Kwasi Konadu

Resistance to Portuguese Colonial Rule in West Africa

African History 360Kwasi KonaduComment

By the nineteenth century, Portugal only controlled a few mainland ports and island off the coasts of Africa: The Cape Verde Islands; ports in Guinea-Bissau; islands of São Tomé and Principe; port cities of Cabinda, Ambriz, Luanda, Benguela, and some sites in the Angola interior; and ports at Quelimane and Lourenço-Marques (now Maputo, capital of Mozambique) in southeast Africa. A century later, the struggle for national independence from Portuguese colonial rule took a decisively bloody turn as armed struggle rather than negotiation became the mode through which these colonial possessions would achieve their political independence. Unlike other Europeans who recognized the warning signs and decided to forestall violent rebellion and thus choose diplomacy and political transfer of power, Portugal instead chose to hold on as tightly as possible to their African territories. Portugal was—and still is—one of Europe’s poorest countries, and so one can understand the desire to cling onto their economic lifelines on African soil. But the Africans had other ideas.

Amilcar Cabral (1924 – 1973) was an anti-colonial thinker and freedom fighter, and leader of the PAIGC that fought for the liberation of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. After studying agronomy in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, Amilcar Cabral founded the Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde or PAIGC (African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde) in 1956. He was also co-founder of the Movimento Popular Libertação de Angola. As Secretary-General of the PAIGC, Cabral and his comrades liberated much of the Guinean countryside and distinguished himself among the bevy of African freedom fighters as both theorist and tactician. Though Cabral promoted the anti-imperialist struggle of the Portuguese colonies in Africa through guerrilla warfare and self-reliance among anti-colonial forces fighting on the ground, he did not live to see the political independence he desired. On 20 January 1973, he was assassinated by Portuguese agents. A year before his assassination, he delivered a speech to the fourth Commission of the United Nations General Assembly on October 16, 1972, on “Questions of Territories Under Portuguese administration.” The selection below contains excerpts from that speech.


[...] On 3 August 1959, at a crucial juncture in the history of the struggle, the Portuguese colonialists committed the massacre of Pidgiguiti, in which the dock workers of Bissau and the river transport strikers were the victims and whim, at a cost of 50 killed and over 100 strikers wounded, was a painful lesson for our people, who learned that there was no question of choosing between a peaceful struggle and armed combat; the Portuguese had weapons and were prepared to kill. At a secret meeting of the PAIGC leaders, held at Bissau on 19 September 1959, the decision was taken to suspend all peaceful representations to the authorities in the villages and to prepare for the armed struggle. For that purpose it was necessary to have a solid political base in the countryside. After three years of active and intensive mobilization and organization of the rural populations, PAIGC managed to create that basis in spite of the increasing vigilance of the colonial authorities.

Feeling the wind change, the Portuguese colonialists launched an extensive campaign of police and military repression against the nationalist forces. In June 1962, over 2,000 patriots were arrested throughout the country. Several villages were set on fire and their inhabitants massacred. Dozens of Africans were burnt alive or drowned in the rivers and others tortured. The policy of repression stiffened the people's determination to continue the fight. Some skirmishes broke out between the patriots and the forces of colonialist repression.

Faced with that situation, the patriots considered that only an appropriate and effective intervention by the United Nations in support of the inalienable rights o f the people of Guiné and the Cape Verde Islands could induce the Portuguese Government to respect international morality and legality. In light of subsequent events, we might well be considered to have been naive. We believed it to be our duty and right to have recourse to the international Organization. In the circumstances we considered it absolutely necessary to appeal to the Fourth Committee. Our message was the appeal of a people confronted with a particularly difficult situation but resolved to pay the price required to regain our dignity and freedom, as also proof of our trust in the strength of the principles and in the capacity for action of the United Nations.

What was the Fourth Committee told at that time? First of all, PAIGC clearly described the reasons for and purposes of its presence in the United Nations and explained that it had come as the representative of the African people of “Portuguese" Guiné and the Cape Verde Islands. The people had placed their entire trust in PAIGC, an organization which had mobilized and organized them for the struggle for national liberation. The people had been gagged by the total lack of fundamental freedoms and by the Portuguese colonial repression.

They considered those who had defended their interest in every possible way throughout the preceding 15 years of Africa's history to be their lawful representatives. PAIGC had come to the Fourth Committee not to make propaganda or to extract resolutions condemning Portuguese colonialism, but to work with the Committee in order to arrive at a constructive solution of a problem which was both that of the people of Guiné and Cape Verde and that of the United Nations itself: the immediate liberation of that people from the colonial yoke.

Nor had it come to inveigh against Portuguese colonialism, as had already been done many times—just as attacks had already been made and condemnations uttered against Portuguese colonialism, whose characteristics, subterfuges, methods and activities were already more than well known to the United Nations and world opinion.

PAIGC had come to the Fourth Committee because of the situation actually prevailing in OUR country and with the backing of international law, in order to seek, together with the members of the Committee, including the Portuguese delegation, the shortest and most effective way of rapidly eliminating Portuguese colonialism from Guiné and the Cape Verde Islands.

The time had come for our people and party to dispense with indecision and promises and to adopt definitive decisions and take specific action. We had already agreed to make great sacrifices and were determined to do much more to recover our liberty and human dignity, whatever the path to be followed….

PAIGC was aware not only of the legality of our struggle but also of the fact that, fighting as we had been by all the means at our disposal for the liberation of our country, we had also been defending international legality, peace and the progress of mankind.

The struggle had ceased to be strictly national and had become international. In Guiné and Cape Verde the fight for progress and freedom from poverty, suffering and oppression had been waged in various forms. While it was true that the victims of the fight had been the sons of the people of Guiné and Cape Verde, it was also true that each comrade who had succumbed to torture or had fallen under the bullets of the Portuguese colonialists was identified-through the hope and conviction which the people of our country cherished in their hearts and minds-with all peace-loving and freedom loving men who wished to live a life of progress in the pursuit of happiness….

PAIGC believed that the time had come to take stock of the situation and make radical changes in it, since it benefited only the enemies of the United Nations and, more specifically, Portuguese colonialism.

We Africans, having rejected the idea of begging for freedom, which was contrary to our dignity and our sacred right to freedom and independence, reaffirmed our steadfast decision to end colonial domination of our country, no matter what the sacrifices involved, and to conquer for ourselves the opportunity to achieve in peace our own progress and happiness….


Source: Amilcar Cabral, Return to the Source: Selected Speeches of Amilcar Cabral, ed. Africa Information Service (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973), 16-20.