In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Portuguese Colonial Rule

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • The Metropolitan Setting
  • The Impact of the “Scramble for Africa”
  • The 20th Century
  • The Economics of Portuguese Colonialism in Africa
  • The Wars of Liberation
  • The International Dimension
  • Guinea-Bissau
  • Cape Verde
  • São Tomé and Príncipe
  • Decolonization and the Transfer of Power

African Studies Portuguese Colonial Rule
Norrie MacQueen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0058


To a much greater extent than those of other European colonial powers, Portugal’s African empire was woven deeply into the culture, politics, and economics of the metropole. Long after the more developed and industrialized states of Europe had decolonized, Portugal maintained its narrow centralized form of rule––from Mozambique to Angola in the south and from Guinea-Bissau in the west to the Atlantic archipelagos of Cape Verde and São Tomé and Príncipe. It did not do so easily; the last decade and a half of Portugal’s imperial presence––from the early 1960s until the final collapse of the empire in the mid-1970s––was marked by guerrilla warfare in the three continental territories and anticolonial agitation in the islands. The Lisbon regime’s official justification for this apparently irrational behavior was that Portugal’s five-hundred-year presence in Africa was part of a sacred national vocation. Portugal, in fact, was not a “colonial power”––or even, in a sense, a “European” one; it was a “pluricontinental” entity defined by language, culture, and history. There was in effect no empire, just “one state, single and indivisible” (um estado, uno e indivisível) parts of which were “overseas provinces” (províncias ultramarinas). This semi-mystical doctrine of “lusotropicalism” asserted that Portugal’s unique history and culture enabled it to transcend its continental limits to spread across the non-European world. The organization of this article reflects this self-conceived Portuguese sense of imperial exceptionalism. While the reality of the notion has been challenged (primarily by non-Portuguese writers), it was an article of faith among Portuguese imperial policymakers and a potent propaganda tool of successive governments––before and even since the 1974 revolution and decolonization. The bibliography also reflects the fact that “Portuguese colonial rule” was primarily a phenomenon of the 19th and 20th centuries. While there had been a Portuguese presence in Africa since the late 15th century in the form of coastal fortifications and Creole settlements, this could not properly be considered control from the metrople. In this sense Africa came relatively late in the narrative of Portuguese state imperialism. It was the “third” empire (o terceiro império) following the first in Asia (where Portugal was largely displaced by the Dutch in the 17th century) and the second in the Americas (which effectively ended with Brazil’s declaration of independence in 1822). While numerous works cited here deal with the earlier period of the Portuguese presence (see also the related Oxford Bibliographies articles on Kongo and the Coastal States of West Central Africa, Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea Bissau), the principal focus is on the age of formalized control by the Portuguese state from the mid-19th century. After initial sections which consider general overviews, reference works, and bibliographies, the uniquely close interconnections between the African presence and European domestic concerns is explored in a section covering relevant publications on the Portuguese “nation,” broadly defined. The longer history of Portugal’s presence in Africa is then considered, followed by sections on the age of the “scramble” for Africa, the 20th century, the (contested) economic aspect of Portugal’s experience in Africa, the liberation wars, and then the international response to Portugal’s colonial policies. The subsequent sections deal in turn with each of the component parts of Portuguese Africa: Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, and São Tomé and Príncipe. In the cases of first two––the larger continental territories––the entries are divided into sections dealing respectively with the generalities of the colonial experience and with nationalist resistance. The final section covers the febrile process of decolonization and the transfers of power to the new regimes in Africa which followed the sudden collapse of the authoritarian state in Lisbon in April 1974.

General Overviews

Central to Portugal’s assertion of its unique position in Africa was the long––and largely uninterrupted––duration of its presence in the continent. The now classic Boxer 1991 chronicles the history of Portuguese expansion from the 15th to the early 19th centuries in which Africa plays a significant role. The Birmingham 2004 collection is more tightly focused on the presence in Africa as is Chilcote 1967 (which offers a continuous narrative rather than, as in Birmingham’s book, individual studies). Finally, the social and cultural underpinning of Portuguese imperial doctrine––lusotropicalism––can be explored in the collection Freyre 1960, by its founding philosopher, the Brazilian anthropologist Gilberto Freyre. The concept of lusotropicalism and its political and cultural impact in Portugal itself is closely analyzed by Castelo 1998 while MacQueen 2003 discusses the lusotropical illusion and the aftermath of Portugal’s loss of empire. Various historiographical debates on these and other areas take place online at the H-Luso-Africa list-serv which brings together scholars and observers of Portuguese-speaking Africa from across the world.

  • Birmingham, David. Portugal and Africa. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2004.

    A collection of previously published essays by one of the leading interpreters of Portuguese colonial history reflecting four decades of work in the area. Covering the earlier phases of expansion as well as 19th and 20th century colonial rule, the balance of the collection favors Angola above the other territories.

  • Boxer, Charles R. The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415–1825. Manchester, UK: Carcanet in association with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 1991.

    The preliminaries to Portugal’s formal colonial rule in Africa are extensively explored here (in a work first published in 1969) by the writer generally considered to be the doyen of foreign scholars of Portuguese expansion.

  • Castelo, Cláudia. “O Modo Português de estar no Mundo”: o Luso-tropicalismo e a Ideológia Colonial Portuguesa (1933–1961). Porto, Portugal: Edicões Afrontamento, 1998.

    A study of the political, cultural, and psychological roots and influences of the idea of lusotropicalism and its enduring place in the collective Portuguese consciousness throughout the 20th century and beyond.

  • Chilcote, Ronald H. Portuguese Africa. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967.

    A general survey of Portugal’s five centuries in Africa by a prolific American writer on colonialism.

  • Freyre, Gilberto. The Portuguese and the Tropics: Suggestions Inspired by the Portuguese Methods of Integrating Autochthonous Peoples. Lisbon: Executive Committee for the Commemoration of the Vth Centenary of Death of Prince Henry the Navigator, 1960.

    A collection of essays published––following a government-sponsored tour of Portugal’s African territories––providing a guide to the author’s theory of “lusotropicalism.”

  • H-Luso-Africa

    An internet discussion group which is concerned with all aspects of Portuguese-speaking Africa including its history and historiography.

  • MacQueen, Norrie. “Re-defining the ‘African Vocation’: Portugal’s Post-colonial Identity Crisis.” Journal of Contemporary European Studies 11.2 (2003): 181–199.

    DOI: 10.1080/1460846032000164618

    Explores the contradictions of the lusotropical doctrine and its effects on Portugal’s postcolonial relationships.

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