Up until 1975 Lourenço Marques was the largest city in Mozambique. Almost overnight it disappeared from the maps of the region. Its disappearance wasn’t the result of war or pestilence, but that of a name change. As Maputo, the city remains the largest in the country, the capital, and home to close to two million people.
The town of Lourenço Marques was christened after the Portuguese explorer of the same name. Sent out by the governor of Mozambique in 1544 Marques’ orders were to explore the countries hinterland. In other words, Marques was to explore inland. The Portuguese clung to the 2500 km of coastline like barnacles to the hull of a racing yacht, barely moving from within sight of the Indian Ocean. Marques began his explorations from Delagoa Bay, the inlet of the Indian Ocean on which Maputo nestles.
The town dates back to the late 1700s, 150 years after Marques, the building of a four-pointed fort in 1787 providing the necessary security.
Previous settlements on the same site had been destroyed by the native populations, unhappy with European colonisation of their land.
Lourenço Marques didn’t become a city until 100 years after the building of the fort. Not long after in 1898 it replaced Ilha de Moçambique in the far north of the country as the capital of Portuguese East Africa.
Some expected the capital of independent Mozambique to be renamed Can Phumo, ‘the place of Phumo’, an early chieftain of the area. But it was named after the countries Maputo River. Street names were also changed. Gone were heroes of Portuguese colonialism, explorers like Bartolemeu Dias. They were replaced by the names of communist and revolutionary leaders. By the time of my visit during Encircle Africa most had been discredited. Avenues Mao Tse Tung and Robert Mugabe both looked forlorn and unloved.
What surprised me when I reached Maputo from Catembe across Delogoa Bay was the high rise nature of the city. It looked like there was money coming in from somewhere. Away from the government buildings of the marginal the roads broke up in places, and despite the removal of much Portuguese statuary on independence – the battle for the country being fierce – delightful follies of colonialism remained. All, like the train station, were slowly aging, their paint peeling.
Trains hardly use the station any longer, but its conversion into a cultural centre with a small museum, cafes and shops, surely ensures its splendour whatever the city is called.