Between the 1st and 5th centuries AD, waves of Bantu-speaking people migrated from the west and north through the Zambezi River valley and then gradually into the plateau and coastal areas. They established agricultural communities or societies based on herding cattle. They brought with them the technology for smelting and smithing iron.
From the late first millennium AD, vast Indian Ocean trade networks extended as far south into Mozambique as the ancient port town of Chibuene. Commercial settlements such as Sofala, Angoche, and others along the Mozambican Swahili Coast became important centres for the Arab, Persian, and later Portuguese trade in slaves, gold, ivory, and other commodities. Connections are evident at sites including Manyikeni for 11–14th century ties with the inland Great Zimbabwe kingdoms.
Portuguese Mozambique (1498–1975)
The Island of Mozambique is a small coral island at the mouth of Mossuril Bay on the Nacala coast of northern Mozambique, first explored by Europeans in the late 15th century.
From about 1500, Portuguese trading posts and forts displaced the Arabic commercial and military hegemony, becoming regular ports of call on the new European sea route to the east.
The voyage of Vasco da Gama around the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 marked the Portuguese entry into trade, politics, and society of the region. The Portuguese gained control of the Island of Mozambique and the port city of Sofala in the early 16th century, and by the 1530s, small groups of Portuguese traders and prospectors seeking gold penetrated the interior regions, where they set up garrisons and trading posts at Sena and Tete on the River Zambezi and tried to gain exclusive control over the gold trade.
The Portuguese attempted to legitimise and consolidate their trade and settlement positions through the creation of prazos (land grants) tied to their settlement and administration. While prazos were originally developed to be held by Portuguese, through intermarriage they became African Portuguese or African Indian centres defended by large African slave armies known as Chikunda. Historically within Mozambique there was slavery.
Human beings were bought and sold by African tribal chiefs, Arab Muslim traders and Portuguese and other European traders as well. Many Mozambican slaves were supplied by tribal chiefs who raided warring tribes and sold their captives to the prazeiros.
Although Portuguese influence gradually expanded, its power was limited and exercised through individual settlers and officials who were granted extensive autonomy.
The Portuguese were able to wrest much of the coastal trade from Arab Muslims between 1500 and 1700, but, with the Arab Muslim seizure of Portugal’s key foothold at Fort Jesus on Mombasa Island (now in Kenya) in 1698, the pendulum began to swing in the other direction. As a result, investment lagged while Lisbon devoted itself to the more lucrative trade with India and the Far East and to the colonisation of Brazil.
During these wars, the Mazrui and Omani Arabs reclaimed much of the Indian Ocean trade, forcing the Portuguese to retreat south. Many prazos had declined by the mid-19th century, but several of them survived.
During the 19th century other European powers, particularly the British (British South Africa Company) and the French (Madagascar), became increasingly involved in the trade and politics of the region around the Portuguese East African territories.
Portuguese language printing and typesetting class, 1930
By the early 20th century the Portuguese had shifted the administration of much of Mozambique to large private companies, like the Mozambique Company, the Zambezia Company and the Niassa Company, controlled and financed mostly by the British, which established railroad lines to their neighbouring colonies (South Africa and Rhodesia).
Although slavery had been legally abolished in Mozambique, at the end of the 19th century the Chartered companies enacted a forced labour policy and supplied cheap often forced African labour to the mines and plantations of the nearby British colonies and South Africa. The Zambezia Company, the most profitable chartered company, took over a number of smaller prazeiro holdings, and established military outposts to protect its property.
The chartered companies built roads and ports to bring their goods to market including a railroad linking present day Zimbabwe with the Mozambican port of Beira.
Due to their unsatisfactory performance and the shift, under the corporatist Estado Novo regime of Oliveira Salazar, towards a stronger Portuguese control of Portuguese Empire’s economy, the companies’ concessions were not renewed when they ran out.
This was what happened in 1942 with the Mozambique Company, which however continued to operate in the agricultural and commercial sectors as a corporation, and had already happened in 1929 with the termination of the Niassa Company’s concession. In 1951, the Portuguese overseas colonies in Africa were rebranded as Overseas Provinces of Portugal.
Mozambican War of Independence (1964–1974)
As communist and anti-colonial ideologies spread out across Africa, many clandestine political movements were established in support of Mozambican independence.
These movements claimed that since policies and development plans were primarily designed by the ruling authorities for the benefit of Mozambique’s Portuguese population, little attention was paid to Mozambique’s tribal integration and the development of its native communities.
According to the official guerrilla statements, this affected a majority of the indigenous population who suffered both state-sponsored discrimination and enormous social pressure. Many felt they had received too little opportunity or resources to upgrade their skills and improve their economic and social situation to a degree comparable to that of the Europeans.
Statistically, Mozambique’s Portuguese whites were indeed wealthier and more skilled than the black indigenous majority. As a response to the guerrilla movement, the Portuguese government from the 1960s and principally the early 1970s initiated gradual changes with new socioeconomic developments and egalitarian policies for all.
The Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO) initiated a guerrilla campaign against Portuguese rule in September 1964. This conflict along with the two others already initiated in the other Portuguese colonies of Angola and Portuguese Guinea became part of the so-called Portuguese Colonial War (1961–1974).
From a military standpoint, the Portuguese regular army maintained control of the population centres while the guerrilla forces sought to undermine their influence in rural and tribal areas in the north and west.
As part of their response to FRELIMO, the Portuguese government began to pay more attention to creating favourable conditions for social development and economic growth.
FRELIMO took control of the territory after 10 years of sporadic warfare, as well as Portugal’s own return to democracy through a leftist military coup in Lisbon which replaced Portugal’s Estado Novo regime with a military junta (the Carnation Revolution of April 1974).
Within a year, most of the 250,000 Portuguese in Mozambique had left—some expelled by the government of the nearly independent territory, some fleeing in fear—and Mozambique became independent from Portugal on 25 June 1975.
A law had been passed on the initiative of the relatively unknown Armando Guebuza of the FRELIMO party, ordering the Portuguese to leave the country in 24 hours with only 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of luggage. Unable to salvage any of their assets, most of them returned to Portugal penniless.
Mozambican Civil War (1977–1992)
The new government under President Samora Machel established a one-party state based on Marxist principles. It received diplomatic and some military support from Cuba and the Soviet Union and proceeded to crack down on opposition. Starting shortly after the independence, the country was plagued from 1977 to 1992 by a long and violent civil war between the opposition forces of anti-Communist Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO) rebel militias and the FRELIMO regime.
This conflict characterised the first decades of Mozambican independence, combined with sabotage from the neighbouring states of Rhodesia and South Africa, ineffective policies, failed central planning, and the resulting economic collapse.
This period was also marked by the exodus of Portuguese nationals and Mozambicans of Portuguese heritage, a collapsed infrastructure, lack of investment in productive assets, and government nationalisation of privately owned industries, as well as widespread famine.
During most of the civil war, the FRELIMO-formed central government was unable to exercise effective control outside of urban areas, many of which were cut off from the capital. RENAMO-controlled areas included up to 50% of the rural areas in several provinces, and it is reported that health services of any kind were isolated from assistance for years in those areas.
The problem worsened when the government cut back spending on health care. The war was marked by mass human rights violations from both sides of the conflict, with RENAMO contributing to the chaos through the use of terror and indiscriminate targeting of civilians.
The central government executed tens of thousands of people while trying to extend its control throughout the country and sent many people to “re-education camps” where thousands died.
During the war, RENAMO proposed a peace agreement based on the secession of RENAMO-controlled northern and western territories as the independent Republic of Rombesia, but FRELIMO refused, insisting on the undivided sovereignty of the entire country.
An estimated one million Mozambicans perished during the civil war, 1.7 million took refuge in neighbouring states, and several million more were internally displaced.
The FRELIMO regime also gave shelter and support to South African (African National Congress) and Zimbabwean (Zimbabwe African National Union) rebel movements, while the governments of Rhodesia and later South Africa (at that time still apartheid) backed RENAMO in the civil war.
On 19 October 1986, Samora Machel was on his way back from an international meeting in Zambia in the presidential Tupolev Tu-134 aircraft when the plane crashed in the Lebombo Mountains near Mbuzini. There were ten survivors, but President Machel and thirty-three others died, including ministers and officials of the Mozambique government.
The United Nations’ Soviet delegation issued a minority report contending that their expertise and experience had been undermined by the South Africans. Representatives of the Soviet Union advanced the theory that the plane had been intentionally diverted by a false navigational beacon signal, using a technology provided by military intelligence operatives of the South African government.
Machel’s successor Joaquim Chissano implemented sweeping changes in the country, starting reforms such as changing from Marxism to capitalism, and began peace talks with RENAMO.
The new constitution enacted in 1990 provided for a multi-party political system, market-based economy, and free elections. The civil war ended in October 1992 with the Rome General Peace Accords, first brokered by the Christian Council of Mozambique (Council of Protestant Churches) and then taken over by Community of Sant’Egidio. Peace returned to Mozambique, under supervision of the ONUMOZ peacekeeping force of the United Nations.
By 1993, more than 1.5 million Mozambican refugees had returned who had sought asylum in neighbouring Malawi, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Zambia, Tanzania, and South Africa as a result of war and drought, as part of the largest repatriation witnessed in sub-Saharan Africa.
Democratic era (1993–present)
Mozambique held elections in 1994, which were accepted by most political parties as free and fair although still contested by many nationals and observers alike. FRELIMO won, under Joaquim Chissano, while RENAMO, led by Afonso Dhlakama, ran as the official opposition.
In 1995, Mozambique joined the Commonwealth of Nations, becoming, at the time, the only member nation that had never been part of the British Empire.
By mid-1995, over 1.7 million refugees who had sought asylum in neighbouring countries had returned to Mozambique, part of the largest repatriation witnessed in sub-Saharan Africa. An additional four million internally displaced persons had returned to their homes.
In December 1999, Mozambique held elections for a second time since the civil war, which were again won by FRELIMO. RENAMO accused FRELIMO of fraud, and threatened to return to civil war, but backed down after taking the matter to the Supreme Court and losing.
In early 2000, a cyclone caused widespread flooding in the country, killing hundreds and devastating the already precarious infrastructure. There were widespread suspicions that foreign aid resources have been diverted by powerful leaders of FRELIMO. Carlos Cardoso, a journalist investigating these allegations, was murdered, and his death was never satisfactorily explained.
Indicating in 2001 that he would not run for a third term, Chissano criticised leaders who stayed on longer than he had, which was generally seen as a reference to Zambian president Frederick Chiluba, who at the time was considering a third term, and Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, then in his fourth term. Presidential and National Assembly elections took place on 1–2 December 2004.
FRELIMO candidate Armando Guebuza won with 64% of the popular vote, while his opponent, Afonso Dhlakama of RENAMO, received 32% of the popular vote. FRELIMO won 160 seats in Parliament, with a coalition of RENAMO and several small parties winning the 90 remaining seats.
Guebuza was inaugurated as the President of Mozambique on 2 February 2005, and served two five-year terms. His successor, Filipe Nyusi, became the 4th President of Mozambique on 15 January 2015.
Since 2013, an insurgency by RENAMO has been occurring, mainly in the country’s central and northern regions. On 5 September 2014, former president Guebuza and the leader of RENAMO Dhlakama signed the Accord on Cessation of Hostilities, which brought the military hostilities to a halt and allowed both parties to concentrate on the general elections to be held in October 2014.
However, after the general elections, a new political crisis emerged and the country appears to be once again on the brink of violent conflict. RENAMO does not recognise the validity of the election results, and demands the control of six provinces – Nampula, Niassa, Tete, Zambezia, Sofala, and Manica – where they claim to have won a majority.
About 12,000 refugees are now in neighbouring Malawi. The UNHCR, Doctors without Borders, and Human Rights Watch have reported that government forces have torched villages and carried out summary executions and sexual abuses.