This is a very good book – scholarly, serious, authoritative. Newitt summarises the latest thinking in a whole range of issues which affect Africa’s prehistory, early modern history, colonial periods and contemporary history. It doesn’t aim to please. There are no fascinating anecdotes, colourful vignettes or pen portraits of key figures. Just the most up-to-date facts, dryly presented.
Born in 1943 (and so now 80 years old) Malyn Newitt had a long academic career during which he wrote over 20 books on Portugal and Portuguese colonialism. He was a professor in the Department of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies at King’s College London, and then deputy vice chancellor at Exeter University, before retiring in 2005. So this book is by way of being the summary of a long and distinguished academic interest in the subject.
The first European to land in Mozambique was the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in 1498.
The coast, territory inland and coastal islands were very slowly settled and colonised by Portugal over the next 200 years. Initially the refuelling ports scattered along the west and east coasts of Africa and onto India, later reinforced with defensive forts, were all part of the same entity, the Estado da India, way stations on the sea journey to India which was where the spices and wealth were.
In the early years the main Portuguese settlement was on the Island of Mozambique, lying off the coast at the northern end of the modern country. The sea between the island and the mainland is still known as the Mozambique Channel. The Portuguese established a port and naval base on the island in 1507 and it remained an important part of their maritime estate for centuries. It became the capital of what came to be known as Portuguese East Africa until 1898, when the administrative centre was moved to Lourenço Marques in the far south of the country, ‘reflecting the shift in economic and political importance’ (p.115).
The name of the island, and so the country, is derived from the name of Ali Musa Mbiki, Muslim sultan of the island when da Gama arrived. So never a western name, then.
For centuries a handful of coastal ports and some territory further inland were part of a huge tract of coast known as Portuguese East Africa. Only at the end of the nineteenth century, as rival European nations like Britain, France and Germany staked out their claims to Africa, was this huge territory pared away and reduced to the borders of the current Mozambique, which were only finally defined in 1891.
Mozambique is bisected by the Zambezi River, the fourth longest river in Africa (after the Nile, Niger and Congo) which rises in Zambia then flows through eastern Angola, along the north-eastern border of Namibia, the northern border of Botswana, then along the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, until it enters Mozambique.
North of the Zambezi a narrow coastal strip gives way to inland hills and low plateaus, then onto rugged highlands further west. South of the Zambezi the lowlands are broader with the Mashonaland plateau and Lebombo Mountains located in the deep south.
Until the 1960s there was no paved road link between the north and south halves of the country. A railway bridge across the Zambezi linking north and south was only completed in 1932.
In 1964 guerrilla fighting broke out and developed into what became known as the Mozambican War of Independence. It lasted for ten years. The main independence fighters were the Marxist Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) led by Samora Machal.
After ten years of conflict Mozambique gained its independence from Portugal on 25 June 1975, following the overthrow of Portugal’s authoritarian regime in the so-called Carnation Revolution of April 1974.
Soon after independence a civil war broke out which was to last from 1977 to 1992 between FRELIMO and the anti-communist insurgent forces of the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO). Like so many African wars it was exacerbated by the Cold War: the Soviet Union and Cuba backed the Marxist government (cf Angola and Ethiopia) while the USA, South Africa and Rhodesia provisioned, helped and trained RENAMO.
Mozambique’s capital was for centuries known as Lourenço Marques after the 16th century Portuguese explorer who explored the area. (It was only made Mozambique’s administrative centre in 1898). Soon after independence, in 1976, the city was renamed Maputo and remains the country’s capital. The distinctive thing about it is that, instead of being in the centre of the country, maybe on the mouth of the mighty Zambezi, Maputo is way down at the southernmost tip of Mozambique, less than 75 miles from the borders with Eswatini and South Africa.
Mozambique has a land area of 801,590 square kilometres, compared to Portugal’s 92,225 km².
A Short History of Mozambique is a brisk, no nonsense, 225-page overview of the subject, written in a very dry, very academic style, a very theoretical style. I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone as a history of Mozambique since it’s the kind of history which deals with issues and theories rather than dates and people. For example:
Newitt gives a sophisticated explanation of the concepts of language, ethnicity, empire, kingdom and tribe which Europeans have used ever since the Portuguese first landed on the coast of Mozambique to try and categorise and order and understand its inhabitants. He carefully explains why all of them are flawed and inaccurate. ‘Ethnicity’ is a notoriously slippery category. People’s identities change and even the idea of what an ‘identity’ is has changed over the period we have records for, roughly 1500 to the present.
It was interesting to learn that even right up-to-date contemporary linguists struggle with African languages. It is interesting to learn that modern linguists can’t agree a common definition of what a language is; some linguists consider some African languages as discreet languages, others consider them dialects of parent languages. This explains why even ‘experts’ consider there might be anything from 17 to 42 languages spoken in Mozambique. Just as confusing is the notion that ‘most Africans speak more than one local language or dialect’ (p.19) with the result that language isn’t a reliable indicator of ‘identity’.
You know how progressive critics complain that the Western imperialists imposed nations and categories and tribal names onto much more fluid African identities? Well, Malyn is their dream come true, deconstructing pretty much every type of western category and concept to indicate a fluidity of identity which is, by definition, hard to capture, and equally challenging to read about.
This carries on being the central theme for chapter after chapter. When he’s covering the historical records left by the earliest Portuguese traders and administrators in the 17th and 18th centuries, and even more so in the full-blown imperialist 19th century, Newitt goes to great lengths to explain that the names which westerners assigned to tribes were almost always wrong. Sometimes, to take a blunt mistake, they called tribes after native words which simply meant ‘king’ or ‘leader’. (The country of Angola takes its name from the title ngola, a formal title which was held by the kings of Ndongo and Matamba.)
Westerners assigned social structures familiar to their own history – of empires and emperors, kings and kingdoms – to societies which had completely different, alien structures and identities.
The Africans were organised in groups and social structures but modern scholars have to reach back beyond the distorted and error-ridden Portuguese records to try and piece them together. Some societies were matrilinear, but there appear to have been several types of matrilinearity. Archaeology is not much help, since Africans built so few towns and their villages, made entirely of organic materials, disintegrated back into the earth.
Incidentally, Hewitt’s history obviously focuses on the territory and towns (mostly the notable ports) of what is called Mozambique, but he is not the first to point out the arbitrariness of the borders the Europeans drew up – in Mozambique’s case, finalised in 1891 – and how the deep history of the peoples who lived in this randomly drawn territory obviously had a huge overlap with peoples in the surrounding areas.
His account gives a bewildering sense of a kaleidoscope of peoples, continually migrating, fighting, conquering and holding territory, establishing dynasties that ruled for a few generations before a handful of recurrent issues – drought and famine, flooding, invasion of outsiders – reshuffled the picture.
The result is an immensely detailed and complicated picture, consisting of a blizzard of unfamiliar names – using names the tribes in questions may not even have called themselves – which is very hard to follow. This is why I’m not recommending it as a practical history. Two names which recur are the Ngoni and the Karanga, but there are many more.
Another theme which emerges very strongly indeed is the role of slavery. Slavery was present well before white Europeans arrived. They discovered it to be an intrinsic part of many African societies’ strategies, not only of war and conquest but even of basic survival. Newitt tells us that drought and famine have been recurrent features of the huge territory now known as Mozambique and the region around it, often threatening tribes’ very existence (pages 31, 50). Thus slaves, especially women, could be seized from other groups simply to provide more breeding vessels in order for the group to survive.
What comes over is that all the African groups practised slavery before the Europeans arrived but (as in everything else in this complex account) in a multitude of ways. Some slaves were relatively high caste, and might even serve as warriors or leaders. Some were forced into menial agricultural work. There was a recurring category of sex slaves i.e. women taken from tribes defeated in war.
The capture of slaves, especially women, in warfare had always been a way in which communities that depended on agriculture rather than cattle herding increased their productive (and reproductive) capacity. (p.71)
For hundreds of years the Portuguese were just one more invader-warrior-trading group among many, in a region used to wars and incomers. Alongside the Portuguese were Arabs from the Persian Gulf. These set up trading stations manned by an Arab elite which traded heavily in slaves. For centuries before the Europeans came there had been a trade capturing African slaves and carrying them off to the Arab gulf kingdoms.
For many hundreds of years slaves had been exported from the ports of eastern Africa to markets in Arabia, the Gulf and India where they were in demand as soldiers, domestic servants and sailors. (p.52)
But the numbers were relatively small, maybe 3,000 a year. A sea change occurred when the French established plantation agriculture on the Mascarene and Seychelles islands after about 1710. The numbers jumped again in 1770. Between 1770 and 1810 around 100,000 slaves were exported. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, France only in 1848.
Another major shift occurred in 1840 when the Sultan of Oman relocated the centre of his kingdom from the Gulf to the island of Zanzibar. Arabs not only transhipped slaves to the Gulf but set up their own plantations which required African labour, setting in train the ethnic mix of peoples on Zanzibar which was to cause conflict at independence, hundreds of years later. As the years passed Arab slavers penetrated further inland, setting up bases of operation and converting natives to Islam (p.71). This combined with the many slaves working on Zanzibar or other Arab-owned plantations to spread Islam. Today about a third of Mozambique’s population is estimated to be Muslim.
The Royal Navy cracked down on the Atlantic slave trade from West Africa. In response business boomed on the East coast. After the Napoleonic War Brazil boomed as an exporter of coffee and sugar, and importer of slaves. Between 1800 and 1850 Brazil imported around 2,460,000 slaves, mostly from Portuguese East Africa. Under increasing pressure from Britain, Portugal finally outlawed the slave trade in 1842 (pages 62, 67) and Brazil formally ceased to import slaves in 1851.
The peak of slavery from Portuguese East Africa around 1830 coincided with a bad drought. This disrupted local societies and led to invasion from outsider tribes: Ngoni warbands from modern-day Natal and groups of Yao moving from northern to central Mozambique. These a) conquered and enslaved their adversaries b) became involved in trading to the coast.
Although the external slave trade was severely dampened in the 1850s, explorers like David Livingstone arrived to discover it was still flourishing inside Africa, as native and Islamic warlords led militias which conquered and enslaved weak tribes, then sold them on to burgeoning plantations. Maybe 23,000 mainland slaves were exported to Madagascar every year till the end of the nineteenth century.
The hectic nineteenth century
1858 to 1864 – David Livingstone’s Zambezi expedition.
1866 – Livingstone’s ‘Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambezi and its Tributaries’ becomes a bestseller and inspires a generation of British explorers.
1867 – First gold and then diamonds are discovered in South Africa.
1871 – Discovery of the Kimberley diamond mines.
1874 to 1877 – Henry Morton Stanley undertakes his epic journey, crossing Central Africa from east to west, mapping the route of the river Congo.
1875 – The French president confirms Portugal’s right to Delagoa Bay, the best deep sea port in south eastern Africa. This encouraged the Boers in the Transvaal to think of it as an outlet to the sea rather than the Cape, which was owned by Britain.
1877 – Britain annexes the Transvaal.
1879 – Portugal helps Britain in the Zulu War.
1881 – The Transvaal Afrikaners rebel against Britain, which grants them independence.
1884 – Congress of Berlin called to clarify the rights of the colonial nations in the Congo and Niger regions, turns into a general carving up of Africa.
In the late 1880s there was a race between Portuguese authorities – who dispatched explorers and agents to sign deals with natives in a bid to create a band of Portuguese territory right across central Africa – and agents working for the British buccaneer, Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes won, his people planting flags and seizing territory in what came to be called north and south Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe and Zambia) thus ruining Portugal’s plans to own one uninterrupted band of territory across Africa.
Prolonged negotiations about the frontiers of British and Portuguese south Africa began in April 1890 and continued until August 1891 when the borders of modern Mozambique and Angola were almost completely finalised (p.93). Failure to achieve their much-trumpeted goal of creating a ‘rose corridor’ across Africa was perceived in Portugal as a public humiliation and rocked the Portuguese monarchy.
The early colony 1891 to 1919
You tend to think of the imperial nations as large and mighty powers engaged in fierce rivalry to gobble up even more third world countries. It comes as a bracing surprise to learn that after its diplomats had fought hard to win these two huge new territories, Angola and Mozambique, they didn’t know what to do with them. They had developed coastal ports and trade networks up the rivers and licensed companies to develop some areas (fertile highlands). But most of the territory was undeveloped, there were few roads, even fewer railways, much land remained in the hands of native rulers, and some parts had never even been explored or mapped by white men.
Moreover, Portugal was very poorly placed to take on such onerous responsibilities. It had experienced not one but two civil wars earlier in the century and was currently the poorest and arguably the most backward country in Europe. People were leaving in droves. Newitt gives the striking statistic that between 1890 and 1920 some 750,000 Portuguese emigrated to Brazil, while 170,000 went to America.
It’s fascinating to learn that Britain and Germany signed not one but two secret treaties agreeing how they would carve up Portugal’s colonies if, as most expected, the country went bankrupt.
But Portugal’s solution to its challenge was to revert to a variation of the 17th century idea of leasing out land to individual landlords or businesses to develop. On a much bigger scale the government now divided Mozambique into half a dozen territories and leased them out to commercial companies to develop. The result was very mixed.
The big story in this period was the importance of South Africa. The details are complicated but it became ever clearer to the Portuguese authorities that its neighbour to the south was rich and getting richer due to the discovery of diamonds and gold. So three things:
1) South African mines needed miners and so a large number of blacks from southern Mozambique became migrant workers in South Africa, and the government established a steady stream of income by taxing them.
2) The Portuguese built a railway from the Transvaal into Mozambique and to the deep-water port at Delagoa Bay. This became very commercially successful, as the government raked off various taxes and fees.
3) It was these very close economic connections with South Africa which led the Portuguese to move their administrative capital from Mozambique Island in the north right down to the settlement at Delagoa Bay, named Lourenço Marques. The capital’s dependence on South Africa (it even got its power from SA) was to have big implications for the future (p.115).
Mozambique developed into a reserve of migrant labour for British South Africa and South Rhodesia, while also serving as an outlet (via the railway) to the sea.
The mature colony 1919 to 1974
In 1910 Portugal’s tottering monarchy was overthrown in a revolution and replaced by a liberal republic (pages 114 and 116). This promised all Portugal’s colonies greater autonomy though nothing like democracy. Even the whites had no say in how their colonies were run and the native population had no rights at all.
These plans had hardly got going before the First World War. Portugal joined on the Allies’ side in 1916 and emerged heavily in Britain’s debt. South Africa’s General Smuts wanted to annex the entire Delagoa Bay railway and Lourenço Marques into his country.
In 1926 the Liberal republic was overthrown in a coup. After two years of uncertainty the authoritarian Estado Novo (New State) regime of António de Oliveira Salazar emerged. In 1930 this published a Colonial Act declaring Portugal and all its colonies one political entity. The colonies were expected to balance their books without subsidies from the centre.
The Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression confirmed Salazar’s regime in its theory of Autarky i.e. a protectionist policy of trading among themselves, which boiled down to: the colonies supplied raw materials, the metropole converted them to manufactured goods and sold them back. So the colony was divided up into sugar, cotton and rice growing areas, the investment in farms, the wages paid to natives, the prices sold to middle men and onto importers, all controlled and dictated from Lisbon.
The Second World War saw a spike in prices of raw commodities which greatly benefited Portugal, which carefully stayed neutral during the conflict. Using some of its profits, Portugal began to sketch out a network of health and education facilities across Mozambique.
It was only in 1942 that the last of the business concessions dividing the country into separate entities came to an end and the country came under one unified government, tax and business regime (p.147).
After much bureaucracy, a comprehensive 5-year plan was published in 1953, with two more to follow in the 1960s. Schools, hospitals, more railways, a huge dam across the river Limpopo.
All populations grow. At the First World War there were around 10,000 Europeans in Mozambique. In 1945, 31,000. By 1970, 164,000 (out of a population of 8.5 million). Half of these lived in the capital, many as administrators.
Ghana kicked off the rush to African independence in 1957. Between 1958 and 1962 the Salazar regime back in Portugal experienced a crisis of support and vision. A general stood in the presidential election against Salazar’s candidate and attracted a wide range of opposition movements. In January 1961 a revolt broke out in Angola. In March India unilaterally seized Goa, a move which staggered the Portuguese regime.
In June 1962 the various opposition groups in exile reluctantly agreed to come together to form Frelimo, which commenced a low-level guerrilla insurgency. Tensions between secular, left-wing modernisers and conservative, traditional ‘Africanists’. It was only at the second party congress in 1968 that the modernisers under Samora Machal triumphed. Dissidents fled abroad where some were assassinated. By 1970 Frelimo was a disciplined and effective fighting force that was successfully keeping the Portuguese army tied down.
In 1973 Frelimo moved into Tete Province and for the first time launched attacks south of the Zambezi. In the same year a Portuguese general published a book questioning the entire future of Portugal’s colonies. The army was tired of fighting in Angola and Mozambique. In April 1974 a military coup overthrew the regime.
Frelimo never succeeded in mobilising the general population let alone fomenting a mass uprising. They just fought the Portuguese army in the northern two provinces of the country for ten years with very little impact on the rest of the country, none on the capital far away in the deep south. Frelimo came into power because the Portuguese simply gave up and withdrew. But this left Frelimo lacking either military or political legitimacy (p.146).
The civil war 1977 to 1992
First of all, the transition to independence was bungled. Frelimo came into power with a programme of hard-core Marxism-Leninism with the result that 90% of the white educated population and an unknown number of the Asian business community simply left. Frelimo immediately made enemies of the white nationalist governments in South Rhodesia and South Africa. These set about training a combination of Frelimo dissidents and anti-communists into what became Renamo, short for Resistência Nacional Moçambicana i.e. Mozambican National Resistance.
Renamo’s insurgency against the Frelimo government lasted for 15 long years with atrocities committed, of course, by both sides. Peace was eventually made possible when Frelimo softened its doctrinaire communist ways in the later 1980s as the writing on the wall for the Soviet Union became clearer. Newitt doesn’t go into the relationship between Frelimo and the USSR, and how this changed with the advent of Gorbachev, which feels like a glaring omission.
Negotiations began in the late 1980s but the war dragged on because neither side was capable of ending it. Eventually Frelimo caved in to the demands of Renamo and the international community for a multiparty system and free elections.
These have actually been held, in 1994, 1999, 2004, 2009, 2014. They were accompanied by violence, international monitors say they were rigged, but in each of them Renamo won 40% or so of the vote i.e. they weren’t a complete stitch-up. As communism faded away, Frelimo converted itself into your standard African corrupt, nepotistic patrimonial government, committed to staying in power forever.
However, Mozambican politics are notable for two exceptions to African traditions. One is that tribalism hasn’t reared its ugly head. Leaders on both sides refrained from playing the tribal card which so often, in the rest of Africa, led to massacres. Instead the country’s politics continue to be dominated by what have become entrenched regional divisions, with Frelimo being seen as the part of the south and far north, Renamo holding the centre and mid-north.
Second exception is that, whereas in most African countries presidents turned themselves into dictators-for-life (Mobutu, Mugabe, Kagame, Afwerki) in Mozambique, although Frelimo is committed to eternal rule, it has actually changed presidents after each has completed his two terms.
Interesting to learn that some 50% of the government budget is funded by international donors, over $2bn in 2014 (p.210). Frelimo has become dependent on staying in office on foreign aid (pages 187, 192). In fact Newitt drily comments that, seen from one angle, Frelimo’s chief skill has been dancing to the changing whims and fashions of western aid to ensure the money keeps flowing (p.212). The Frelimo elite then channels the aid to itself and its followers, who live a luxury, First World existence in one of the poorest countries in the world.
After twenty-five years the most striking consequence of the government’s policies is the huge disparity in living standards between rich and poor. A relatively small Mozambican elite, which includes many senior members of Frelimo and the foreign business, diplomatic and NGO communities, enjoy an exaggeratedly high standard of living. The modern buildings of Maputo are grand and even ostentatious, the city hotels are clad in marble with fountain courts and air conditioning. Expensive cars are parked outside to whisk businessmen to the ministries or the banks. (p.222)
I was interested to read that Frelimo set out in 1977, under Marxist puritan Machel, to create New Socialist Man, to force peasants off their traditional land into collective farms, to ban pagan religions and old spiritual beliefs, to educate the population into zeal for the revolution. Obviously all that failed, and Newitt quotes peasants (who make up 75% of the population), interviewed by researchers, who expressed relief at being able to return to their ancestral land, worship their ancestral spirits, practice polygamy, and so on. The African way.
Why, Newitt asks, are the bottom 25 countries on the Human Development Index all in sub-Saharan Africa (with the one exception of Afghanistan)? Because of the special style of patrimonial politics which has established itself as distinctively African, meaning rule by a corrupt elite which run national budgets to benefit themselves, their cronies, and keep themselves in power. Screw their actual populations (p.204).
The 1992 Peace Accord, and the aid bonanza that followed, rapidly transformed the Frelimo elite into a patrimonial political class which, in spite of the lip-service being paid to liberal democratic ideals, was determined to hang on to power at all costs. And the costs increasingly involved not only corruption, soon to achieve gargantuan proportions, but crime, fraud and political assassinations. (199)
Newitt is entertainingly satirical about the bureaucratic, organisation-speak of the countless plans and strategies and policies unleashed on poor Mozambique by a never-ending stream of western institutions like the World Bank, the IMF and the UN with its utopian Millennium Development Goals. He quotes some of these documents purely to mock their high-minded rhetoric, which usually bears no relation to what’s happening on the ground.
Apart from killing each other, which they still do in periodic outbursts of renewed fighting between the last Renamo holdouts and government forces, the main thing happening on the ground in Mozambique is that its inhabitants, like humans all round the planet, are destroying the environment and degrading the ecosystems they rely on for their existence.
Forests are being cut down and the native iron wood and ebony has been plundered uncontrollably; illegal hunting is emptying the game parks and illegal fishing is plundering the seas; the Zambesi dams are radically altering the ecology of the river valley and illegal washing for gold is destroying whole landscapes. (p.211)
In 1964 when the war for independence started, the population of Mozambique was 7.3 million. Now it is 32 million. Human beings are like locusts, locusts with machine guns.
A Short History of Mozambique by Malyn Newitt was published in 2017 Hurst and Company. All references are to the 2017 paperback edition.