Angola: Salazar government and colonial policy (1926-1951)

Updated October 2005

In 1926 a military coup led to the establishment of a one party state in Portugal. In 1930 António Salazar became head of the new régime when he became Prime Minister. At this time the world was racked by the Great Depression; the fall in demand for products and massive unemployment led to acute poverty in Portugal. The development of an authoritarian, almost fascist, corporatist state under Salazar was an attempt to cope with the crisis (Library of Congress 1989p, Meijer & Birmingham 2004).

In terms of colonial economic policy this meant an attempt to maximize wealth extraction coupled with autarchic trading policies which made the colonies captive markets for Portuguese goods. Foreign investment in the colonies was generally discouraged for commercial opportunities were to be exploited by Portuguese alone. Along with this went compulsory production in the colonies of the raw materials needed to feed the industries of Portugal. Compulsory crop cultivation was supplemented by forced labour and higher taxation levels (Meijer & Birmingham 2004, Library of Congress 1989p).

The extraction process was covered with an ideology that emphasized Portugal's mission to bring civilization to the benighted colonies. An extremely conservative triumphantalist, Catholicism was promoted by the state and propagated in the colonies (Meijer & Birmingham 2004). In time this rudimentary framework was elaborated into an ideology termed "luso-tropicalism", which claimed that Portugal had a special affinity with peoples of the tropics that enabled them to fulfill their civilizing mission without racism (Meijer & Birmingham 2004, Ellsworth 1999).

On a political and social level the colonies were to be closely integrated with Portugal. Part of the civilizing mission lay in "elevating" the natives by assimilating them to Portuguese culture. The corollary to this was that the tiny numbers of colonial people who were deemed to have absorbed Portuguese manners, language and culture ("assimilados") were to have the same status and rights as other Portuguese citizens. The hope was, apparently, that in due course all the populations of the colonies would be so acculturated and acquire citizenship and equality as Portuguese. There would then be one single race-blind international Portuguese nation (Meijer & Birmingham 2004, Library of Congress 1989p).

It is apparent from this that equality was not a given for the colonial subjects, but something which they could attain only by foregoing their own history and culture and by adopting that of the colonizer. Until the stringent requirements for assimilation were met the natives were to remain in a state of perpetual tutelage that required a firm hand and close supervision. Thus was economic and social discrimination rationalized, allowing white Portuguese to monopolise all opportunities, justifying the economic exploitation and social marginalization of the indigenous people and restricting mestiços and assimilados to the lower managerial rungs of state and firm (Library of Congress 1989p).

The legislation that laid down the distinctions between the indigenous and the assimilated also provided for a poll tax on the indigenous; this was payable either in cash or in half a year's free labour. Such crass, forcible extraction of wealth to bolster the coffers of the corporatist state was deeply resented. The misery wrought by the Great Depression in Portugal stimulated immigration to the colonies where they displaced the already marginalized mestiços and assimilados groups leading to the alienation of colonials who would otherwise have identified with the colonisers (Library of Congress 1989p, Meijer & Birmingham 2004).

Disaffection expressed itself in the formation of a number of nationalist organizations. As early as 1910 mestiços and assimilados based in the cities of Luanda and Benguela formed the Angolan League. They also founded the Let's Discover Angola movement, the forerunner of the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), in the 1940s (Meijer & Birmingham 2004).

The state responded to disaffection with a heavy hand, closely policing the lives of the colonials through censorship, control of media and education, the criminalization of political dissent, movement control and the use of a network of informants to identify dissidents for arrest and prosecution (Library of Congress 1989p).

The conservative fiscal and monetary policies followed by the government did nothing to stimulate macro-demand and protectionism locked Portugal and the colonies into economic stagnation. Prosperity in some measure returned to Portugal and its colonies for the first time since the Great Depression with the onset of the Second World War. Portugal, though sympathetic to the Axis powers, remained neutral. War time shortages drove up the prices of commodities, especially (from Angola's point of view) coffee prices, stimulating renewed immigration from Portugal and the creation of plantations by settlers (Library of Congress 1989p).


ELLSWORTH, KH 1999 "Racial and Ethnic Relations in the Modern World-System: A Comparative Analysis of Portuguese Influence in Angola and Brazil", Paper presented at the 1999 International Studies Assoc. Conference, February 19, 18-26 [www] [PDF document, opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS 1989p "Administration and Development" IN Country Study: Angola [www] [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

MEIJER, G & BIRMINGHAM, D 2004, "Angola from past to present" Accord 15 [www] [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).