History & Politics


Bantu-speaking peoples probably arrived from around the 1st century AD, bringing with them their iron-age tools and knowledge of farming. These peoples formed small chiefdoms.

Earliest inhabitants

Evidence of man's ancestors has been found along the east of Africa. Early hunter-gatherers were likely to have been the first inhabitants of the Mozambique region.

By the 11th century AD, powerful kingdoms were rising in the Western Highlands, in what is now modern-day Zimbabwe – see Zimbabwe History & Politics. These kingdoms used the rivers flowing through Mozambique as trade routes to the sea. The low-lying and disease-prone coastal plains of Mozambique were less populated.

Power of the coast

Wealthy trading ports

The famous Portuguese maritime explorer, Vasco da Gama, sailed around the south of the African continent en route to India. His ship landed at Mozambique Island (Ilha de Mozambique) in 1498 – see Map of Mozambique. Da Gama tried to trade with the ruling Sultan, but his gifts were spurned. He had nothing to offer which compared to the wealth of African goods – cotton, ivory, gold and pearls – available at the time.

Trading with Arab sailors and merchants meant harbours along Mozambique’s coastline became important ports. Iron, gold and animal skins were brought from inland along the rivers.

A trading language called Swahili grew up – a mixture of Bantu and Arabic, which later included European elements. Portuguese words were among those used in Swahili as Portuguese sailors began arriving in Mozambique from the late 15th century.

Portuguese occupation

In 1507, the Portuguese built a permanent settlement on Mozambique Island and began attacking long-established Muslim centres. The Portuguese Ila de Mozambique, by Steve Evans from Bangalore, India (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commonsmainly occupied coastal areas, but occasionally they sent expeditions inland.

Expeditions were often led by mazungos, people of both African and Portuguese descent. Some of the mazungos set up chieftaincies along the coast and major rivers. By the 18th century, slaves were an important export. Networks developed to take slaves from inland areas, such as below Lake Nyasa/Malawi, and ship them from ports like the Island of Mozambique (see photo).

The split in the north

In the 19th century, the Scots had a strong presence on the land which bisects the country to the north. This region was therefore kept by the British and today forms southern Malawi.

Over the next centuries, the Portuguese fought hard (against Muslim, African and European attackers) to keep control over the coast of Mozambique. And when Africa was divided up in the late 19th century, Portugal kept Mozambique (as shaped today).

Portugal’s rule wasn’t strong everywhere and many parts of the country operated outside its influence. Some provinces were even governed by companies based in South Africa and Mozambicans from the south were employed as migrant workers.

An independent Mozambique

A failed economy

Marxist/socialist in its policies, Frelimo was successful in improving schooling and health services. However, Mozambique’s businesses and economy collapsed, especially when many Portuguese left the country. Disastrous floods and droughts also hit harvests.

Portugal remained neutral during World War II and Mozambique concentrated on its food production and exports. By 1960, independence movements were gaining ground and Mozambique was finally granted independence in 1974.

The country’s former liberation movement of Frelimo (the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique) took over governance.

The rival group of Renamo (the Mozambican National Resistance) was formed with foreign backing to topple Frelimo. Fighting between the two parties (stoked by other countries) turned into civil war, causing widespread loss of life.

Peace came in 1992 after elections. Mozambique is now a multi-party democracy with an elected president. Currently, this is Armando Guebuza of the ruling Frelimo party.