Children play on the beach in front of the old Arab fort on Ibo Island, built to defend the slave trade. Slavery continued here long after it had been outlawed in the rest of Africa, as the shallow reef waters around the islands kept out British warships.
Mozambique – Been There

The dark history of an African paradise

Photo by Zute Lightfoot

Mozambique – Been There The dark history of an African paradise

The graveyard of Ibo in Mozambique holds the remains of the Indian, Chinese, Arabic, Portuguese and French who died here at the center of a trade network based on cargoes of spice, ivory, amber and slaves. It supplied slaves to the French plantations on Mauritius and Reunion, while Indians and Chinese came from the Portuguese colonies of Goa and Macau.

Daniel Allen
Daniel Allen

Fading colonial mansions, their pastel colors faded in the sun, line the main street, watched over by ornate street lamps rusted to hollow shells by the salt air. Only the bright whitewash of the 16th-century Catholic church, its thick walls planted solidly in the red African earth, shines bright. The once-elegant houses hark back to the 1800s, when Ibo was part of a chain of trading posts along this Indian Ocean coastline, their names redolent of history: Lamu, Mombasa, Zanzibar…

By the time slavery was banned at the end of the 19th century, the island’s decline had already begun and its population plummeted from 37,000 to just 3,500 in 2006. With those days of wealth long gone, most Quirimbas islanders now scratch a living from subsistence level fishing and agriculture, and life expectancy hovers around 40 years.

On the ramparts of Fort de São João Baptista, squat cannons jut impotently toward the ocean. The walls of this star-shaped stronghold once held huge numbers of slaves, captured on the mainland and shackled together in stygian squalor for weeks on end, destined for the plantations of Mauritius, Reunion and even Brazil.

It is easy to visualize them huddled in the dank rooms below, bewildered and pain-stricken, and hard to reconcile the beauty of this Indian Ocean landscape with the callous greed that dragged these poor souls so far from home.

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Fortaleza de Sao Joao Baptista is the largest and best preserved of the three Portuguese forts on Ibo Island. It has a dark history as a slave prison and a place of torture by the Portuguese secret police until 1974 during Mozambique's war of independence. Photo by John Warburton-Lee / Alamy

John Warburton-Lee

John Warburton-Lee

Agency
Alamy

Fortaleza de Sao Joao Baptista is the largest and best preserved of the three Portuguese forts on Ibo Island. It has a dark history as a slave prison and a place of torture by the Portuguese secret police until 1974 during Mozambique's war of independence.

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