Bandit County

Posted on August 25, 2015 in Essays

Review of Malyn Newitt, A History of Mozambique (Hurst & Co., 1995)

Can Mozambique at last become a nation- state? Now that the war is over, the elections accepted as free and fair, the peace process and refugee-resettlement process still on course, can this war-torn Y-shape on the map of south-east Africa set about “forging” national unity? The question is pertinent whether you believe with the established commentator on Mozambique, Joe Hanlon, that the forces of disruption have all been external – Portuguese colonialism, South African destabilization, the neo-imperialism of the aid industry – or like Malyn Newitt, that some level of “intervention” will continue to be necessary to overcome the disruptive pressures within.

It is a long time since Mozambique was left alone. When the Portuguese arrived in the late fifteenth century, they found that Swahili traders had already occupied the tiny island which eventually gave its name to the whole colony. As the poet Luis de Camoes reconstructed the encounter: “We”, one of the islanders responded, “Are not of this place or superstition /Those who belong here are suckled by Nature / Without religion or understanding.”

The comment indicates the first of Newitt’s difficulties in writing the 500-year history of this territory, namely bridging the gap between the words of the “history-makers” and the realities they were caught up in. These Swahili traders of Mozambique Island, Arab by extraction and Muslim by religion, were thoroughly “Africanized”. They were linked by marriage and descent to the lineages of the territorial chiefs along the trading routes of the interior, spoke a creole already more “Bantu” than Arabic, and appeared to the Portuguese virtually indistinguishable from the African peoples of the coast.

Initially, the Portuguese were interested in Mozambique only as a stepping-stone to India and the spice trade. Faced with the difficulties of financing that trade, they tried to locate and capture the gold mines of Manica in the interior. When the gold supply failed to come up to expectations, they dealt in ivory and, eventually and inevitably, in slaves. As early as the mid-sixteenth century, “two competing trading systems began to emerge”.

Captains, appointed triennially in Lisbon to administer royal monopolies in gold and ivory, were, in effect, given three years to make their personal fortunes by “what can best be described as asset-stripping activities”. As they enforced and extended their monopolies, all other trade the normal commercial activity of an African coast became technically contraband, opening a conflict which turned to warfare in the nineteenth century, as Portuguese armies had to reconquer territory from people who called themselves “Portuguese”.

But there are difficulties in talking of “Africanization”. The word was first applied to Mozambique by Allen Isaacman in his Mozambique: The Africanization of a European institution: the Zambezi Prazos: 1750-1902 (1972). The title suggested African initiative in the making of history, successful cultural resistance to political and economic domination, with the colonizers compelled to acknowledge the superiority of African institutions. The actual text, however, indicated that being “African” involved warlordism, witchcraft, polygamy on a massive scale and slave-trading. Something of this problem, though acknowledged and articulated, attends Newitt’s description of the process of Africanization. He emphasizes the African origins and social structure of towns like Sofala, Sena, Tete and Quelimane, together with the principal feiras or trading centres. He has fascinating things to say about the distinction between the gold trade which, such as it was, could be appropriated through simple conquest, and the ivory trade which demanded mutual co-operation. He insists on the pivotal rote of the Afro-Portuguese community, known locally as muzungos.

Yet throughout this book, these figures are also described as bandits, warlords, conquistadores, bandidos, stockade-holders, and even pirates. From Diogo Simoes Madeira, who seized the chieftaincy of Inhabanzo from Monomotapa in 1607, to Manuel Antonio de Sousa, who in the 1860s created the polity which was eventually to become the Companhia de Mocambique, Newitt insists on a pattern to Mozambique’s history, a “predatory culture of raiding”, in which even the prazo system of the Zambesi valley, for all its apparent stability and longevity, was no more than “institutionalized banditry”. It is an argument which enables him to convert Renamo’s brutalities of the 1980s to the country’s “traditions of banditry”, and to comment in respect of Moraes Pereira’s classic account of the rise of the bandit Macambe in 1752 that “it might almost be a description of a Renamo warband of the 1980s”.

The logic of this is centred in Mozambique’s “frail agricultural base”, always prone to drought with its concomitants of famine, smallpox and locusts, coupled with inherently unstable patterns of African settlement patrilineal in the south, but unable to maintain large chieftaincies because of the unsuitability of the land for cattle-rearing, and matrilineal in the north, with tiny scattered villages and tensions between female control of resources and male political power. The bandits, in short, appear to be invaders, but their banditry is best understood as an accommodation to local conditions.

This is the story told in the first two-thirds of this book, which focus on Mozambique before its modern boundaries were established in 1890. The themes are “integration” and “disintegration”, and Newitt relishes to the full Mozambique’s capacity to make fools of anyone trying to impose the simpler paradigms of African historiography (resistance, state-formation, underdevelopment, class). There is no single “story”, rather the separate, sometimes interlocking, sometimes mutually destructive relationships of the raiders and the raided Muslim, Portuguese, Afro-Portuguese and a dozen different African polities. The forces of integration are Catholicism and Islam, international trade, the colonial structures of the Estado da India and, periodically, the rise of African kingdoms under Karanga, Tonga, Maravi and Nguni chiefs. The forces of disintegration are drought and famine, small-scale settlement patterns with low levels of technology and, of course, banditry with its accompanying trade in slaves. This does not necessarily all happen within Mozambique’s modern boundaries; Newitt includes the tiny Colonia de Sao Luis, founded by the trader Joao Albasini, today part of the Transvaal, while one of the greatest African “successes” was the resistance of the Karonga to Portuguese penetration, which makes them today part of Zimbabwe’s, not Mozambique’s history. Yet Livingstone’s observations of the region in 1858 were not markedly dissimilar from those of a certain Father Monclaro in 1570.

The Mozambique which came into being in 1890 was in no sense “a state”. It had no administrative or legal system, no public revenues or communications, no services and was largely unmapped. The boundaries to the north and south-east had some historical validity, but the rest were the arbitrary outcome of the Ultimatum and the Scramble, with Portugal for the most part denied what she had a better claim to than any other colonial power. But Portugal was in no condition to create an administration or invest in the economy. Well over half of the territory was sub-leased to companies, financed by British and Belgian capital, who administered, policed, taxed, monopolized trade and extracted labour by force from the territories chartered to them, subject to decisions made at head offices in London, Paris, Monaco, Durban and (nominally) Lisbon.

Until 1930, travelling round Mozambique involved negotiating a crazy patchwork of mini-states, each with its own administration, currency and customs barriers. Not until 1941, when the last of the company charters lapsed, was Mozambique for the first time governed as a single entity.

The new Mozambican government of 1975, Frelimo, inherited an almost equally fragile state. Military roads had been built linking north and south, the Zambesi was bridged by road for the first time and the economy had expanded rapidly in the 1960s under the impact of the huge investment in Cabora Bassa.

But it remained largely hostage to white-ruled South Africa and Southern Rhodesia, while “government”, in the guise of administration, law and taxation, was regarded almost universally with suspicion. Meanwhile, Frelimo’s definition of its task aggravated a delicate situation. It was Eduardo Mondlane, Frelimo’s founder, who first attempted to define a prototype independent Mozambique.

Unable to deploy myths of pre-colonial empires (as in Ghana or Malawi), or of ethnic unity (as in Lesotho or Swaziland) or of an indigenous socialism (as in Tanganyika and Zambia), Mondlane emphasized that what Mozambicans had in common was the exploitation of their labour in a regional capitalist system. It was a theme that resonated with his first constituency of labour migrants. But the Marxist-Leninist paradigm implicit in this analysis led Frelimo, on assuming power, to declare a new war against “the internal enemy” whites who owned or were the comprador face of capitalist interests, Catholic intellectuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses, traditional rulers and the country’s cash-cropping peasantry, and (in effect) the black and mestico working class tens of thousands of whom left for Portugal. Though such follies were soon abandoned, South Africa’s war of destabilization against Mozambique, which created the guerrilla group Renamo, had by then been launched.

Newitt has taken many years to write his long book, as he has wrestled with his own problem of making “sense” of Mozambique in a language few of its inhabitants speak. His solution, which works admirably, is to blend conventional chronologies of conquest and trade with leisurely descriptive essays on towns, the prazos and labour migration, which move from region to region and are illuminated throughout with a rich haul of detailed incident. It is skilfully done, both ironic and melancholic, with surprisingly little repetition, and with some memorable turns of phrase. My single major reservation is the paucity of African voices, particularly for the past 150 years, for which an abundance of testimony is available.

Perhaps, too, the conclusion is unnecessarily pessimistic. This may seem an ungracious thing to say of a book written in the shadow of unremitting atrocities, while the rise of a new guerrilla movement, the Chimwenjes, targeting Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU, may appear to confirm the worst. But this history appears at a time when Mozambique has, for the first time ever, an elected, experienced government, friendly neighbours and a well-disposed international community. In a country riddled with land-mines, there is talk of hope. Arguably, it was Mozambique’s most recent drought of 1992 which led to the peace process. The power vacuum, created by Frelimo’s weakness and by Renamo’s loss of its agricultural base, was occupied by ordinary peasants demanding an end to the fighting (the so-called “people’s peace”). Most of the refugee- and land-resettlement programmes have been carried out spontaneously without the intervention of the NGOs officially responsible. There is not a great deal in A History of Mozambique about the capacity of African cultural practices to settle rather than to dislocate; however, an elegant, sober, comprehensive “history” has been written which will surely stand for a generation.

First published Times Literary Supplement, 8 March 1996.