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  • Writer's pictureNathaniel Hill

Colonialism and Genocide in Portuguese Africa

Updated: Oct 11, 2023

One of the Portuguese colonial statues that have been pulled down by the UNITA movement, in Nova Lisboa, the main town in UNITA-held territory in Angola. (Photo by Fred Bridgland/Getty Images)

By Nat Hill

The decolonization of Africa in the 20th century was an inherently tumultuous and violent process. European powers gave little care or attention to how new African nations faired following independence, and they largely sought to keep Africa as weak and inefficient as possible to ensure some degree of influence and control. Different European powers approached the decolonization process in different ways. France, for example, sought to keep French-speaking African nations within France’s sphere of influence in a policy known as Françafrique. Britain, on the other hand, often acquiesced to African demands for indigenous rule, while at the same time brutally oppressing any threats to their commercial or strategic interests.

Portugal, on the other hand, viewed its long-held African provinces of Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Capo Verde, Sao Tome, and Angola as part of a singular nation spread across multiple continents rather than a colonizer ruling over subject peoples. This concept, known as pluricontinentialismo, went hand in hand with a theory of racial pseudoscience known as “Lusotropicalism.” Initially developed by Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre, Lusotropicalism claimed that the Portuguese brand of colonialism was more benevolent, adaptable, and multicultural compared to other nations that deemed the colonized to be inferior. The perceived “uniqueness” was attributed to aspects of Portugal’s culture, climate, and, most importantly, the large-scale interbreeding of racial groups across the empire. In practice, the colonial regime in Portuguese Africa was an inherently violent, exploitative, and racialized system that sought to keep indigenous communities tied to a feudal system of forced labor and racial segregation.

Lusotropicalism became the defining ideology of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar’s pseudo-fascist regime in Portugal following the Second World War. As European powers increasingly sought to rid themselves of their colonial territories, Portugal, under Salazar, refused to consider granting its African colonies independence or autonomy, calling them províncias ultramarinas or “overseas provinces”[TS1] instead of colonies. Amilcar Cabral, the founder, and leader of the Partido Africano para a Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde or PAIGC[TS2] in Portuguese Guinea spoke about how the regime used lusotropicalism in their colonial dogma:

“A whole mythology was assembled. And as with other myths, especially those concerning the subjection and exploitation of people, there was no lack of ‘men of science’, even a renowned sociologist, to provide a theoretical basis – in this case lusotropicalismo…. Gilberto Freyre transformed all of us who live in the colony-provinces of Portugal into the fortunate inhabitants of a Luso-Tropical paradise.” (No Fist is Big Enough to Hide the Sky by Basil Davidson; pg.1)

Beginning in the 1960s, liberation movements in the Portuguese colonies began underground insurgencies to force the Portuguese into granting independence. Four prominent groups, the PAIGC in Guinea Bissau, FRELIMO in Mozambique, and the rival MPLA and FNLA in Angola, took up the cause of armed liberation. All the groups, aside from the FNLA, actively espoused a Marxist-Leninist ideological position and subsequently received large-scale support (both financially and militarily) from the Soviet Union, Cuba, and the Eastern Bloc.

Former Portuguese Colonies in Africa (in red)

The Portuguese responded to these popular uprisings with methodical brutality and wonton destruction of indigenous populations. Napalm and chemical defoliants were frequently used to terrorize civilians, destroy vegetation, and exterminate villages. Torture, dismemberment, and summary executions were routine practices in the Portuguese attempts to root out rebel cadres and civilian sympathizers. It should be noted that the liberation movements themselves were responsible for horrendous acts of violence, not only against the Portuguese but their local populations, party members, and rival factions. For example, following independence, the ruling PAIGC in Guinea Bissau executed nearly 8,000 ex-soldiers who had fought or collaborated with the colonial regime.

The Portuguese Empire was far poorer and less industrialized compared to Britain and France at the time, and its army was far too underequipped to maintain its colonial possessions in Africa. Throughout the thirteen-year war, Portugal mobilized around 1.4 million soldiers, lost 10 thousand men, and crippled its economy. The war only ended in 1974 after a popular uprising in Portugal, known as the Carnation Revolution, ousted the colonial regime. Hundreds of thousands of Africans were killed, displaced, and maimed because of the war. Following independence, Angola and Mozambique devolved into a decade-long civil war between rival communist and anti-communist factions. Eventually, they evolved into a large proxy war with the United States and the Soviet Bloc providing billions in military aid. Thousands died and millions more were displaced in the civil wars in Mozambique and Angola as a result.

The legacy of the Colonial War in modern Portuguese memory is complex, with many (including many veterans) questioning the purpose, futility, and brutality of the decades-long war. In the former colonies, apart from Cabe Verde and Sao Tome, decades of civil wars and one-party rule have resulted in unstable, corrupt, and underdeveloped governments with little to no assistance or reparations from the former colonial power. Genocide scholarship has largely ignored the Portuguese Colonial War as well as the following civil wars in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea Bissau, and I believe that we must examine them through the lens of genocide going forward.

Nat Hill is the Co-Director of Research at Genocide Watch and the Chief Editor of "The Call" Blog

The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Genocide Watch

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