Mass forced labour: de facto pass laws: omnipresent foreign capital: an incendiary white lumpenproletariat: a superstructure of magic: an economic and social machine turning in a void, driven by pure terror. This was the system of Portuguese imperialism at the opening of 1961, the most primitive, the most defective and the most savagely exploitative colonial regime in Africa. Insulated from the world outside, functioning on force alone, it believed itself timeless, immune to the disorders sweeping the rest of European Africa. Like the Belgians in the Congo, the Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique thought they had abrogated history.

In fact, while Lisbon and Luanda and Lourenço Marques lay sunk in silence, history was gaining momentum and political geography was closing in on the isolated enclaves of Portuguese Africa. The wave of African liberation, achieving its first successes in Egypt in 1952, at Bandung in 1955, in Ghana in 1957, became tidal in the last five years of the decade. Colonial power disintegrated in area after area, bringing the frontiers of freedom ever closer to Angola and Mozambique.

The significance of this continental advance for the Africans of the Portuguese colonies was two-fold. In the first place, it enormously accelerated their political awakening; the victories of African movements to the north made the possibility of independence for the first time visible and real. At the same time, these victories provided the indispensable material and geographical base from which movements of national liberation could be launched. There had never been any question of legal trade union or party activity in the Portuguese colonies—all political activity of any kind was forbidden to Africans, and the prohibition was enforced by a ruthless apparatus of repression. Any African suspected of dissidence was arrested, and often deported to prison camps in the Cape Verde Islands or the remote interior. Protests were met with massacres (in June, 1960 when the villages of Icola and Bengo met to demonstrate peacefully against the arrest and deportation of Agostinho Neto, the eminent Angolan poet and intellectual, they were shot down and their villages burnt to the ground). In these conditions, the difficulties of organizing resistance from within the colonies alone were enormous. The emergence of independent African countries nearby transformed the situation. It meant financial and organizational support, material equipment, and freedom of movement. When the former Belgian Congo became independent on June 30, 1960, a final and decisive factor came into play: a contiguous border in very rough country, across which political and military operations could be organized. The accession of the Congo to independence in mid-1960 was undoubtedly the precipitate which catalyzed the Angolan revolt six months later. Nationalist headquarters could move to a point only some 85 miles from Angola territory, in a major city, fully equipped with modern matériel and integrated into a global communications system.

The terrain from Leopoldville southwards as far as Malange in Angola is, except for a small coastal zone, ideal guerilla country: mangrove swamps along the Congo estuary, forest-savannah mosaic in the Bembe triangle, moist forest from Carmona down to the Cuanza river, and savannah country to the west and east; highlands around Candola and Nambuangongo. The country on the both sides of the border is occupied by the Bakongo peoples, making the terrain even more favourable for military action.footnote1

All the factors which made possible the classic armed action of the FLN in Algeria were thus assembled: a continental context of decolonization, a contiguous border with an at least formally friendly independent country, ethnic unity across the border, and rough country with continuous cover for guerilla units. These were the crucial preconditions of a successful insurrection, and by the spring of 1961 they were all present. The “causes” of the revolt were simply the conditions of its success. Portuguese colonialism was always an intolerable and hated system, ready at any moment to be sprung into the air by the sufferings and passions it suppressed. But the material possibility for a successful revolt had never existed before. When it came, the revolt broke out almost immediately.footnote2

I. Insurrection

On February 4, 1961, a series of synchronized attacks suddenly struck at military and police points in Luanda. Groups of Africans attacked the military prison, the police barracks and the civil prison: others ambushed isolated units on the outskirts of the town. Fierce fighting followed before the assaults were beaten off. Seven Portuguese police and soldiers were killed, and, officially, 14 Africans; 53 were wounded and 100 arrested. The next day there was a public funeral for the Portuguese killed. A lynch mob of whites ran riot in the presence of the Governor-General, crying “Mata Todos” (Kill Them All) and attacking every African in sight. Young whites made raids into the African quarters and sporadic firing continued throughout the night. At least 24 Africans and three Whites were killed (Guardian, 7.2.61). In the ensuing days more nationalist attacks, were made on prisons and police posts in and around Luanda, bringing African casualties to about 100. The Muceque and São Paulo quarters (the African townships) were cordoned off and patrolled by armoured cars and paratroops, while 17-pounder artillery pieces were mounted on high ground round the areas and trained on them (Johannesburg Star, 15.2.61). A few days later the New York Times headlined its story from Luanda “Angola relaxes as Clashes Cease” (18.2.61).