Portugal's African Colonies

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Portugal's African Colonies

One of the great ironies in the history of European colonialism is that the small country of Portugal established one of the first colonial empires and then retained its colonial possessions well after most other European nations had lost theirs.

In the fifteenth century, Portuguese sailors took the lead in developing the sea route around the largely unexplored African continent and across the Indian Ocean to the ports of Asia and to the spice-rich islands of the East Indies (now Indonesia). Marking their incremental exploration and extension of this trade route, the Portuguese established a string of outposts along the coast of West Africa at which their ships could reprovision, refit, and retreat from storms. The earliest of these outposts included Ceuta in Morocco (1415), Madeira (1419) and the Azores (1427) in the North Atlantic, and the fortress of São Jorge da Mina in Guinea.

In 1482 Diogo Cão (ca. 1450–1486) reached the mouth of the Congo River. In 1497 Bartholomeu Dias (ca. 1450–1500) rounded the Cape of Good Hope. And in 1498 Vasco da Gama (ca. 1469–1524) reached India. Along the eastern coast of Africa, the Portuguese then subjugated several largely Islamic port cities in Mozambique and farther north seized the ports at Brava, Kilwa, and Mombasa. The Portuguese also established commercial bases in India, in the East Indies, in China, and even in Japan, from which they were able to monopolize much of the European trade with Asia. Although that trade was the chief prize, the Portuguese also found that the shorter-distance trade in African gold, ivory, and slaves was also extremely profitable.

In 1578 Portuguese King Sebastian was killed during a campaign against the Moors in Morocco. For the next six decades, the Hapsburg rulers of Spain and Austria also held the throne of Portugal, and Portugal's imperial ambitions were subordinated to those of Spain. Moreover, by the mid-sixteenth century, Spanish power was gradually eclipsed, first by the Dutch and then by the British, and in that complicated process, the Portuguese lost many of their commercial bases along the African and Asian coasts.

By the late eighteenth century, the Portuguese had managed to retain in Africa only the small colonies of Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and São Tomé and Princípe in West Africa and the much more extensive but largely undeveloped colonies of Angola and Mozambique in southern Africa. During the Napoleonic era, the governance of Portugal again became very unsettled, and from 1808 to 1821 the royal family even transferred its seat of power to Brazil, Portugal's largest overseas colony. Then, after Brazil achieved independence in 1822, the Portuguese began to concentrate on developing their colonies in southern Africa, in large part to protect their claims in the face of the escalating competition to carve up the African interior into European colonies. In fact, at the Berlin Conference (1884–1885), the major European colonial powers insisted that Portugal demonstrate that it actually controlled the interiors of Angola and Mozambique.

For the next four decades, the Portuguese conducted an ongoing military campaign to subjugate the native African populations of its colonies in southern Africa. By the beginning of the twentieth century, they had subdued the populous Ovimbundu states in central Angola. The large kingdom of the Kwanhana in southern Angola was not vanquished, however, until after World War I (1914–1918). Indeed, although the Portuguese formally declared in 1922 that Angola had been "pacified," armed resistance to Portuguese rule continued throughout the colony, especially among the Bakongo and Mbundi people of northern Angola. In the process of "pacification," the native Africans were displaced, and through a decree that made it a crime to be unemployed, most were forced to labor on the extensive coffee plantations that were established by the colonials.

The mixed-race Creoles who were descended from the earliest Portuguese traders and settlers and who were centered in the Luanda area in Angola initially prospered under the more formal colonial regime, but they gradually lost influence as resistance to Portuguese rule became more entrenched in the farther reaches of the colony. In Mozambique, Portugal had hoped to subdue the interior through the establishment of strong colonial agricultural communities. But when it became clear that Portugal lacked the resources to succeed in this effort, the Portuguese government sold economic concessions within regions of the colony to three international consortia. Commercial mercenaries, these consortia could exploit the resources and native labor in the undeveloped interior in exchange for developing a rail system and other transportation and communication infrastructure that would accelerate European settlement.

In both Angola and Mozambique, the rise of the dictatorial regime of António Salazar (1889–1970) in Portugal meant an increasingly repressive reaction to African demands for just treatment and political and economic rights. Especially in Angola, the Portuguese became expert at exploiting longstanding tensions among the dominant ethnic groups, and in both Angola and Mozambique, the native insurgencies became proxy conflicts in which the Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union was played out. Through direct military and economic aid and covert operations, the United States supported the Salazar regime's campaigns against the largely Soviet-supported insurgencies. In Angola, three independence movements developed—the MPLA (the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), the FNLA (the National Front for the Liberation of Angola), and UNITA (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola). In Mozambique, the insurgency was dominated by Frelimo (the Mozambican Liberation Front), whose leadership had been trained in Algeria and Egypt.

The African discoveries of Portugal
1433–1434Cape Bojador
1444Senegal River
1446Gambia River
1456Cape Verde Islands
1460Cape Palmas
1471Fernando Po
1482Construction of Elmina Castle
1483Congo River
1488Cape of Good Hope

After Salazar's regime collapsed in 1974 and the new Portuguese government committed itself to a quick transition to independence in the colonies, the United States and Soviet Union supported contending African factions in the now-independent states—factions that they supported through, respectively, South African and Cuban surrogate forces. For the next decade and a half, both Angola and Mozambique were devastated by these ongoing and often very anarchic conflicts. By 2006, their economies had still not become self-sustaining, and large portions of their populations remained in refugee camps where large commitments of foreign aid provided basic foodstuffs and rudimentary medical care as a stopgap against mass starvation and epidemics.

After the end of the international slave trade in the 1830s, Portugal's small West African colonies decreased in importance and became increasingly impoverished. The Portuguese attempted to establish a plantation economy, but the fields in the Cape Verde Islands, in particular, were devastated by cyclic droughts. The Portuguese lacked the resources to compensate for the crop failures, and in at least seven periods between the 1770s and the late 1940s, between 15 percent and 40 percent of the islands' population starved to death as a consequence. After 18 percent perished from 1948 to 1949, the Portuguese government responded to international pressure and in 1951 designated the Cape Verde Islands as a province of Portugal. Educational and economic opportunities within Portugal were opened to Cape Verdeans. Some of those educated in Portugal then returned to Cape Verde and went to Guinea-Bissau and São Tomé in order to provide the nucleus of an independence movement. In 1963 an active insurgency began in Guinea-Bissau, but it would take just over a decade for the ongoing insurgencies in all of Portugal's African colonies to cause the collapse of the Salazar regime and to achieve independence.

see also Berlin Conference; Empire, Portuguese; Scramble for Africa.


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