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Angola and slaves: 15th-19th century

Little is known about the early history of the Angola region, stretching south from the mouth of the Congo. The inhabitants are living a neolithic existence until the arrival of Bantu migrants from the north, bringing iron technology in the first millennium AD.

When the Portuguese begin trading on the west coast of Africa, in the 15th century, they concentrate their energies on Guinea and Angola. Hoping at first for gold, they soon find that slaves are the most valuable commodity available here for export. But the Portuguese never establish much more than a foothold in either place. In Guinea rival Europeans grab much of the trade, while local African rulers confine the Portuguese to the area around Bissau.

Thousands of miles down the coast, in Angola, the Portuguese find it even harder to consolidate their early advantage against encroachments by Dutch, British and French rivals. Nevertheless the fortified towns of Luanda (established in 1587 with 400 Portuguese settlers) and Benguela (a fort from 1587, a town from 1617) remain almost continuously in Portuguese hands.

As in Guinea, the slave trade becomes the basis of the local economy - with raids carried ever further inland to procure captives. More than a million men, women and children are shipped from here across the Atlantic. In this region, unlike Guinea, the trade remains largely in Portuguese hands. Nearly all the slaves are destined for Brazil.

During the 19th century the western embargo on the slave trade brings to an end Angola's main export. The shipping of slaves from Angola is banned in 1836, but slavery remains legal in the Portuguese empire until 1875. So an attempt is made in Angola to make productive use of slaves who can no longer be sold abroad.

Grants of land are made in regions inland from Luanda. Plantations are established, with coffee, cotton and sugar as the main crops. But this encroachment leads to continual outbreaks of warfare with local rulers of the Kongo, Mbundu and Ovambo peoples. Angola is a most unsettled region when the European scramble for Africa begins in the 1880s. It remains so in most subsequent periods.

Colonial period: 1885-1975

Portugal's colonial claim to the region is recognized by the other European powers during the 1880s, and the boundaries of Portuguese Angola are agreed by negotiation in Europe in 1891. At the time Portugal is in effective control of only a small part of the area thus theoretically enclosed. But work is already under way to open up the interior.

Construction of a railway from Luanda to Malanje, in the fertile highlands, is started in 1885. Work begins in 1902 on a commercially more significant line from Benguela all the way inland to the Katanga region, aiming to provide access to the sea for the richest mining district of the Belgian Congo. The line reaches the Congo border in 1928.

By this time the regime in Portugal has been through two violent transitions, from monarchy to republic in 1910 and then to a military dictatorship after a coup in 1926. The effect of these changes in Angola is a tightening of Portuguese control.

In the early years of the colony there has been a continuation of the almost endemic warfare between the Portuguese and the various African rulers of the region. Now a systematic campaign of conquest is undertaken. One by one the local kingdoms are overwhelmed and abolished. By the 1920s almost the whole of Angola is under control. There is no longer slavery, but the plantations are worked on a system of forced African labour.

In the 1950s and 1960s three rival guerrilla groups are formed to fight for Angolan independence. The first is the MPLA or Movimento Popular de Libertaçcão de Angola (Popular Liberation Movement of Angola), founded in 1956 by members of the banned Portuguese Communist party and supported by the USSR.

In the following year the FNLA or Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola (National Front for the Liberation of Angola) is set up with aid from the USA. And in 1966 UNITA or União Nacional para a Independencia Total de Angola (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) is established. UNITA has little foreign aid but considerable tribal allegiance in southern Angola.

Portugal's terminal problems in Angola are not directly caused by any of these guerrilla groups. It is a rebellion of workers, undergoing forced labour in coffee and cotton plantations in the north, which first plunges the country into chaos in 1961.

The government in Lisbon responds vigorously. Large numbers of troops are sent to the colony. The emigration of Portuguese peasants to Angola, to be settled on African farms, is greatly accelerated. Reforms are introduced (improvements in the provision of education and health, and the ending of forced labour) in a belated attempt to appease the African population.

The unrest gives the guerrilla groups their opportunity. Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s they are actively engaged in a campaign of violence against the colonial power. But they are equally active in fighting among themselves. Civil war accompanies the anti-colonial war.

As a result Angola is ill-equipped to respond positively in the aftermath of a 1974 coup in Portugal. This event, largely prompted by the dire situation in Portugal's three rebellious African colonies, brings to a sudden end the country's long-established right-wing dicatatorship. The change of regime in Lisbon has immediate consequences in Africa.

The new government in Lisbon is disinclined to prop up Portugal's collapsing and by now very expensive empire. All the Portuguese colonies in Africa are rapidly granted their independence.

Portuguese Guinea is the first, in September 1974. Portuguese East Africa follows in June 1975, taking the new name Mozambique. The republic of Cape Verde is established in July. And Angola, in the middle of civil war, becomes independent in November 1975.

Independence: from1975

During 1975, before the official Portuguese withdrawal, the civil war in Angola intensifies. In fighting for control of the capital city, Luanda, the MPLA succeeds in driving out both its rivals. UNITA, which claims to enjoy wider popular support than the other groups, argues that Portugal must fulfil its last colonial duty and supervise elections.

But the Portuguese, eager to leave as quickly as possible, abandon the country without formally handing over control to any succeeding government. The MPLA, in possession of the capital and with guaranteed support from the USSR and Cuba, declares itself the government of independent Angola. Agostinho Neto, a distinguished poet who has led the MPLA since 1962, becomes president.

UNITA and the FNLA set up a rival government in the mountainous region of Huambo, inland from Benguela. Here they enlist the support of South African forces in neighbouring Namibia to oust the Marxist MPLA.

The conflict in Angola thus becomes an extension of the Cold War. The United States sends funds to UNITA and the FNLA and encourages South African involvement. The USSR provides similar support to the MPLA, while president Castro, eager to spread communism in Africa, sends large contingents of Cuban troops to Angola. As early as November 1975 South African and Cuban troops clash in a battle at Ebo, with victory on this occasion going decisively to the Cubans.

South Africa's involvement increases over the years because of the situation in neighbouring Namibia, where the insurgent group SWAPO receives support from Angola's MPLA. From South Africa's point of view, maintaining control in Namibia and fighting communism in Angola become one and the same cause. But in 1988 exhaustion leads to a pact with Cuba. Both sides will withdraw their troops from Angola. South Africa will also pull out of Namibia.

This leaves Angola's civil war as an internal affair. The FNLA has by the late 1980s declined in importance. The rivals now are the MPLA, led by José dos Santos since the death of Neto in 1979; and UNITA, still under the control of its founder, Jonas Savimbi.

From 1989 there are several attempts by the two men to achieve a ceasefire. A solution is made easier when the MPLA decides to give up Marxism-Leninism and the one-party state. An agreement is reached in 1991 on a new constitution, the merging of the two rival armies and the holding of multiparty elections.

The elections duly take place in 1992 and the MPLA beats UNITA into second place. Savimbi refuses to accept this result. Civil war breaks out again, even more violently than before. During two years of fighting, it is calculated that some two million people are driven from their homes (20% of the population). More than 20 million land mines are planted by the warring factions.

In November 1994, under UN mediation in Lusaka, a somewhat shaky peace is agreed. It involves the gradual demobilization of UNITA's forces and the participation of UNITA in government as a political party, with Savimbi as vice-president of the nation.

However progress is far from convincing. The demobilization soon falls behind schedule. Savimbi reconsiders his decision to serve as vice-president. And UNITA proves reluctant to relinquish control over regions which include Angola's valuable diamond mines. (Of the nation's two main sources of wealth, oil has been exclusively in MPLA hands while diamonds have funded UNITA).

All trace of agreement ends in December 1998, with a return to full-scale civil war. During 1999 UNITA wins control of some 75% of the countryside, forcing terrified peasants into government-held cities where starvation and illness threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands. The UN World Food Programme desperately tries to truck in emergency supplies along roads mined and ambushed by UNITA forces. Meanwhile the rest of the world hardly notices, with Kosovo exhausting the available supply of compassion.

No country in the world has had such a continuously appalling start to independence as Angola, potentially so prosperous from its natural resources but suffering from lethal self-inflicted wounds.