Ilha de Mocambique
Ilha de Moçambique is located where the Mozambique Channel is at its narrowest and Madagascar is only 350km (217 miles) to the east – one of the reasons why first the Arabs and later the Portuguese turned it into a major fortified port city. Other features favouring over a thousand years of foreign occupation are a safe anchorage and fortunate location in relation to the monsoonal trade winds.
Though the Arabs probably began trading with East Africa around ad500, the formal documentation of their 1500-year dominance in this sector of the Indian Ocean was not a Portuguese priority. What is certain is that sultans held sway in this area when Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama steered his 150-tonne caravel into the calm waters off the island in 1498.
This tiny isle (known simply as Ilha), just 2500m (8202ft) long and 600m (1969ft) at its widest point, is a microcosm of the major religious tribal, cultural and linguistic influences which have formed modern Mozambique. The island has been dubbed Africa’s ‘meeting point of civilizations’. Persians, Indians and Arabs came to trade, and stayed; the Portuguese settled for 500 years; the Dutch and the English tried, in vain, to dislodge them (had the Dutch succeeded, Cape Town would not exist); and today people still stop over on fishing expeditions.
Early commerce centred on cloth, beads and spices from the East which were bartered for ivory, gold, precious stones and slaves from the African hinterland. Eager to share in (and dominate) the ancient trade routes, King Emanuel of Portugal sent out scouts to blaze a trail to India. Nine years after Vasco da Gama clashed with Arab sultans on the island, the Portuguese formally occupied it, building a small stockade and leaving behind a mere 15 men to protect this outpost.
Fortaleza São Sebastião
In 1558, using granite quoins shipped as ballast from Portugal on the light caravels, construction on the fortress of St Sebastian began. Due to the lengthy voyage to and from the motherland, the 12m (39ft) high, 750m (2460ft) long walls of the fortress were completed only 40 years later. For years São Sebastião was Africa’s largest structure south of the Sahara, meant to symbolize the impregnable foothold of the Portuguese in Africa. However, it took the economic realities of the 20th century, not foreign invaders, to finally dislodge the settlers. Bigger modern ships needed deeper ports, and isolation, long an asset, now became an impediment. By 1960, the island had lost all of its former importance to the Portuguese and was left to rot.
Capela de Nossa Senhora do Baluarte
This church, which lies in ruins behind the fortress on the northeastern point of the island, was built in 1503. Although brutally vandalized and severely dilapidated, if you look inside you will see a crumbling memorial tablet.
Palácio de São Paulo (Museus da Ilha)
Originally built in 1619 to house the island’s governor and administration, St Paul’s Palace is now a museum and has been declared a World Heritage Site. Recently the huge funding required to turn around some 50 years of neglect has started to trickle in and the government and UNESCO have restored the building as well as the beautifully carved Goanese furniture, Portuguese oil paintings, fragile Chinese pottery and porcelain, and the Indian tapestries and Arab drapes previously damaged by the badly leaking roof. There is a good information centre with maps and booklets and the museum is open daily from 08:00– 12:00 and again from 14:00–17:00.
On an enticing beach looking out onto Baia da Condúcia, once a resort for affluent Nampula residents, some of the holiday homes at Chocas-Mar have been renovated and a small resort has opened. The road is in fairly good condition, and when you get to Mossuril you will need to ask for directions to get there. Apart from the fine beach at Chocas, Mossuril Bay is favoured by mating southern right whales from July to October each year, a spectacle well worth the journey. Since it is difficult to book accommodation, it is best to arrive during the week – the weekends are popular with people from Nampula and Nacala.
With a population of about 14,000, the village section (Bairro Makúti) of Ilha de Moçambique is one of the most densely populated places in Africa. There are no ablution facilities, so the beaches are used as public toilets. If you’re keen to suntan, take a dip or snorkel, rather catch a dhow or go with Dugong Dive to the nearby Goa or Snake (Das Cobras) islands where the sand and the sea are clean
With a population of about 14,000, the village section (Bairro Makúti) of Ilha de Moçambique is one of the most densely populated places in Africa. There are no ablution facilities, so the beaches are used as public toilets. If you’re keen to suntan, take a dip or snorkel, rather catch a dhow or go with Dugong Dive to the nearby Goa or Snake (Das Cobras) islands where the sand and the sea are clean.