In 1498, Vasco de Gama arrived in Ilha and built a Portuguese fort out of blocks of the coral reef surrounding the island, claiming the territory for Portugal.
The island was a major Arab port and boat building centre long before Vasco da Gama. The name of the island Moçambique, in Portuguese is derived from Musa Al Big, an Arab trader who first visited the island and later lived there.
This name was subsequently taken to the mainland country which is modern day Mozambique, and the island was renamed Ilha de Moçambique (Island of Mozambique). The Portuguese established a port and naval base in 1507, and built the Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte (The Chapel of our Lady of the Bulwarks), in 1522, now considered the oldest European building in the southern hemisphere.
Although Ilha is less than three kilometers long, it has a population of over 14,000 people. Natural beauty and incomprehensible squalor coexist side-by-side on this tiny island. Ilha’s many restaurants offer an interesting fusion of cuisine.
Traditional Matapa (the green leaves of a staple tuber cooked with local cashew nuts), curries, fresh seafood, and Portuguese style dishes predominate. Pizza and French-inspired foods can be found as well, and fresh fruit is plentiful. The island is also an architectural wonder.
Mozambique Island’s largest and oldest building is St. Sebastiao, a solid 12-metre-high colossus on the northern tip of the island that was built nearly 400 years ago. Here the defenders placed 400 cannons all pointing towards the Indian Ocean in readiness for an attack.
The fort remained impenetrable and even the mighty Dutch were repelled in 1607 and again in 1608 and remained a major post for the Portuguese on their trips to India. Within its high walls is, constructed The Chapel of our Lady of the Bulwarks.
The rest of the island is a maze of narrow streets hemmed by tall buildings with a bustling harbor and market. Of particular interest is the 7th century palace museum, crammed with old cannons, muskets, sedan chairs and other memorabilia gathered by the Portuguese colonialists from round the world.
Small museums offer a glimpse into the island’s colorful past. For example, the governor’s palace is furnished with beautiful carved furniture from Goa, India. Moreover, the natural beauty of the area is breathtaking. The teal and blues of the water are calm and inviting.
During the sixteenth century, the Fort São Sebastião was built, and the Portuguese settlement (now known as Stone Town) became the capital of Portuguese East Africa.
The island also became an important missionary centre and is now a World Heritage Site. Apart from the ancient fortifications, only half of the town is stone-built. The hospital, a majestic neo-classical building constructed in 1877 by the Portuguese, with a garden decorated with ponds and fountains, was repainted white after the Mozambican Civil War. For many years it was the biggest hospital south of the Sahara.
With the opening of the Suez Canal, the island’s fortunes waned since ships going to east Africa, india and the far east no longer had to go around Africa thereby passing by the island. Instead they passed through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal and into the Atlantic Ocean hence shortening the sea journey drastically.
In 1898, the capital was relocated to Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) on the mainland. By the middle of the twentieth century, the new harbor of Nacala took most of the remaining business.
Today, despite the island’s poverty, there are several very comfortable guest houses and small hotels that have reasonable rates. The island rich in culture and history, Ilha de Mozambique is a truly unique place; a place of pizza and curries, vibrant markets and soiled beaches, medieval architecture and shanty towns.