Why was Africa not a popular destination for emigrants from Portugal?

One word can be said to characterise the attitude of the Portuguese people to the question of emigration to Portugal’s African colonies: reluctance. In the late nineteenth century only approximately fifty emigrants a year went to Portuguese Africa. In the first half of the twentieth century, while more than one million Portuguese emigrated to Brazil, the United States and Argentina, only 35,000 made their way to the largest Portuguese colony, Angola. In the year 1908, the official figure for emigration to the whole of the Portuguese African colonies stood at a mere fifteen people.

This reluctance had deep roots. In Portugal and Angola, Wheeler and Pelíssier partly attribute the failure to attract sufficient numbers of early settlers to five factors: the high mortality from tropical diseases; African hostility; an arid climate; the domination of the slave trade to the detriment of all other economic activity; and the poor quality of the of the largely convict colonists (the ‘flotsam and jetsam of the Portuguese speaking world’).

These factors would emerge as recurrent themes over the centuries. Another abiding reason was what might be termed the ‘Old man of Restelo’ syndrome. The Portuguese Age of Expansion was partly an ideological crusade for the crown and for the explorers, but for those Portuguese who were so desperately poor as to consider emigrating, those ‘masses who derived little or nothing from the overseas wealth’, patriotic or religious fervour cannot have played such a major role when considering the different options available. Wheeler and Pelíssier write of Portugal as:

‘..two nations, rich and poor…(the poor) tending to be indifferent or even hostile to elite ideas and actions as well as to the outside world. The other nation has (…) participated little in the expansion (and) colonialism (…) most of Portugal did not willingly follow and sometimes opposed the lead of the Lisbon elite into overseas expansion.’

This lack of willingness had to be compensated for through forced emigration. The sending of degradados – ‘murderers, arsonists, rapists and thieves’ – in such huge numbers created such a climate of hostility and turmoil that Governor Sousa Coutinho advised his superiors in Lisbon that ‘the only way to avert total ruin in Angola was to replace degredados with free Portuguese farmers’. The problem was, of course, that free Portuguese farmers showed little inclination to relocate to Angola, and ‘before the end of the seventeenth century Angola’s reputation as a penal settlement and a white man’s grave was both firmly established and well deserved’.

In fact, not just Angola but the whole of Africa was considered ‘a graveyard for Europeans, who were in almost constant battle with Africans and/or the climate, animals, and insects such as the deadly malarial mosquito’.

As Wheeler and Pelíssier note, the calibre of the available settlers presented another huge problem for the Portuguese. Bender writes:

‘The Portuguese upper and middle class either remained in Portugal or had already left for better-known parts of North and South America. As a result, the government’s appeals for prospective settlers were generally answered by rural peasants or the poor and unskilled in urban areas’.

From the very beginning of Portuguese involvement in Africa, those who established themselves more successfully were those who realised that the slave trade was a considerably more attractive and lucrative proposition than agriculture. In Mozambique many of the holders of prazo titles became more ‘africanised’, established their own personal dominions and did not feel they owed a great debt of loyalty to the Portuguese colonial authorities. For the most part they traded in what was by far the most lucrative of the available commodities. Slaves accounted for four-fifths of Angola’s exports between 1550 and 1850. The gradual end of the slave trade would inevitably, therefore, create huge difficulties for Portuguese settlers who had no other source of income. Hence the determination of the slave traders to hang on to their livelihoods in the face of increasing pressure. Duffy writes, ‘The violent reaction in Portuguese Africa to emancipation has been noted’.

The loss of exclusive Portuguese access to Brazilian markets in 1810 combined with the ending of the slave trade mid-century inspired liberal politicians in Portugal such as Sa da Bandeira to devote new energies to making the colonies an attractive destination for both investment and emigration. Crucial to this new vision for the overseas territories was the principle that:

‘Angola must not be a place of exile for convicts and undesirables; settlement there by honest industrious citizens should be one of the first orders of business for the new regime’.

The success of this campaign depended upon a constant campaign of ‘education in the metropolis and sufficient capital and foresight in the provinces to create a community in which the immigrant could not only prosper but live comfortably’. But as Bender points out, ‘Lisbon appeared to be incapable of overcoming the lack of settlers without a heavy dependence on degredados’. Various plans were discussed and finance was provided for large-scale schemes of white agricultural settlement, but by the early 1880s penal colonies were being expanded to accommodate more convicts.

Those who did emigrate found life almost intolerable. Of the 1,500 desperately impoverished Madeira farmers who went to the highlands of Southern Angola in the mid-19th century, Gervase Clarence Smith writes:

‘Visitors to the highlands were shocked by the sight of these landless, impoverished, illiterate whites, who wore no shoes, were dressed in rags and lived in hovels’.

Emigrants to Portugal’s other African colonies fared little better. Duffy writes:

‘If farmers from Madeira found life difficult in the highlands of Angola, existence for them in the low-lying territories of Mozambique would be intolerable under present conditions’.

They were not generally at all well equipped for the difficulties they would face. Bender quotes Nascimento and Mattos as reporting that they were ‘generally poor, ignorant and illiterate, and for those reasons, without much ambition, withdrawn and lacking initiative’. According to Antonio Enes, ‘the Portuguese emigrants to Mozambique were rarely other than hands possessed neither of capital nor of the energy and aptitudes required to do duty for it’. Of course, even those with agricultural experience and expertise were to find that the African climate and the range of crops that could be cultivated were considerably different from what they were used to and presented often insurmountable challenges.

Understandably, many of the settlers showed more inclination to settle in the cities than in the rural areas. But they were no more immune than the farmers from many of the obstacles that Clarence Smith describes:

‘Independent fishermen, small farmers, petty traders and the like were constantly threatened by impoverishment and proletarianization. They were at the mercy of natural disasters and social calamities and were often incapable of breaking out of the vicious cycle of debt’.

Mirroring the reluctance of prospective emigrants to consider Africa as a destination, banks and small investors showed little willingness to risk their resources in areas with such a high rate of failure. Also the land set aside for the potential colonists was ‘inadequately surveyed’ and preparation of the schemes was poor, leading to settlers often abandoning the plantations and making their way to the more prosperous South Africa.

In the south of Angola, the Portuguese government did have some success at attracting foreign settlers. Attempts by Portuguese settlers fleeing from persecution in Pernambucano to settle in Moçâmedes were not initially successful but communities were eventually established. More successful was the settlement of Boer families in Huila in the early 20th century. Also small fishing communities were formed at Porto Alexandre by Algarvios who had made their own way in their own humble vessels in 1853. But these seem to have been rare exceptions.

In the judgement of Clarence Smith, Sa da Bandeira’s ‘plans of massive white settlement came to nothing. Apart from coastal southern Angola, the trickle of whites entering the colonies were nearly all convicts’. Bender records that ‘a series of plans and decrees, designed to augment free white settlement, either atrophied on the drawing boards or failed for lack of settlers’.

In 1845 they had been only 1,832 whites in Angola. By 1900 this had increased to about 9,000 and by 1911 the white population of Mozambique had expanded to about 11,000. However, a large proportion of the white population of Mozambique were not Portuguese, and English was heard almost as much as Portuguese. The Portuguese Community consisted almost exclusively and convicts and traders. Degredados continued to be imported and those in critical professions such as teaching and medicine showed little inclination to go and live in Africa:

‘A (..) serious problem was the want of trained personnel, teachers, nurses and doctors, willing to work overseas in a questionable environment for a paltry governmental salary’.

Equally disinclined to do so were Portuguese women; or, at least, Portuguese men were not inclined to bring their families with them to ‘a land infested with insects, wild animals, hostile Africans and degredados’. Those persuaded or forced to make the trip usually died within a few years of arriving, often during childbirth. In 1846 it was claimed that there was ‘still no case of a white woman giving birth when it didn’t cost the life of the mother and child’. In 1897 there were reportedly only two white women in Lourenço Marques.

This high death-rate, which obviously affected male settlers as well – Clarence Smith talks of the settlers dying ‘like flies’ – meant that the top-tier officials of the colonial civil service could never fully develop into a stable class, and therefore experienced and competent administrators were in short supply. Pay for these postings was not high, conditions were not at all satisfactory and, until the advent of the better-organised and more stable structures introduced under the Estado Novo, motivation remained very low. According to António Enes, one of the problems with Portuguese colonization in Mozambique was precisely this lack of a ‘colonizing class’.

However, emigrants both rich and poor did willingly make their way to Brazil, which offered poor Portuguese emigrants ‘a much better chance of surviving and making good’ than Africa. From the end of the 17th century until shortly after World War II Brazil accounted for the ‘overwhelming majority’ of Portuguese emigrants; between 1850 and 1950 1.5 million Portuguese emigrants chose Brazil over Africa. Evidently this was partly due to cultural links, but Brazil already had a long history of making fortunes in gold, diamonds, and coffee. Bender writes that ‘the perennial pot of gold sought by Portuguese emigrants was to be found in America, not in Africa’. The emigrants knew that they stood a very good chance of making or earning enough to enjoy a good life and to send money back to Portugal. By the end of the nineteenth century:

‘Brazil possessed the essential conditions to stimulate large-scale immigration: an expanding economic infrastructure which required large labour inputs (and) a commitment to pay living wages…the absence of these conditions in Angola explains to a considerable degree why Angola attracted far fewer white immigrants than Brazil.’

The ending of the slave trade, with the resultant demand for labour, had created a ‘sensational increase in emigration’ from Portugal:

‘Between 1840 and 1850, the Brazilian empire had still taken in about 33,500 slaves a year. This figure was reduced to 3,287 in 1851(…) thereafter the Brazilian economy entered the era of the expansion of coffee (…) The New world attracted numerous emigrants.’

Another essential factor is that while the climate and tropical diseases took their toll on a considerable proportion of the few settlers that made it to Africa, in Brazil the colonizers were able to deal with the climate; in fact, the diseases that the Europeans brought with them contributed significantly to the decimation of the indigenous population.

Life throughout Africa was known to be ‘hard and uncertain’. Hammond quotes a newspaper article from 1861 which directly addressed the question of why emigrants did not go to the colonies:

‘The reason is obvious. Whoever emigrates is poor, nay, of the poorest. His sole wealth is his labour, his sole capital his personal activity. He needs wages, not virgin soil. He needs an employer, not workers. Whither shall he take his way? To Angola? But what is he to do there? What industries exist there? What activity already established? What accumulated wealth? What cultivated lands? What industry? What trade? Trade – that of the blacks. Industry – none. Shall he go to Mozambique? Worse…’

The figures show that, while such an article would probably not have been read by the kind of people who might have been desperate enough to consider emigrating to Portuguese Africa, in the popular understanding these were the ideas that had most influence. In ‘Republican Portugal’ Wheeler mentions the difficulty that the Republican regime had in making pro-war propaganda amongst a largely illiterate population. The successive attempts to promote relocation schemes to Africa presumably encountered the same problem in trying to counter such negative impressions.

Under the Republic there was an expansion of public employment in the colonies. Clarence Smith writes that ‘it looked as though the republic had found the magic formula for expanding the white population of the colonies’. However, such state involvement no more constituted investment in their productive capacity and economic development than did the government subsidies paid to the colonos, of which Bender writes:

‘Such dependence on the state made the colono more of a civil servant than an independent farmer (…) In particular, the financial subsidies actually discouraged many colonos from devoting their full energies to their new farms.’

However, by the mid-twentieth century it was ‘clear that the long-standing reluctance of metropolitan Portuguese to emigrate to the colonies had been overcome’. The white population of Angola had increased to 78,826 by 1950, and that of Mozambique to 97,200; in the following ten years these figures would more than double. What had changed?

In the early years of the Estado Novo the Government had little more success than before with its rural settlement schemes. However, the 1940s and 50s was a period of ‘general prosperity in Africa, in which the Portuguese colonies (…) naturally shared’. In the 1950s there was a change in government policy: the Portuguese National Development Plan of 1953 allocated $100,000,000 to Angola and $85,000,000 to Mozambique, with a lot of the money being invested in dams, roads and railways. In 1959 another $237,000,000 went to Angola and $125,000,000 to Mozambique. Included in this was money for new and ambitious settlement programmes. It has been estimated that the cost of settling a single family in Cela, Angola was $100,000. The settlement programmes themselves were not overwhelmingly successful, but Portuguese emigrants were attracted in very large numbers to the cities; also in the 1959 plan, investment in health and education – essential given the rapidly increasing demand for skilled labour – featured for the first time.

Huge numbers of Portuguese immigrants continued to arrive throughout the wars of independence, right up to the revolution in 1974. Of the hundreds of thousands of retornados who fled back to Portugal shortly afterwards, more than half of them had only arrived in Africa during the previous fifteen years.


Apart from the physical difficulties that Europeans had faced in simply staying alive in Africa, the principal reason for the reluctance to emigrate to the colonies lay in the image that the Portuguese people held of Africa. In contrast to the developing and expanding society of Brazil, Africa had always been seen as a place from which resources – slaves and mineral wealth – were extracted rather than invested. Portugal’s nineteenth century dream of creating a new Brazil in Africa ignored this basic dichotomy.

Portugal’s attempts to build a society on captive labour had worked in Brazil, in much the same way as had Britain’s in Australia, but in both cases the indigenous populations were more or less wiped out within a couple of centuries of the Europeans’ arrival. This was clearly never a possibility in Africa, so the Portuguese attempts to create ‘new’ societies had to find some way to work with, rather than against, the African population.

Would Britain have been successful at creating a new United States in the areas of Africa from which it took its slaves? Of course Britain also had its lucrative Indian and Australian colonies, so such a notion is unlikely to have ever been suggested. Portugal, on the other hand, had no other significant territories. However, in developing Brazil, it had severely disrupted the complex societies which already existed in Africa without seeking to repair the damage until, crucially, it was too late.

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