Allina on Newitt, 'A Short History of Mozambique'

Malyn Newitt
Eric Allina

Malyn Newitt. A Short History of Mozambique. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. 224 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-084742-5.

Reviewed by Eric Allina (University of Ottawa) Published on H-Luso-Africa (August, 2018) Commissioned by Philip J. Havik (Instituto de Higiene e Medicina Tropical (IHMT))

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Longue Durée, Short History

At first I thought Malyn Newitt’s A Short History of Mozambique--the latest from the same scholar who produced the solid-as-a-brick and nearly six-hundred-page History of Mozambique (1995)--would be hard to review. What could he say that he has not said before, and how would I say something fresh about ground so well covered? I should not have worried. Newitt is too fine a historian to produce anything less than a well-paced and original overview.

Readers unfamiliar with the history of Mozambique (or of Africa more generally) may begin with a question: how did the country acquire its borders, which give it in outline the form of a “y” spun 180 degrees through a plane? Newitt may have had these readers in mind with the jigsaw metaphor he uses through the first six chapters. He shows the formation of each piece of the whole, describing how forces rooted in southeast Africa collided with shocks generated from across the oceans, together making Mozambique as we know it today. Along the way he foregrounds some recurrent elements in the national history: the enduring strength of trade and migratory movements binding each of the country’s regions (northern, central, and southern) to their neighbors; the importance of environmental factors, especially for agrarian economic life; and the manner in which assimilatory dynamics have long been at work, domesticating cosmopolitan ideas and practices in the fabric of everyday life. He also reminds us of periodic shocks that threaten to pull the whole apart.

Chapters 2 through 6 take us from the sixteenth century up to independence in about 120 pages. Do they cover absolutely everything? No. Do they leave out anything crucial to understanding these five-hundred-odd years? No, again. No small achievement. Those who know the rough outlines of southern Africa will encounter familiar characters and events: Monomotapa, the Zimba, the prazeros and chicunda, David Livingstone, Gungunhana, the Berlin conference, the rose-colored map, diamond and gold strikes, Cecil Rhodes, the Ultimatum of 1891, and António Salazar’s New State. As expected from the author of a classic on the Afro-Asian-European history of the Zambezi valley, Newitt is especially strong illustrating how this hybrid history and society emerged, and why it was important.[1] For those who imagine that European arrival equaled dominance, he sets the record straight: “it was not the consequence” of Lisbon’s mostly unsuccessful efforts to seize control that introduced radical change, but rather how the Portuguese helped open “the way for the expansion of Indian merchant capital” (p. 29).

Newitt uses his jigsaw metaphor to great effect. When Omani forces captured Mombasa in 1698, they ended nearly two centuries of Portuguese adventuring along the northern reaches of the Swahili coast and fixed Cabo Delgado (currently the maritime border with Tanzania) as the northern frontier of Lisbon’s sway, putting into place the “first piece in the jigsaw that eventually built modern Mozambique” (p. 27). The second piece slotted into place about fifty years later, when Portugal severed its east African settlements from its Asian possessions, creating a separate seat of government at Mozambique Island and putting all the Portuguese ambitions between Cabo Delgado in the north and Delagoa Bay in the south under a single authority. The final puzzle piece fits in around the middle third of the nineteenth century, when post-mfecane (a term Newitt does not use) forces helped establish the Gaza state, which brought all the territory between the Zambezi and the Limpopo Rivers under a single ruler, “another important step on the historical path towards the creation of the modern state of Mozambique” (p. 58).

This is an impressive act of narration, one that speaks to a touchstone debate in histories of Africa: the matter of border-making, and the idea that “colonial powers drew Africa’s frontiers with scant regard for local circumstances” (p. 93). Newitt points out that the northern extent of Portugal’s sovereignty had been marked for almost two centuries, and rather than a high imperial imposition, was the product of local, regional, and transoceanic forces involving African, Arabian, and European actors. In the middle of the country, borders set in the 1890s left intact old commercial routes connecting coastal lowlands to the Lake Malawi basin, as they did Zambezi valley trade routes forged by African, Afro-Euro-Asians, and Portuguese. And in the south, the borders largely traced the extent of Gaza's power. None of these boundaries had been as fixed as they became, but they reflected historical realities that had long shaped societies of the region. The end result, a “jigsaw-like interlocking of territory … meant that Mozambique’s future was inextricably bound up with that of its neighbors” (p. 94).

Newitt whisks his readers through the colonial period with fifty pages, explaining the nearly anarchic patchwork of authorities (state and chartered companies) that governed the colony through the Great Depression and Second World War. The growth of plantation agriculture, the drain of migrant labor to South African industry, internal forced labor recruitment, and the mercantilist character of Antonio Salazar’s New State policy all get attention. Newitt also elucidates Portugal’s resilient attachment to its colonies, resistant to the “wind of change” of which UK Prime Minister Harold MacMillan spoke in 1960, with a quote from Salazar’s successor, Marcelo Caetano: “Without [Africa] we would be a small nation, with it we are a great country” (p. 121).

The book’s final three chapters cover independence and the war that followed, postwar recovery, and prevailing social and economic conditions in contemporary Mozambique. These fifty-some years are known in outline, while the nuanced depths are less clear (for some of the reasons Stephen Ellis suggested, in general terms, but also more specifically because of what Anne Pitcher calls “forgetting from above” and the effect of the “liberation script,” as João Paulo Borges Coelho has dubbed the official and dominant version of independence-era history[2]). This is territory where history and politics overlap, above all in contests to own “the narrative of the past” (p. 174). Newitt hints at the latter, in mentioning the “intense study, debate and disagreement” (p. 173) that characterizes work on this period, and some of that disagreement runs through these chapters, albeit obliquely.

It is impossible to separate the decades preceding and following independence in 1975 from Cold War politics; this is as true for the historiography as for the history. Newitt gives much greater attention to Frelimo’s (the country’s governing party derives its name from the Portuguese acronym for Frente da Libertação de Moçambique) errors and outright bad actions than to the equally real, if short-lived, successes in the expansion of education and healthcare to the majority population (these get all of one sentence, on p. 160). One can argue, with some basis, that the mistakes were of longer-lasting consequence than the successes, though this is true at least in part because a war as destructive as the one Mozambique saw in the 1980s must leave deep and lasting marks. Still, one could also argue that it is too soon to weigh the relative effects. The coming years may tell us, as the youth of the independence era continue to step into positions of power and influence.

I do not mean the effect will necessarily make first president Samora Machel’s modernizing Marxist plans look better. Yet it is hard to separate Newitt’s reading of this history from politicizing Cold War tensions, and occasional phrasing about the “bankruptcy” of Frelimo’s innovations (p. 176) or its “Marxist clothing” does not help (p. 185). Cold War tensions are not done with us yet.

Two subjects run through the book’s final chapters and both are of tremendous importance for understanding Mozambique and its future. The first stems from Newitt’s longue durée perspective: he points out that regional identities (southern, central, northern) in Mozambique are more salient than ethnic ones. To what extent can we attribute this to the long-standing regional connections that Newitt so skillfully draws through the book like a red thread? Or, how much responsibility might we attribute to Frelimo’s style of governance and effort to build a national identity? The years ahead may bring clarification, especially as halting moves toward decentralization of government appear to be gathering momentum.

The other question concerns relations with the international donor and development communities, which one could conceivably see as a twenty-first-century iteration of long-standing oceanic connections. Newitt refers to the “advantage” Mozambique has enjoyed in the “goodwill and active support of the international community” (p. 176). Many Mozambicans have benefited from aid and assistance provided by United Nations agencies as well as other international organizations and national governments. Still, as Newitt points out, the support may allow for “elite bargaining” (p. 180) that permits Frelimo and Renamo--the two political parties that mostly call the shots domestically--to overlook the interests of the majority.[3] He also suggests that certain overseas influences, such as policy prescriptions, and the country’s constitution (p. 181) have not produced the intended results, at least in the terms articulated--for example, substantive democracy or bolstering of the rural economy. How should this relationship change, if the goal is for more Mozambicans to become better-off?

These are big questions that require answers longer than a short history, or a longish review, can provide. They are also questions that could usefully be asked elsewhere in Africa, and the world. I hope this book gets widely read, provoking more questions.


[1]. Newitt, Portuguese Settlement on the Zambesi: Exploration, Land Tenure and Colonial Rule in East Africa (New York: Africana Press, 1973).

[2]. Stephen Ellis, “Writing Histories of Contemporary Africa,” Journal of African History 43, no. 1 (2002): 1-26; M. Anne Pitcher, “Forgetting from Above and Memory from Below: Strategies of Legitimation and Struggle in Postsocialist Mozambique,” Africa 76, no. 1 (2006): 88-112; João Paulo Borges Coelho, “Politics and Contemporary History in Mozambique: A Set of Epistemological Notes,” Kronos 39 (2013): 20-31.

[3]. My phrasing here is guided by Joseph Hanlon, Mozambique: Who Calls the Shots? (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991).

Citation: Eric Allina. Review of Newitt, Malyn, A Short History of Mozambique. H-Luso-Africa, H-Net Reviews. August, 2018. URL:

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