A Brief History of Angola

Luanda Bay, Angola
Kostadin Luchansky - Angola Image Bank/Getty Images

In 1482, when the Portuguese first landed in what is now northern Angola, they encountered the Kingdom of the Kongo, which stretched from modern Gabon in the north to the Kwanza River in the south. Mbanza Kongo, the capital, had a population of 50,000 people. South of this kingdom were various important states, of which the Kingdom of Ndongo, ruled by the ngola (king), was most significant. Modern Angola derives its name from the king of Ndongo.

The Portuguese Arrive

The Portuguese gradually took control of the coastal strip throughout the 16th century by a series of treaties and wars. The Dutch occupied Luanda from 1641-48, providing a boost for anti-Portuguese states. In 1648, Brazilian-based Portuguese forces re-took Luanda and initiated a process of military conquest of the Congo and Ndongo states that ended with Portuguese victory in 1671. Full Portuguese administrative control of the interior did not occur until the beginning of the 20th century.

The Slave Trade

Portugal's primary interest in Angola quickly turned to slavery. The slaving system began early in the 16th century with the purchase from African chiefs of people to work on sugar plantations in São Tomé, Principé, and Brazil. Many scholars agree that by the 19th century, Angola was the largest source of slaves not only for Brazil but also for the Americas, including the United States.

Slavery by Another Name

By the end of the 19th century, a massive forced labor system had replaced formal slavery and would continue until outlawed in 1961. It was this forced labor that provided the basis for development of a plantation economy and, by the mid-20th century, a major mining sector.

Forced labor combined with British financing to construct three railroads from the coast to the interior, the most important of which was the transcontinental Benguela railroad that linked the port of Lobito with the copper zones of the Belgian Congo and what is now Zambia, through which it connects to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.

Portuguese Response to Decolonization

Colonial economic development did not translate into social development for native Angolans. The Portuguese regime encouraged white immigration, especially after 1950, which intensified racial antagonisms. As decolonization progressed elsewhere in Africa, Portugal, under the Salazar and Caetano dictatorships, rejected independence and treated its African colonies as overseas provinces.

A Struggle for Independence

The three main independence movements which emerged in Angola were:

  • The Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (Movimento Popular da Libertação de Angola, MPLA) led by Agostinho Neto, with a base among Kimbundu and the mixed-race intelligentsia of Luanda, and links to communist parties in Portugal and the East Bloc.
  • The National Front for the Liberation of Angola (Frente Nacional para a Libertação de Angola, FNLA), led by Holden Roberto with an ethnic base in the Bakongo region of the north and links to the United States and the Mobutu regime in Kinshasa.
  • The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (União Nacional para a Indepêndencia Total de Angola, UNITA), led by Jonas Malheiro Savimbi with an ethnic and regional base in the Ovimbundu heartland in the center of the country and links to the People's Republic of China and apartheid South Africa.

    Cold War Intervention

    From the early 1960s, elements of these movements fought against the Portuguese. A 1974 coup d'etat in Portugal established a military government that promptly ceased the war and agreed, in the Alvor Accords, to hand over power to a coalition of the three movements. The ideological differences between the three movements eventually led to armed conflict, with FNLA and UNITA forces, encouraged by their respective international supporters, attempting to wrest control of Luanda from the MPLA.

    The intervention of troops from South Africa on behalf of UNITA and Zaire on behalf of the FNLA in September and October 1975 and the MPLA's importation of Cuban troops in November effectively internationalized the conflict.

    Retaining control of Luanda, the coastal strip, and increasingly lucrative oil fields in Cabinda, the MPLA declared independence on November 11, 1975, the day the Portuguese abandoned the capital.

    UNITA and the FNLA formed a rival coalition government based in the interior city of Huambo. Agostinho Neto became the first president of the MPLA government that was recognized by the United Nations in 1976. Upon Neto's death from cancer in 1979, then-Planning Minister José Eduardo dos Santos ascended to the presidency.


    (Text from Public Domain material, US Department of State Background Notes.)