The Maritime Trade of Chinese and European Ceramics in the Indian Ocean: The Role of Mozambique Island in International Exchanges

Celso Simbine


This work presents the results of an investigation of imported ceramics excavated on Mozambique Island, a part of East Africa that is sometimes overlooked. The ceramic that is described and analyzed in this work was recovered in 2019 by a team of archaeologists from the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at Eduardo Mondlane University. The excavations were carried out at two archaeological sites of Mozambique Island: Abdurrazaque Jamu house located in Macuti-town and Convent São Domingos located in Stone-town. Chinese and European ceramics constitute the largest types of material excavated from the sites and were useful in defining the relative chronology of the two archaeological contexts. These ceramics are frequently found in archaeological excavations across the eastern coast of Africa and have been associated with the intensification of Asian and European maritime trade that became a feature of the interconnected early modern world.

This study contributes to previous scholarship and archaeological understanding of this island’s role in the long-distance trade of Chinese and European ceramics around the Indian Ocean rim. The analysis of ceramics and the literature review provide additional clues to the cross-continental exchange between the seventeenth and early twentieth centuries CE, when the coast of Mozambique became an important centre of the global and transregional trade, particularly for the circulation of Chinese and European export-ware, including porcelain vessels. Systematic archaeological research has shown that Chinese and European ceramics served fundamentally as exchange goods, since their diffusion on the coast and hinterland is mainly located at sites where commerce took place.

Location and Description of Mozambique Island
Figure 1. Location of Mozambique Island and the distribution of shipwrecks. Map by Celso Simbine.

Mozambique Island is an archipelago with an extent of 445 square meters, surrounded by twenty-four submerged shipwrecks and composed of three uninhabited islands: Sāo Lourenço, São Jorge, and Santiago. It is situated in the northern region of the nation of Mozambique in Nampula province, on the coast of the Indian Ocean (fig. 1). Commercial exchange flourished between coastal Mozambicans and Arab merchants as early as the late first millennium CE, before the large-scale conversion of coastal east Africans to Islam (Duarte 1993). From the second millennium onwards Angoche district and Mozambique Island became centers of political and economic power (Mutiua 2014, 20). Thus, it is clear that before the arrival of the Portuguese, Mozambique Island was already a township inhabited by an Islamicized people and ruled by the hereditary leader, Sheikh Zacoeja, who controlled overseas and transcontinental exchange networks and had the authority to grant permission for foreign merchants to trade in the region (Lobato 1953, 11). Furthermore, in 1498, when Vasco Da Gama’s crew landed for the first time on Mozambique Island, they found a well-established political and economic system that managed commercial affairs and mediated relationships with those who arrived from other parts of the Indian Ocean rim (Newitt 2004, 23), and a prosperous commercial coast with zambucos, dhows, and pangaios, traditional vessels used by Swahili and Arab communities to navigate the Indian Ocean for trade, networking, and military protection (Duarte 2012, 84).

Figure 2. Macuti town and Stone town on Mozambique Island. Map by Celso Simbine.

Mozambique Island is about 3 km long and 500 m wide and is divided into two towns (fig. 2): on the north side of the island is located Stone-town, composed of stone-houses exhibiting different architectural styles that are often associated with Swahili and Arab cultures, but the most notable feature is the introduction of European architecture from circa 1570. These buildings are often connected directly to Portugal and particularly to the southern Algarve region (Monclaros 1975, 275). In the south of the island is located Macuti-town, which began to develop at a later time, starting in the 1800s. By contrast, it is composed of houses made of wattle and daub, and the roofs are made of macuti (palm leaves) laid on reed. The macuti houses are often associated with African traditional building styles, rather than overseas ones (Arkitektskolen I Aarhus 1985, 28).

Analysis of Imported Ceramics

I washed, labelled, and sorted the ceramics recovered from the excavations, according to units and layers. Then, I analyzed, typologically classified, counted, photographed with a scale, and finally placed them in plastic bags with respective fieldwork details recorded (Simbine 2021, 22). The finds were analyzed to determine the chronology, shape, and decorative pattern of each specimen (see Maguire 2007, 4). Furthermore, the analysis allowed typological classification and comparison with ceramics that may have been produced in other regions abroad (see for example Klose 1997). It should be noted that the local chronological sequence and the understanding of exchange networks and interactions between Mozambique Island and the neighbouring communities along the East African Coast during the early modern period was established collaboratively by a team of archaeologists, including Duarte and Menezes (1996), Madiquida and Miguel (2004) and Simbine (2020; 2021). This essay draws on and further elucidates those findings.

Of the 258 total sherds of imported ceramics recovered in both sites, 78 sherds were recovered at Abdurrazaque Juma‘s house, which stands as an example of the macuti buildings that were described above. 26 sherds are Chinese porcelain, which corresponds to 33.33% while 52 sherds were European ceramics, which corresponds to 66.66%. At the Convent São Domingos site, we recovered 16 sherds of Chinese porcelains, which correspond to 8.88%, against 164 sherds of European ceramics, which corresponds 91.11% of the total collection of imported ceramics. A list of the number of sherds found at each layer is given in Table 1.1 There were local, African-made ceramics found at either site, but the focus of this essay was only on imported ceramics. Based on comparative analysis, it was possible to establish a relative chronology of ceramics recovered at Abdurrazaque Juma’s house and Convent São Domingos.

The Convent of São Domingos is a small church with plain walls and without any painting. It’s characterized by Manueline architecture due to its decorated walls with incised and relief lines and rectangular motifs. The interior and external face are undecorated, and it has two small rectangular windows and an arched door but both very simple (Simbine 2021, 100).

As benchmark material, we relied upon the ceramics studied by Kirkman (1974) at Fort Jesus in Mombasa, Chittick (1974, 1984) in Kilwa Kisiwani and on Kilwa Island and Croucher (2006) in the clove plantations of Zanzibar. This comparison indicated that the chronological sequence of Abdurrazaque Juma house falls between the late seventeenth and early twentieth centuries CE, and the Convent São Domingos dates between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries CE.

Abdurrazaque Juma’s house Convent São Domingos
Level (cm)Chinese PorcelainEuropean Ceramics Level (cm)Chinese PorcelainEuropean Ceramics
0-10   0-1014
10-2057 10-20210
20-3079 20-30 30
30-4028 30-40137
40-5048 40-50319
50-6016 50-60143
60-7024 60-7032
70-8021 70-80212
80-9021 80-9012
90-100 1 90-10023
100-110 2 100-110 1
110–12011 110-120 1
120-130 2 120-130  
130-140 1    
140-150 1 Total16164
160-170 2    
Table 1. Frequency of imported ceramics excavated on Mozambique Island sites.

The excavation carried out in 2019 by the team of archaeologists from Eduardo Mondlane University on Mozambique Island unearthed evidence of imported goods that are material evidence of the region’s long participation in long-distance trade. The distribution of the finds aligns with our understanding of how Mozambique island and its urban society developed.

The island was the centre of exchange for diverse commodities, in particular ceramics, foodstuffs, wine, spices, and gold between Africans, Europeans, and Asians (Maritz 2020). Written sources such as Monografia da Ilha de Moçambique of 1944 and Navegação às Índias Orientais of 1897 point out Mozambique Island as a supplier of freshwater, foodstuff, and sailors, among other services for ships in transit towards long-distance voyages in exchange of exotic goods in which the Chinese porcelains and European ceramics make the larger part. Furthermore, this island played a significant role in mediating the maritime networks, since ships that sailed in the Indian Ocean often passed through Mozambique Island to resupply, repair ships, wait for the monsoons, heal the sick, and shelter shipwrecked people.

Consequently, from later seventeenth and early twentieth centuries CE, the participation in the long-distance trade network of the Ocean Indian and connections to the outside world created the social inequalities reflected by the existence of two different towns (fig. 2). The stone-town in the north side of the island came to be inhabited by those who came from Europe, and Portugal in particular, and controlled the political and economic power of the trading system. Their outward-facing world is exemplified in the architectural style of the city and the types of ceramics that they used and traded, which were largely from Europe. By contrast, the Macuti-town in the south side was occupied mostly by enslaved Makua people who could not trade without the Portuguese crown’s permission (Newit 2004). They inhabited wattle-and-daub architecture and sustained a separate urban sphere from those in the stone-town. It is worth noting that more Chinese porcelain was turned up in the latter site in Macuti-town, this may also relate to the chronology, as the Abdurrazaque Juma had an earlier occupation period than the Convent.

In general, our excavations carried out in 2019 found fewer Chinese porcelains on Mozambique Island compared to European ceramics. A small amount of diverse Chinese porcelain was found, but most were of European origin, namely blue transfer printed whiteware, flow blue willow pattern, blue, greyish, and green transfer-printed potsherds, mainly with the decoration of nature motifs similar to those excavated by Madiquida (2007) at Quissanga Beach and Foz do Lúrio. Of the smaller quantity of Chinese porcelain, we see blue and white wares with naturalistic decoration, which represented nature, landscapes, and palaces alongside undecorated fragments (fig. 3 and fig. 4). The minority categories of Chinese porcelain sherds recovered can be placed in the Early Qing period, dating to seventeenth to eighteenth centuries CE and the late Qing period, eighteenth to twentieth centuries CE. In the same archaeological context of Convent São Domingos was also found a variety of European tin-glazed earthenware such as blue on white and blue and green on grey with a variety of decorative motifs and blue or green transfer-printed whiteware.

Figure 3. Assemblage of imported wares recovered in the excavations at Abdurrazaque Jamu house. Numbers, 1, 2, 5, and 14) Plates of flow blue willow pattern of 1800s; 3) Chamber pot of blue colour printed whiteware mid-19th and early 20th centuries CE; 4, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 13) Blue transfer printed whiteware between 1700s and 1800s; 10, 12, 15 and 16) Chinese porcelain of Qing Dynasty between 18th and 19th centuries CE.
Figure 4. Imported wares recovered from the excavation at Convent São Domingos. 1 – 2) Chinese ceramic of the 1700s and 1800s, 3, 4, 9 and 12) Blue and Green transfer-printed of the 19th century CE; 5-6) Chinese porcelain of Qing Dynasty of mid-18th and 19th century CE; 7, 8 and 11) Red, Green and Blue printed whiteware of the later 18th and early 19th centuries CE.

The chronological and geographical distribution of Chinese and European ceramics on Mozambique Island present key patterns within regional trade history. In the early phase of this trade, the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the most dominant ceramics seem to be Chinese porcelains, which are commonly associated with the global Sino-Swahili trade network2 (Rothman 2002; Klose 2007). In the later period, the importation of European ceramics became more common (Pendery 1999). This trade also involved the export of ivory, slaves, gold, timbers, pearls, seed pearls, ambergris, tortoise shells, animal skins and local potteries to Portugal and other western European countries and their northern American colonies (see Roque 1999; Beaujard 2007, 22).


To sum up, the occupation period at Abdurrazaque Jamu house and Convent São Domingos endured for about three centuries between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries CE. The statistical data revealed that Blue and white Chinese porcelains of the Qing dynasty appeared in the minority at the excavations, perhaps because they were expensive, and the increasing interest has made them scarce. A similar archaeological context was noticed at Sanje ya Kati and Songo Mnara where the low percentage of Chinese porcelain among other finds suggests the rarity and lack of accessibility of Chinese porcelains. In addition, the decrease of Chinese Porcelain can be attributed to the fact that from the late seventeenth century CE onwards, Europeans came to dominate transregional trading networks on Mozambique Island. The Muslim merchants that had traded Chinese porcelain in the Western Indian Ocean world for centuries were no longer dominating the trade. Accordingly, the consumption of ceramics turned toward the west and away from the east.

During the period of scarcity of Chinese porcelain of the Qing dynasty, European ceramics, such as blue and green transfer-printed, Blue painted Chamber pots, Portuguese and English willow plates, shallow dishes, tea-cups, and bowls became the more accessible choice for imported ceramics. Therefore, in the excavations at the island, the highest percentage belongs to European ceramics. We presume that this is because it was considered to be a cheaper exotic good of easier access and also lower price, and thus it became a mainstay used by households. These findings are significant because they add another dimension to our understanding of the global trade of East Africa, which has amply privileged a view toward the east, but has not explored these western connections so thoroughly.

Celso Simbine obtained his undergraduate degree at Eduardo Mondlane University (2011–2014), studying archaeological material collected in the inter-tidal areas for commercial and touristic purposes on Mozambique Island and recently fulfilled his MS degree in Archaeology at the University of Cape Town (2019 – 2021), studying the chronological sequence of Mozambique Island. He is a PhD student at the University (2022-2025) of Pretoria. He is researching Maritime Cultural Landscapes: A study of changing land use and coastal resource exploitation on Mozambique Island from AD 1000.

Simbine is a maritime and underwater archaeologist who has worked in coastal and underwater environments around Mozambique and the USA, in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. In 2015, he extended his interests in inter-tidal research on Mozambique Island. Then he became a collaborator of the Slave Wreck Project, participating in underwater and maritime environmental research using marine geophysics equipment to identify archaeological sites. He has also worked in the archaeological sites of Mozambique Island and Saint Croix to document or survey submerged sites.

Between 2021-2023, he participated in the Indian Ocean Exchanges: An Art History Fellowship Program that aims to build a robust network of international scholars and professionals who are committed to advancing Indian Ocean art history. It posits the collective experiences of cross-cultural travel, exchange, and community formation as the foundation to cultivate this sub-field in formation, to widen and amplify the expertise that develops in any single regional (and landed) context. In addition, from 2023 and 2024, he participated in the preliminary excavations assessment of the IDM013 candidate to be a Slavery shipwreck L’Aurore sunk in Mozambique Island in AD 1789 with 600 slaves on board.

Recently, in 2024 of February, he participated in the Regional Training on Underwater Archaeology for the African Region in the scope of the project “Establishment of a Centre of Excellence for the Protection and Research of Underwater Cultural Heritage in Mozambique” that took place on Mozambique Island. Furthermore, he participated in the scientific dive training organized by UNESCO – CMAS in Turkey at Antalya–Kemer. He is responsible for the organization of the Maritime Archaeological Exhibition preparation on Mozambique Island to be placed at Fortress Sao Sebastião sponsored by Flanders-Belgica in collaboration with UNESCO-Maputo.

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  1. For analyses of characteristics and the origin of these ceramics (Fig. 3 and Fig. 4), the following references have been consulted Kirkman (1954, 1974), Chittick (1974, 1984), Sassoon (1981) Horton (1996), and Klose (2007). ↩︎
  2. At the time Swahili people of the East African Coast were traders on a global scale (Rothman 2002, 79). ↩︎

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