History of Mozambique

Mozambique's first inhabitants were the San hunter and gatherers, ancestors of the Khoisani peoples. Between the first and fourth centuries AD, waves of Bantu-speaking peoples migrated from the north through the Zambezi River valley and then gradually into the plateau and coastal areas. The Bantu were farmers and ironworkers.

When Vasco da Gama, exploring for Portugal, reached the coast of Mozambique in 1498, Arab trading settlements had existed along the coast and outlying islands for several centuries, and political control of the coast was in the hands of a string of local sultans. Most of the local people had embraced Islam. The region lay at the southernmost end of a traditional trading world that encompassed the Red Sea, the Hadhramaut coast of Arabia and the Indian coast, described in the 1st century coasting guide that is called the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.

From about 1500, Portuguese trading posts and forts became regular ports of call on the new route to the east. 'Mozambique' first described a small coral island at the mouth of Mossuril Bay, then the fort and town on that island, São Sebastião de Moçambique, and later extended to the whole of the Portuguese colonies on the east coast of Africa. The square fort at the northern extremity of the island was built in 1510 entirely of ballast stone brought from Portugal.

With the decline of Portuguese power, especially during the period when the crown of Portugal was combined with the crown of Spain (1580-1640), the Portuguese coastal settlements were ignored and fell into a ruinous condition. Afterwards, investment lagged while Lisbon devoted itself to the more lucrative trade with India and the Far East and to the colonization of Brazil. Into the 19th century, a system prevailed of dividing the land into prazos (large agricultural estates) which the natives cultivated for the benefit of the European leaseholders, who were also tax-collector for each district and claimed the tax either in labour or produce, a system that kept the sharecropping farmers in a state of serfdom. Direct Portuguese influence was limited. On the coast between several native ports of call and Madagascar a large surreptitious trade in slaves was carried on until 1877, supplying slaves for Arabia and the Ottomans. European traders and prospectors barely penetrated the interior regions, until the Transvaal gold rush. The commercial and political importance of Mozambique was eclipsed by Lourenço Marques.

In 1891 the Portuguese shifted the administration of much of the country to a large private company, under a charter granting sovereign rights for 50 years to the Companhia de Mocambique, which, though it had its headquarters at Beira, was controlled and financed mostly by the British. The 'Mozambique Company' issued postage stamps and established railroad lines to neighboring countries. It supplied cheap – and often forced – African labor to the goldmines and plantations of the nearby British colonies and South Africa. Because policies were designed to benefit white settlers and the Portuguese homeland, little attention was paid to Mozambique's national integration, its economic infrastructure, or the skills of its population.


After World War II, while many European nations were granting independence to their colonies, Portugal's dictator António de Oliveira Salazar clung to the concept that Mozambique and other Portuguese possessions were overseas provinces of the mother country, and emigration to the colonies soared (Mozambique's Portuguese population was about 250,000 in 1975). The drive for Mozambican independence developed apace, and in 1962 several anti-colonial political groups formed the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO), which initiated an armed campaign against Portuguese colonial rule in September 1964. This conflict, along with the two others already initiated in the other Portuguese colonies of Angola and Guinea-Bissau, became part of the so-called Portuguese Colonial War.

After 10 years of sporadic warfare and Portugal's return to democracy (partially as a result of the expenses from the wars in Angola and Mozambique), FRELIMO took control of the capital via a coup in April, 1974. Within a year, almost all Portuguese colonists had left – some expelled by the new government, some fleeing in fear –, and Mozambique became independent on June 25, 1975.

Portugal's policy of under-developing its colonies combined with the Portuguese' rapid exodus left Mozambique with few internal human resources. For example, some history texts claim the country was left with fewer than five engineers after June, 1975. In any event, as late as 2001, the economic outcome could still be seen in cities like Beira. Once a thriving vacation city on the coast, it is still the second largest city in Mozambique, with a population of 300,000. Many of these people live as squatters in unfinished 1970s era luxury hotels facing the Indian Ocean.

FRELIMO responded to their lack of resources and the Cold War politics of the mid-1970s by moving into alignment with the Soviet Union and its allies. FRELIMO established a one-party Socialist state, and quickly received substantial international aid from Cuba and the Soviet bloc nations.

Civil War

In 1982, Renamo, an anti-Communist group sponsored by the Rhodesian Intelligence Service in the mid-70s, and sponsored by the apartheid government in South Africa as well as the United States after Zimbabwe's independence, launched a series of attacks on transport routes, schools and health clinics, and the country descended into civil war. In 1984, Mozambique negotiated the Nkomati Accord with P. W. Botha and the South African government, in which Mozambique was to expel the African National Congress in exchange for South Africa stopping support of Renamo. Mozambique complied, but South Africa reneged, and continued to supply the rebels, and the war continued. In 1986, Mozambican President Samora Machel died in an air crash in South African territory. Although unproven, many suspect the South African government of responsibility for his death. Machel was replaced by Joaquim Chissano as president.

In 1990, with apartheid crumbling in South Africa, and support for Renamo drying up in South Africa as well as the United States, the first direct talks between the Frelimo government and Renamo were held. In November 1990 a new constitution was adopted. Mozambique was now a multiparty state, with periodic elections, and guaranteed democratic rights. On the 4th of October 1992, the Rome General Peace Accords, negotiated by the Community of Sant'Egidio with the support of the UN, were signed in Rome between President Chissano and Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama, which formally took effect on the October 15, 1992. A UN Peacekeeping Force (ONUMOZ) oversaw a two year transition to democracy. The last ONUMOZ contingents departed in early 1995.