Marine Cultural Heritage in Northern Mozambique

By Colin Breen

At the end of April I again travelled to Mozambique, in support of a number of forthcoming Rising from the Depths projects. The particular focus of the visit was the spectacular world heritage site of Ilha de la Mozambique, a small island off the coast that served as a major trading centre in the Western Indian Ocean. It became the centre for Portuguese trading activities in this region, and was strongly linked with the slave trade. The island contains a rich array of historic buildings including forts and churches, but also has an extraordinary shipwreck resource, with dozens of late and post medieval wreck sites known. Unfortunately, many of these were subject to pillaging during the 1990s and 2000s, as commercial treasure hunters ravaged what is probably the most important collection of historic wreck sites anywhere in the world. Local archaeologists, under the direction of Ricardo Duarte, and supported by the community, have set up a research centre in the ancient fortress on the island, supported by US Ambassador Funds, to conduct new and exciting work on this underwater resource. The Rising from the Depths network has funded a project led jointly by Duarte and Wes Forsythe at Ulster University, Marine Cultural Heritage in Northern Mozambique, which aims to further extend this work through an integrated marine survey examining past and present sea-level and environmental change. This will be an immersive project, engaging with communities across the island, and adjacent coastal areas, to develop more robust understandings of environmental change in the area, and to further develop community resilience and adaptation strategies in light of these changes.

Ilha de Mozambique

Our visit was particularly opportune as we arrived at the same time as Cyclone Kenneth hit the northern coast of the country. This was the second major storm event to hit this coast this year, and its intensity, duration and associated level of flooding has been linked to climate change by meteorologists. While the damage to the Ilha and nearby mainland was limited to a degree of flooding, there was significant loss of life and infrastructural damage further north. Its impact highlighted the contribution our projects will make towards strengthening communities, and understanding the myriad of challenges they face. Time and time again local people expressed their anger to us about how the Global North bears primary responsibility for these changes, given Mozambique’s perceived limited contribution to global emissions. There was also a high degree of interest shown in the new exploration activities taking place off the coast, but also concern at the increasing levels of violence present in this area that has been variously labelled as terrorism, radicalism or banditry.

The Ilha has been subject to decades of interest from a heritage and conservation perspective. Yet, the island’s incredible heritage resource still faces significant pressures from environmental and societal activities. Challenges remain around promoting heritage values, and questions around who decides what these values are. More specifically, I was asked again and again, how heritage, and the types of projects we are involved in, will work towards poverty alleviation. That is one of the key challenges we have set up for ourselves, and one that we will be working hard to achieve over the coming years.


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