Wallace G. Mills Hist. 317 6 Portugal’s Colonial Policy

Portugal’s Colonial Policy

- this discussion is by no means a thorough analysis of Portugal’s colonial policies. Rather, there are a few general comments and impressions.

- Portugal’s explorers had rounded the Cape of Good Hope late in the 15th C and had given Portugal a big lead over other European rivals for trade and other involvements. Although their monopoly was broken and the Portuguese shouldered aside later by the Dutch and English, the Portuguese had clung to a number of enclaves on both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. In most of these enclaves, Portuguese control was tenuous and did not extend very deeply into the interior. For example, during the Mfecane, a band of warriors driven out of Zululand had attacked and burned Lourenço Marques; the Portuguese had had to watch from ships where they had taken refuge.

- Portugal was a small country and its resources were limited; it had managed to keep the areas it did either because nobody else wanted them or in other cases, the British found it convenient to support Portuguese control. Portugal was not very industrialised, and often they used British goods for trade.

- during the scramble, imperialists like Cecil Rhodes hoped to supplant the Portuguese; especially, Rhodes wanted to build a railway from the Indian Ocean through Mozambique to the new territories acquired by his BSA Co. and named Rhodesia in his honour (in fact a railroad was built, but Mozambique remained Portuguese).

- the Germans also had designs on Portugal’s territorial claims (claims because Portugal always claimed much more than it actually controlled) in Africa (this was part of the aspiration to join up its main African colonies to create a giant MittelAfrika). In the event, the British and the Germans cancelled each other out. Each preferred that the disputed areas remain in Portuguese hands rather than be lost to the other.

- the Portuguese did try to extend more effective control in the colonies they retained, but control over remote areas was never complete (in the 1960s and 70s, insurgency movements were able to establish bases in these areas).

- in development, the Portuguese tended to rely on concession companies and/or plantations.

- the Portuguese had less colour prejudice than some other European peoples and a higher tendency to intermarry (young adventurers going out to the colonies in hopes of making their fortunes often did not have wives); thus, over long periods of time in their colonies, the Portuguese created and merged with a mulatto population.

- after WW2 especially, the Portuguese government adopted a version of the metropolitan approach (like France); i.e., the colonies became a part of greater Portugal and those individuals who could meet the assimilation criteria could become Portuguese citizens.

- also, in the post-1945 period and especially in the 1950s and 60s in a effort to develop the colonies and ease population and unemployment pressures at home, the Portuguese government encouraged emigration to Angola and Mozambique.

- the Portuguese claimed that their colonialism was free of racism, but this was at best only partly true. The practice of granting citizenship to anyone who could meet the education and assimilation criteria in fact benefited the mulatto population primarily, not the general African population. Also, the white settlers from Portugal in the post 1945 period became more race conscious and there were strains on the policy of non-racialism.

- however, as independence movements and guerrilla activities started, it was apparent that whites were dependent on the Portuguese army; the government tried to undercut support for the independence movements by expanding the non-racialism policies. Thus, there were contradictory pressures.

Why did Portugal hang on so long?

- many, especially marxists, argued flatly that it was because the colonies were so profitable and pointed primarily to the coffee and oil exports from Angola to justify this assessment. However, prices for these commodities were mostly very low during the 1950s and 60s.

- I think that it is doubtful that the colonies paid; especially with the emergence of insurgency movements in several Portuguese colonies, it is certain that the wars were a large drain on Portugal and its economy. I doubt if they were very profitable even before that. It is one of the reasons for such low standards of living in Portugal.

- one of the main reasons for hanging on was prestige. For 1 century (the 16th), Portugal had been the second greatest colonial power in Europe. Portugal continued to cling to its empire ever after; it was perhaps the main source of pride for the Portuguese.

- the Portuguese empire ended when the military leaders who overthrew the dictatorship decided that the empire was not worth it; the army did not have the resources to win, although they could probably continue the stalemate for a long time. As well as being costly (and seemingly endless), the stalemate was also grossly demoralising. The decision to allow the colonies to become independent was also very popular among the majority of the public in Portugal. The Portuguese settlers, of course, and some of their supporters in Portugal denounced the abandonment and ‘betrayal’. Many of the settlers went to South Africa instead of returning to Portugal.

- 3 main factors underlay the decision to end the empire:

  1. the liberation movements had increased the costs (both in wealth and in lives) very substantially;
  2. Portugal had missed out on the tremendous European expansion of the 1950s and 60s; by the early 1970s, Portugal was even further behind with lower levels of economic output and lower standards of living.
  3. also, it had become clear to the military that the wars against the liberation movements were not winable (even the Americans were having to withdraw from Vietnam). Thus, both the military and much of the public in Portugal were fed up and demoralised.

- while it is complex and one should avoid being simplistic, it is true that European countries have done much better economically and in standards of living after eliminating their colonial empires than when they had them.

- alternately, since independence, most African countries have been doing worse than they were doing in the pre-independence colonial period. Again, we should not be simplistic in interpreting this, but it does show the need to look at the more simplistic economic interpretations much more critically.

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