Sailing against the wind

A History of Mozambique
July 28, 1995

Malyn Newitt has lectured in history at the University of Exeter since 1965 while pursuing the study of Lusophone Africa and the unrelenting aggressions of imperial Portugal on the peoples of that vast region. His important and, until near its end, impressively competent book is a brave and innovative political history of Mozambique "since the beginning", but centrally in the formative period after 1500ad. This is what nobody had thought possible or had ventured to try before.

Newitt shows that such a venture is not only possible but very useful. In doing so he extends some of his previous work on the early Zambezi settlements and the ways in which Portuguese adventurers produced a notably specific range of ethnic mixtures for whose consequences their imperial bosses, back in Lisbon, were never more than vaguely prepared. And while it again seems true, after reading Newitt, that the whole Portuguese project in Africa was never able to become better than an obscure disaster, this same effort still bears witness to their dogged perseverance in trying to achieve some counterbalance to the sorrows visited upon them in Europe. The whole story is peculiar, and one of tragedy.

Its opening had seemed to promise otherwise. The courage and maritime skills behind the early Portuguese voyages, once they had mastered Indian Ocean techniques for sailing against the wind, have scarcely been written about, at least for non-specialists. Newitt opens his story with a perceptive section illuminating the abyss between the application of these skills with the open-eyed bravery required to exploit them, and the cultural and financial deficiencies that repeatedly undermined the men who followed where Cio and da Gama had led. The practised historian will not expect to find anything new here, but Newitt displays his own command of the field by doing what very few non-Portuguese-speaking writers have cared to try or known how to try: he adds an excellent glossary of Luso-African words only too seldom well explained or explained at all. He is also uniquely good on the cultural shape and character of what was becoming, by the 18th century, a specific form of settlement and human adjustment: in short, the post-medieval and early imperialist development of the muzungu, or "Afro-Portuguese" who, as Newitt well explains, "were as much African as Portuguese".

The muzungu supplied the backbone or sometimes the whole skeleton of "Portuguese presence" in these southern lands, whether in Mozambique or Angola or Guinea. They were "sons of the country" but also more than that, having cultural ties and understandings that lifted them out of an otherwise African obscurity; and Newitt is again right when depicting them as far more than "a collaborating class propping up an alien imperial system". They were often dismissed, in Eurocentric ignorance, as "half-castes" without "a real stake in Africa", but the evidence, on the contrary, is that "the Afro-Portuguese dominate the history of Mozambique": they were "the local instruments of expanding mercantile capitalism but they were also one of the instruments by which Africa resisted for so long the economic domination of the outside world". They put up "the most formidable resistance to the new imperialism in the 19th century, but they were also the agents through which conquest and domination were eventually achieved. They were one of the pathways whereby Portuguese language and culture were transmitted"; but "they were also the heart of the nationalist movement" that destroyed imperialist rule.

All this is brilliantly said and worked through in detail down to the collapse of the monarchy and the rise of a would-be modernising Portuguese republic. This period of a new imperialism occupies the latter half of a formidable book; but by the emergence of the Salazarist state, around 1930, Newitt is losing his enthusiasm and sympathy with his material. He stays close to the archives, but now it shows in a negative sense. Even within his timid apprehension of their factual implications, African realities are withdrawn into the histrionic shadows of a brutal simulacrum of Italian Fascism, and what remains is little else than a sanitised record of late-imperialist miseries. One sees this in Newitt's handling of the cotton-growing policies of the Salazarist state. With their merciless use of forced labour together with dictated buying prices these policies were in some sense good for the "mother country". They ensured cheap clothing in Portugal. But they were horribly bad for African peasant producers. Not for nothing did these "cotton peasants", as their folklore copiously tells us, curse the fruits of their sweated labour. They called them "the mother of poverty". But Newitt's vapid comment is merely that "forced cotton growing brought its own problems for the African population" - not unlike telling us that Stalin's gulag legions had their little difficulties now and then.

This gruesome blandness is followed by the remark that the cotton-concessionary companies - who practically did no work themselves - could make substantial profits only where forced labour proved available. Among comments generally celebrating the supposed success of this growing of cotton, it is one that reads strangely.

By this time, unsurprisingly, the author's handling of the last imperial years follows a similar tone. His evident distaste for anti-imperial revolt, as in the case of Frelimo, Mozambique's national movement, prevents him from reaching the sensitivity manifest in the writings of fellow Lusophonist historians such as Isaacman and Munslow. Running out of patience, he loses the inwardness and drive of the Mozambican cause but stays with his polite treatment of the Salazarist project, notably when writing of its out-fought and out-thought military star, General Kaulza de Arriaga. He sees that the Mozambican leader Samora Machel deployed a "master-stroke" in the last phase, but entirely fails to explain why it was indeed a master-stroke. What destroyed de Arriaga (in everything except his vanity) was not any lack of military information, but his Fascist outlook. He despised his African opponents, and duly bit the dust.

Little of any of this can be gathered from Newitt's many concluding pages, where his account would have been better done by a competent journalist; and one has to feel that this normally conscientious writer would have been well advised to end his story before the empire faded. Compared with his memorable early and middle chapters, the book dwindles into insignificance. There is a general point here.

A "Whig approach" to the conduct and credentials of this imperialism might well incur a latterday reproach for "subjectivity": as that G. M. Trevelyan would have been better if he had not nourished a love for Garibaldi. But Newitt's preference on the "Tory" side comes through as a sore refusal of any clear stance on the great issues, historiographically still more than morally, with which his whole book is unavoidably involved. And this is a kind of abdication.

Basil Davidson is a British historian who since 1950 has specialised in the affairs of tropical Africa.

A History of Mozambique

Author - Malyn Newitt
ISBN - 1 85065 171 X and 172 8
Publisher - Hurst
Price - £35.00 and £16.50
Pages - 679

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