Review: Portugal’s Guerrilla Wars in Africa, by Al J. Venter

Cold War creeping into dying Colonialism (5 stars)

It’s hard to grasp that Portugal had African colonies up to the 1970s, when pretty much the entire world had left the Colonial bandwagon and was more preoccupied with the Cold War. While the eyes of the world were on Vietnam, Portugal, one of the poorest countries in Europe, was waging three different wars at the same time: in Angola, Mozambique and Portuguese Guinea (today’s Guinea-Bissau).

The book Portugal’s Guerrilla Wars in Africa meticulously analyzes the period. South-African journalist Al Venter is a veteran war correspondent in Africa and the Middle East, and witnessed first hand Portugal’s fight against it’s former colonies. The book has a very good combination of factual research and the author’s own perspective on the conflicts. That was essential for the understanding of someone like me, who knew squat about it. The book also comes with several photographs and maps that help a layman make sense of the conflict.

“It is difficult to tell a man’s age in the bush: a 13-year-old often looks 18 or older and it was no secret that many of those captured were barely 14 or 15, all of them armed. It was the same in old Stanleyville (today Kisangani) in the Congo: some of the worst brutalities were perpetrated by children not yet into their teens.”

It is a conflict in a different scale than Vietnam. Helicopters and bombings were rare, as were direct confrontations. The norm were cat and mouse skirmishes, of slow and constant attrition. More than all, those were wars of wills. The books defends that the Portuguese pride, that wanted to keep a self-image of a colonizing powerhouse, kept Portugal for decades stuck in a war it couldn’t win. There was a crucial imbalance of determination between the colonies and Portugal.

The book describes several atrocities, perpetrated both by the government and the revolutionary groups. The first traces of distress date back to 1961, when Angolan peasants revolted because they had to sell their cotton by a price fixed by Portugal, a lot lower than the international market price. The Portuguese commanders simply bombed dozens of villages with napalm, killing 7 thousand locals.

“During bush operations, everything in their path would be destroyed; livestock slaughtered, crops and villages burnt, the local people rounded up for questioning and anyone acting in a suspicious manner arrested and hauled back to base. Tribesmen who attempted to escape this treatment were regarded as “fleeing terrorists”, and shot. The death would then be formally listed as a “terrorist kill”.”

Most of the Portuguese soldiers, young and poor, felt like they were dragged into a meaningless conflict and did the minimum necessary until their campaign was over. It is sad to see how, like in any conflict, the local population suffered the hardest blows. They were pushed both by the government and revolutionaries. It is very interesting how the book explains the guerrilla’s backgrounds, many insurgents were trained in China and incorporated tactics by Mao Tse Tung and Che Guevara in the African context, like using propaganda and mobility. It’s the beginning of the Cold War creeping into dying Colonialism.

It is also sad to know how these revolutions would end up after Portugal packed away from Africa. The former colonies were taken by even bloodier conflicts, that echo to this day in the continent because of the arbitrary divisions set up by the European nations.

Portugal’s Guerrilla Wars in Africa is at the same time an informative and personal book about an obscure period of our recent history.

Guilherme Solari is a Brazilian writer and journalist from Sao Paulo, Brazil. He has written about movies, literature and videogames for some of Brazil’s biggest news sites. He is the author of THE CASCAVEL CHRONICLES, a love letter to 80's action movies, as well as the cyberpunk CYBERSAMPA series.