Colonial Portugal and withdrawal

Lynne Booker


FIRST IN ...  LAST OUT ... In terms of overseas empire, Portugal may be seen as the European power which was first in (1415) and last out (1975). There are many points of interest about Portugal´s colonial past:


How did Portugal became the pioneer of European overseas expansion; why did Portugal alone continue to fight for its empire long after other imperial powers had let go their empires; how did the Portuguese manage to keep up a war effort over 13 years in three distant and widely spaced theatres of operations; and how much did the struggle to keep the empire contribute to the military coup and peaceful revolution which ended 48 years of dictatorship in 1974? 


560 years of Empire

Portugal under D João I had begun overseas expansion at Ceuta in 1415 as a part of the  Christian reconquista, and by the end of the 19th century nearly every single square mile of Africa was a possession of one or other of the European powers. Great Britain, France, Belgium, Spain and Italy let go their colonies from 1910 onwards but it was not until 1975 that Portugal´s  African colonies (Angola, Moçambique, São Tomé/Príncipe, Guiné Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands) had all gained their independence.  For Portugal, the reasons for keeping the colonies so long was partly perceived economic necessity and partly patriotic pride.  The fact that Salazar´s dictatorship was anti-communist was also a factor in winning American support. 


Salazar -  Saviour of the Nation
Since the mid 19th Century the  Portuguese had considered Africa as exclusively for Portugal, and the British Ultimatum of 1890 had caused an immense shock to the political system.  The Great Depression of the 1930s led Portugal to be turned away from Europe, the USA and Brazil as a trading partner and Salazar began to look for new wealth (and a closed market for Portuguese wine and textiles) in the African colonies.  The interwar history of Portugal is dominated by Salazar´s search for national self sufficiency; he had the support of the richer classes, senior army officers (who were later known as the rheumatic brigade)  and the Church; indeed, his own propoganda machine styled him ´saviour of the nation´ and  patriotism came to be epitomised by a renewed enthusiasm of Portugal´s role as one of the great powers of African colonisation. 


Overseas provinces
The African colonies came to be seen as an integral part of Portugal, as províncias ultramarinas, in spite of the fact that Portugal at 92,000 sq km is 22 times smaller than its five African colonies, together almost as big as Europe itself.  Following the Wall street Crash and the ensuing economic depression, Salazar´s government forced the African peasants of Moçambique and Angola to grow cotton; since they could not grow their own food, these colonies suffered famines in both 1945 and 1961. The worsening conditions for the Africans was in contrast to the new generation of migrants in the 1950s and 60s.  These new colonisers, insensitive to African needs, reformed nothing and provoked renewed demands for independence.  In response to the first outbreak of violence in Northern Angola, Salazar told his army, "Para Angola, rapídamente e com força!"  (To Angola, quickly and with strength).  The home country sent increasingly large expeditionary armies (eventually costing over a third of the national budget)  first to Angola and then to Guiné-Bissau and Moçambique to strengthen its hold on the empire for another decade.


Portugal ´not for sale´
From 1957 the UN condemned Portugal´s colonial policy and the Kennedy administration in Washington began to put pressure on Portugal to decolonise in return for financial investment.  Salazar proclaimed that, ´Portugal was not for sale!´; he preferred a poor independent Portugal to selling out to the USA; and in 1965 declared that if necessary Portugal would fight on without allies ´proudly alone´.  The African wars at first gave the dictatorship a new lease of life.  In contrast to the Kennedy administration, President Nixon allowed military equipment to Portugal for use in its African empire;  South Africa was supportive to a fellow white regime in Southern Africa; the French following their Algerian campaign not only sympathised but supplied counter revolutionary training and military equipment; and West Germany also supplied arms in exchange for use of the air training base at Beja.


Worldwide condemnation
New tactics by Frelimo in the late 1960s targetted the Cabora Bassa dam project on the Zambezi and in response colonial security forces adopted anti-terrorist tactics learnt from Vietnam - burning villages and rounding up peasants.  Foreign missionaries in Moçambique photographed atrocities and documented the excavation of mass graves and Portugal suffered worldwide condemnation. 


´Portugal and the Future´
General Spínola, late commander in chief in Guiné-Bissau, published a book ´Portugal and the Future´in which he declared that Portugal could not to win the three wars in Africa against irregular forces seeking to liberate their homelands.  In place of empire, he recommended a commonwealth style community. Since the government was identified with success in the African wars, and the very thought of failure of weakened the regime irretrievably, Spínola and his boss General Costa Gomes were immediately sacked.  Because there was a shortage of officers, the government tried to recruit territorial officers directly into the regular army, and earned the opposition of regulars. These regular junior officers made an unsuccessful attempt at military revolt on 16 March 1974 at Caldas da Rainha and a second and successful coup took place on 25 April 1974. The shout went up in Lisbon, ´Not one more soldier for the colonies!´  As the new President of the Republic, Spínola tried to implement a federal Lusophone solution on the empire, but found that he had no support, and within months, the empire that had lasted 560 years had disappeared. 



1956                 African Party for the Independence of Portuguese Guiné and Cape Verde (PAIGC) formed. 
1970                 Acquisition by PAIGC of Sam 7 missiles which neutralised Portuguese air supremacy.
1973                 PAIGC claimed independence de facto in September. Within days 82 countries had recognised PAIGC as the legitimate Government.  In October the UN labelled Portugal as the illegitimate occupier of a sovereign state.
1974                 Independence from Portugal.

Cape Verde

1974                 Moved towards independence through a transitional Portuguese-Cape Verde Government.
1975                 Independence.


1962                 Frelimo (liberation front) established.
1973                 Father Adrian Hastings of ´The Times´reported a massacre by Portuguese troops at Wiriyamu.  Widespread outrage in world opinion.
1975                 Independence achieved as a socialist republic with Samora Machel as president and Frelimo as the sole legal party.


1956                 First independence movement formed MPLA.  (The people´s movement for the liberation of Angola).
1961                 Beginning of armed struggle.
1962                 Second nationalist movement formed, FNLA.  (The National Front for the Liberation of Angola).
1966                 Third nationalist movement formed, UNITA.  (The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola).
1975                 Independence.  Transitional government formed from representatives of MPLA, FNLA, UNITA and Portuguese government. 

São Tomé and Príncipe

1973                 Achieved internal self-government.
1975                 Independence.