East Afrika has a long history of international trade. This history includes an almost constant succession of influence and conquest by outsiders. Mozambique, on the southeastern coast of the continent and today listed no.14 in the top 20 poorest countries on Earth, has over the centuries experienced a myriad of predatory encroachments by ‘foreign nationals’, which has obviously shaped the events, ways of life and psychology of the peoples living within its borders.
From the perspective of history, the interactions that went on in that part of the world would more often than not begin with the intention of trade and swiftly degenerated under the pressure of greed, to end with poverty, enslavement, war, abuse and occupation. The most notable foreign players in the region have included Hindus, Swahilis, Arabs, the British and perhaps most notoriously, the Portuguese.
Like many of the states of Afrika, Mozambique as a nation should be considered to be a conglomerate of diverse peoples. The Makua, the Yao, the Shangaan and the Gaza Shona are just some of the tribes that were bandied together under a western endorsed colonialism whose politics were motivated mostly by economics. These tribes had inhabited the region for millennia, some times at peace and some times at war; by no means a single, unified state.
There was an economic depression in 1873. It was known as the Great Depression until the stock market events of the 1920s relieved it of the title, and is now known as the Panic of 1873. It was not the first economic slump of modernity, but a crisis from which the European powers emerged determined to consolidate their control over the resources to be found throughout the ‘uncivilized’ world. This recession is a mere footnote in the timeline of modern history, but marks the beginnings of the final epoch and most concerted efforts of ‘classical colonialism’ in Afrika.
It might seem like an unnecessarily lofty expression to refer to colonialism as classical, but the name refers to the events that were shaped in part by the Congress of Berlin, a conference that took place between 1884 and 1885. In this meeting, the nations of Europe negotiated the partitioning of Afrika according to certain rules and agendas. Sometimes referred to as the “Scramble for Africa,” this was a systematic and strategic grab at the resources of the continent, including in this definition the ‘reserves of labor’ for plantations, mines and light industry. The “pacification” and “effective control” of regional populations were prerequisites for unilateral recognition of territories under any colonial power.
With one of the longest coastlines of Afrika, Mozambique had long offered access to the eastern interior of the continent. Climbing inland from the coast, up the eastern escarpment of the continent into the highlands running between the rivers Limpopo and Zambezi, great empires had been shaping the region for centuries.
The Kingdom of Mapungubwe (1075-1220) is the earliest known precursor; a city-state in the region where the kingdom of Venda is today. It is assumed that through a series of expansions, Mapungubwe gave rise to the Kingdom of Zimbabwe (1220-1450) perhaps the most famous of these southeast Afrikan empires, for the impressive stone structures that still stand amongst the ruins of the capital, Great Zimbabwe.
The Muenemutapa Empire is believed to have existed in these inland regions from circa 1400, and the Malawi Confederation saw the rise of a second major Afrikan Empire in the region. These were monarchies, which ruled by divine right and controlled extensive trading monopoly networks in gold and ivory. Their downfall was mainly the result of European military campaigns, intrigues and incursions, which culminated in the destruction of both empires by the early 19th Century.
Prior to that, the Swahilis and Hindus were the principal agents who were economically active along the shoreline. “Swahili traders moving south from the port city of Kilwa [Kisiwani, in Tanzania] had, by the middle of the fifteenth century, established a string of permanent commercial and religious sultanates along the [northern] Mozambican coast… The establishment of Swahili [trade] enclaves marked the beginning of the centuries-long process of incorporating Mozambique into a wider world economy. It also permitted the exploitation of Mozambique by foreign merchant capitalists whose profit margin from successful ventures was often several hundred percent… Swahili commercial hegemony was almost immediately challenged by the Portuguese, who moved into the Indian Ocean around 1500.” (p13-14) Allen and Barbara Isaacman (1983) Mozambique: From Colonialism to Revolution, 1900 – 1982. UK: Gower Publishing Company.
In the 20th Century, the nation experienced over 25 years of cold war and apartheid-sponsored violence. The majority of scholars accrue this long history of unbalanced interactions to Mozambique’s current poverty.