Portuguese Rule in Central Africa as liberal and oppressive. A Paradox in the Early 20th Century?

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Portuguese Rule in Central Africa as liberal and oppressive. A Paradox in the Early 20th Century?

Central African comprises of Angola, Chad, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and Sao Tome and Principe. This region is also known as Middle Africa by the United Nations when categorising geographic sub-regions.

Portuguese rule in central Africa was centred on Angola, Sao Tome and Principe, and Mozambique in modern Southern Africa. Equatorial Guinea was once a colonial territory of Portugal until 1778 when it was claimed by the Spanish. Portugal is believed to be the first European power to have arrived in the African coast before any other European power, but do not show much interest on acquisition and maintenance of colonies until it was invited at the Berlin Conference to officially occupy its claimed territories.

The Berlin Conference invited Portugal to prove her effective control over the colonial territories claimed. In trying to impose such control, Portugal had to face strong resistance from the African populations. In Angola, the wars of conquest lasted from 1906 to 1919, thirteen years of heavy fighting and bloodshed. In Mozambique, Enes and Albuquerque conquered the Gaza area in the south in 1896 and the ‘pacification’ of the north was completed in 1904. With the defeat of the Mokombe (King) of Barwe in 1918, the armed resistance was broken.[1]

Portugal was always ‘extremist’ among colonial powers. Britain, France, Belgium and other nations have exploited their colonies. The prospered from trade with their African territories. But they never have been ‘dependent’ on that trade. Most colonial powers have undertaken to provide education and social improvement of their African subjects. They have fostered political growth, though not always African perspective in their territories. None of these was worth mention in Portuguese colonial record in Central Africa and Africa at large.[2] It rather focused on exploitative commerce to the benefit of the home country. These attitudes of Portugal towards her colonies could be attributed to both political and economic reasons at home. Portugal is a small country and economically backwards. The mainstay of the economy is peasant agriculture. There is little industry worth mentioning, for Portugal has no industrial revolution. Most commercial activities in Portugal were run by foreign financiers. Politically too, Portuguese have always lived under dictatorship governments – whether the ruler was a monarch or president. Monarchy in Portugal survived until 1910. Moreover, at the period Portugal really established formal colonial administration in Central Africa, her home politics were in a state of chaos. For instance, between 1903 and 1926, there were eight presidents, forty-eight governments and twenty revolutions.[3] As the result of these economic and political strain on Portugal, it is not surprising that such colonial power should had made every effort to exploit her African territories and subjects, without any consideration for the Africans themselves.

Initially, Portuguese colonial rule largely depended on the military commanders who were completely responsible for their districts (capitanias-mores). At these areas, control of the land and the people was precarious. Other areas which were less ‘troublesome were termed as ‘civil districts’.[4] Whether military or civil administrators, they had complete authority over the local population and were almost entirely unsupervised. Under these administrators were the chiefs of posts who were virtually whites. However some were incorruptible. Some even urged the metropolitan government to adopt more moderate policies towards the colonies. Norton de Matos, governor-general of Angola was one of such men. But the economic and political situation at home proved too strong for the would-be reformers.

Portuguese’s rule in both Angola and Mozambique can be divided into two phase after the initial period of occupation and pacification. From ‘1911-19 saw attempt to re-establish the administration on more liberal lines; 1920-30 were the period of political crisis in Portugal when colonial rulers assumed more powers, but the results were disastrous and eventually, Prime Minister Salazar re-imposed centralization’.[5] After 1911, an attempt was made to provide more liberal policies to govern the colonies through the governor-generals. All ‘military districts’ were to be converted into ‘civil districts’ (circunscrioes civis). By the end of the first decade on the 20th century, critics of the Portuguese military administrative system the colonies called for reforms. ‘In our archaic process of colonial administration we began from a false point of view, that it was necessary to impose a military regime’ wrote one Portuguese politician.[6] The colonial government realized that military governors follow a pattern of colonial occupation characterized by violence, heroics and great expense, and there was a need to reduce such expenses on colonial administration in order to provide social and economic opportunities such as education, health and commerce for the indigenes.

Doing away with military administrators gave way for civil authorities to now think seriously of African problems. This change was the basic ingredient of the Colonial Reform Act, 1907, of which Mozambique was considered ‘pacified’ the same year. By 1911 Angola too was ready to move to the next phase of colonial administration. One of the governors who championed this course was Norton de Matos, whose motto was ‘the first concern of the colonial administration is the African’. He ordered the extension of Portuguese’s rights and privileges to the indigenous people, hence fore, to be considered and treated as citizens of Portugal. They were not to be exploited as before, and were to be encouraged to work and gain education.

The changes on the colonial process have its traces on the new colonial laws passed in Lisbon 1914.they granted more powers to the government generals. In Portugal, an office of native affairs was established to make final decisions on Africa problems. This office provided a framework through which the black people in the colonies were to be ‘civilized’ and ‘assimilated’. Social amenities like schools, medical posts and hospitals were to be set up. Agriculture was to be encouraged by the provision of seed and technical assistants. The indigenes were to be divided into two categories-Assimilados, thus those who could be considered as full Portuguese subjects because they have learnt the language and ways of their colonial masters and drop the’ uncivilized’ tribal customs; and the others who were still on the road to civilization and needed corrective laws.[7]

However these laws were to improve on the life of the African that have gone before, but they were doomed to failure. There are three main reasons that might have accounted for these. First, there was the opposition of the white population in Angola and Mozambique. While the government believed the salvation of the colonies to lie in Europeanizing the Africans, estate owners and commercial agents still want to explore the people for cheap labour. Such men did all they could to hamper the liberalizing work of the officials. The second reason was poor quality of the administrative agency sent out to the colonies by the metropolitan government. Most of them were usually untrained, underpaid and over loaded with so many responsibilities. Some of them over tax the African sin their district, took bribe for providing labourers, withheld pay from Africans working in the Rand mines and used African girls’ schools to provide a supply of concubines for themselves and their friends. The third reason was continuous political and economic situation in the metropolitan country. After the First World War, the worldwide economy depression did not leave Portugal alone, though it does not directly take part in the war front. The most ingredients needed by the colonies to realize the new liberal policies were to observe peace and stability in the home country. Henceforth, the Portuguese claim that their presence in Africa for the past five centuries was purposely for civilizing mission is a mirage.

The second phase of Portuguese rule in Central Africa in the early part of the 20th century started from 1920 when the metropolitan government enacted series of laws which gave both Angola and Mozambique self-government in financial affairs. These laws also granted some autonomy to the governor-generals, now renamed high commissioners to adopt policies that are in the interest of the African. This was what men like de Matos had wanted for years. Though there were speedy developments on the colonies, by 1926 both territories were nearly bankrupt. Portugal has to provide loans to keep the administration running. Such financial challenge could be attributed to limited resources in the territories. Also the 1920s was the worldwide economic depression and few investors were willing to invest in Central Africa.

Despite all these declarations of policies and administrative changes, the fate of the African man remained unmodified. Every Portuguese in Africa, whether administrator, farmer, or missionary, looked down on the African. ‘The Africans were considered either as ‘stupid savages’ or as ‘children’ who might, one day in the far distance future, attain the status of civilized men’.[8] They were certainly not regarded as people who had society and civilization of their own.

Another oppressive treatment meted out against the indigenes by Portugal and it colonial officials was the contract labor system which was passed in 1899.

All natives of Portuguese overseas provinces are subject to the obligation, moral and legal, of attempting to obtain through work the means that they lack to subsist into better their social condition. They have full liberty to choose their work, but if they do not work public authority may force them to do so. (Labor Regulation, 1899).[9]

The ending part of this provision of the labor act granted an opportunity for colonial officials to subject the Africans into inhuman treatment, such as slavery. Slavery and slave trading was officially abolished in the 19th century by international agreement, but in the first decade of the 20th century it became clear to the world that they had been resumed by the Portuguese under the name of contract labor system.

Under this system, the chiefs of posts were to provide workers for European employers. Africans were rounded up and taken away from their plot of land to serve under a white taskmaster. They were paid low wages, whipped, underfed, badly housed and treated with utter contempt. An example of this modern slavery was the provision of workers for the cocoa plantation on the Portuguese West African islands of Sao Tome and Principe.

Most of the other European powers, especially Britain and Germany protested against these inhuman trafficking. In other for them to register their displeasure about the practice, British and German firms had stopped buying cocoa from Sao Tome and Principe. The Portuguese government then enforced some moderation of the system. However, far away from foreign gaze, especially Portuguese mines and farms in the mainland territories, inhuman conduct towards African workers remained unchecked.

Naturally, opposition to colonial system in Angola and Mozambique was like elsewhere in Africa. They did not calmly accept loss of land, freedom and dignity. In both colonies resistance to Portuguese rule continued from ‘pacification’, though their expressions of discontent were usually suppressed. Lack of education by most of the early resistance leaders had hindered rapid political activity. Unlike their counterpart in west and east Africa where nationalists used knowledge and skill gained from European-run schools to protest for better conditions and eventually, independence. Nevertheless, Central African political groups did begin to appear Angola in the 1920s. In 1923 the Liga Africana was formed. It was government approved-body and pledged itself to present its grievances to the colonial power without making any appeal to violence and without leaving constitutional limit. Also in 1929, the Liga Nacional Africana was formed and was followed by the Africa Guild.

In Mozambique, the Liga Africana with the African Guild was represented. The growth of towns also contributed to resistance against the colonial government. As Africans moved to the industrial and commercial centers in search of work, so they sprang up terrible African slums, known as shanty-towns. All the established political units were never effective since they were always under the thumb of the Europeans.

Generally, Portuguese colonial rule in central Africa, precisely Angola and Mozambique was oppressive and liberal at times. Base on the administrative policies adopted by the colonial government, from military colonial officials to civil officials (governor generals or high commissioners), from federation to self – government in financial affairs to centralization under Prime Minister, Salazar and the issue of contract labor system, tells you that, there was no clear landmarked policy to administer these territories. Henceforth, entire Portuguese colonial system was more or less oppressive, though there were few liberal policies like the assimilation policy. It was unrealized, but rather kept the indigenes on anticipation that one day they will behave and live like Portuguese.


1. de Sousa Ferreira, Eduardo, Portuguese colonialism in Africa: the end of an era (The Unesco Press Paris 1974)
2. Wilson, Derek, A History of South and Central Africa (Cambridge University Press, 1975)
3. do Nascimento, J P. and A. A. de Mattos, C olonization of Angola (Lisbon 1912)
4. Oliver, Roland and Anthony Atmore, Africa since 1800 (University of Cambridge, press. 1996)

[1] Eduardo de Sousa Ferreira, Portuguese colonialism in Africa: the end of an era (The Unesco Press Paris 1974) p. 32

[2] Derek Wilson, A History of South and Central Africa (Cambridge University Press, 1975) p. 244

[3] Wilson, ‘ Central Africa …. P.244

[4] Wilson, ‘ Central Africa ….P. 247

[5] Wilson, ‘ Central Africa ….P. 245

[6] J P. do Nascimento and A. A. de Mattos, C olonization of Angola (Lisbon 1912) Pp.7-8

[7] Roland Oliver and Anthony Atmore, Africa since 1800 (University of Cambridge, press. 1996) Pp268-9

[8] Wilson, ‘ Central Africa.. P. 251

[9] Wilson, ‘ Central Africa.. P. 251

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Portuguese Rule in Central Africa as liberal and oppressive. A Paradox in the Early 20th Century?
Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology
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portuguese, rule, central, africa, paradox, early, century
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Abibah Tutuwah Sumana (Author), 2017, Portuguese Rule in Central Africa as liberal and oppressive. A Paradox in the Early 20th Century?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/377055


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