History of Antiga Mercantil

The picture above shows the origin and below the end result...

Origins of the building

The building and courtyard housing the Antiga Mercantil appears first on a map dated 1822, but it is not clear what the exact outline of the building was. It is likely that the building first contained only one row of rooms towards the street, as is depicted in a map from ca 1840. Later the building has been augmented and transformed several times, as is customary in Ilha. The renovation which extended the facade and added the decoration around the windows as you see it restored today, was probably made in the 1920s, since it can be identified in an old postcard dated from the mid 1920s. It is possible that Meirelles arrived in Ilha at this time and renovated the building as a very young but adult man. In a postcard dated ca 1906, the building can be identified without the raised front, which now rises above an otherwise homogenous roof cornice along the buildings in the street, most likely to have been constructed at roughly the same time. The latest additions, which have now been removed, were of concrete annexes found at the back of the courtyard of Antiga Mercantil. The open green area behind the building complex was also used for storage, organization of merchandise and entrance for vehicles including those for municipal rubbish disposal.

After independence, the building remained closed and in government possession. There may have been a tailor using the building recently, but otherwise it quickly became a ruin, as can be seen from the survey in 1981, when already a large part of the terraço flat roofs had collapsed. Today the building is coming to life again, rebuilt with the same techniques and materials characteristic of traditional buildings over several centuries in Ilha de Moçambique. The function of the building is now an exclusive holiday home, but the hustle and bustle of a messy trading house and the intellectual atmosphere of the high quality bookshop may be remembered when stepping into the door with the watchful eye above it and the spacious courtyard now covered with the best quality wood for tactile sensations and relaxation.

Antiga Mercantil bookshop and import export

Antiga Mercantil was the best bookshop in northern Mozambique, where you could find anything, according to the older generation in Ilha. There was nothing like it in Nampula or Nacala. They remember buying their schoolbooks in Mercantil, where the very old owner with very white hair and a very big belly, used to spend his days reading journals from Portugal and drinking good coffee. Around the shop there were three important schools, a primary school, a secondary school and a trade school. In the bookshop you could find all the classics. It was the only place in Ilha and Nampula province where you could find grammar books, arithmetic, the Lusíadas, the work of Queiroz. All the books came from Portugal or from Lourenço Marques. The newspapers from Portugal were available, as well as the new Mozambican journals like Tempo, as well as newspapers in English and French for the French community which was well established in Ilha.


The bookshop was furnished with wooden furniture with glass vitrines, which in the 50s and 60s already was very much of an old style. In the bookshop you could often find the owner and founder of Mercantil, Meirelles, a man who towards the end of the colonial period was an old man who had done well from a long life as trader in Mozambique. He liked his good coffee, which he bought from a fellow import export trader and which was the best you could get in Ilha - even if in his own groceries shop you could get many luxury goods like Norwegian bacalhãu, chorizo, nuts and green beans from Portugal. At independence the old man left by boat and sold most of his stocks to one of the other three bookshops which were by far not as good as Mercantil.

The old residents in Ilha claim that at this time after the Second World War, there were more than 100 shops in Ilha. In 1974 there were in fact 65 registered commercial companies and 8 restaurants and bars, of which most disappeared after 1976 when the Portuguese and much of the mestizo elite left and the town appeared deserted. Before independence, you could buy anything in Ilha, from children's toys, porcelain tea sets and ladies fashion to cars, gramophones and the latest LPs from His Masters Voice and Columbia.

Embezzling and scandal

The bookshop of Mercantil was in the part of the building complex facing the street to the north of the main entrance. The other side of the main entrance was reserved for offices for the import export business, for Meirelles himself and for his manager Álvaro da Lima. Álvaro da Lima was, however, caught embezzling a lot of money from the business in the 1960s and put in prison. Meirelles called a nephew from Portugal to run the business with him, to make sure he had someone to trust after the scandal. Álvaro da Lima paid back what he owed and was let out of prison and moved to Nacala, started a construction business and sold the house he had shared with his mother and sisters near the mosque in the neighbourhood of Litine. 

The courtyard of Mercantil was where the groceries shop and the trade in bulk foodstuffs took place. Mercantil sold goods from the interior, from Lourenço Marques and from Portugal. The business supplied the garrison in the Fortaleza São Sebastião, the big hotel which is now secondary school, as well as restaurants and private people who sent their servants with grocery shopping lists which were dispatched and entered into a registry each time and paid at the end of the month.

Export of conches

Mercantil was also buying conches for export, apparently mainly to Italy. The conch trade was important for the local community, as there used to be an abundance of conches near Ilha. In addition to three licenced exporters, of which Mercantil was one, there were many businesses, which bought wholesale from collectors and sold to the exporters. What the conches were used for in Italy seems to be jewellery and decorative objects, but they were not used much locally. Today when the trade in conches has stopped, and people in Ilha make objects to sell to tourists out of them.

Meirelles lived inside the premises of Mercantil, but was also the owner of two big houses in Ilha which he rented out, one to the civil registry and one to a lawyer who was known for being very well dressed and went every Thursday to buy his bottle of 69 whisky for the week at the bar Escondidinho. Meirelles was a man who didn't go out much and who appears to have been a key member of the Freemasons Lodge in Ilha. Antiga Mercantil has the symbol of the freemasons above the main entrance, a facade which may have been renovated at the time when Meirelles took over the building, and which remained until the restoration this day.


Sources: Molde Andique, Fefé Andique Loy, Martinho Emon and Muzé Ilbrahimo, residents of Ilha de Moçambique, and Marcus Antman, Architect; various antique map reproductions; book 'Postais Antigos da Ilha de Moçambique & da Ilha do ibo', Lisboa 2005, by João Loureiro.

For more histories from Ilha, see my blog: http://macuti.wordpress.com

Silje Erøy Sollien, Architect and PhD candidate


From the Blue Book, dated 1981 A older postcard showing the Hospilal, for many years it was the biggest hospital south of the Sahara Early map of Ilha Aerial view of Ilha from the mid 60s A postcard from the 60s * Click on image for full size