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Notes on the Geography of Mozambique: Ihla de Mozambique

Vasco da Gama discovered Mozambique Island in 1498. (OK, OK, the verb should be in quotes. See, I'm not a complete brute.) Some 60 years later, the poet Camões would write of that moment. "... from the island nearest/ the main, there came in close company/ Several small feluccas skimming/ The wide bay under their broad sails. / Our people were overjoyed and could only / Stare in excitement at this wonder./ 'Who are these people?' they kept exclaiming,/ "What customs? What beliefs? Who is their king?" Camões doesn't mention the small fact that, unable to afford passage home, he himself was virtually marooned on the island for two years in the 1560s. (Landeg White translation of The Lusiads,Canto I, stanza 45).

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In 1507 the Portuguese made this island their capital in East Africa, and it remained such for almost 400 years, until 1898 and the move south to Lourenço Marques, now Maputo. The feluccas are still there.

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At ease in Mossuril Bay. Five hundred years ago, Portuguese ships had to lie at anchor here through the winter if, coming from Portugal, they missed the monsoon that would carry them east to India.

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Entrance to the Customs House.

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On the water side of that gate, the port is quieter than quiet. Anybody wanting to ship in or out of northern Mozambique today will use Nacala, a deepwater container port 40 miles to the north. In the distance here: the spire from the church adjoining the São Paulo palace.

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The nail in the coffin of the port was this one-lane bridge, which opened in 1966. The view here is from the mainland side.

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The island is roughly divided into a "stone-built town" built by the Portuguese at the north end of the island and a "macuti town" of palm-thatch, occupying the southern half. The whole island is very small--less than two miles long and much less than half a mile wide--and most its energy today comes from the macuti side. Despite appearances and hasty assumptions, the macuti town is actually quite recent. When the Portuguese arrived the island was mostly settled by Arab traders. They were removed by 1570. During most of the Portuguese period, Africans lived on the mainland, and a civil war after independence left the island almost uninhabited. What you see now sprang up after peace came in 1992.

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On the southeast corner of the island, the Church of St. António is locked up and deserted, but on market days the area in front of it wakes up.

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Bend-down boutique.

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Bars of soap.

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The next day.

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At the very northern tip of the island, the Portuguese in 1522 built the chapel of Nossa Senhora do Baluarte, Our Lady of the Fortress. The fortress on the right was added later. So how do you get to the chapel?

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Easy: a door in the fortress wall. (It does seem as though the Portuguese were creating an obvious point of attack.)

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Entrance to the chapel.

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The severe interior.

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The windows are in the form of the globus cruciger or triumphal cross, emblematic of the Portuguese crown ruling the world in the name of Christianity. For a good part of the 16th century, it wasn't puffery.

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The only ornament in the chapel are these vault ribs.

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Tombs are lined up on the floor.

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Another, dated to 1753.

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The fortress, named for St. Sebastian, was begun in 1558 and garrisoned in 1583. It wasn't just for show. When the island came under attack by the Dutch in 1607, the fortress held out. Everything else on the island was destroyed. Now you're going to ask about that little door. Sorry; can't help.

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The main gate.

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From another angle.

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Peeking down from the top.

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Top of the wall.

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Another view of the entrance.

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The interior of the fort is now empty, as is the Church of S. Sebastião, seen here.

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A cistern--capacity 2000 barrels--was built to collect water and still does.

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We've gone back toward the port and stopped here at the church attached to the São Paulo Palace.

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We've climbed to the top of the spire. The view here is east, over the Misericórdia Church, rebuilt after the Dutch attack of 1607.

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While we're here, we can look southeasterly over the stone town, mostly of coral or limestone blocks. Over the centuries, the island's economy waxed and waned. A peak came with the Brazilian slave trade in the 18th century. Hoping to stimulate growth further, Lisbon's famous Marquês de Pombal in 1752 freed the island from Goa, which had ruled it for two centuries. A local administration was organized, and settlement rules were changed to allow all Christians to live on the island, regardless of nationality. Hard times came again with the abolition of slavery: the last ship for Brazil left in 1831.

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The view directly south.

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The Misericórdia Church.

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The altar.

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Monument to a child dying of fever in 1866, 15 days short of her seventh birthday.

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Another fatality from 1866. Apparently his widow wanted him closer to her so moved his remains here.

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We've moved around to the São Paulo palace.

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Stairs up, past Victorian improvements.

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Speaking of which, the waterfront park here is rundown but still has some old electric lamp posts. Since the subjects are the exotic peoples of India, one guess is that the castings came from Goa, but that's just a guess.

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Morning mist brings back Camões. "You will see the island which denied them/ Water become one day a fine port, / Where the Indian fleet on the long voyage / From the west can recover and refit." (Landeg White translation of Canto II, stanza 48).

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A little iconographical expertise would be helpful.

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No photography is allowed inside the palace except in the adjoining church.

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The choir.

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The pulpit, very similar to those of Goa.

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Clockwork in the tower.

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Up to the belfry.

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Up top.

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We'll go back down and poke around the town.

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Lots of very quiet streets.

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A few cars, here in front of the Escondidinho Hotel.

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The town's biggest building is the hospital, built in 1877.

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Wrought-iron entrance at dusk.

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Morning and visitor hours. The hospital is still in use.

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For several centuries before the arrival of the Portuguese, the island was occupied primarily by Arab traders, who populated the M'Biki sheikdom. It survived from the 11th century until the arrival of Vasco. There's still a mosque here, though new.

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The mihrab is naturally on the north side of the building.

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There is a Hindu community too. Here is its Baneane Temple, presumably a variant of bania or merchant.

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The temple is new but the Hindu community is old. Among its occupations today: trading in cashew nuts, locally grown in quantity.

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The island is on UNESCO's world heritage list, but there aren't many tourists. If there were any, they'd congregate here, next to this undated statue of Vasco da Gama, standing in front of the palace. No Starbucks in sight.

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On the other side of the island, a statue of Camões stands in front of the former French consulate.

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A bit of green has been added near the building where slaves were kept before being shipping out.

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UNESCO at work.

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Signs of death aren't hard to find on the island.

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The southern tip of the island has a still-growing cemetery.

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A stone from the last days of Mozambique Island as a capital city.

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Another early death.

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And another, surprisingly late and hinting at global communication networks. The British had a submarine cable from Durban to Zanzibar and Suez. It made a landing here.


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