Creating colonial Portugal in Africa

How colonial Portugal, to project the idea of a multi-continental and multiracial country, initiated a drive to encourage white settlement in Angola and Mozambique.

Ilha do Ibo, Moçambique. Image credit Rosino via Flickr CC.

The aftermath of the Second World War witnessed a crescendo of anti-colonial sentiment across the world. This prompted European imperial powers in Africa to seek ways to reform colonial structures in such a manner as to legitimize continued imperial rule. To this end, Belgian, British, French, and Portuguese colonies mobilized and deployed knowledge, planning and public funding in unprecedented ways.

Portugal, which had a lengthy history of colonial occupation in Africa, took a particularly uncompromising stance in the 1950s and 1960s. As other empires disintegrated or introduced forms of power sharing, it sought to strengthen its imperial grip. A key element of its strategy was rhetorical—it sought to deny that the empire existed at all. In the early 1950s, the terms “empire” and “colonies” were replaced with “Portuguese overseas” and “overseas provinces” in Portuguese constitutional law. The imperial state now sought to project the idea of a multi-continental and multiracial country, rather than an empire, to justify Portuguese permanence in Africa. In concert with this rhetorical strategy, Portugal initiated a drive to encourage white settlement in Angola and Mozambique. Between 1940 and 1960 the European population of Angola rose from 44,000 to 170,000, while in Mozambique it rose from 27,000 to 97,000.

This policy on demographic colonization constituted a curious experiment which ultimately reveals the fractured nature of mid-century white societies in Portugal’s African colonies. Specifically, to counter the concentration of settlers in cities, Portugal targeted rural areas of its colonies for population with settlers from the metropole. State-sponsored rural settlements were established in Angola (Cela and Cunene) and Mozambique (Limpopo). These settlers, moreover, were mainly impoverished peasants with few prospects in the mother country. For them, colonial settlement presented an opportunity for socioeconomic improvement.

In official communications, these settlements—known as colonatos—were envisioned as archetypes of Portugal in Africa. With reference to Angola, for instance, a colonato was imagined as “an entirely white district in black Africa, a miniature Portugal inside its largest province from which it will radiate colonizing energy.” Such efforts went to extreme lengths. The colonato of Cela in Angola contained a village named Santa Comba, after the birthplace of Portugal’s dictator Salazar, complete with a replica of the village church.

State plans for white settlement

Such efforts marked a dramatic departure from previous colonial policy. State-directed white settlement schemes hardly existed before the mid-twentieth century and the white population of Portugal’s territories was small. Moreover, the colonial governments were extremely selective about the Europeans admitted for settlement. The ideal type of settler brought specialist knowledge in agriculture, commerce and industry to the colony, and had their own resources or a guarantee of employment. Unskilled workers and anyone performing manual tasks, who would compete with African workers in the labor market, were considered unsuitable and were discouraged (see also George Bishi’s piece in this series, on “undesirable” whites in Rhodesia).

This approach changed drastically with the beginning of the colonatos scheme in the early 1950s. At Cela, Africans were dispossessed and their villages bulldozed to make way for Portuguese settlers. These poor and often illiterate peasants had been deliberately selected from the poorest regions in Portugal to discourage them from returning to the metropole. Those with large families in particular were targeted, as these settlers were prohibited from employing African labor on the colonato and thus needed the labor power to cultivate the land themselves.

At the site of the Limpopo colonato in Mozambique, the extreme poverty of the Portuguese settlers made a deep impression on African residents and that memory persisted after independence. In an interview, Abner Ngwenga, recalled:

They did not even have shoes when they got here for the first time. The whites here gave them blankets, clothes and shoes when they disembarked at the port of Lourenco Marques [Maputo]. This was done at night so that the blacks did not see that those settlers were badly dressed and barefoot.

Despite their elevation in Portuguese propaganda, the colonatos were poorly planned. Sites were selected on the basis of impressionistic surveys, not detailed scientific studies, leading to problems with infrastructure and agricultural production. In Limpopo, the climate was congenial for human habitation, but was unsuited for the cultivation of either tropical or temperate crops. The first settlers at Cela encountered serious problems: while houses were provided, these had no furniture and no piped water. There was little infrastructure or technical assistance. In both Angola and Mozambique, colonatos were located at great distances from potential markets and had poor transport links, so peasants had difficulty selling their produce. Unsurprisingly, many newly transplanted peasants did not stay long on the land and soon absconded to the main colonial cities.

Hierarchies in white society

The majority of Europeans in the Portuguese colonies were in fact based in the cities, held higher educational and professional qualifications and worked in commerce, services and public administration. As the recollection of Ngwenga suggests, the arrival of peasants from Portugal caused anxiety in the upper echelons of white colonial society. Although the new settlers were unquestionably European, the bulk of white Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique did not identify with them and perceived their poverty and low levels of education as disrupting the colonial racial order. For instance, colonial officials were aghast at reports of illiterate white settlers in the Limpopo colonato relying on Africans to read and write letters on their behalf. In other instances, peasant settlers were said to steal African livestock, and engage in drinking and fighting. Whether in the form of congenial reliance on Africans, hostility towards Africans, or failing to adhere to the ostensibly respectable moral conduct of European society, these new white settlers were seen to threaten the established racial order. Peasants were seen as caricatures of an archaic Portugal.

Despite all the official rhetoric and propaganda of the rural colonatos as representative of Portugal in Africa, and of white peasants as the heart of this project, post-war schemes to boost the legitimacy of the colonial order in fact exposed the frailty of the late-imperial order. Rather than strengthening white power in the colonies, the arrival of peasant setters exposed colonial white society as deeply fractured along class lines. The entanglement of class and racial anxieties, moreover, exposed the shallowness of imperial efforts to obfuscate race and safeguard white minority rule by reformulating the Portuguese colonial project as multiracial and multicontinental.

Further Reading