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The Portuguese in Africa

Updated on July 3, 2016

During the 19th century wholesale colonisation occurred in Africa, as European nations undertook a mass scramble to gain possession of as much territory as they could. At the forefront of the “Scramble for Africa” were countries such as Britain, Germany and France, who were all big winners; and, as a result, the role of Portugal in the Partition of Africa is virtually ignored.

The Portuguese Empire

Ignoring the Portuguese Empire though is to do it an injustice, as Portugal was one of the first European nations to expand their territory, setting out to colonise the world. In the fifteenth century, this had meant colonising South America, but at the same time, Portugal also established trading posts in Africa, in places such as Angola and Mozambique.

For over 300 years, Portugal would benefit from their South American colonies, mining large amounts of gold and precious stones, but by the nineteenth century, most of these colonies were no longer in the hands of the Portuguese; the former Portuguese colonies having gained their independence.

There was now only one place left to look to expand into, and so Portugal too scrambled for land in Africa.

Portuguese East Africa

The Times PD US
The Times PD US | Source

Portugal in Africa

When Portugal turned their attention to Africa; and Portugal found that they had an advantage over some other European nations, as they were not starting from scratch.

Portugal already operated a number of trading posts across the continent, and the first step for Portugal was to turn the posts at Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau and Tome and Principe into Portuguese colonies. Portugal also operated larger trading bases on the west coast of Africa, in what is now Angola, and in the east, in Mozambique; both would become another Portuguese colony in Africa.

Portugal though, had expansion on their mind, and came up with the ambitious plan of controlling a band of land between Angola and Mozambique. This would have meant taking control of the territory that later became Malawi (Nyasaland), Zambia (Northern Rhodesia) and Zimbabwe (Southern Rhodesia). This would have given Portugal a powerful presence in Africa.

There was though an obstacle to Portugal’s plans, and that was the British Empire. At the time when Portugal was looking to expand across the continent, Britain was looking to expand north to south, and south to north. Individuals like Cecil Rhodes for a British train line to run from Cairo to Cape Town, through lands controlled by the Empire.

Portugal was in no position to fight Britain for lands in Africa, and indeed the two nations were long standing allies, so Portugal would content itself to expanding the territories of Angola and Mozambique, without looking to join the two up.

The Spread of Colonialism

davidjl123 / Somebody500 CC-BY-SA-4.0
davidjl123 / Somebody500 CC-BY-SA-4.0 | Source

The Running of Portuguese Colonies

When it came to running their colonies, Portugal would follow a model similar to Britain, rather than state sponsored imperialism, much of the expansion and the day-to-day operation of the colonies was left to private companies.

These private companies included the Niassa Company, the Zambezi Company and Mozambique Company; and of course each company made a good profit from running the Portugal colonies.

The Portuguese state would only become involved when trouble loomed; this occurred during the First World War, when German expansion endangered the Portuguese colonies.

The Impact of Portuguese Colonialism

For many decades, a debate has raged about the benefits and negative aspects of Imperialism and colonisation, and the role of Portugal in Africa has been part of this debate.

Portugal provided huge swathes of infrastructure across its colonies, especially with the building railways; farms and mines were also built.

At the same time, the laws and policies that governed the Portuguese colonies, also meant that the financial benefit garnered from the colonies, went back to Portugal, and little thought of development was given to the colonies themselves. In practice this gave rise to state led discrimination.

Hindsight is of course a wonderful thing, each colonising nation, including Portugal, believed that they were doing the best for their mother country, whilst at the same time felt that they were helping to civilise the world.

The benefits and impacts of the Portuguese presence in Africa are subjective, but the impact of the end of the presence of Portugal in Africa was obvious and deadly

Portuguese Territories in the 20th Century

Released into PD
Released into PD | Source

The Last of Portugal's Colonies

The dictatorship of Salazar in Portugal would end in 1974, after the greatly unpopular Colonial War of 1961-74. The Colonial War was the final effort of the Portuguese state to hold on to its remaining overseas territories, hoping that force would be enough to crush the idea of independence for its African colonies.

In Portugal, Salazar was succeeded by Caetano, and then by a democratic government in 1974, which immediately sought to bring an end to the Colonial War. This ultimately meant that Portugal would have to talk to representatives of each of its colonies, and so the “Carnation Revolution” took place, resulting in the withdrawal of Portugal from Africa. Angola would be the last Portuguese colony in Africa, with independence coming on the 11th November 1975.

The departure of Portuguese governance left a vacuum, and in its former colonies, especially in Angola and Mozambique, left leaning government started to emerge, and soon the Soviet Union and Cuba were backing Communist governments and rebels. Inevitably, the United States, South Africa and other nations backed the opposition, a contributing factor in civil wars breaking out in both countries. The Angolan Civil War was one of Africa’s longest and bloodiest, lasting as it did for 27 years, and leaving at least 500,000 dead in the former Portuguese colony.

The former Portuguese colonies though, have seen some improvements in recent years, in terms of stability and development.

Departure from Africa would be followed alter be departure from Eat Timor and Macau, leaving only the Azores, Madeira and the Savage Islands as Portuguese overseas territories.


The presence of Portugal in Africa is part of African history now, and whether the civil wars were a result of Portuguese presence, their departure, or whether they would have occurred even if the Portuguese had remained is something that cannot be answered.

The period of Portuguese colonial rule provided colonies with good infrastructure, as well as mining and farming capabilities, although it came at the price of natural resources being stripped away. Of course, the period of colonial rule also lead to tribal tension, for the Portuguese, along with all other European nations, put in place artificial land boundaries.


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