The Impact of Africa on Portugal

Africae Tabula Nova, c. 1572

Written on “May, 1975” (as we can see in the manuscript), this essay traces a brief history of the Portuguese actions in Africa, since the fifteenth Century to the days immediately following the “Revolução dos Cravos”, in 1974. It was first presented at the Colloquium “Double Impact: France in Africa and Africa in France”, that took place in the University of California, Los Angeles, on Spring 1975, but it wasn’t published until ten years after, in London, along with the proceedings of the event, from which we now transcribe.

Certainly no other non-African country – especially a European one – has had its destiny so closely linked with Africa as Portugal. It was with the conquest of Ceuta in North Africa in 1415 that the country launched the expansion which developed into the first colonial empire of modern times, thus embarking on a course that shaped Portuguese history and opened a new era for the world. And it was because of the colonial wars in Africa, supposedly maintained to defend the last colonial empire in the contemporary times, that a revolution was launched in Portugal in April of 1974, which toppled the dictatorial regime that had governed the country since 1926. The military revolution had two main aims, both directed at reversing the historical course of centuries: to recognize the independence of the colonies, and to eradicate the national structure that had been based on colonialism. Portugal underwent one of the greatest crises in its history of more than eight centuries as an independent and unified country, and this was largely because of Africa. Also we must bear in mind that, since the “discovery” in 1500 until its independence in 1822, Brazil was part of the Portuguese empire, and that the development of Brazil was largely based on contacts with Africa through the slavery that was there for centuries the source of labor (only abolished in 1888). The imperial history of Portugal had three main areas: Brazil in the Americas, Africa, and the Indian Ocean (extending its influence into the Pacific Ocean and the Far East), but in this triple process Africa played an important role, and it was, as we started by saying, the beginning and the end of an era.

At the risk of telling a learned audience what everybody knows, allow me to recall a few facts and dates, which may help us in a rapid survey of Portuguese relations with Africa and in understanding what is happening today.

The history of the relations of Portugal with Africa, during the expansion and the colonial empire, can be divided into several very distinct periods. The first includes the fifteenth century, starting with the conquest of Ceuta in 1415, followed by other conquests in North Africa. But at the same time, another policy was immediately developed: the one of discovering and exploring more or less methodically the western Coast of Africa, until the Cape of Good Hope was reached in the Bartolomeu Dias voyage of 1487-1488, which opened the way around Africa and into the Indian Ocean.

The voyage of Vasco da Gama, in 1497-1499, on its way to India, explored for the first time segments of the eastern coast of Africa. It was the beginning of the Indian empire which would dominate entirely the Portuguese policies for some decades – we could say, until the end of the sixteenth century, when, under the Dutch and English pressures, the eastern empire started to decline. Meanwhile, the discovery of Brazil and its colonization started to open a new era, which in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries would place that country as the main focus of the empire. The period came to an end in 1822 not only with the independence of Brazil, but with the establishment in 1820 of a liberal system in Portugal. This system, after several setbacks and a civil war, triumphed in 1834. Another period starts then in which Portugal, facing the colonialist expansion of other European powers tried to occupy and explore most of its traditional territories in Africa, remnants of outposts all along the African coast. The liberal measures of the constitutional monarchy were amplified by the republic proclaimed in 1910. A military revolution in 1926 brought the republic to an end, and a new outlook, on the imposition of the Portuguese continental structure and on the enforcement of big monopolies, based on centralized power, was consecrated by the Colonial Act of 1930, written by dictator Salazar himself. The act included the famous distinction between “natives” and “assimilated people” (the portions of the empire excepted from this distinction were only Cape Verde, the Indian possessions, and Macao). This period came to an end with the revolutions of April 1974.

Now let us review as briefly as possible some events which punctuated these several periods. Portugal, which had been established as a semi-independent earldom under the suzerainty of the kingdom of Leon, became independent through a revolution in 1128, and Leon came to recognize the new kingdom in 1143. In the next one hundred years, Portugal conquered from the Moors the southern half of what is today its territory, thus becoming by 1250, the first Iberian kingdom to complete its “reconquest”. It is known that the Portuguese, confined between the sea and the kingdoms of Leon and Castille, very early engaged in international trade and navigation. In the twelfth century one of the daughters of the first Portuguese king became countess of Flanders, and in the thirteenth century a Portuguese prince was himself, by marriage, count of Flanders, while two Portuguese princesses were queens of Denmark.

Navigation along the coast of Africa started before the fifteenth century. Before the middle of the fourteenth century an expedition was organized in Lisbon to explore the Canary Islands. Competition for occupation and sovereignty of these islands continued between Portugal and Castille for more than one century, and it was settled in favor of Castile only in 1436, with Portugal finally accepting the settlement of 1480 which gave her a free and absolute hand in the exploration of the West Coast of Africa. But by then Portugal had established fortresses in Morocco and Mauritania, and had started in the 1420s a more or less methodical exploration of that West Coast. By 1450, the Portuguese had reached the latitude of present-day Monrovia, while they had explored the “Western Seas” and founds and colonized the desert islands of Azores. The colonization of the Madeira Islands had been started in the 1420s. Around the 1450s and 1460s the islands of Cape Verde were discovered and started to be colonized. The island of São Tomé was colonized by the end of the fifteenth century and became very important in the next century as the outpost for the slave trade between the West Coast of Africa and Brazil. It was also a center for the production of sugar, like Madeira, a prosperity that lasted until the sugar in Brazil came to beat all other enterprises. Nevertheless, it has been pointed out that the system of colonization established in the Atlantic and African islands served as a kind of experiment for what was later to be the first political organization of Brazil.

We mentioned the slave trade. It was the first commercial success that the Portuguese achieved in their contacts with the western coast of Africa. The first slaves arrived in Portugal in 1441 and were sold to Castille, Aragon, Italy, and elsewhere at good profit. We have a magnificent description of the arrival of one of the first cargoes, in the Crónica da Guiné by G. E. de Zurara, writing in the middle of the fifteenth century. In spite of being the official chronicler, Zurara finds the moving words of a modern humanist to describe the plight of the slaves. It was the several settlements in the Atlantic, shifted the direction of the trade to Brazil.

The second success came in 1442, with the arrival of the first African gold – one of the main reasons for launching the expansion. Much has been said about the imperial justifications. The military expansion in northern Africa, which came to a disastrous end in 1578 when King Sebastian was killed with most of his army in El-Ksar Kebir when attempting an intervention in the internal affairs of Morocco, can be viewed in two ways. On one side, it prolonged the ideology of the Reconquest, which had dominated the Iberian kingdoms for centuries and served as the support for an aristocratic-military society. The other side is that Portugal was looking for the North African outlets of gold which was in great demand for new economic development in Europe. Until the 1480s the exploration of the western coast of Africa was in fact dominated by this same purpose of drawing a circle around the centers of Arab gold trade, which is symbolized by the foundation of the castle of S. Jorge da Mina, known as El Mina, in contemporary Ghana, in 1482. Yet another idea was very early mingled with the expansion: to get in touch with the legendary Prester John, the Christian sovereign of the East, whose contact would encircle the Muslim world. Prester John was a legend launched in the twelfth century in Europe and came to be identified with the emperor of Ethiopia, with whom since the 1480s the Portuguese attempted to establish close relations. At the same time that Bartolomeu Dias was rounding the Cape of Good Hope, travelers had been sent by land to India (which they visited to gather information) and to Ethiopia, where one of the travelers lived, raised a family, and died. An embassy from Ethiopia came to Portugal in 1513-1514, and several diplomatic exchanges continued in the course of the century.

By the end of the fifteenth century, it is clear that the main purpose of the Portuguese crown was to prepare everything to round Africa and reach India by sea. Africa, however, was kept very well in mind. In 1482-1486, preceding Bartolomeu Dias, Diogo Cão had explored the western coast as far as the Tropic of Capricorn, but had also navigated up the Zaire River. And in 1490, an embassy was sent to Congo, establishing with its kings a relationship that lasted well into the seventeenth century, or reaching what became Rhodesia in 1514-1515.

What is now Mozambique started to be developed before what is today Angola, in spite of the explorations made inside the latter area in 1520-1530. There are several reasons, which reflect themselves in the different spheres in which Angola and Mozambique will live for a long time. The eastern coast of Africa (and in it the city-island of Mozambique, which gave the name to the country) was a base on the way to India and for the dominance of the Indian Ocean, and it was also the starting point for the attempts to reach the legendary Monomotapa with its gold and to contact Ethiopia and its Christian sovereigns. Angola really started as a monopoly of the island of São Tomé in 1550, and only in 1574 was organized as a captaincy. Luanda was founded in 1576, much later than the settlements in Mozambique, where, up the Zambezi River, the Portuguese had settled in Tete by 1531. When the colonization of Angola was started by the end of the sixteenth century, it seems that the idea was to transform it into a second Brazil. But the Brazilian interests, calling for the slave trade, got the upper hand, and at the same time the country itself and its population proved to be less easy and amenable than Brazil had proved to be. So for a long time, Angola gravitated in the Brazilian sphere, while Mozambique was part of the government of India and incorporated in the Indian empire (the establishment of a separate government in Mozambique came about only in 1752). When the Dutch had attacked Brazil and then attacked Angola (the source of manpower for the sugar plantations), they were expelled from Angola in 1648 by expeditions organized in Brazil by the big Luso-Brazilian sugar interests.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the sugar and then the mines of Brazil dominated the empire, while by 1650-1660 the eastern part of it dwindled to some settlements which lasted to this century (Portuguese India was occupied by India in 1954-1961, Timor is still in the process of being decolonized, and Macao retains in China the ambiguous position that it has held for more than four centuries).

We may ask at this point what was the impact of Africa on Portugal during the “old” colonial empire. The new empire started in the nineteenth century in the wake of the colonization of Africa by the big European countries to compete with them.

It is very curious that, since the very beginning of the imperial expansion, the educated opinion was much divided in Portugal, in spite of all the imperial rhetoric by official chroniclers who themselves were many times very critical of the management of the empire. There were those who favored the expansion and those who feared that such ventures would deplete Portugal. One of the results of the empire, based mainly on monopolies of the crown and some grandees and other fortunate few, was to create in Portugal a double economic standard, which never allowed until very recently the creation of any powerful middle class and which consolidated a system of control of the lands in the hands of a small ruling class. Massive emigration to Africa was never implemented as it was to Brazil, whose possibilities very early attracted a stream of immigrants by the thousands and thousands which lasted until a few decades ago. At the same time, Portugal was economically placed in the vicious circle of depending on foreign capital for its imperial enterprises, while the riches were not reinvested but dissipated or served to pay the loans. On the other hand, the empire created a tradition of very centralized power around the king, which stifled almost completely the power of the urban middle classes, who as entrepreneurs had been involved in the beginning of the expansion, mainly as traders and even as organizers of naval expeditions. We must also bear in mind that the Inquisition, established in the middle of the sixteenth century (some decades after that in Spain), had as its main target the “new Christians” (or descendants of Jews forced to convert to Christianity) and so was used by the “old Christian” ruling class to keep down what was on its way to becoming a rich bourgeois class. The Inquisition which was all-powerful in Portugal itself and later became the same in India (where it wrecked the social contacts with the local population) was never entirely established in the same way either in Brazil or in Africa, where the missionary activities of the religious orders were more in the forefront. But in this respect we must stress that until the end of the eighteenth century, while Brazil was growing in European population, nothing of the sort was happening in the African territories.

As I pointed out, the loss of Brazil was a great shock for Portugal, nevertheless economically compensated by the stream of immigrants who would send money home or would return to establish themselves in the old country, exhibiting their acquired riches. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, at the same time that Portugal lost Brazil and Spain most of her American possessions, the great European countries started to launch a new drive toward Africa. Portugal, since the loss of most of its Indian empire, which had been the basis of all the imperial propaganda and pride, went through a period which lasted well into the present century, in which to dwell on the idea of decadence was prevalent among the educated classes. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, the liberal governments, once established in power, tried to counterbalance that feeling and the loss of Brazil by returning their attention to Africa in some way. On the other hand, in 1815 the Portuguese government had subscribed the treaty which ended (at least in theory) all slave trade north of the equator (which for Portugal included Portuguese Guinea and the islands of Cape Verde). The abolition of slavery south of the equator was decreed by a radical government in Lisbon in 1836, with several additional measures until 1869 that implemented the decision.

Meanwhile, many exploratory expeditions into the hinterland of Angola and Mozambique were made, since the new outlook of the European powers called for an effective exploration and occupation of the territories, as it had never been the Portuguese policy of outposts and of contacts with natives followed in the previous centuries (with the exception of Brazil). Those expeditions may be said to have started in the 1830s, culminating between the 1870s and the 1890s. The great dream was to establish a Portuguese zone going from Angola to Mozambique. The dream was shattered by the British designs, which came to a clash with Portugal in 1890 after several diplomatic and less diplomatic skirmishes when Great Britain sent an ultimatum to Lisbon. The treaties resulting from this humiliation of the Portuguese government established the actual boundaries of Angola and Mozambique. Already in 1870 the arbitration of the American President Grant had recognized the rights of Portugal to Portuguese Guinea against the pretensions of England. But the British ultimatum concerning Africa had a special political impact in Portugal. The Republicans seized the opportunity to accuse the monarchy of having betrayed the Portuguese interests and started an agitation which culminated in the downfall of the monarchy and the proclamation of the republic in 1910.

If the oldest cities in Portuguese Africa dated from the sixteenth century, there remained the need of occupying many portions inside the borders established for Guinea, Angola, and Mozambique, in which the natives resisted occupation, or, as it is known, were manipulated by Great Britain against Portugal. So intermittent “campaigns of occupation” were launched beginning in the 1840s, which lasted until the years of World War I. Nevertheless, with all its colonialism, the republic proclaimed in 1910 was much more progressive in its approach to the colonial problems, and tried to develop a more liberal and modern policy in the African territories. A greater autonomy was granted with the regime of high commissioners in Angola and Mozambique, a policy which lasted until 1930, when Salazar ended it. At this point, it must also be stressed that the trend of sending European settlers to Africa (mainly Angola), developed to some extent by the liberal monarchy and the republic, beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, was also stopped by the Salazar regime. Salazar never could accept that American, African, or Asian countries should ever become, in the past or the present, independent from Europe (and he said so once when greeting most warmly none other than a president of Brazil). He was afraid of any kind of independence, even a White supremacist one. Portuguese Guinea and Mozambique in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries followed a different development, kept very much, as they were, like colonial “preserves” for the companies controlling large areas of the territories until quite late. The trend of allowing and encouraging European settlers (that is, Portuguese) in the African colonies was only reversed in the 1960s to answer the pressure of the colonial wars. This reversal attracted especially to Angola lots of small-scale traders and entrepreneurs, eager to enrich themselves as soon as possible. The “old” Whites despised them as much as the Blacks did.

The independence of the African colonies would come sooner or later, in one way or another. But it can be said that the conditions established by Salazar created, more than anything else, the ground on which movements toward independence, involving Blacks and Whites, would develop. The new regime established in 1926 in Portugal, for instance, signed in 1928, with South Africa and Rhodesia, a treaty for the regular export of Black labor from Mozambique to the mines of those countries. I have mentioned already the Colonial Act of 1930, which reduced the status of the territories, and as late as 1954 Salazar promulgated the Statute of the Natives to cover for a very distinctive social situation that had never, in some ways, existed before. It is curious that this was the year in which India took over some portions of the Damão enclave. The statute was abolished in response to international pressures in 1961, the year in which India occupied the old Portuguese territories there and also the year the rebellion began in Angola. The last phase had begun. In 1963, the rebellion broke out in Guinea, and in 1964 in Mozambique. It is interesting to note that the movement for these fights had, very timidly, begun in Lisbon in the 1950s, when several students from the colonies, who included most of the best known leaders of the future, met to voice a mild discontent, which was immediately crushed by Salazar’s government.

To say that at first the colonial wars were popular in Portugal would be a pious lie. For centuries, with some dissenting voices, the greatness of the empire and of the old Portuguese glories had been part of Portuguese culture, and Salazar’s regime had stretched that to an incredible display. At first, only the leftists and some liberals understood that the Portuguese government relied on colonial rule and the powerful interests intertwined into the system to perpetuate its dictatorial power. Only gradually did part of the population start to understand the situation, mainly with young people avoiding the draft and running away to other European countries, and thus joining the 2 million emigrants (mainly to France and West Germany) that the government allowed openly and clandestinely to leave, as the money they sent home would balance the financial situation. Even more gradually, to some extent, the colonial wars started to radicalize the armed forces themselves, who were also afraid of being saddled with a stalemate in Africa, or with full disaster.

The process started by the military revolution of April 1974 is more or less well known and included, as I have said, the decolonization. So, it is perhaps an irony of history that the militaristic expansion launched in 1415 came to an end under the direction of a government which was created and more or less run by the military themselves.

What has been the impact of Africa (and the expansion) on Portugal? It shaped for more than five centuries Portuguese history and the destinies of the Portuguese people subordinated to colonial interests. No other country in modern times had undergone quite the same effect. From Brazil to Macao in China, the Portuguese created very similar or parallel local cultures and adapted their own buildings to pioneer forms that are recognizable in all those zones as they did in Africa. Nevertheless, the impact of African usages and other cultural elements on Portugal was very small, contrary to what happened in Brazil. The slaves brought from Africa (never in any numbers comparable to the millions sent to Brazil) disappeared into the lower strata of the population. The Black people that one encounters in Portugal are newcomers from the former colonies, while in Brazil, where slavery on a larger scale lasted longer, they are the descendants of the slaves.

As a person who, from a very young age forty years ago, always opposed the dictatorial regime and colonialism, I am entitled to add something at this point. With all the evils of colonial exploitation, it must be stressed that Portugal in its dealings with the colonies, never practiced what can be described as “apartheid”. The approach was authoritarian and paternalistic, and racism was always based on economic discrimination. The rare mulattoes or Blacks who, due to special protection or parentage or acquired riches, achieved a higher social status, were considered (even if not entirely) as “Whites” and not discriminated against either in Portugal or in Africa. It was perhaps a more insidious approach than more open ones, based on the idea that, by definition, the Blacks left to themselves were childlike and had to be put to work. All this is very swiftly becoming a thing of the past. It is entirely possible that the Portuguese language, as the only means of political unity, might be retained in the African ex-colonies. There, many Whites have adhered (and since the colonial wars) to the idea of the independence. But whether multiracial societies with Whites as a minority are going to be developed remains to be seen.




* In: Double Impact: France and Africa in the age of Imperialism. (G. Wesley Johnson, ed. London: Greenwood, 1985). Em vídeo: trailer e cenas do filme "Non, ou a vã glória de mandar", de Manoel de Oliveira