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  • A Short History of Mozambique by Malyn Newitt
  • Jeanne Marie Penvenne
A Short History of Mozambique. By Malyn Newitt (New York, Oxford University Press, 2017) 254 pp. $24.95

Newitt's Short History of Mozambique weighs in at less than half the length of his earlier History of Mozambique (Johannesburg, 1993), with which it overlaps in some coverage. It will also become a standard work. Newitt states and sharpens themes from his earlier work for the sixteenth through twentieth centuries, but then plunges into the unfamiliar and fraught territory of Mozambique's twenty-first century experience. The book has two good colonial-era maps, one of concession companies and the other of provinces, ports, towns, rivers, railways, and airports in the early 1960s. The brief notes, the bibliography of suggested readings (mostly in English), and the index are less than one-quarter the length of the same features in the 1993 book. Advanced scholars will want to consult both of Newitt's histories of Mozambique, not just this one.

Readers of the Journal of Interdisciplinary History will appreciate Newitt's use of the rich records of contemporary European observers, travelers, missionaries, and Portuguese archival sources, many of which he translated and edited himself. He generously weaves their perspectives throughout his historical narrative, emphasizing political, military, economic, and Portuguese strategic intentions. As is often the case, without comparable records from Africans, the narrative reveals more about European views, including their misunderstandings about Africans. Although Newitt interrogates perspectives and reads against the grain, his methods are archival and textual. Readers come away with a clearer sense of, say, the German Jesuit Mauriz Thoman than of many Mozambicans (42–47).

Newitt necessarily turns to a variety of economic and political analyses when he moves into Mozambique's recent economic policies and the political decisions that shaped them. Newitt begins with his longheld and fitting perspective that Mozambique's physical geography shaped its history. The east to west trajectories inscribed by Mozambique's rivers promoted regional networks that were and remain more important than an imagined national whole. Mozambique's extremely long coastline, comprising one-third of East Africa, organically tied its peoples into the Indian Ocean maritime and islands world, and to the seasonal monsoons. Newitt explicitly refutes Frelimo's (Front for the Liberation of Mozambique) nation-building mantra of a single people [End Page 519] from the Ruvuma River in the north to the Maputo River in the south, arguing for the saliency of regional identities, in particular those to the north and south of the Zambezi.

The populous north and central regions and the politically important but more sparsely populated south have experienced long-standing and keenly felt different histories. The fact that the ports of Beira and Maputo were and are better connected to the cities and economies of their hinterlands than to each other supports Newitt's emphasis on regionalism. No significant north to south road or railway existed until the late colonial period when Portugal rapidly and defensively expanded Mozambique's transportation infrastructure. As late as the 1960s, the only road connecting the country's north and south passed through Nyasaland (129). Since the completion of the country's north/south highway (N1) in 1973, transportation has periodically come to a halt when floods and bombs took out bridges or insurgents shut down or sharply diminished highway circulation. As recently as 2016, assaults along N1 earned it the epitaph "ghost road."

Related to Newitt's emphasis on regions and environments is his emphasis on the enduring historical links between periodic droughts, famine, and disease crises that triggered violence, predation by armed men under the direction of emergent regional strongmen, and the sweep of the "cohorts of the destitute" into slave raids, forced labor, military conscription, urban migration, and related social upheaval (4). He carefully charts drought and famine crises during the 1570s, 1690s, 1760s, the turn of the nineteenth century, 1860s, 1920s, and into the independence period. The drought and famine of the early 1980s drove Frelimo to sign the humiliating Nkomati Accord with apartheid South Africa. Similarly, the killer drought of 1990/1 exhausted the opposing sides in Mozambique's civil war and eventually brought...


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pp. 519-521
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