Wandering Ibo’s dusty streets, discovering it’s sights and sounds, will live with me for a very long time. The slow pace of life gets under your skin and seems to seep into your bones. The lack of activity – there are hardly any motorised vehicles on the island, never mind any roads for them to use – coupled with the heat, is very seductive. You could pass several happy days on Ibo without giving a thought to why it is home to a slowly crumbling European city in the tropics.
Scratch the surface though, and you’ll soon discover that Ibo has a terrible and brutal history, one that is intimately linked to the slave trade. Ibo’s Arab and European history is all to do with trade, trade that helped reorder the world economy and facilitated the colonisation of the Caribbean, Americas and the Far East. The sparkling blue ocean which surrounds Ibo was the gateway to exporting African slaves around the globe.
There are three old Portuguese forts on Ibo, built to protect trade from Arab and European competitors. The most impressive of which is the star-shaped Fort São João built in 1791. Fort São João commands great views over the ocean, the times I visited there were no other tourists exploring the battlements. Today the fort is home to several of Ibo’s legendary silversmiths, who work on fine sliver jewellery in rooms underneath the fort’s battlements, but it’s history is violent and bloody.
Fort São João was originally built to protect Portuguese trade. This included gold, silver and ivory, but the main export from Ibo was human. The fort was intended as a very visual, domineering reminder of Portugal’s intentions to fight for control of the slave trade; and the grand colonial buildings on Ibo were constructed from the profits of the ‘human trade’. Fort São João was used to house slaves before they were shipped to other parts of the world, which makes any visit to the fort today not a little macabre.
If this history isn’t bad enough, during the struggle for independence Ibo’s isolation off Mozambique’s northern coast made it the perfect place to send political prisoners. Fort São João housed hundreds of independence activists, imprisoned here to keep them from communicating with supporters elsewhere. Prisoners were routinely tortured, many were murdered. The horrors the walls of Fort São João have witnessed can barely be imagined, but understanding what happened here is an important part of any visit to the island.
In atmosphere and architecture, if not in size, Ibo reminded me of the Sri Lankan city of Galle – another European outpost on the other side of the Indian Ocean. While several buildings on Ibo have been, or are in the process of being restored, many more are crumbling or being overgrown by tropical plants. It would be a shame if the incredible buildings of Portuguese Ibo were allowed to fall too far into disrepair. This is a site of great historical importance – history which needs to be remembered.
Ibo’s history could be the spark which provides much needed investment in what are very poor communities. Handled badly though, tourism could be extremely destructive to Ibo’s environment, society and culture. There is a fragility to Ibo’s beauty, which could easily be damaged by even limited tourist development. As it is, tourism seems to be largely controlled by outsiders, many of them European. If that trend continues Ibo’s population could find itself disenfranchised once more.