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Africa During the Scramble: The World's Oldest Alliance

By Gary Oswald

Jean de Wavrin's painting of the formation of the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance.

In 1386, John I of Portugal and Richard II of England agreed the Treaty of Westminster. That treaty established a pact of mutual support between the two countries that is still in force today. Since that day, England and her successor states, Great Britain and the UK, have never been to war with Portugal as an independent state and have fought alongside it in numerous wars against Spain, France and Germany. It is the World's Oldest Alliance.

But the picture is not quite as rosy as that makes it sound. England was at war with Portugal in the early 1600s, when Portugal had a Spanish King, and numerous times one went to war without the other helping. It is an alliance remembered when convenient and dropped when not. More than that it is an unequal alliance. In 1386, the two countries could be considered equals but by 1825, Britain was clearly the more powerful partner and so tended to be somewhat dismissive about her weaker ally's concerns. An alliance is important only if both sides could gain from it and for most of the 19th century, the relationship was much more rocky.

In terms of ambitions, the two countries were also increasingly obviously working at cross purposes during the 19th century. Twice in the 1870s, Portugal asked for confirmation that Britain would unconditionally guarantee her territorial integrity and twice Britain refused to give it. And the centre of that disagreement was Africa.

Portugal had been the first European country to arrive in sub-Saharan Africa. They had invented the Atlantic slave trade and had captured a series of ports all around the Continent from Morocco to Kenya in the 15th and 16th Centuries. That would be a high point they'd not maintain for long. Oman captured many of their forts on the Swahili coast, Spain and Morocco both took their cities in Barbary, the Dutch drove them out of Ghana, France bought their port in Senegal and their land in Rio Muni was traded to Spain.

By the beginning of the 19th Century, the Portuguese land in Africa was primarily Islands (Azores, Madeira, Cabo Verde and São Tomé and Príncipe). What would become their three Colonies on the Continent, Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Mozambique were mostly abandoned beyond a handful of ports and some settler estates that were essentially independent. The areas directly around Bissau, Luanda and the Island of Mozambique were genuinely Portuguese colonies but the lands they claimed to hold from those, were often at best held by vaguely allied nations (such as the prazos in Mozambique and Malawi which were run by Portuguese settlers but were completely self governing) and at worst held by nations who either knew nothing of Portugal at all or were actively burning down their towns. And in Mozambique the Portuguese trading ports were even paying rent to native kingdoms like the Zulu and Gaza for allowing them to live there.

As European interest in Africa grew from the 1850s onwards, Portuguese interest also grew. They invested a lot of money into the area, hoping that this short term investment would lead to long term dividends in land and resources and make up for the recent loss of Brazil. Their aim was for what would become known as the Pink Map, complete control of all of Africa between Angola on the Atlantic Ocean and Mozambique on the Indian, modern day Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and the DRC. To this end they sent numerous expeditions into the interior led by men like Francisco de Lacerda, Alexandre de Serpa Pinto, Hermenegildo Capelo, Antonio Cardoso and Roberto Ivens. All of these expeditions set up trading agreements and treaties of protection with the native peoples, with even the Gaza agreeing to respect Portuguese authority. By the mid 1880s Portugal was convinced it had established control over an area it had claimed for centuries. Britain disagreed.

As Henry E. O'Neill, the British agent in Mozambique, put it "To speak of Portuguese colonies in East Africa is to speak of a mere fiction—a fiction colourably sustained by a few scattered seaboard settlements, beyond whose narrow littoral and local limits colonisation and government have no existence." This was an exaggeration but is not entirely baseless. It just also wouldn't be baseless about a lot of other European colonies in Africa which Britain happily agreed to recognise, including their own in Somalia. The route of the disagreement went back a lot further.

From the 1830s to the 1850s, the main concern of the Portuguese government was building new infrastructure in Portugal itself and so reducing the flow of emigration. Africa was thought of, as much as it was thought of at all, merely as a way to fund that infrastructure. They often didn't even send Portuguese bureaucrats there, because it was cheaper to hire locals to run things. Their interest was purely the provision of raw materials and tax income, and since the colonies didn't have the man power to actually collect much direct tax, that tax was primarily custom duties. Portugal abolished its royal monopolies and threw open its colonial trade to all nations, as long as they paid the tariffs. And Britain, on a free trade kick due to producing better products and so benefiting from being able to buy raw material cheap and then sell their manufactured goods on equal terms, very much didn't wish to pay those tariffs.

They also had a problem with what exactly Portugal was trading. The main export during the 1830s was slaves and Britain was increasingly abolitionist. Portugal were basically bribed into abolishing the slave trade in 1836, but then they didn't really enforce this new law. In 1839, Britain unilaterally started seizing Portuguese slave ships for piracy, in 1842 Portugal backed down and agreed that Britain had a right to search their ships and by 1850, Portugal's role in the Atlantic Slave Trade was over. Angola largely replaced that trade with coffee, palm oil, ground nuts, ivory and rubber instead. And, because it was only the slave trade that was banned and not slavery, the Portuguese increasingly began to set up slave plantations within Africa, particularly in Angola, producing rubber, and São Tomé, producing cocoa. This led to an increase in the internal slave trade and came hand to hand with them selling slaves in much greater numbers to the Arabs, participating in the increasing Indian Ocean Slave Trade, which was soon to become a cause celebre in Britain.

In 1869, under more British pressure, Portugal abolished slavery within their African territories, but once again these laws weren't enforced. It wasn't until the establishment of the first Portuguese Republic in 1910 that you'd see a firm transition from slaves towards wage labour or labour in place of taxes. And by that time British led international anger over slavery in São Tomé had become a major embarrassment, with Britain forbidding British labour to be used there in 1900. The 1926 dictatorship would quickly reinstate forced labour with debt bondage and labour instead of conscription leading to essentially slave conditions. Meaning that there were only around 15 years in the history of Portuguese Angola where forced labour wasn't the majority experience.

Portugal, as a white European country with a long standing alliance with Britain, got less criticism for this from the British abolitionist faction than they might otherwise have done. Zanzibar was the main target of British abolitionist efforts in the Indian ocean, not Mozambique. The brutality of rubber collecting in the Congo Free State was emphasised in leaflets in a way the similar conditions in North Angola just weren't. And the slave conditions in Spanish Fernando Po got more emphasis than the worse ones in São Tomé. But it still poisoned the well to some extent, especially alongside a protectionist trade policy in the colonies that also saw British traders lose money and a lack of border control that saw gun smugglers to African kingdoms like the Zulu go through Portuguese areas.

The Marquis of Sá da Bandeira

In the 1850s, Bernardo de Sá Nogueira de Figueiredo, the Marquis of Sá da Bandeira, first rose to prominence in Portuguese Politics and he pushed firmly for an expansion of Portuguese power in Africa to increase the money the government earned. He primarily desired more ports in which tariffs could be claimed, but the British protested against any extension of Angolan power up or down the coast. So instead the plan was to extend power inland, where the British had less power. Sá da Bandeira's main hope was that there could be vast wheat farms established which would allow Portugal to no longer import food, which was a drain on the Portuguese purse. Conquering land in Angola and Mozambique would be expensive, in the short term, but it would also allow for an establishment of direct taxation and new farm land being opened up, so would pay off long term.

As part of this military push, in 1860, Portugal conquered their old enemy the Kingdom of Kongo, and installed a Garrison in their Capital. And around the same time, they pushed increasingly into the interior of Mozambique, allying with the Boers against the Gaza in 1861, and into the north of modern Namibia, as part of an attempt to reclaim the Ivory trade from South African traders. Militarily, this largely worked, but economically it was a complete failure, with losses due to diseases meaning rocketing military costs, massive disruption to trade meaning a reduction in tariffs and tax income stagnating because Africans just moved out of the areas with firm Portuguese control. And not enough white settlers could be attracted to create the new farms. So Military expansion stopped again in the mid 1860s, in 1870 they even withdrew their garrison from the Kongo.

Prices for tropical commodities were at the highest during the 1860s thanks to an increase in demand with a still limited supply and so Angola and Mozambique were once again paying their own way just through trade by 1870. But as the 1870s started those prices began to drop, resulting in a minority of politicians arguing that the colonies would never be profitable and should be abandoned. These were ignored as it would be a huge blow to prestige to give up land and the UK was certainly making money from their colonies. If the Portuguese could have a captive market to sell to surely they'd be better off even without an increased agricultural and tax base. So instead they doubled down on it and on protectionism on trade with the colonies as a reaction against the dominance of British manufacturing.

In both Mozambique and Angola, direct taxation was largely given up on and there was also much less attempt to obtain labour than most European countries. Rubber was certainly obtained through forced labour but it was also just bought from allied sub Kingdoms in Angola such as the Bailundo and the other Ovimbundu peoples. The Bailundo were using their own slave labour, of course, but because the interest was in markets rather than material, trade was seen as preferable to conquest. The lesson the Portuguese had learned from the early 1860s was that Military expansion was expensive and so was kept to the minimum where as trade with vassal kingdoms in Angola like the Kongo or Bailundo or the Boer colony in Humpata was the life blood of the economy and must be preserved. These vassals were largely left alone as long as they recognised Portuguese over lordship and sold their materials to them. In Mozambique there were more of these loose vassal kingdoms like the Gaza Empire but also large areas of land were sold to foreign companies or private actors who were given their own rights to set tariffs and claim taxes as long as they recognised Portuguese over lordship and traded through Portuguese middlemen. This was a very informal Empire which is why O'Neill called it a fiction.

Portugal's claimed dominion of Central Africa was first challenged not by Britain but by King Leopold and his Congo society. The areas which the Society claimed had long been considered under Portuguese influence, thanks to their presence and the presence of their new vassal state, the Kingdom of Kongo. Britain, worried about the nature of Leopold's company, supported Portugal, signing a treaty in February 1884, in which Portugal would control the mouth of the Congo. But this backfired massively, as the prospect of paying Portuguese tariffs spooked France and Germany, who threw their support behind Leopold and forced both Britain and Portugal to back down after Bismarck penned an ultimatum to Lisbon. Portuguese Congo was reduced to only the exclave of Cabinda, a humiliation for them. Germany also pushed the Portuguese territory in Angola North, by establishing their own colony in Namibia.

The Marquess of Salisbury

But it was Britain who objected the most to Portuguese claims. In 1886, Germany agreed that Portugal had the right to control all the territory between Angola and Mozambique but Britain argued otherwise. As Lord Salisbury put it in 1887, the Berlin Treaties said you needed effective governance on the ground and so he would not recognise Portuguese claims there until they had demonstrated sufficient strength to maintain order. The British had their own ambition in the area. Around Malawi, Scottish missionaries and traders were fighting a war against Arab slave traders and wished for Government support. And further south Cecil Rhodes of the Cape Colony wished to bypass the Boer Kingdoms and find a second Rand full of minerals to exploit in the area between Angola and Mozambique. And he was willing to fund it with his own money earned as a Diamond Magnate in South Africa and what partners he could get investment from, such as the Rothschilds. In 1888, he bought exclusive mining rights in Matabeleland, which gave him a foothold in the region. With the Millions of pounds required to conquer the area offered to them by private traders, Britain was essentially getting land for free and already had agents in the area. And so, despite the general agreement over the Portuguese claims, London held they were now in question.

In 1889, a Portuguese column set out to prove they could indeed demonstrate sufficient strength to maintain order and defeated the Makololo at the battle of Mupassa in modern day Malawi. Salisbury, predictably, rather than accepting that the Portuguese had jumped through his hoops, condemned this as aggression into areas the Scottish had already claimed. The Portuguese replied that they had been in the region since the 1620s and were merely restoring order in their own lands.

Portugal offered to seek arbitration on the borders, Britain refused and instead send an 1890 ultimatum to Lisbon demanding they withdrew all forces from Central Africa and that they'd recognise something closer to the modern borders of Angola and Mozambique with Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi all ceded to Britain. This led to a national outpouring of anger in Portugal at the British with British embassies attacked and serious civil unrest consuming the country. This anger led to the collapse of the Portuguese government and was fuelled by the Portuguese press, which led campaigns to acquire a new navy so they could stand up to the British and to ban all English loan words in the language.

As Portugal weakened during the 19th Century, its Monarchy had becoming increasingly reliant on the British to keep it in power and the latter had taken advantage of this to dominate the Portuguese economy. The Republican movement painted the alliance as not one of equals, but one of submission. The Monarchy had sold Portugal down the river to Britain and this latest outrage only proved in. The Republican Press pushed for a full realignment, Portugal should break its alliance with Britain and ally instead with Spain and France against her. That way it could keep its own land in Africa.

The British Press responded in kind. Suddenly the Portuguese role in the slave trade, often ignored, was now of massive importance. The Portuguese had proved themselves unable to handle the civilising needed and so, obviously it was right for Britain to take over and clean up these slave infested lands. Ultimately, whatever the rights and wrongs of the rhetoric, Britain had power on their side and, in 1891, Portugal caved, signing a treaty which abandoned central Africa to Britain after various spots of undeclared fighting between British and Portuguese forces.

This humiliation contributed to the end of the Portuguese Monarchy and a further souring in Anglo-Portuguese relations. But it also saw the end of the Portuguese informal Empire. From the 1890s to the 1910s, Portugal aimed to entirely conquer Angola and Mozambique, achieving full effective control rather than the patchwork of vassal Kingdoms that had existed prior. And as a result they moved from exploiting raw materials to exploiting labour with thousands of newly conquered Africans forced into plantation work.

The independent Prazos of Mozambique were finally bought under heal in the aftermath of the Ultimatum, as was the once mighty Gaza Kingdom of south Mozambique, which was conquered in 1895. While on the other side of the Continent the Portuguese would launch a series of wars against the Ovambo people of Southern Angola, from 1892 to 1915, in the aftermath of the El Niño famines that hit the region. The global decline in rubber prices as Malaysian rubber hit the market would also see a breakdown in relations between the Portuguese and the Ovimbundu in North Angola, leading to the Bailundo War in 1902 and thousands of deaths. In 1914 the Portuguese fought the Kolongongo War that saw the conquest of the Mbunda in East Angola and, in the same year, they at last abolished the ancient Kingdom of Kongo after a small revolt. By the 1920s, full Portuguese control was established over their entire territory, by which point their colonies bore little resemblance to the informal empire that the British had so scorned at the ultimatum.

The question to ask then is, was this centralisation the result of the ultimatum or was it inevitable? If the ultimatum is avoided, which only takes some small changes to British policy or the premature death of Cecil Rhodes, would we still see these wars waged? On the one hand, centralisation was the trend everywhere, it had been something the Portuguese had tried before in the 1860s and attacks had been made on the Ovambo in the 1880s prior to the ultimatum, just with less seriousness. Ultimately increasing the labour and tax base was more valuable than captive markets, especially as the rubber prices fell and famines weakened the native kingdoms. But, as true as that is, conquest was also very expensive and difficult, there are also good reasons why it had been avoided.

The Angolan natives were excellent fighters and were often well armed, the conquest was not easy. In 1904, at Pembe, a Portuguese column was ambushed by a Kwanyama force equipped with modern rifles and were routed, with over 250 dead in the first hour, a national humiliation that showed the vulnerability of their frontier forces. While Portugal had the usual European advantages in terms of better heavy weapons, fortifications, better organisation and disunity among their enemies (the Kwanyama were unable to press their advantage after Pembe thanks to the fact a broad Ovambo coalition would not be formed for another few years) they were far more limited in numbers than the other colonial powers, which is why they tried to use local auxiliaries, such as their Boer subjects, as much as possible. And even with that, they were never able to muster more than 2,500 soldiers for any one campaign. With much more land under their control, and major Kingdoms like the Matabele included in that area, it's possible that full on conquest would either prove impossible or would be seen as being best avoided.

Centralisation might happen anyway but, when pondering what a Portuguese Zimbabwe would look like, Angola in 1890 should be considered as much as Angola in 1920 and the two were very different.


Gary Oswald is the editor of the 'Grapeshot and Guillotines' and 'Emerald Isles' Anthologies.


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