Island of Mozambique

Island of Mozambique, Mesericórdia Church
Island of Mozambique, Mesericórdia Church / Stig Nygaard, Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Main characteristics

Coordinates: 15.0359 S 40.7335 E
No:411        (list of all attractions)
Category:Cities and towns
Values:Architecture, History, Visual
Address:Africa, Mozambique, Nampula province, Island of Mozambique
Name in Portuguese:Ilha de Moçambique
UNESCO World Heritage status:"Island of Mozambique", 1991, No.599
Founded:The 14th century AD?
Period of flourishing:The 16th - 19th century
Area:Roughly 90 ha

Step by step the medieval trade town on Island of Mozambique is regaining its former glory. After a century long decay this historical town gains from the economical development of Mozambique and turns into exotic tourist destination.

Arab trading post

History of this amazing town started many centuries ago. Sometimes around the 13th or 14th century Arab traders choose it (among many islands) as a trading post with inland Africa. Eastern African trade towns in those times prospered - Africa was rich with natural resources and Arabia, Persia, India had many customers ready to pay for African goods.

Portuguese arrival

Europe was a rising power as well. In order to avoid a meeting with Muslim armies in Near East, one of European countries - Portugal - was looking for a way around Africa.

Fort on Island of Mozambique
Fort on Island of Mozambique / Stig Nygaard, Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Explorer, adventurer and (as it turned out later) a ruthless pirate Vasco da Gama was sent by the King of Portugal Manuel I to find this way. He reached the island in 1498 and was surprised to see the civilization after long travel along wild coasts of Africa.

Da Gama and his team were not sure if they would be well received and decided to pretend to be Muslims from Morocco.

Name of Mozambique

According to local tradition, Vasco da Gama was asking locals for the name of the island. Locals responded: "Ali Musa Mbiki" - this was the name of local sultan (pronounced also Musa Malik, Musa Al Big, Mossa Al Bique, Mussa Ben Mbiki).

Island of Mozambique
Dense town on Island of Mozambique / Meraj Chhaya, Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Whatever the truth is (there are other theories) the island and later - whole country around it were named Mozambique.

European conquest

Initially Vasco da Gama and his people were well received. But soon after, when they had to meet the sultan, Portuguese were warned that rich, exotic presents are expected. Europeans were not ready for this: they had just despicable glass beads and tin bells.

Governors Palace, Island of Mozambique
Governors Palace / Meraj Chhaya, Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

This changed their fortunes. Sultan suddenly was uninterested in his guests and local people became suspicious. Finally da Gama was forced to leave the town.

Soon Portuguese (da Gama himself) conquered the town and it became one of Portugal's main ports and trading posts en route to India.

The 16th - 20th centuries

First stone building - St. Gabriel Fort - was built on the island in 1507 (not preserved). Soon other buildings followed, Island of Mozambique became an important trade town, fortification and missionary centre.

Dutch attacked the island in 1607 and 1608 but Mozambique withstood.

San Antonio Chapel, Island of Mozambique
San Antonio Chapel / Meraj Chhaya, Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Town gradually declined in the 17th century but started to flourish again the the late 18th century, when slave trade became more active. Island of Mozambique became a capital of this Portuguese colony - Portuguese East Africa.

Further decline started in the late 19th century. Suez canal was opened in 1869 - now the island was not needed for ships heading between Europe and Asia. In 1898 the capital of Portuguese East Africa was moved elsewhere - to Laurenço Marques (present day Maputo).

Stone town on Island of Mozambique stood semi-abandoned and almost forgotten for century. Many heritage values have been lost - but town as a whole was preserved almost unaltered. Now it is gradually reconstructed and is increasingly popular tourist destination.

Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte - the oldest European building in Sub-Saharan Africa
Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte - the oldest European building in Sub-Saharan Africa / F.H. Mira, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Description of the town

Island of Mozambique is some 3 km long, 200 - 500 m wide. Whole island is covered with buildings, but less than half is built from stone. Major part of buildings are built from straw (macuti). Some 14,000 people live on the island.

Most historical buildings are located in the northern half of island.

Island contains the oldest European buildings in Sub-Saharan Africa. Some of the most interesting are:

  • Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte - the oldest European building in Sub-Saharan Africa, built in 1522. One of the rare examples of Manueline (Late Gothic) architecture in Africa.
  • St. Sebastian Fortress - the oldest extant fortress on the island, built in 1558 - 1620.
  • Governors Palace and chapel (São Paulo palace and chapel) - originally constructed as a Jesuit College in 1610, now - a museum.
  • Hospital - enormous building in Neo-Classical style, built in 1877 as the largest hospital building south of Sahara.
  • Bridge - 3 km long bridge to mainland, built in the 1960s. Single lane, only light cars allowed.

There are several more historical churches - Church of the Misericórdia, Church of Santo António as well as several mosques and Hindu temples.


See Island of Mozambique on the map of Mozambique!

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