ABSORBING ACCOUNT OF ANGOLA'S RECENT HISTORY
A SHORT HISTORY OF MODERN ANGOLA by David Birmingham. Published by Jonathan Ball publishers, Cape Town, 2019.
Did you know that a Jewish colony was nearly created in Angola in 1912 backed by the Jewish community on the Witwatersrand and those on the Congo copper belt?
Or, that in the 1840’s, in Luanda’s small stone prison one prisoner was being held in solitary confinement: He was a royal prince who had fallen foul of the authorities through non-payment of taxes due to the Portuguese. He insisted he had been wrongly accused so he was allowed to exchange his prison rags for his full dress uniform with braids and epaulettes once a month and march to the palace where he petitioned for a reprieve. This was always turned down, so he had to return to his cell and don his convict rags once again.
These are just two of several little-known vignettes in this very readable history. First published in the UK four years ago, Birmingham’s own experiences in Angola make fascinating reading in his preface, which also offers a useful summary of its history to this western land which has seen such flows of migrant peoples. During the 19th century more than half a million Africans were taken to work the coffee estates of the newly independent Brazil and the cocoa plantations of the island-colony of Sao Tome. During the 20th century the flow was reversed as close to half a million European migrants arrived in Angola, from northern Portugal, Madeira and the Azores. After 1975 change occurred again when the white population flowed back to Europe leaving black nationalists to struggle for control of their rich economic heritage.
Birmingham starts his tale early in the 19th century when the Portuguese colony of Angola was formed as Portugal gradually replaced their former Asian empire with an African one. By 1960 Angola had become Portugal’s most treasured overseas possession. The slave trade proved profitable until the anti-slave movement in Europe saw Portugal follow other countries outlaw the trans-Atlantic trade in 1836. But labour remained the main theme of Angola’s history until after 1910.
The influence of the missionaries in Angola was important – with the Jesuits and the Franciscans taking Christianity inland. In the second half of the 19th century a fine mix of French Catholic, British Baptist, American Methodist and Swiss Congregationalist brought religion, education and hospitals to various parts of the country.
The story of capital city of Luanda makes the subject of the second chapter - from mid-19th century when it was a picturesque market town where the wealthy households were run by armies of slaves of all ages. Along with blacks and whites the population of mixed race pointed to colonisation which had been almost exclusively male.
Life and trade in the inland areas varied immensely, with the Ambaca district, some 200 miles north of Luanda, standing out from neighbouring territories. The population considered themselves Portuguese , spoke the language, were educated , baptised as Christians and had a fine sense of dress style.
After the end of World War 2, Portugal – which had been neutral territory during the war - was debarred from joining the UN. The country and its colonies was the poorest in Europe, only Albania suffering worse poverty. In Angola life started to improve thanks to the world’s craving for coffee as planters and peasants began to meet this need. Labour practices and the rise of nationalism led to an uprising in Luanda in 1961, emphasising the the winds of change speech made by British PM Harold Macmillan. A violent outbreak followed in northern Angola weeks later, resulting in a huge conscript army being assembled in Portugal and dispatched to Angola . This saw the start of guerrilla warfare, led by Agostinho Neto in the north while in the south UNITA gained an exile base in Zambia, led by Jonas Savimbi.
After years of guerrilla warfare the coup of 1974 saw the Lisbon government overthrown mounted by young military captains in the Portuguese army. This led to a re-alignment of forces in Angola as the Portuguese prepared to leave Africa. In January 1975 an interim government was established that included Portugal, the FNLA, the MPLA and UNITA. Sadly instead of peace, a new war of foreign intervention ensued: the Congolese, Russian, Cuban, South African and American interests vied with locals in an offensive that saw South African troops invade along the coast . The extent of the horror endured by civilians and soldiers were made known, to some extent, to South Africans who had sons, brothers, uncles and friends doing their compulsory national service who were sent into Angola as part of the South African invading army.
As foreign forces withdrew, only the MPLA remained strong enough to eventually take control of Angola which had gained independence from Portugal. The fruits of freedom were not experienced by the people and a revolution took place in 1977 which was shortlived but violent. The liberation wars of liberation of the 70’s were followed by others through the 80’s with many causes – the Soviet Union, the Americans, the oil wells, Cuban support and South African destabilisation efforts among others: its intricacies and corruption make depressing reading. Worse was to come after a brief period of celebration of peace in 1991 with a civil war in late 1992 . After another peace accord negotiated by the UN, dos Santos became president and proceeded to develop the country into a presidential state with his power emanating from his vast palace complex.
The saga of violence and corruption is countered to some extent at the end of the text by optimism increasing in the 21st century as hope centred around the energy and inventiveness of the women of Luanda and inland areas. They had developed giant markets which kept the city fed and clothed and inland by establishing many small scale business enterprises.
This softback contains no illustrations but there is a bibliography and an extensive index.