The term lusophone is closely associated with the Portuguese sphere of influence. It is used to refer to people and states across the world with a cultural background and language significantly influenced by the Portuguese. The spread of Lusophone culture can largely be attributed to the Portuguese explorations and colonial conquests around the world dating back to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Presently, Portugal’s former colonies continue to hold a keen cultural affinity with their former colonizer; most notably the Portuguese language remains the official language for many countries today, including Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, East Timor, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Portugal, and São Tomé and Príncipe.
Lusophone Africa specifically refers to the five Portuguese-speaking African countries once colonized by the Portuguese: Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe. These countries are members of the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries, an organization created in 1996 to foster friendship and unity among Lusophone states throughout the world.
Of all the European powers involved in colonialism, the Portuguese were the first to seek territories in the African continent. Using trade as a motive and driven by the need to acquire riches for the crown, Portuguese sailors combed newfound territories in search of wealth for their small European homeland. On August 21, 1415, Portuguese seafarer Henry the Navigator landed at Ceuta, which is presently a Spanish territory enclave near Morocco. After Henry’s arrival in Ceuta, further excursions along the west African coast followed as explorers sought gold and slaves. Portuguese Guinea, also known as Guinea-Bissau, became a Portuguese colony and a major source of slaves in 1447. In 1462 the uninhabited islands of Cape Verde off the west African coast were colonized. Slaves from the neighboring west Africa were shipped to the island to serve as a labor force. Next in line was Mozambique, a strategically situated nation on the east African coast, colonized in 1510. Other colonies included the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, which served as a stopping place for long-distance Portuguese voyages headed to Brazil. Lastly, the resource-rich Angola was colonized in 1576.
Portuguese colonization in Africa would last for a total of 560 years, the longest surviving out of European colonies. The formal partitioning of Africa among European nations, widely referred to as the Scramble for Africa, was established during the Berlin Conference (1884–1885), which regulated European colonization and trade on the continent and helped to legitimize Portugal’s hold over its African colonies for several centuries. Despite Portugal’s reluctance to grant independence to the African states, unforeseen political events eventually forced the country to give up its African colonies in quick succession between 1974 and 1975.
Beginning in the 1960s, independent movements and armed guerrilla warfare in Angola and Mozambique hindered Portugal’s ability to govern with ease. Further, a successful coup in 1974 ended Antonio Salazar’s rule, as his regime was supporting an unpopular war against ant colonists in Africa. His overthrow brought a new administration that favored the idea of independence for the African colonies. In 1974, Portugal granted independence to Guinea-Bissau, followed by Mozambique, Cape Verde, and Sao Tomé and Príncipe in 1975. Angola gained independence on November 11, 1975, bringing to a close the long chapter of Portuguese colonialism in Africa.
Despite hundreds of years of control, the Portuguese failed to build political institutions or economic mechanisms to effectively assist the colonies’ transition from colonial rule to independence. Without any viable industrialization and limited infrastructure, the former colonies experienced extreme poverty, corruption, and armed conflicts. Both Mozambique from 1975 to 1992 and Angola from 1975 to 2002 became submerged in ideological civil wars, which were drawn into the cold war as former rebels were supported by communist governments sponsored by the Soviet Union against insurgents groups supported by the U.S. and African cold war allies.
While Lusophone Africa is still relatively underdeveloped compared to other nations with European colonial roots, the end of the civil war coupled with the discovery of oil in Angola has rejuvenated the quest for development in that country. Likewise, the islands of Sao Tomé and Príncipe have benefited from oil resources located in the Gulf of Guinea, while Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau remain largely dependent on donor assistance. Cape Verde, on the other hand, relies mainly on the service industry, especially tourism, along with foreign donor assistance and support from its diaspora to sustain its economic growth. Notably, after centuries of governing Lusophone Africa, Portugal today has no substantial role in the governance of any of its former colonies.
- Birmingham, David. Portugal and Africa. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999.
- Chabal, Patrick, David Birmingham, Joshua Forrest, and Malyn Newitt. History of Postcolonial Lusophone Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.
- Lloyd-Jones, Stewart, and Antonio Costa Pinto, eds. The Last Empire: Thirty Years of Portuguese Decolonization. Bristol, U.K.: Intellect Books, 2003.