Mozambique in detail


From Bantu-speaking farmers and fishers to Arabic traders, Goan merchants and colonial Europeans, Mozambique has long been a crossroads of cultures.

In the Beginning

The first Mozambicans were small, scattered clans of nomads, possibly distant cousins of the San, who were likely trekking through the bush as early as 10,000 years ago. They left few traces and little is known about this era.

About 3000 years ago, Bantu-speaking peoples from the Niger Delta in West Africa began moving through the Congo basin. Over a period of centuries they journeyed into East and southern Africa, reaching present-day Mozambique sometime around the 1st century AD, where they made their living farming, fishing and raising livestock.

Early Kingdoms

Most of these early Mozambicans set themselves up in small chiefdoms, some of which gradually coalesced into larger states or kingdoms. These included the Karanga (Shona) in central Mozambique and the renowned kingdom of Monomotapa, south and west of present-day Tete.

Southern Mozambique, which was settled by the Nguni and various other groups, remained decentralised until the 19th century, when consolidation under the powerful kingdom of Gaza gave it at least nominal political cohesion.

Arrival of the Arabs

From around the 8th century CE, sailors from Arabia began to arrive along the East African coast. Trade flourished and intermarriage with the indigenous Bantu speakers gave birth to the Swahili language and culture. By the 9th century several settlements had been established, including Kilwa island, in present-day Tanzania, which soon became the hub of Arab trade networks throughout southeastern Africa. Another was Sofala, near present-day Beira, which by the 15th century was the main link connecting Kilwa with the old Shona kingdoms and the inland goldfields. Other early coastal ports and settlements included those at Mozambique Island, Angoche, Quelimane and Ibo Island, all ruled by local sultans.

Portuguese Colonization

In 1498 Vasco da Gama landed at Mozambique Island en route to India. Within a decade of da Gama’s arrival, the Portuguese had invaded and established themselves on the island, and seized control of numerous other Swahili–Arab trading posts – lured in part by their need for supply points on the sea route to the east and in part by their desire to control the gold trade with the interior.

Over the next 200 years the Portuguese colonized the island and set up trading enclaves and forts along the coast, making Mozambique Island the capital of what they called Portuguese East Africa. By the mid-16th century, ivory had replaced gold as the main trading commodity and by the late 18th century, the trade of enslaved people had been added to the list, with close to one million Africans sold into enslavement through Mozambique’s ports.

Portugal’s Power Struggle

In the 17th century the Portuguese colonizers attempted to strengthen their control by setting up prazos (vast agricultural estates) on land granted by the Portuguese crown or by wresting control of it by force from local chiefs.

The next major effort by the Portuguese to consolidate their control came in the late 19th century with the establishment of charter companies, operated by private firms who were supposed to develop the land and natural resources within their boundaries. In reality these charter companies operated as independent fiefdoms and did little to consolidate Portuguese control. With the onset of the ‘Scramble for Africa’ in the 1880s, Portugal was further motivated to seize control in the region to fight off competition from other European colonizers. In 1891 a British–Portuguese treaty was signed formalising Portuguese control in the area.

The Early 20th Century

One of the most significant events in early 20th-century Mozambique was the large-scale migration of labour from the southern provinces to South Africa and Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe). This exodus was spurred by expansion of the Witwatersrand gold mines and by the passage of a new labour law in 1899. The racist new law divided the Mozambican population into non-indigenous (não indígenas or assimilados), who had full Portuguese citizenship rights, and indigenous (indígenas), who were subject to the provisions of colonial laws and forced to work, to pay a poll tax and to adhere to a form of pass laws.

Another major development was the growing economic importance of the southern part of the country. As ties with South Africa strengthened, Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) took on increasing importance as a major port and export channel and in the late 19th century the Portuguese transferred the capital here from Mozambique Island.

In the late 1920s António Salazar came to power in Portugal. He sealed off the colonies from non-Portuguese investment, abolished the remaining prazos and consolidated Portuguese control over Mozambique. Overall, conditions for Mozambicans worsened considerably.

Mueda Massacre

Discontent with the situation grew and a nationalist consciousness gradually developed. In June 1960, at Mueda in northern Mozambique, an official meeting was held by villagers protesting peacefully about taxes. Portuguese troops opened fire on the crowd, killing many unarmed civilians. Resentment and anger over the massacre of Mueda helped politicise the local Makonde people and became one of the sparks kindling the independence struggle. External support came from several sources, including Julius Nyerere’s government in neighbouring Tanganyika (now Tanzania). In 1962, following a meeting of various political organisations working in exile for Mozambican independence, the Frente pela Libertação de Moçambique (Mozambique Liberation Front; Frelimo) was formed in Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), led by Eduardo Chivambo Mondlane.

The Independence Struggle

Frelimo was plagued by internal divisions from the outset. However, under the leadership of the charismatic Mondlane and operating from bases in Tanzania, it succeeded in giving the liberation movement a structure and in defining a program of political and military action to support its aim of complete independence for Mozambique. On 25 September 1964 Mondlane proclaimed the beginning of the armed struggle for national independence.

In 1969 Mondlane was assassinated by a letter bomb at his office in Dar es Salaam. He was succeeded as president by Frelimo’s military commander, Samora Moises Machel. Under Machel, Frelimo sought to extend its area of operations to the south. The Portuguese, meanwhile, attempted to eliminate rural support for Frelimo by implementing a brutally violent scorched-earth campaign and by forcibly resettling people in a series of aldeamentos (fortified village complexes).

However, struggles within Portugal’s colonial empire and increasing international criticism sapped the government’s resources. In 1974, at a ceremony in Lusaka (Zambia), Portugal agreed to hand over power to Frelimo and a transitional government was established. On 25 June 1975 the independent People’s Republic of Mozambique was proclaimed with Samora Machel as president and Joaquim Chissano, a founding member of Frelimo’s intellectual elite, as prime minister.

Early Years of Independence

The Portuguese pulled out virtually overnight, leaving the country in a state of chaos with few skilled professionals and virtually no infrastructure. Frelimo, which found itself suddenly faced with the task of running the country, threw itself headlong into a policy of radical social change.

Frelimo's socialist program proved unrealistic, however, and by 1983 the country was almost bankrupt. Onto this scene came the Resistência Nacional de Moçambique (Mozambique National Resistance; Renamo), an armed anti-communist group that had been established in the mid-1970s by Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) as part of its destabilisation policy, and later kept alive with backing from the South African military and certain sectors in the West.

Ravages of War

Renamo had no ideology of its own beyond the wholesale destruction of social and communications infrastructure within Mozambique and the destabilisation of the government. Many commentators have pointed out that the war that went on to ravage the country for the next 17 years was thus not a ‘civil’ war but one between Mozambique’s Frelimo government and Renamo’s external backers. Recruitment was sometimes voluntary but frequently by force. Roads, bridges, railways, schools and clinics were destroyed. Atrocities were committed on a massive and horrific scale.

The drought and famine of 1983 crippled the country. Faced with this dire situation, Frelimo opened Mozambique to the West in return for Western aid.

In 1984 South Africa and Mozambique signed the Nkomati Accord, under which South Africa undertook to withdraw its support of Renamo, and Mozambique agreed to expel the African National Congress (ANC) and open the country to South African investment. While Mozambique abided by the agreement, South Africa exploited the situation to the full and Renamo’s activity did not diminish.

Samora Machel died in a plane crash in 1986 under questionable circumstances and was succeeded by the more moderate Joaquim Chissano. The war between the Frelimo government and the Renamo rebels continued, but by the late 1980s political change was sweeping through the region. The collapse of the USSR altered the political balance, and the new president of South Africa, FW de Klerk, made it more difficult for right-wing factions to supply Renamo.


By the early 1990s, Frelimo had disavowed its Marxist ideology. A ceasefire was arranged, followed by a formal peace agreement in October 1992 and a UN-monitored disarmament and demobilisation campaign. Since then, Mozambique has been remarkably successful – at least on the surface – in moving beyond its history of war and transforming military conflict into political competition. Most notable was the relatively smooth leadership transition in 2004, when Armando Guebuza of the ruling Frelimo political party was elected to succeed long-serving former president Joaquim Chissano (also of Frelimo). An easy re-election for Guebuza followed in 2009.