The Quirimbas Islands lie in the Indian Ocean off northeastern Mozambique, close to Pemba, (Porto Amelia) the capital of the province of Cabo Delgado.
Originally home to fishing settlements, the islands’ population grew around Arab trading posts and thrived under the Portuguese trading routes when they were known as the Ilhas de Sao Lazaro (Islands of St. Lazarus). Today, many of the islands are uninhabited.
Between the mouth of the Rovuma River, the border between Mozambique and Tanzania, and Porto Amelia, lie the 28 islands of the Querimba Archipelago. The more prominent of these are Ibo, Matemo, Medjumbe, Quirimba, Metundo, Quisiva and Rolas Island.
Although several of the islands were colonised to a small degree from as far back as the sixteenth century, none reached the importance and splendour of Ibo, which lies about eighty-five kilometres north of Porto Amelia. The main factor governing the settlement of the islands is, of course, the availability of fresh water. None have water as fresh and pure as that of Ibo.The island lies only ten kilometres from the mainland on which it used to depend for the trade goods that it exploited, there. This fact, and the commanding view of the surrounding sea roads adding to the security of the island, made Ibo the ideal choice for a port and capital of the northern territories of Mozambique, which it became in 1754.
The islands are of coral and sand lying on calcareous marine deposits. Due to their long period of habitation and exploitation, there is almost nothing left of their original vegetation except mangroves, and the occasional baobab, Adansonia digitata, still stands, gnarled branches reaching to the sky. Now (1974) flamboyants and mangos line the streets, while coconut trees and paw-paws are scattered in every garden. These were often hedged with cacti to keep out the pigs and goats. Along the waterfront sand-dunes stand the inevitable scrubby pine trees.
In 1974, the predominant impression one got was the atmosphere of decay. Vehicles brought to the island by barge rarely leave. Their expected lifespan is about five years before they stand, rusting hulks, as hen coops and shade for goats and pigs. More than half of the once elegant homes of the previous century were abandoned. Some were used as grain storage. Others were nothing more than foundations. Most of those still inhabited were in poor condition with the exception of one large government building that had been restored with the intention that it be a museum. The reasons for Ibo’s decline lay in the transferring of officialdom to Porto Amelia, as well as Ibo’s limited waterways with regard to the larger modern shipping.
Most of Ibo’s buildings, be they rich man’s mansion or fisherman’s shanty are built of the local stone, sedimentary marine fossils. But here and there houses were to be found built purely of seashells. Most buildings had columned verandas. Roof timber were of adzed mangrove, while shutters and doors, often steel studded, were made from Pterocarpus angolensis, (kiaat), locally known as Mpila, from the mainland where it grew in abundance.
Although, in 1974, there remained several storekeepers on Ibo, most of their shelves were nearly bare. The exodus from the island has robbed them of most of their customers, but the more affluent have interests on the mainland. They ship cotton and maize to Porto Amelia, or have coconut plantations not far off, or small fishing fleets.
The majority of the population are connected in some way or another to the fishing industry; either selling their catch to an agent with a refrigerated storeroom, or taking it direct to Porto Amelia. This is all that remains of a once highly developed port and trading centre, where ivory, ebony, wax and most importantly, slaves, were the contents of the warehouses. (Ebony, here, refers to mpingwe, or mpingo, Dalbergia menaloxilon, as opposed to any of the Diospyros spp.)
The human genetic pot has been well stirred on Ibo. In 1974, there were less than 5% European Portuguese, some Indians, Chinese and mulattos. While the majority were Africans, almost none would have been proved to be of Macua or Maconde pure blood. Most were partly Arab or European, or both. They spoke Quimuane, a language similar to Swahili, but greatly influenced by Portuguese, Arabic and even English, perhaps not so startling when one remembers the islands background of seafaring and piracy.
Testament to those violent days are the island’s three forts. The largest is Castelo do Santo Joao Batista, built in 1791, facing the western searoad. It was also used as a goal for political prisoners until the 1974 change of government in Portugal. The other two are Fortalesa da Santo Antonio, built in 1847, and the Fortalesa da Santo José.
Ibo had no cattle, but most families have a few goats, chickens and pigs. The latter find a banquet of crustaceans on the coral when the tide is out. Pigs foraging amongst the stranded fishing boats at low tide were an incongruous sight.
A mid winter’s day on Ibo is hot and soporifically pleasant. The year creeps on into almost unbearable heat and humidity before the cyclone weather breaks, bringing relief, turning full circle to the bliss of tropical island lethargy once again.
Until the mid-70s, skindiving here was as good as anywhere south of the African equator. In the late 1960s, abnormal rains bringing fresh water run-off from the mainland killed off some of the coral, but regrowth was steady since then and its former beauty returned. Both reef- and game-fish were there in abundance and not many sharks were encountered on the mainland side of the island. The best reefs lay between Ibo and its neighbour, Ilha da Matemo, around the shoal of Santo Gonçalo.
Game fishing by ski-boat was reputedly excellent at this time, but no ski-boats were based on the island. With no pensãos or hotels, Ibo had few visitors. The fishermen used small locally made wooden clinker-built boats with inboard marine diesel engines for netting, and either dhows or pirogues for line fishing and crayfish pots. A dhow owner was a relatively rich man. Besides fishing, he could make a good living freighting grain and coconuts between the islands and the mainland, especially during the wars when the overland route was extremely dangerous. Store owners and officials travelled almost exclusively by light aircraft to Porto Amelia, both Ibo and neighbouring Quirimba Island had airstrips. Until the last years of the Portuguese occupation, some political prisoners were housed on Ibo in the forts, but still the political unrest seemed far away and Ibo has hardly changed in two centuries, except for the gradual decay. Pigs and goats wandered in and out of the ruins from which trees take root and make siesta shade for hot summer days. Sunday is a day for dressing up. The women of Ibo drape themselves in the brightest of cloth, with yards of beads and dozens of hand-crafted silver and bronze bracelets.