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3 amazing things connecting Ilha de Mozambique with South Africa

History: Ilha de Mozambique was the first choice for a Dutch settlement in Africa – long before Cape Colony. The history of Southern African would have unfolded in a very different way had the Dutch succeeded in ousting the Portuguese.

Nature: The Humpback whales that you see from South Africa were born in the waters off Ilha de Mozambique. It’s one of only about 12 humpback whale birthing sites in the Southern Hemisphere.

Archeology: Ilha de Mozambique and Cape Town are linked by the voyage of the Sáo José, a slave ship that left Mozambique Island and was wrecked off Cape Town with huge loss of life. This tragic story will take centre stage in Washington’s African American Museum.

History. On 29 March 1607, nine Dutch ships appeared off the shore of Ilha de Moçambique, causing the Portuguese inhabitants to withdraw to the fort. The Dutch navy landed on the island and occupied it for about a month, but were unable to capture the fort and eventually withdrew on 13 May.

A year later, the Dutch returned to Ilha de Moçambique with a formidable fleet of 13 ships carrying 377 guns and 1,840 men. Again the Dutch seized the island, and again, three months after landing, they were forced to withdraw, incapable of capturing the fort.

One can only speculate but, had São Sebastião been a less imposing building, Ilha de Moçambique would almost certainly have fallen into Dutch hands in 1607–08, a power shift that would have had incalculable ramifications on the eventual course of southern African history. Had the Dutch East India Company decided to adopt Ilha de Moçambique as a regional base c1607, then it seems unlikely that it would have established the outpost on Table Bay that eventually became Cape Town. (Modified from the Bradt Guide to Mozambique)

Nature. The sheltered waters off Ilha de Mozambique is the only birthing site for humpback whales on the East African coast. Whales make the 8,000km round trip from Antartica to Ilha every year to give birth here.

The humpback whales arrive in July and continue their spectacular display of breaching and tail slapping the surface throughout their 3 months stay. This is part of the courtship display and also an important aspect of communication and bonding. Females usually give birth in August and remain close to Ilha for around 6 weeks while the calf grows and builds up its strength for the journey back down the African coast. It’s during this period that patient whale watchers get the chance to calmly observe the mother and calf interacting.

Archeology. The Portuguese slave ship Sáo José sailed from Ilha de Mozambique on December 27th, 1794 with 500 captive Mozambicans on board. It was on its way to Maranháo in Brazil but never made it. Three weeks after setting off the ship ran onto reef in a storm close to the cape. 2012 lives were lost.

The Sáo José was sailing towards Cape Town hoping to resupply there, but a strong southeasterly wind prevented the crew from gaining safe anchorage at Table Bay. They decided to wait out the storm in the hope of better conditions.

“…at two o’clock in the morning, as they sought to re-secure anchors belatedly found to have been dragging, the ship struck a rock and began taking water while, according to the Captain, under a well-known landmark: the Lion’s Head”.

The wreck of the Sáo José was identified off Clifton beach in 2013

The story of the Sáo José will feature in the Slave Wrecks Project in Washington’s African American Museum. Already a lot of work has been done to recover as much information as possible, both from the wreck and from archival records. On Ilha de Mozambique an underwater archeological centre has been established inside the Fortress to present this and other slave wreck accounts.


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