Africa: Portuguese Colonies

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Africa: Portuguese Colonies






Portugal is noted as the first modern European country to have large numbers of black slaves. As one of the major sea powers of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, Portugal also shipped and sold large numbers of African slaves to other parts of the world. Not surprisingly, the issue of slavery has shaped racial tensions between Portugal and Africa. It dominated Portuguese colonialist practices and prompted Africans to hold hostile attitudes toward the Portuguese. Other offensive colonialist practices also complicated race relations between blacks and whites in the Portuguese colonies of Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Cape Verde.


Southern Europe had a tradition of slavery that dated to ancient times. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Portugal enslaved captured Muslims as Christians engaged in the Reconquista (the recapturing of the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslims). Beginning in the 1440s, voyages sponsored by Prince Henry the Navigator and his successors brought black slaves from Africa to Portugal. The 1455 papal bull Romanus Pontifex issued by Pope Nicholas V justified these activities by authorizing the Portuguese monarch to subdue all “enemies of Christ” wherever they were and to keep them in perpetual slavery. The Portuguese African trade evolved from raids along the African coast that began in 1441 to more peaceful exchanges with African chieftains and merchants by the 1450s.

The trade in African slaves soon extended from Mauritania to the area along the upper Guinea coast. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the trade extended to the Congo and Angola. Most of the slaves gathered from the African mainland were transported back to Portugal and then sent to Spain or South America. Slaves were also imported from Guinea and sent to Cape Verde. The island of São Tiago (Santiago) in the Cape Verde archipelago became a distribution center for slaves on their way to the Americas. São Tomé later assumed this role. In the upper Guinea area, Portuguese traders, entrepreneurs, and degredados (exiles) penetrated into the interior. Called lançados (outcasts), they often settled in African villages. The lançados served as intermediaries in the slave trade and frequently left Euro-African descendants who acted in the same capacities.

The Portuguese slave trade is divided into four periods. In the Guinea wave of the sixteenth century most of the slaves came from both upper Guinea (Senegal River to Cape Palmas) and lower Guinea (Volta River to Cape Catarina). In the seventeenth century, the Portuguese pulled slaves from equatorial and central Africa, particularly Angola and the Congo, as well as Guinea. By the eighteenth century, the Portuguese slave trade expanded to the Gold Coast (Ghana) and the Bight of Benin. In the nineteenth century, Portuguese slaves came predominantly from Angola and Mozambique.

In the eighteenth century, the slave trade came under attack from within Portugal. The Marquis of Pombal pushed through legislation that eliminated the slave trade. On September 19, 1761, legislation halted the transportation of slaves from Africa to Portugal. On January 16, 1773, legislation passed to emancipate black slaves living in Portugal. Existing slaves, however, remained in bondage for the remainder of their lives. Slavery continued in Portugal, although slave traders were often prosecuted.

In the nineteenth century, changing European opinion gradually eliminated Portugal’s involvement in the international slave trade. In 1854 all slaves that were the property of the Portuguese government were freed. Two years later, all slaves owned by Portuguese town councils, religious organizations, and churches were freed as were all children born of slave mothers. Finally, the Portuguese government, headed by the Marquis of Sá da Bandeira, enacted a law on February 25, 1869, to abolish slavery in Portugal and all of its colonies.

The end of the slave trade removed the most obvious purpose for Portugal’s presence in Africa. These colonies lacked effective Portuguese administration for other purposes. In Guinea, the Portuguese had comparatively little presence. In Angola, Portuguese control existed little beyond the ports of Luanda and Lobito. In Mozambique, apart from the virtually autonomous prazos (agricultural estates) that were developed starting in the seventeenth century along the basin of the Zambezi River, Lisbon’s authority could be found only on Mozambique Island, at a few points on the Indian Ocean coastline, and in isolated riverine strongholds.

These Portuguese administrative and commercial outposts were chiefly supervised by a heterogeneous Creole population. In Cape Verde as well as São Tomé and Príncipe, the majority of the population was Creole. In Mozambique, the Creole elite engaged in trade with India and eventually succeeded in taking control of the Zambezi prazos. The concept of a Portuguese empire in Africa in the late nineteenth century was problematic because of this dominant Creole presence. Portuguese merchants and adventurers continued to view the remnants of Portugal’s South American empire as their natural source of operations and accordingly devoted their energies and resources to Brazil.


Meanwhile, Portugal had lost most of its territory in Asia, but the decline of Portugal’s East Asian empire increased interest in its African colonies. The increasing push by other European countries to engage in African imperialism also pulled the Portuguese to Africa. During this phase, Portugal focused on expanding its outposts in Africa into nation-sized territories to compete with other European powers on the continent. It had mixed success. Portugal lost its claim to the Congo in the 1880s to Belgium, largely as a result of diplomatic maneuvering. Yet it won arbitration in the 1870s when the French president ruled for Portugal against British complaints over its control of Delagoa Bay in Mozambique. The bay formed a major outlet for the rapidly developing Transvaal and constituted a very useful piece on the political chessboard upon which the partition of Africa was played out. Portugal lost an attempt in 1890 to establish a single colony across the breadth of Africa by connecting Mozambique and Angola when Britain politically blocked the effort. The Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1891 formalized Portugal’s imperial borders in Africa with a fairly relaxed definition of “effective occupation.” The treaty, however, also required Portugal to exercise systematic control of its African colonies and to expand the Portuguese presence in Africa.

The African colonies played a critical role in the Portuguese economy. They provided a protected market, supplying raw materials at prices cheaper than the world market rates and buying Portuguese products that had a low world demand. Foreign exchange earnings from exports and services also reduced the chronic deficit on Portugal’s balance of trade. To safeguard the advantages brought by the colonies, the Portuguese had to protect the white population in Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) Africa against possible African competition by the policy of economic segregation. Numbers of impoverished whites had emigrated to the colonies. The immigration relieved population pressure in Portugal, one of the most crowded and poorest countries in Europe. Of equal importance to Portugal, the white settlers provided a bulwark against rebellious Africans and covetous Europeans in neighboring African countries. Accordingly, whites were congregated in the cities or other places of critical economic importance. They pressured Portugal to defend their interests with edicts that favored whites over Africans and Creoles.


In the 1950s and 1960s, three factors helped to bring about a change in traditional Portuguese colonialism. A general anticolonialist sentiment bubbled up as the result of economic and political developments in Europe in the wake of World War II. France and Great Britain granted independence to almost all of their African colonies. Portugal, forced to defend its presence in Africa, introduced some nominal reforms. In 1951 it also recategorized its African colonies as Portuguese provinces to block any intervention efforts by the United Nations. Meanwhile, armed revolts led by Africans offered blacks an alternative to the acceptance of Portuguese domination. Portugal introduced more reforms in response to the revolts. And finally, in the 1960s, industrial interests began to compete for the dominant political role that agrarians in Portugal had long held. The need for a less restricted economy, new labor techniques, and increased productivity demanded changes both at home and in the formerly inflexible economic and social structures of the colonies.

Rather than paying wages to free black workers, as the other colonial countries did, Portugal forced compulsory labor from blacks. Portugal first responded to the anti-colonist movement by passing legislation in 1955 that regulated the use of compulsory labor for public works. The use of compulsory labor by private concerns had been formally abolished by law in 1928. Nevertheless, the practice remained widespread, and Portugal instituted

heavier penalties on those using such labor in an effort to give the ban bigger teeth. These two responses were designed to improve Portugal’s standing in world opinion. Unfortunately, as the United Nations subsequently reported, in 1956, 500,000 Africans in Mozambique were forced to work on cotton farms. Each head of household received an average of $11.17 as a year’s payment for the labor of an entire family. In 1958 an estimated 120,000 Africans were still conscripted in Angola, and about 95,000 worked for private employers.

Africans who were not forced to work were discriminated against by being paid considerably lower wages than whites. In Angola in 1958, white carpenters earned an annual average of 3,120 escudos, whereas black carpenters earned an average of 1,690 escudos. White cooks earned 3,334 escudos, whereas black cooks took home 500 escudos. In no skilled occupation did blacks and whites earn equal pay, and the gap was substantial. The average pay of African workers was 600 escudos, while white workers typically earned six times as much.

Portugal enacted legislation to address both the problems with wages and the continuing problems with compulsory labor. In 1960 minimum wage laws were enacted. But because employers were permitted to deduct as much as 50 percent from wages for clothing, food, and board, most black workers remained trapped in poverty.

Rioting and fighting in Angola in the early 1960s prompted Portugal to abolish all forms of compulsory labor. The ban had very limited effect. In 1969 a Portuguese government report on the implementation of the 1957 abolition of forced labor reported that such working conditions continued and were expected to continue. Civil, military, and paramilitary authorities defined forced labor on the grounds of national security. At the request of individual employers, police and paramilitary authorities used various means of repression, including extreme violence, to control rebellious workers. Anger among blacks continued to fuel the various liberation movements in Portugal’s African colonies.

The liberation movements gained recruits in the 1960s. Large numbers of white settlers, however, wanted to remain under Portuguese control. They even helped to develop a rationale for continued imperial control: The whites argued that Portugal had established a nonracial form of cooperation with the Africans, unlike the racist apartheid regimes in British Africa. They asserted that the races socialized, worked, and married, creating a unique Luso-tropical civilization. While the Portuguese were clearly not as obsessed with race as the South Africans and Rhodesians, Portuguese Africa did not exactly qualify as a color-blind paradise. Africans and Creoles remained trapped in poverty and at the mercy of a repressive police state designed to crush any attempts at rebellion.

Portugal took several steps to try and maintain control over its colonies in this era. In 1961 it abolished the legal distinction between “civilized” and “noncivilized.” The latter group, consisting of almost all blacks, had no civil rights, with all of the economic and social consequences resulting from this status. The assimilados, or Africans who had fully adopted Portuguese customs and language, did have rights, but there were only 30,089 assimilados among Angola’s four million blacks in 1950. The assimilado category was ended. Nevertheless, these changes did not bring equality to Africa. The electoral laws limited the right to vote to only those people who could read and write Portuguese. In 1965 only 5 percent of black Angolans qualified to vote; in 1969 only 1 percent of blacks in Mozambique voted. Only an insignificant percentage of Africans had the educational qualifications to participate in colonial government.


The Portuguese treatment of people of color led to the formation of several organizations that sought independence for Portugal’s African colonies. Liga Africana, founded in 1919, joined black and Mulatto students to work for the freedom of Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique. It was short-lived. African liberation movements did not flourish until the 1960s.

In Angola, armed resistance began in 1960. Rioting broke out among farmers in Malanje province over low crop prices that had been set by the government. About seven thousand protesters were killed in clashes with police. The Bakongo, along with the Ovimbundu and Kimbundu, form the major indigenous ethnic groups in Angola. The Bakongo took the lead in pushing for autonomy, with the Ovimbundu more closely aligned with white employers, while the Kimbundu were resented by other groups for their control of the job market in the ports. In 1960 the police arrested an assimilado, Agostinho Neto, who led the Kimbundu-based Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). His arrest set off riots in Luanda. In an unrelated development, the Bakongo, led by the Union of the Peoples of Northern Angola (later the National Liberation Front in Angola or FNLA) under Holden Roberto, rose up in rebellion in 1960 with almost twenty thousand Bakongo killed. In 1961 hundreds of blacks in Luanda protested police brutality by storming the prisons and freeing political prisoners along with ordinary criminals. The city’s whites responded by killing hundreds of unarmed blacks. This last event marks the official beginning of Angola’s war of liberation. Subsequently, ethnic conflicts damaged the cause of Angolan independence. In 1966 Jonas Savimbi, an Ovimbundu, created the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) to counter the ethnic exclusiveness of FNLA.

In Mozambique, armed resistance began in 1964. However, there were several wildcat strikes by African workers in Mozambican ports in the 1950s followed in 1960 by a massive protest by farmers angry about low prices set by government-controlled marketing boards. The assimilados led the rebellion. In 1962 they formed the Liberation Front of Mozambique (Frelimo) under Eduardo Mondlane. Frelimo relied upon guerilla tactics. In response, the Portuguese moved many Africans and Creoles into resettlement camps where they could not assist Frelimo.

In São Tomé and Príncipe, the Batepá Massacre of 1953 led to the death of several hundred African workers in fighting with Portuguese authorities. In the late 1950s, a small group of São Tomeans formed the Movement for the Liberation of São Tomé and Príncipe (MLSTP). Meanwhile, in Guinea-Bissau, the pan-Africanist Amilcar Cabral joined several others in 1956 to form the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC). Guerilla fighting began in earnest in 1962.

The efforts to suppress rebellions in its African colonies put too much stress on the government of Portugal and its dictator, Marcelo Caetano. With the government nearly bankrupt, he was overthrown in April 1974. Among the first decisions made by the leftist coup leaders was to rid Portugal of its overseas possessions as quickly as possible. The decolonization process in the aftermath of the April 1974 revolution in Portugal produced dramatic results, particularly in Angola and Mozambique. Most of the Portuguese population suddenly fled from these countries. The movement happened more rapidly and dramatically in the case of Angola because of the armed clashes among liberation movements with the support of foreign armies. Both the MPLA in Angola and the Frelimo in Mozambique (and, to a lesser extent, the PAIGC in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde and the MLSTP in São Tomé and Príncipe) encouraged this exodus, under the assumption that most of the settler communities would react against further moves toward the creation of a socialist state, redistribution of wealth, or a centrally planned economy. These radical policies only strengthened the settler communities’ feelings against the installation of a black government. In Mozambique, when about 180,000 of the 200,000 Portuguese in the country fled, they spitefully destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure before they left.

The PAIGC declared the independence of Guinea-Bissau on September 24, 1973. Guinea-Bissau would be wracked by civil war until the end of the century. On June 25, 1975, Portugal formally surrendered power in Mozambique. While the country had fewer internal ethnic conflicts than Angola, it also faced danger in the form of white-dominated neighboring Rhodesia. Many former Portuguese colonists from Mozambique now living in Rhodesia supported the terrorist Mozambique National Resistance (Renamo). Fighting between Frelimo and Renamo shook Mozambique until a 1992 peace settlement. SãoTomé and Príncipe achieved independence on July 12, 1975. The country subsequently enjoyed peace, democracy, and multiparty elections. Angola achieved formal independence on November 11, 1975. The FNLA had largely collapsed with the MPLA in control of most of the country. UNITA retreated to rural areas in southern and central Angola. Ethnic conflicts continued to ravage the country into the next century.


Boxer, Charles Ralph. 1963. Race Relations in the Portuguese Colonial Empire, 1415–1825. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Brüne, Stefan, Joachim Betz, and Winrich Kühne, eds. 1994. Africa and Europe: Relations of Two Continents in Transition. Münster, Germany: Lit.

Duffy, James. 1968. Portuguese Africa. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ferreira, Eduardo de Sousa. 1974. Portuguese Colonialism in >Africa: The End of an Era. Paris: Unesco Press.

Macqueen, Norrie. 1997. The Decolonization of Portuguese Africa: Metropolitan Revolution and the Dissolution of Empire. London: Longman.

Newitt, Malyn. 1981. Portugal in Africa: The Last Hundred Years. London: Longman.

Caryn E. Neumann

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Africa: Portuguese Colonies

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