the building was once again renovated and now serves as a museum. It gives a unique glimpse at what life must have been like living here during the height of the Portuguese colony. The rooms have all been carefully laid out with impressive antique furniture including a collection of heavily ornamented Indo-Portuguese pieces. There are also ornaments from Portugal, China, India, Goa and Arabia, reflecting the islands many trade links.
There are also numerous public gardens, complete with bandstands dotted around Stone Town and unexpected squares and tree-lined streets. There is a huge hospital that is still used by the locals next to the former Colonial Administration Offices, although conditions looked run down and primitive. There was hardly any traffic on the island and most of the time it was the same vehicles you saw every day; everyone walked about the island, as it was so small. This gave the place a tranquil, quiet feel and added to the atmosphere of a ghost town. Meanwhile Makuti Town was always busy, children playing nosily in the street, women dressed in bright colourful fabrics carrying baskets on their heads. The markets were always lively and a hive of activity, including the fish markets along the beaches. It seemed as though nearly everyone in town was always carrying a bundle of fish with them. Along the beaches, the eastern beach being lined with palm trees, swaying in the warm wind blowing off the Indian Ocean, men repaired their multi-coloured fishing nets. The fishing boat harbour is situated on the eastern shore in a small sheltered bay formed by a peninsula where the Church of Santo Antonio sits. Small wooden boats were anchored in this calm bay and along the beach boats were being built and repaired using traditional methods.
I found this island to be an unexpected, little known jewel on this eastern coast of Africa. Before I had planned this trip I never knew it even existed. In many ways it was like someone had taken Stone Town on Zanzibar and placed it on it's own little island and forgotten about it. The challenge now is how to preserve this unique architectural heritage for future generations. Being listed as a World Heritage Site is a major step in the right direction but the problem still remains of how to find a sustainable way to conserve Stone Town. There are a number of problems to overcome if any conservation efforts are to be successful. Two of the major problems are the lack of ownership of the buildings and the lack of finance needed to repair them. Most importantly though, is that any conservation effort must involve the local population; it would be pointless to restore these buildings and then to leave them as shells to once again deteriorate. There are also far more pressing needs for the local people who live in economic hardship, the need for basic services such as schools and healthcare. Without involving the islanders in the conservation efforts and making them realise that Stone Town is their heritage as well and now the islands only asset, any plans will probably be doomed to failure. Tourism is the only hope for the future of this island but I feel it will be a long and hard struggle to realise this dream. A start has been made with the recent opening of a four star hotel, the Omuhi'piti, near the fort. I must criticise why this new, ugly building was ever given permission to be built. Surely it would of been more beneficial for everyone to renovate one of the many abandoned buildings in Stone Town instead. This could have rescued a small part of this architectural heritage as well as providing an international class hotel on the island.
Another problem that I fear will hinder the economic regeneration of this island is its location and the communications connecting it with the outside world. Without good roads and reliable transport, people will not make this long trek to the north and the only visitors will remain the ones who enjoy the challenge of the journey to discover this enchanting, lost island.
After three very enjoyable and fascinating days spent on the island exploring and unravelling its long and colourful history, it was time again to move on and begin my long and tortuous journey south. It was a journey I was not relishing but knew at least that it would be an adventure and probably a journey I wouldn't forget for a long time. In the early morning gloom I walked down the sandy streets through Makuti Town for the last time and back to the bridge where the pickups waited. At 06.00 I left the island driving across the long narrow bridge just as the sun rose behind me, the island silhouetted against the vast backdrop of the ocean.
Continue reading this journey: South to Beira