Portugal & Africa




the Portuguese began trading on the west coast of Africa, in the 15th century


No gold as it turned out but there were slaves.


As in Guinea, the slave trade became the basis of the local economy in Angola


In Mozambique, reached in the 15th century by Portuguese sailors searching for a maritime spice trade route, the Portuguese settled along the coast and made their way into the hinterland.


By the beginning of the 19th century, Portugal controlled outposts at six locations in Africa. One was the Cape Verde Islands, located about 700 miles due west of Dakar, Senegal. Discovered by Alvise da Cadamosta of Venice in 1456 and claimed for Portugal by Diogo Gomes about 1458, this archipelago of eight major islands was devoted to sugar cultivation using slaves taken from the African mainland. The Portuguese once had extensive claims on the West African coast -- since they were the first Europeans to explore it systematically -- but by 1800 they were left with only a few ports at the mouth of the Rio Geba in what is now known as the Guinea-Bisseau.

To the east, the Portuguese controlled the islands of Sao Tomé & Principe, located south of the mouth of the Niger River. Like the Cape Verde Islands, they were converted to sugar production in the early 16th century using slaves acquired on the mainland in the vicinity of the Congo River. By the end of the 19th century, Portuguese landowners had successfully introduced cocoa production using forced African labor.

Further south, the Portuguese claimed both sides of the mouth of the Congo River, as well as the Atlantic coast as far south as the Rio Cunene. In practical terms, they only controlled a few port cities including Cabinda (north of the Congo River mouth), Ambriz (south of the Congo's mouth), Luanda and Benguela (on the Angolan coast) plus some river towns in the Angolan interior.


The Portuguese hold in Africa was extremely weak. The first cause was the small size of Portugal's population, coupled with the lack of popular support for overseas empire. Exploration and conquest began as an enterprise supported by the nobility, and Portuguese peasants rarely participated unless forced to do so. When the common people of Portugal did chose to emigrate, they were much more likely to head to Brazil than to Africa. To induce Europeans to move to its African holdings, the Portuguese government resorted to releasing degradados - convicted criminals -- from prison in exchange for accepting what amounted to exile in Africa. Angola, in particular, gained a reputation as a Portuguese penal colony.


Due to three centuries of slave trading the Portuguese in Africa found no incentive to engage in any other kind of economic activity. The economies of Guinea, Angola and Mozambique became almost entirely devoted to the export of slaves. ortugues reluctance to abolish slave trade despite pressure from other European states in the late 19th C.









During the late 1830s, the government headed by Marquis da Bandeira tried to encourage Portuguese farmers to emigrate to Angola, with little success. Between 1845 and 1900, the European population of Angola rose from 1,832 to only about 9,000. European immigration to Mozambique showed slightly better results -- reaching about 11,000 by 1911 -- but most of the increase was due to British immigrants from South Africa rather than Portuguese from Europe.


Inter-European rivalries fuelled the ultimate scramble for Africa including Portuguese efforts.


Portugal had one trump card despite its other weaknesses. It was Portugal's claim to the land on either side of the mouth of the Congo River that gave Portugal places from which naval patrols could control access to Africa's largest river system. The British eyed this arrangement with suspicion for years, but paid tariffs for the right to trade there.


Effective occupation was a prerequisite for recognition of colonial claims. The question continued to reappear until 1885 when it was enshrined in the agreements that emanated from the Congress of Berlin.

The Anglo-Portuguese Treaty signed on February 26, 1884 granted exclusive navigation rights on the Congo River to Britain in exchange for British guarantees of Portugal's control of the coast at the mouth of the Congo River.

By the Berlin Conference Portugal was recognised as a fully-fledged player


Portugal's colonial claims recognised  at Berlin Conference and consolidated by 1891 over Angola and Mozambique.



WW1 - WW2


The regime in Portugal had been through two major political upheavals: from monarchy to republic in 1910 and then to a military dictatorship after a coup in 1926. These changes resulted in a tightening of Portuguese control in Angola.


In the early years of the expanded colony, there was near constant warfare between the Portuguese and the various African rulers of the region. A systematic campaign of conquest and pacification was undertaken by the Portuguese. One by one the local kingdoms were overwhelmed and abolished.


Angola fully under Portuguese control by 1920 - slavery officially abolished but continued on informs of enforced labour until 1961.



The policy of Portuguese neutrality in World War II placed the Portuguese Armed Forces out of the way of a possible East-West conflict; on the other hand, the regime felt the increased responsibility of keeping Portugal's vast overseas territories under control and protecting the citizenry there.


Portugal's commitment to Nato's cold war strategy meant Western European deployment of troops that otherwise could have been used to shore up  the maintenance of Portugal's overseas territories.


However, something should be said about the Salazar regime which may help explain why Portugal clung onto its 'Empire' for so long and was willing to endure an over-extended Colonial War in Angola and Mozambique


The Estado Novo (New State) was an authoritarian regime with an integralist orientation, which differed greatly from other fascist regimes by its lack of expansionism, lack of a fanatical leader, lack of dogmatic party structure, and more moderate use of state force. It incorporated, however, the principles for its military from Benito Mussolini's system in Italy. Salazar was a Catholic traditionalist who believed in the necessity of control over the forces of economic modernization in order to defend the religious and rural values of the country, which he perceived as being threatened.


The end of the Estado Novo effectively began with the uprisings in the overseas territories in Africa during the 1960s. The independence movements active in Portuguese Angola, Portuguese Mozambique and Portuguese Guinea were supported by both the United States and the Soviet Union, which both wanted to end all colonial empires and expand their own spheres of influence.

For the Portuguese ruling regime, the centuries-old overseas empire was a matter of national interest. The criticism against some kinds of racial discrimination in the Portuguese African territories were refuted on the grounds that all Portuguese Africans would be Westernized and assimilated in due time, through a process called civilising mission.

The war in the colonies was increasingly unpopular in Portugal itself as the people became weary of war and balked at its ever-rising expense. Many ethnic Portuguese of the African overseas territories were also increasingly willing to accept independence if their economic status could be preserved.


However, despite the guerrilla's unpredictable and sporadic attacks against targets all over the countryside of the Portuguese African territories, the economies of both Portuguese Angola and Mozambique were booming, cities and towns were expanding and prospering steadily over time, new transportation networks were being opened to link the well-developed and highly urbanized coastal strip with the more remote inland regions, and the number of ethnic European Portuguese migrants from mainland Portugal (the metrópole) increased rapidly since the 1950s (although always as a small minority of each territory's total population).

After some failed attempts of military rebellion, in April 1974 the Carnation Revolution in Lisbon, organized by left-wing Portuguese military officers – the Armed Forces Movement (MFA), overthrew the Estado Novo regime. This military-led coup, ended the unpopular Colonial War where thousands of Portuguese soldiers had been commissioned, and replacing the authoritarian Estado Novo regime and its secret police which repressed elemental civil liberties and political freedoms.

The retreat from the colonies and the acceptance of its independence terms which would create newly independent communist states in 1975 (most notably the People's Republic of Angola and the People's Republic of Mozambique) prompted a mass exodus of Portuguese citizens from Portugal's African territories (mostly from Portuguese Angola and Mozambique), creating over a million destitute Portuguese refugees — the retornados. By 1975, all the Portuguese African territories were independent and Portugal held its first democratic elections in 50 years.





The Portuguese Colonial system


Lord Palmerston said to Lord Russell after yet another of Portugal’s evasions in the curtailment of the slave

trade: ‘The plain truth is that the Portuguese are of all European nations the lowest in the moral scale’



The specificity of Portuguese ultracolonialism, according to Perry Anderson, lay in its ‘archaic’ and ‘irrational’ economic system, based on the extreme and brutal exploitation of African labour, and in its ‘bizarre’ ideology of ‘One Portugal’ and the concomitant policy of assimilation.


"Lacking capital, the Portuguese were unable to develop their colonial economies whose internal market would be a stimulus for Africans to seek employment. They therefore instituted forced labour within the colonies to produce crops for export to the metropolis and, in the case of Mozambique, promoted the exportation of labour to the South African mines to bring direct tax revenue from the recruiting companies and indirect revenues from the labourers’ remittances to their families. The intensity of cruelty had ‘no parallel in any other part of the continent’, and represented the ‘zenith of African misery"



Portuguese colonial ideology, which was based on the slogan ‘One State, One Race and One Civilisation’, built on a non-racist ‘civilising mission’ that operated through conversion to Christianity, miscegenation and assimilation

The colonial system had different classes of citizens. An Angolan could become “assimilated” on condition that he or she assimilated the Portuguese way of life: in other words, had a formal job, sat down at a table to eat using a knife and fork, worshipped a Christian God, spoke only the Portuguese language and wore European clothes.

Likewise, the assimilated had to give up their own cultural practices, including their languages, customs and, very often, their names, too. Women had to straighten their hair. Only by adopting the Portuguese way could black Angolans climb the very racialized hierarchy that was so crucial to the colonial system. Luanda was divided city, where the centre was for whites and the periphery—the musseques, or shanty towns—were for blacks.

For much of the 20th century, under the Portuguese dictator Antonio Oliveira Salazar, Portugal viewed its colonies as provinces, part of the country, and the colonized people of Africa as Portuguese. But those Portuguese who were born in Africa were treated as second-class citizens—even the whites.


Colonial policy in Portugal changed in 1930 while Antonio Salazar, the financial adviser to the military regime which had overthrown the liberal republic in 1926, was Minister for Colonial Affairs. One major step towards creating a semi-fascist civilian dictatorship called the ' New State' was to subordinate the economic interests of the colonies to the interests of Portugal itself.


The crisis of the world depression and the loss of remittance from the overseas Portuguese in the Americas was partly met  by imposing a harsh new policy of wealth extraction from Africa. Neither the state nor private enterprise had resources to invest in Africa so that colonial exploitation was based on the simplest but hardest policies of forced labour, compulsory crop taxes and the sale of migrant-worker contracts to South Africa. Lisbon determined the overall conduct of colonial policy.


The system was similar to the French one, with an administrative hierarchy from the governor-general down to the district heads, all subject to the laws and instructions decided on by the Lisbon government and endowed with powers similar to those of their French counterparts. Portuguese 'fascism', being autocratic and anti-democratic at home, further strengthened the draconian methods in the colonies. Even before the fascist era, Portugal had commonly pursued a policy of segregation in Africa, especially after 1910, in which Africans were relegated to the bottom of the social hierarchy.


As in the French areas, the local people had few rights and were liable to a forced labour regime which was almost a continuation of slavery. The Portuguese colonies  were particularly marked by a lack of innovation and intensification of exploitation. Outside the capitals of Bissau, Luanda and Lourenço Marques and a few other towns where some industrial development occurred, the hinterlands remained the main areas of extortion of labour recruitment, partly through the white merchants who bought peasant crops.


Portugal, however, had a different approach in each of its five African colonies. For instance, Portuguese people were actively encouraged to migrate to Angola. In Guinea-Bissau, Portuguese people were mainly present in public services. Thus it was called a “colony of exploration.” In Cape Verde, the West African archipelago that operated as an important slave market, there was a different policy. It did not exercise the so-called indigenous law, which segregated African and European populations. Cape Verdeans were used by the colonizer as an extension of its power in other colonies. In Guinea-Bissau, for example, many Cape Verdeans held senior positions in public services like the post office.

Throughout time, the Salazar regime created an image of Cape Verdeans as “special blacks” who were not quite as African as the others. On the contrary, they were more like the Portuguese because they were more educated, read more books and didn’t wear African clothes. Cape Verdeans were used to promote the myth that racial harmony existed in Portugal’s overseas territories. They were, if you like, proof that the Portuguese really did mix with the African people.

The Portuguese maintained the long-term goal of total ‘spiritual assimilation’, while recognising the need to take care not to destroy concomitantly all African ‘usos e costumes’. In the language of colonialism, the Portuguese carried ‘civilisation’, and the Portuguese language. The Africans were called alternatively ‘gentios’ or ‘indígenas’, in reference to their ‘tribal’ nature and

autochthonous status. They possessed usos e costumes – usages and customs – and spoke not in languages but in ‘dialects.’ To this day the words ‘civilização’, usos e costumes and ‘dialects’ are used quite unselfconsciously by all but the most political correct urban elite.


The administrative consequence of delayed assimilation was ‘decentralisation’, which effectively meant the creation of administrative districts (circumscrições) that resembled ‘native reserves’ in English-speaking southern Africa. Circumscriptions were governed as in indirect rule by administradores and chefes de posto through the mediation of local chiefs, or little kings

(régulos) as they were called, who were responsible for meting out customary law. But not all. Only those which were not offensive to Portuguese civilisation. In particular the Portuguese outlawed poison oracles (muave) and witchcraft accusations.

In this way the African population of the colony was divided into ‘assimilados’ and ‘indígenas’. The former enjoyed the rights and obligations (including military service) of Portuguese citizens, while the latter remained subordinated to their usos e costumes and their régulos.


Total assimilation was only to be achieved in the distant future, if at all. Portuguese colonialism could only reproduce

itself in this way – assimilating, but not too much, liberating, but at the same time controlling. After all, once everyone had been assimilated there would be no room left for the trusteeship of the Portuguese themselves. As anti-colonial and anti-apartheid pressures mounted through the 1960s and early 1970s, and as the anti-colonial war began to pose a serious threat to Portuguese

control, Mozambican rhetoric became more and more assimilationist


In the Portuguese colonial system, the islands of Sao T o m e and Principe were the supreme example of plantation colonies; most of the cultivated lands belonged to some 30 companies and the colonial administration was simply their instrument, being concerned mainly with securing the necessary manpower. This problem was aggravated under fascist conditions.

The local population having no inclination to work on the plantations, labour had to be imported from Angola and other colonies,

but with declining success: between 1920 and 1940, their numbers fell from 40000 to 30000. At the same time, the natural fertility of the formerly productive soils fell too, the result being a remarkable fall in cocoa exports, followed by the loss of the islands' special position on the world market for this product. It was a fine illustration of the inefficiency of the Portuguese regime.


There was a similar situation in Angola and Mozambique: the fall in the prices of colonial products was deeply felt by all, particularly by the African smallholders, but also by the big planters. Portugal under Salazar lacked the means to develop the economy: it left investments to big companies with supranational capital, especially in mineral exploitation. In Mozambique, the bulk of the income was derived from the manpower sent each year in tens of thousands to South Africa to work in the goldmines

of the Rand.



The Portuguese Colonial War:


The Portuguese Colonial War, also known in Portugal as the Overseas War (Guerra do Ultramar) or in the former colonies as the War of Liberation (Guerra de Libertação), was fought between Portugal's military and the emerging nationalist movements in Portugal's African colonies between 1961 and 1974. The Portuguese regime was overthrown by a military coup in 1974, and the change in government brought the conflict to an end.


The problem for Portugal was that its colonial adventures and the unpleasant way in which it engaged in these was heavily criticised by Western European countries and the US.


communist and anti-colonial ideologies spread across Africa, many clandestine political movements were established in support of independence using various interpretations of Marxist revolutionary ideology. These new movements seized on anti-Portuguese and anti-colonial sentiment[ to advocate the complete overthrow of existing governmental structures in Portuguese Africa. These Marxist movements alleged that Portuguese policies and development plans were primarily designed by the ruling authorities for the benefit of the territories' ethnic Portuguese population at the expense of local tribal control.


While Portuguese forces had all but won the guerrilla war in Angola, and had stalemated FRELIMO in Mozambique, colonial forces were forced on the defensive in Guinea, where PAIGC forces had carved out a large area of the rural countryside under effective insurgent control, using Soviet-supplied weapons.


By early 1974, guerrilla operations in Angola and Mozambique had been reduced to sporadic ambush operations against the Portuguese in the rural countryside areas, far from the main centres of population. The only exception was Portuguese Guinea, where PAIGC guerrilla operations, strongly supported by neighbouring allies like Guinea and Senegal, were largely successful in liberating and securing large areas of Portuguese Guinea. According some historians, Portugal recognized its inability to win the conflict in Guinea at the outset, but was forced to fight on to prevent an independent Guinea from serving as an inspirational model for insurgents in Angola and Mozambique.



The call for revolution was taken up by two insurgent groups, the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), and the União das Populações de Angola (UPA), which became the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA) in 1962.


Later: the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) (Portuguese: União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola) is the second-largest political party in Angola. Founded in 1966, Unita fought alongside the MPLA in the Angolan War for Independence (1961–1975) and then against the MPLA in the ensuing civil war (1975–2002).


Internecine struggles between three competing revolutionary movements - FNLA, MPLA, and UNITA


Portuguese Angola was able to receive support from a local ally, in this case South Africa. South African military operations proved to be of significant assistance to Portuguese military forces in Angola, who sometimes referred to their South African counter-insurgent counterparts as primos (cousins).



The Portuguese Overseas Province of Mozambique was the last territory to start the war of liberation. Its nationalist movement was led by the Marxist-Leninist Liberation Front of Mozambique (FRELIMO), which carried out the first attack against Portuguese targets on September 25, 1964. The fighting later spread in central Mozambique


Rhodesia was involved in the war in Mozambique, supporting the Portuguese troops in operations and conducting operations independently. By 1973, the territory was mostly under Portuguese control.


Carnation Revolution (1974) brought Portuguese colonialism to a halt.





Between 1840 and 1850, the political authorities – King Leopold I in

particular – supported or incited several colonial initiatives. 


Earlier attempts at colonisation were resounding disappointing. Thus opinion

of the great majority of the country’s political decision makers and economic players was that Belgium had little to gain and much to lose from a colonial policy. The numerous colonisation projects envisaged by King Leopold I were often mere fantasies.


The Initiatives of Leopold II and the Foundation of the Congo

Free State (1885) The Essential Traits of the Leopoldian Initiatives

It is within this pre-1880s context that the crown prince, the Duke of Brabant, the future Leopold II (1835–1909) appeared. He observed the vain efforts of his father to promote the idea and practice of colonisation. A great traveller, the young Leopold rapidly developed an almost obsessive interest in overseas affairs. But was he really the solitary and visionary ‘genius’ who developed his colonial projects all on his own, as the old hagiographic literature

would have it? Recently, historian Jan Vandersmissen has shown that this was not the case. Leopold he envisaged the creation of a classic colony based on overseas sovereignty of the state; the founding of a concessionary company with or without support; or even the setting up of an international organisation. He constantly adapted his projects to the local context and the ever-changing opportunities. His motives for undertaking colonial action were complex. Recently, historian Vincent Viaene rightly stressed that Leopold’s tenacious pursuit of empire was not solely inspired by greed. Political and social motives were inextricably linked with the material benefits that could be gained from overseas activity.  The strengthening of the nation, the symbolic and diplomatic affirmation of its grandeur, the reconciliation of contending social groups, the stimulation of national energies; all these elements were present in his expansionist ideas. But all were undeniably linked with and resulted from Leopold ’s basic motive: wealth. Wealth created from colonial activities would support the more noble ideals. It was within this context that Leopold saw forced labour as one of the possible and legitimate methods of squeezing profits out of the overseas domains. Finally, expansionist projects also had a personal dimension. Leopold was an astute businessman, looking after his own financial ‘portfolio’. More than once, when envisaging or effectively setting up a colonial or commercial project, he was personally financially involved. Other elements, such as humanitarian considerations, never played a role in his inner thoughts, though when circumstances required, they were used as instruments to reach his essential goals.


Belgian authorities and most business circles were, and remained, highly sceptical and even hostile towards the numerous projects Leopold proposed. But after his ascension to the throne in 1865, he continued his efforts to unearth ‘the good deal’ that would, in his eyes, be extremely profitable to himself and to the country. Few people, both inside and outside the country, took the king’s hare-brained schemes seriously.


Towards the middle of the 1870s, European penetration into the heart of Africa once again allowed the Belgian sovereign to launch into one of his apparently unrealistic enterprises. This time, however, a combination of extraordinary circumstances made success unexpectedly possible.


First, the end result: At the start of the enterprise the king did not conceive

of the foundation of the ‘Congo Free State ’. This idea took shape little by little,

according to circumstances, through a series of sometimes unexpected reversals.

Originally, Leopold II did not have in mind the ‘colony for Belgium’ that certain historians

later attributed to him.


Second, the first observation can be more easily understood in the context

of the broader background to the king’s initiative. Paradoxically, the concrete

creation of the Congo Free State owed less to the strength of the sovereign than

to his relative weakness. In the end, the formation of the Congo was above all a result of the rivalry between the major powers of the time; in particular, Great Britain , France and Germany and, to a lesser degree, Portugal .


Third, the king deployed a whole range of unusual methods to launch, and then to keep, his Congolese enterprise.. No cost was too great: Leopold made use of smoke screens, straw men and humanitarian and philanthropic alibis. He corrupted journalists and launched propaganda campaigns aimed at manipulating national and international public opinion. He manipulated official texts, and even lied to his own government and to foreign authorities.


He often went back on his word, improvised impulsively and made unexpected turnarounds. in the Congo or elsewhere, to be the greatness of Belgium. But in the end, this colonial ‘gift’ to Belgium had to be ripped from him in a fierce battle that plunged the political class and Belgian society into turmoil.


Fourth, while Leopold II was indeed the source of Belgian colonial activity, it should also be emphasised that little by little, his initiative was taken over by forces within Belgian society. Well before the Congo officially became a Belgian colony in 1908, ties were created between Belgium and Africa. Belgium gradually produced colonial interest groups that, on the one hand, were brought into being by the king’s initiative but that, on the other hand, felt themselves in opposition to it.



The Foundation of the Congo Free State

In a matter of years, the king’s pet project morphed into a Belgian colony. How did this happen? Leopold ’s initiative took form during an extraordinary window of opportunity. In the middle of the 1870s, central Africa was only known in Europe through the work of a handful of explorers. Leopold II endeavoured to take advantage of these initial explorations in an attempt to launch a profitable scheme. The first step, in 1876, was Leopold ’s call for an International Geographic Conference to be held in Brussels . As a result, the Association internationale africaine (International African Association), was founded and led by the king.  The struggle against slavery was an essential alibi to facilitate the royal projects.


The next step was Stanley ’s return to Europe after his spectacular trans-African expedition (1874–7) and his vain attempts to interest Great Britain in the Congo River region. Leopold secured the explorer’s services. Stanley agreed to return to the Congo to set up stations on behalf of the Comité d’Études du Haut- Congo (Committee for Studies of the Upper Congo), a new organisation backed by the Belgian sovereign. By 1879, Stanley and his team had penetrated the region surrounding the Congo River, reaching present-day Kisangani . They set up posts, first under the aegis of the Committee, which was rapidly dissolved, then under that of the Association internationale du Congo (AIC, International Association of the Congo), the organisation that succeeded it. Leopold , monitoring these activities from Brussels, willingly maintained the confusion that reigned between these various organisations in the eyes of the national and international public. He was, therefore, able to hide his purely commercial motives. The king was unquestionably seeking to establish trade monopolies though (as yet) he had no thoughts of establishing some form of political sovereignty.


Around 1882, the rapidly changing international context forced Leopold to adopt new tactics. Brazza , an explorer who, like Stanley , was active in the region at the mouth of the Congo, made agreements with African chiefs who acknowledged French sovereignty in the region. Clearly, a purely commercial scheme like Leopold ’s had no weight when compared with a European power established in the region. The king therefore had a change of heart and determined to found a sovereign political entity that would protect his commercial activities. From that moment on, the Association internationale du Congo sought recognition from both the African chiefs and (especially) the Western powers as a ‘state’.


But Brazza’s political initiative, supported by France , led to other concerns. Britain , particularly, could not tolerate such French advances, nor could Portugal which, considering its own secular establishment on the African coast, also claimed territorial rights in the region. In 1884, the British and the Portuguese made an agreement in which Britain acknowledged Portugal’s sovereignty rights over all the territory surrounding the mouth of the Congo River . This meant the end of access to Africa via the Atlantic and hence an end to Leopold ’s dreams.


Leopold reacted immediately. Although he was in search of trading monopolies,

he now proclaimed, especially to the British and the Americans, his willingness

to establish and maintain free trade in the current and any potential future territories of the AIC . In 1884, to counter French fears that the Association’s territories might fall into the hands of the British, Leopold granted France a pre-emptive right over the Congo, a move that would have serious consequences for the future. This essentially meant that if Leopold were ever to give up his schemes in the Congo, France would recoup the territory – if France wanted to. This was a clever move. On the one hand, France would condone the activities

of the AIC (which it hoped would soon fall under French control). On the other hand, this move encouraged Portugal to moderate its territorial ambitions and to leave Leopold some scope, lest he abandon the territory, thereby handing it to the French, far more fearsome neighbours than the Belgians would ever be. Britain , naturally, was not at all pleased that pre-emptive rights had been granted to France, though the British could only applaud the promise of free trade . Germany , the new European power with growing interest in the great

colonial game, accepted Leopold ’s arrangement with France and was, additionally, willing to grant France some external satisfaction in order to distract the French from their recent losses to Germany in Alsace-Lorraine.


This brief overview of the diplomatic conflicts surrounding the establishment of the Congo is essential to our understanding of Belgian colonial history. All the elements were in place: on the one hand, great powers who were mutually preventing each other from occupying a sought-after piece of land; on the other hand, a seemingly frivolous and ephemeral player who would temporarily maintain a precarious balance. Finally, there was the possibility of creating a free trade zone. Thus, in 1884–5, several nations successively acknowledged the sovereignty of the AIC . This acknowledgement occurred prior to, and on the periphery of, the International Conference of Berlin . During that conference, certain terms governing European involvement in black Africa were fixed. One of these terms stipulated that the so-called Conventional Congo Basin was and would remain an area of free trade and free navigation. No right of entry could be levied there; everybody would be able to trade freely and on equal footing. This decision played a key role in Belgian colonial history and was at the centre of the controversial activities of the Congo Free created at the beginning of 1885, with Leopold as absolute ruler. Theoretically, Belgium had no link with this new African political entity.


Main Characteristics of the Congo Free State (1885–1908)

Conquests and Financial Needs

Although unusual in its beginnings and nature, the Congo Free State nevertheless

had the same needs as any other state: the need to obtain financial means and the need to occupy and manage the territory. The establishment of Congo’s borders is a story that combines the audacity of the king who, with a simple pencil line on a map, included Katanga in his ‘state’; the inexorable laws of Realpolitik in Europe; and finally, the pure luck that Great Britain had to recognise the proposed borders of the Congo following a true diplomatic ‘blunder’.  By agreeing with the proposed borders, Britain recognised the Congo Free State’ s possession of land that was in no way part of the territory effectively occupied by the former Association internationale du Congo.


To establish its authority over this vast acknowledged territory, the Congo Free State either opposed or allied itself with (depending on the circumstances and the eras) the ‘Arabized’ authorities that had been established before its arrival. Officially, military force was used to end the age-old slave trade. In this struggle the Force publique (the Congo’s military force) was supported by large numbers of native auxiliary troops having no modern organisation or discipline. For the king, the fight against slavery was nothing more than a blind aimed at hiding his material ambitions. Leopold ’s anti-slavery campaigns were simply a means of establishing trade and political domination in the heart of Africa. It is true that, following this struggle, the traditional slave trade was eliminated, but the Congo Free State authorities immediately introduced other forms of coercion and forced labour . They either seized and diverted traditional trading activities to serve their own advantage or established new ones. The new white power was confronted with numerous challenges: It had to break the resistance of the recalcitrant traditional African authorities and bloodily repress the revolts of its own black troops. It also had to outstrip the English, who were eying Katanga from southern Africa, which meant having to occupy the territory at any cost. Finally, the king was still obsessed with his desire to reach and occupy the banks of the Nile , so he continued to interfere in the great European colonial race. This led to heavy costs and severe loss of human life. It was dangerous because the Congo Free State faced military confrontation with European nations. As a result, the king attracted diplomatic enmity that endangered Belgium’s neutrality .


Expeditions and military campaigns require a lot of money. Moreover, a governing body, however basic, had to be established and a transport infrastructure created where none had previously existed: in particular the famous railway line between Léopoldville and Matadi (where the Congo River was not navigable). Without a railroad, it would be impossible to move trade goods or raw materials. The financial challenge was enormous. Between 1885 and 1895, the Congo, which was supposed to be a profitable affair, turned out to be a bottomless financial pit. The personal fortune of Leopold , which had always been an essential source of financing for the Congolese venture, was no longer sufficient to keep the Congo Free State going. This financial need is what ultimately made the Congo an official part of Belgium’s political life. To save his enterprise from failure, the king requested and obtained financial aid from the Belgian state.


In 1891–2, Leopold took several measures that, in the short term, saved the Congo Free State but, in the long term, had repercussions that would last for decades. Through a series of legal and statutory provisions, Leopold introduced the so-called domain system ( système domanial in the Congo. This meant that any land not directly cultivated by the indigenous population was considered ‘vacant’ and declared the property of the state. This way, the natural resources found there belonged to the state by right, and only the Congo Free State had the right to acquire them, trade them or grant concessionary rights to private companies. As a consequence of this measure, the free trade promised by Leopold before the foundation of the Congo Free State, and solemnly proclaimed by the Berlin Act in 1885, was circumvented.


Exploitation and Massacres in the Leopoldian Congo

The domain system had severe consequences. At home in Belgium, it caused a rupture between Leopold and a number of his initial supporters who accused him of killing off free enterprise. This immediately led to political difficulties. In the Congo, dramatic repercussions provoked an international outcry, which initially led to the end of the Free State. Around 1895, the gathering of ivory, and especially the harvesting of wild rubber , became highly profitable, thanks to the systeme domanial . The Congo Free State (i.e. the king) and concessionary private companies did everything they could to increase the production and sale of these raw materials on world markets that couldn’t get enough of them. The profit from the sale of goods belonging directly to the state, as well as the taxes levied on exports, inflated the national budget.


In order to maximize profit, both the Congo Free State authorities and the concessionary

companies set up a particularly harsh system of exploitation.  The Congolese were not only subjected to a merciless work regime , but also to acts of violence aimed at breaking any vague ideas of resistance. The destruction of villages, summary executions, hostage taking and various types of corporal punishment were common practice in many parts of the Congo Free State. Not all the regions of the Congo were affected in the same way, but when these events did occur, they were not simply the uncontrolled actions of a few brutal individuals, but were part of a systematic value system that encouraged those in charge to deliver ever-increasing quantities of product at almost any human cost. The harsh exploitation

of the Congolese population was not merely a consequence of Leopold ’s greed; it was a consequence, an essential and specific feature, of this unusual ‘private’ style of colonisation. Since the military and initial administration costs could not be paid for by the metropolis (as they had been by other colonial empires), the financial burden of conquest necessitated a particularly severe and exploitative regime.


This is a crucial episode in Belgian colonial history, not only because the facts themselves are important, but also because of the impact they would have on the entire course of Belgian colonial history. The Belgian and international public were, quite rightly, vexed by this issue, which aroused heated reactions. No one sought to systematically exterminate the native population; who, then, would have provided the labour on which the exploitation was based. Nonetheless, the creation of the Congo Free State certainly had gruesome consequences for the Congolese population. We can certainly state that during the first four decades of Belgian presence in the Congo, the number of Congolese fell dramatically.  Certain regions were well and truly de-populated, but what was the total result?


Currently, no one contests the fact that several hundred thousand, even millions, of people perished under white power After clarification concerning the infamous practice of cutting off hands, which shocked the world following the wide distribution of photographs, Stengers described the punitive expeditions against villages ‘guilty’ of not having provided enough rubber : “The horror was that people were killed for rubber ”. 30


The incontestable dramatic decrease in the Congolese population was due to a set of factors. World history is strewn with demographic catastrophes. These occur when indigenous societies, isolated from the rest of the world and lacking technological potential, are brutally subjected to European contact (pre-Columbian America, the South Sea Islands, etc.). Population collapse in such cases is due to a combination of deadly elements. Similarly, in the case of central Africa in the period from 1880 to 1920, numerous factors apart from the compulsory work regime combined to provoke the dramatic de-population: military

operations, the ‘maintenance of law and order’, porterage, the decline in fertility and malnutrition (each partially linked to the rubber regime) and, last but not least, epidemics (caused or facilitated by all the previous elements) that wiped out entire regions either through the introduction of new bacteria or through the increase  and spread of endemic diseases. Jan Vansina recently returned to the issue of quantifying the total population decline; he has revised his earlier position and even concludes that “[C]ontrary to expectations, the Kuba population [admittedly only one of the many Congolese populations] was actually rising rather than falling during the i rst two decades of the colonial era”. In

this area, there was ultimately a population decline of approximately twenty-five per cent, but this occurred between 1900 and 1919 and was mainly due to sickness. 31 The current impossibility of establishing a precise count of the deaths caused by the Leopoldian work regime (and of isolating the losses due to other causes) does not, in any way, mitigate the incontestable atrocities of ‘red rubber ’ which became the subject of an international protest campaign.


In 1904, giving in to pressure and desirous of arresting the allegations, Leopold set up a commission of inquiry composed of eminent jurists, including a Belgian and two foreigners. Against all expectations, its report confirmed, in cautious terms, the abuses committed in the Congo. From this moment on, the question of Belgium taking over the Congo Free State gained prominence. The Congo had become a Belgian political problem of primary importance. After a fierce struggle between Leopold and the government, Belgium annexed the Congo in 1908: This marked the beginning of actual Belgian colonisation.


Official Belgium in the Face of the Leopoldian Episode: Denials and Repression

This new episode of Belgian colonisation initially began with a programme of collective amnesia. Leopold II died in 1909, shortly after Belgium took control of the Congo. Those in political and economic circles spouted their undisputed worship of Leopold , who was honoured more after his death than during his reign. The king’s argument to justify his management of the Congo immediately became the official Belgian position. To the world and to their own citizenry, Belgian officials willingly admitted to a number of abuses in the Leopoldian Congo, all the time emphasising that they had been eliminated immediately.

Over time, however, these admissions of abuse were watered down. A whole range of arguments was found to ‘justify’ or lessen the ‘blunders’ that had occurred in Leopoldian Congo: the work regime was not harder than elsewhere; the king had to find money somewhere, since the Berlin Act of 1885 forbade raising the entry rights and so forth. In the end, the abuses were flatly denied. The whitewashed vision of the Leopoldian past was officially adopted and spread by the Belgian diplomatic service, especially after the First World War and during the rest of the twentieth century.


After the king’s death, the memory of the rubber episode was repressed. Leopold became a cult figure and Belgium assumed, for over half a century, the multifaceted heritage of the Congo Free State .





Overview of the Belgian Colonisation of the Congo Between 1908 and 1960


Organisation of the Belgian Colonial Institutions

Upon assuming official control of the colonial territory, Belgian authorities had to create a new institutional framework for the Congo.  The law commonly known as the ‘Colonial Charter ’, adopted by parliament in 1908, dictated the fundamental mechanism of the Belgian colonial empire. The aim was to put an end to the absolutism of the Leopoldian state. The Belgian legislative chambers would, in theory, become the supreme authorities for the management of the Congo, in particular through the approval of the budgets. Another decisiveelement of the charter was the rigorous financial separation of Belgium and the Congo. Belgian finances were not to be used for expenses relating to the colony. The minister of colonies , a full member of the government, was also granted legislative power to make decrees since parliament could not manage all the details of colonial policy. The minister was accountable for the management of the Congo and his draft decrees, before being officially enacted, had to be submitted to the colonial council. The council was a new, purely consultative organ. Parliament appointed six of its members and the king eight. The

colonial charter specified that certain rights enjoyed by the Belgians at home, such as the freedom of association or the freedom of the press, did not apply to populations in the Congo, both black and white. Moreover, no representative form of government was introduced. The representative of Belgian central authority in the Congo was the governor-general , who had strictly limited power to make decisions.


The territorial structure of power in the colony itself was organised in the form of subordinated entities whose number varied over the years: provinces, then districts and i nally territories; led by governors, commissioners ( commissaires ) and local administrators ( administrateurs territoriaux ) respectively. At an even lower level, authority was exercised by ‘indigenous chieftainships’. Belgium opted for a form of indirect rule by which compliant indigenous chiefs became auxiliaries of the colonial power.  


In general, colonial power was characterised by its centralised nature: Brussels decided all the important matters. In the Congo itself, the successive capitals, i rst Boma , then Léopoldville, clearly dominated the subordinate powers. It is important to note that, throughout the history of Belgian colonialism, tensions existed between the central power and the ‘GG’ (governor-general ) and, more generally, between metropolitan (i.e. Belgium) and colonial (i.e. the Congo) structures of government. Furthermore, centralisation within the Congo itself led to recurring discussions and several reorganisations of the subordinated powers that continuously demanded more



The Catholic Jules Renkin , first in a long series of ministers of the colonies,

had the cumbersome task of addressing the numerous deficiencies in the Leopoldian administration. Not only did he have to put an end to the international difficulties, he also had to reform internal management. The Belgian authorities abolished the système domanial and re-introduced free enterprise and trade. The harsh Leopoldian work regime was suppressed – though forced labour did not actually disappear. Throughout the history of colonial Belgium,

compulsory work remained in force, either for porterage and the development or maintenance of public utility work or for certain productive activities, for instance the growth of so-called educational crops introduced in order to stimulate commercial farming by the native population.


The Congo under the Belgian Colonial Regime

Belgium is a small country, but the Belgian Congo was a huge territory. The difference

in size between the metropolis (31,000 km 2 ) and the colony (2,350,000 km 2 ) was striking: The Congo was seventy-i ve times the size of Belgium. Only in the British Empire was there a larger disproportion: The total British colonial territories, including the Dominions, were 132 times bigger than Britain itself. The Dutch , French and Portuguese colonial empires were, respectively, fifty, seventeen and nine times bigger than the metropoles. The difference between the populations of Belgium (with 7.4 million inhabitants in 1910) and its colony (with c. 11 million before the First World War ) is less striking. In this case, the ratio of the colonial population to the metropolitan population is 144 per cent: a less spectacular figure than in the case of the British and the Dutch empires (865 per cent and 804 per cent respectively), but somewhat comparable to the French (120 per cent) and the Portuguese (94 percent) situations. In short, Belgium’s newly gained empire was far from negligible, and foreign observers, politicians and diplomats wondered if this colony was not ‘too big’

for small and inexperienced Belgium to handle.


The inclusion of the Congo in the world economy did indeed pose a great challenge to the Belgians. After the plunder that had characterised the Congo Free State , it was now necessary to ‘develop’ the immense Congolese territory. The railways already constructed under the preceding regime had to be modernised and extended, as did the port and river infrastructures.  In these sectors, the Belgian state and the colonial authorities provided a significant boost at the beginning of the 1920s, a decade also marked by a significant and renewed flow of private Belgian capital into the Congo. Compared to other colonies, the Belgian colony was at the top of per capita capital investment. No other overseas territory (outside the British Dominions) had attracted such amounts of capital. By 1938, the Belgian Congo had received forty-eight dollars of foreign capital per inhabitant; in British India (including Burma and Ceylon), this sum amounted to eight dollars; in the Netherlands Indies, thirty-six dollars; in the French African colonies, twenty-five dollars; in the British African colonies, thirty-two dollars; in Portuguese Africa, eighteen dollars.  Belgian colonisation was very capital intensive – a fact of great importance for the colonial impact on the Belgian economy.


It was first thought that the Congo would be an agricultural powerhouse. Around the time of the First World War , it became increasingly apparent that the Congo would be a major producer of mineral riches. Belgium took over the mining activity, only recently started in the Congo Free State , which grew significantly in the 1920s. The Congo became one of the main global producers of copper , cobalt , industrial diamond s, uranium and many other minerals

such as gold and tin . Congo played a leading role in the global arena due to the mining industry – a situation that would have major repercussions for Belgium. Between 1921 and 1948, minerals, as a percentage of the total value of Congolese exports, fluctuated between i fty-two and seventy-two per cent.  Between 1938 and 1951, the Congo’s share in Africa’s total exports increased from 4.7 per cent to 7.4 per cent. 42 The agricultural sector (palm oil, cotton , coffee , etc.) was certainly significant, but ranked second to minerals in the

colony’s exports. Agricultural produce came either from European plantations or from African farmers. From then on, these African farmers had to maintain sufficient production for export while simultaneously producing enough for their own needs – quite a difficult task.


The Congolese countryside experienced great hardship. In addition, the Congolese people had to provide labour, recruited by force, for the big mining concerns that were often far from areas of high demographic density. Masses of workers, who were victim to a high death rate, were recruited far away from the mines, transported and ended up living as displaced populations in their own country. Labour shortages and the nagging fear of de-population initially led to a turnaround in production policy. From the 1920s onwards, major companies such as the Union minière du Haut-Katanga devised a ‘stabilisation’ policy.  They reinforced mechanisation and introduced social protection measures for their black workers.



This paternalistic concern gradually became generalised in the colony. The colonial state endeavoured to establish basic education, health and medical networks . This work was left to the care of the religious missions (with Catholic missions favoured over Protestant ) that had been active in the Congo since the beginning of the colonial enterprise. However, the extent of this educational and medical effort remained modest until the Second World War . The economic crisis of the 1930s followed by the enormous boost in productive effort from

1940 to 1945 caused great social upheaval and labour unrest in Congo and in many other sub-Saharan colonies.  The harsh living conditions of the native populations only began to improve in the second half of the 1940s.


The last fifteen years of Belgian domination in the Congo were characterised by a set of exceptional factors: the takeoff of mining and agricultural production boosted by high prices on world markets; a significant increase in both public and private investment; rapid development of Congolese processing industries; considerable improvement in community facilities and infrastructures; increases in the purchasing power of black workers; improvement in black living conditions, housing and consumption, at least in urban centres; the influx of populations towards these so-called extra-customary centres (to the point where the rural exodus and the rise in urban unemployment, at the end of the 1950s, began to worry colonial authorities); mass schooling of young people (in this area, the Congo held a leading position in black Africa); the extension of social and medical services to the countryside (to which the creation of the Fonds du Bien- Être indigène (Indigenous Welfare Fund) in 1947

largely contributed).


Just before the sudden collapse of the colonial system, the Belgian authorities boasted of these undeniable achievements to justify the validity of their sovereignty in the Congo to the rest of the world. Still today, former Belgian colonials – precisely those who knew and built the Congo of the 1940s and 1950s – refer to these positive results in reaction to what they perceive as unjust attacks against colonialism. They quite rightly underline the striking contrast between the progress of ‘their’ Congo and the race to the depths of despair in

the decades after 1960. But is it really justifiable to project these peak years onto previous decades when the track record reads differently? Shining the spotlight unilaterally on the social and economic advances from 1945 to 1960 puts the darkest facets of the colonial picture firmly in the shadows.


At the dawn of independence, the Congolese rural sector encountered serious difficulties. Food production was in crisis and food shortages became common. Paradoxically, the Congo, the great exporter of agricultural produce, was forced to import foodstuffs in increasing quantities just to feed its own population.



Despite the relative material well-being that certain strata of the black population enjoyed, Congolese society was marked by heavy and threatening imbalances. Compared to other African countries, the Congo had a large urban and industrial proletariat, but it consisted quasi-exclusively of executants. The strata above were extremely underdeveloped. In addition, employees and civil servants, already relatively few in number, were restricted to inferior tasks. The famous ‘Africanisation of the executives’ that the Belgian coloniser launched into suddenly and belatedly just before his hasty departure was rather limited at

the time of independence. The Congolese lower middle class, middle class and, a fortiori , business class were practically non-existent. The colonial authorities had always prevented access to property and autonomous economic activity. The colonial educational policy was designed to create a large literate base, from which a cultural ‘elite’ could be moulded in some distant future. This policy largely contributed to a dangerous distortion within Congolese society.  Who would lead this independent nation?


It is true that the Congo of the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s seemed calm and relatively trouble-free. But was it? Such a conclusion ignores the social upheavals that shook the colony during the decades before the 1950s. Several revolts and strikes had to be repressed by the armed forces, most notably in the 1890s, in the 1930s (e.g. the Pende revolt of 1931) and immediately after the Second World War . The authorities also ignored or hushed up the latent and diffuse grievances within the black population. Before the initial years of colonisation, the discontent of the black population had no ‘modern’ expression, especially in the countryside. It was voiced collectively through syncretistic or traditional religious movements (e.g. the Kimbanguist religion, still vivid in the Congo; the Kitawala ; etc.) – a phenomenon that the authorities endeavoured to control and even quell. An undoubtedly different kind of discontent also affected urban circles. Only a minority of Congolese people benefitted from Western education and assimilated European values and lifestyles.


These ‘evolved’, Westernised Congolese ( évolues ) were often frustrated by the lack of possibility for promotion and even more so by the daily expressions of racism inflicted upon them by some whites. Other whites, it should be said, showed respect, consideration and sincere friendship towards the native Congolese. While these ‘bright’ facets of the complex prism of colonial life should certainly not be forgotten, the darker facets must also be remembered. Although it was never subjected to a South African-style apartheid system (something the Belgian authorities explicitly rejected), the Belgian

Congo did indeed have a colour bar that only began to break down shortly before independence.


It is precisely at this point that popular discontent found a more traditional, political expression. Beginning in 1956, newly-created Congolese political associations expressed very cautious and moderated nationalist views. Over time, these organisations were gradually radicalised; initially leading, in 1959 and 1960, to demands for immediate and complete independence. These demands were formulated by a multitude of rival political factions that suddenly appeared – an aspect of one-upmanship that certainly cannot be denied.


The local and metropolitan Belgian authorities were caught off guard. They were woefully unprepared for the possibility of Congolese independence . The atmosphere became even more tense due to a sudden burst of violence in January 1959, followed soon afterwards by other bloody incidents and a campaign of civil disobedience. After a few tentative steps, Brussels succumbed. At the beginning of 1960, after a conference with all the Congolese political forces, Belgium suddenly decided to put an end to its sovereignty in the Congo on 30 June 1960.


And so, for a couple of years between 1958 and 1960, the Congo returned to the forefront of Belgian political life, a place it had not occupied since 1908. The following chapter is dedicated to the impact of the colony on Belgium domestic politics: a long (apparent) silence between two outbursts.



The Leopoldian origin of the Belgian presence in Africa also had an impact on the economic dimension of colonisation, in which the large financial groups and enterprises, often with close ties to government, played a strikingly dominant role. This extraordinary circumstance can help explain the economic significance of the Congo to Belgium. Certain sectors fared well in the colonial adventure and, more often than not, the Socieye Generale de Belgique was involved in one way or another. Colonisation also meant that Belgian foreign investment was focused on the Congo rather than on other countries. Belgian foreign trade also developed along these lines, with imports from the Congo (mainly of raw materials, and non-ferrous metals in particular) always much more important than exports (mainly of metal products) to the colony.


It is worth noting that the Congo was never locked up behind protectionist walls; as far as trade regulation was concerned, the Congo always remained an ‘open’ colony. The privileged position of Belgian interests in its colonial domain was guaranteed by other mechanisms, for example monetary policy or other noncommercial regulations. The colony therefore had an important impact on Belgium’s global balance of payments, a situation quite similar to that of other colonial powers such as Great Britain and the Netherlands. The economic and social ties between Belgium and the Congo were undoubtedly close and important, but they did not cover the whole range of Belgian society. For example, while the large financial groups played a role of great significance in the Congo, very few small Belgian entrepreneurs found their way to the colony. The Congo mainly attracted a small, highly trained and carefully selected Belgian elite; there was no question of a mass exodus of minor Belgian entrepreneurs. These observations explain the ease with which Belgium severed its ties to the independent Congo. In the early twenty-first century, the Congo plays a very minor role in Belgian society. Conversely, in the 1990s, four decades after independence, the immediate Belgian presence in the Congo no longer amounted to much – but that certainly does not mean that Belgium did not leave a long-lasting imprint on the new African nation.


This brings us to our final point. The very impact that colonialism had on Belgium also left a special mark on the colony in turn . The imperial link is never one-way, but always consists of mutual reverberations, an observation made right at the start of this book. Studying the colonial imprint on Belgium did not reveal a great deal about concrete situations in the Congolese terrain, but nevertheless exposed some constraining factors at work on the latter. As the great powers carefully watched (and coveted?) the Congo from the time of its birth, the Belgian authorities developed a defensive attitude. Their colony had to be protected, even isolated, from foreign influences. The Congo was to become a ‘model colony’, proving that the Belgians were capable of handling an empire all on their own. Their constant fear of losing control of the colony led to a policy that insulated the Congolese people from the outside world, prevented the formation of indigenous elites and consequently, left the colonised society wholly unprepared for independence. Modern civil society – political parties, cultural associations and social movements – was extremely weak when the inexperienced Congolese leaders took over the reins of their country. Belgian colonial policy, shaped by the early imprint of colonialism on the metropole, was certainly to blame for this. The overwhelming position of – another mark of the effects of colonialism on Belgium bouncing back on the Congolese situation – led to a disproportionate concentration of wealth; making the new nation conducive to predatory activity by the new Congolese elite. These elements significantly influenced the development of the Congo’s tragedies in the final decades of the twentieth century.