Friday, 2 May 2014

Amílcar Cabral and the ABC of colonialism

My plan was to write about the five Portuguese-language African countries in alphabetic order. But it seemed to me that my book for Guinea-Bissau could serve as an introduction. In fact, finding a book for it was the hardest part of my project. The best I did was find an anthology of texts by a political leader, a man who incidentally is called the father of Guinea-Bissau and who should be known alongside Frantz Fanon, Stephen Biko and Nelson Mandela.

Amílcar Cabral was born in Guinea-Bissau in 1924. His father was Cape Verdean and his mother was Bissau-Guinean. In 1932 they returned to Cape Verde. He studied there and achieved a scholarship to study in Portugal. He studied agronomy and after carrying out some research in the metropolis, in 1953 the government sent him to Guinea to undertake a national agricultural survey, which made him travel all over the country, allowing him to gain direct experience of the country, its people and its social and economic problems. His father had been a patriot who believed in the Empire. Cabral was fated to be something else. By 1955 the police already had him under surveillance because he hosted meetings for cultural and political ends, and their activities were considered suspect since they exalted the “priority of the rights of the natives.” An early attempt at creating a nationalist group for the independence of Guinea resulted in his visa being cancelled and being deported from the country back to Portugal, permitted only an annual trip to visit his family. He worked in Portugal and also in Angola, but in 1956 he returned to Guinea to help form a political party to fight for the independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, the PAI, or Partido Africano de Independência (African Party for Independence), later renamed as the more famous PAIGC (this was in 1960). Becoming more and more involved in the struggle for his country’s freedom, he went underground, lived in France and London, and obtained from China financial help and teachers in guerrilla warfare. This was the time of the Cold War, back when the Soviet Union and China still practised its duty of helping oppressed nations to emancipate themselves. Like Indochina and Algeria for the French, and Vietnam for the Americans, Guinea, Angola and Mozambique were an abattoir for Portugal, the last of the European empires. At first a pacifist, Cabral had begun by obtaining diplomatic and political support from the UN, where he made speeches, and socialist countries, but since Portugal continued renitent to give up its colonies, Cabral changed into a strategy of guerrilla warfare and sabotage. In 1961 the war started in the colonies. During these years he also visited Russia and the USA. And obviously he was a communist who loved Cuba. In 1973, under still unexplained circumstances, he was murdered by men from his own party. Shortly afterwards Guinea declared independence, but it was only after the war ended in 1974 that its status was recognized. Nowadays Amílcar Cabral is considered a national hero and his name is known throughout Portuguese-speaking Africa and he’s a literary theme of many poems.

I don’t think this sketch begins to show what a remarkable figure he was. Unfortunately I only discovered too late a biography about him, written by an Angolan journalist, António Tomás. Too late to read it for this project, but I hope to come back to it one day. The book I read is called Documentário, a collection of articles, essays, speeches and letters culled from his complete works. I think it’s a good introduction because in them Cabral gives a clear but succinct overview of what it was like to be an African under Portuguese rule.
A book for another day
From an early age, Cabral believed that “defending the earth meant defending the man.” He also realized that fighting meant more waging war; it also meant defending the autochthonous culture, valuing its importance and restoring a nation’s amputated identity. When Europe invaded them, “history stopped” for Africa, and it was Africans’ duty to set it in motion again. The Europeans were not the only enemy, they also had to contend with neo-colonialism, which he identified as the “creation of a bourgeoisie or pseudo-bourgeoisie, fettered to the ruling class of the dominating country” that could rule the nation in its behalf even after the colonials were gone.

Documents in the book support the idea that Cabral was willing to achieve independence without a war, had Portugal been less intransigent. Unfortunately dictator Salazar considered the loss of the colonies an event commensurate with the obliteration of Portugal itself, and he more than gladly initiated the war to maintain them. So Cabral quickly adjusted his views. “War is hard, it isn’t pleasant, it’s difficult, but nobody wages war out of pleasure, and only a criminal kills for the sake of killing. But war is for killing, comrades. Whoever kills the most in war, and whoever makes the least mistakes, wins the war.” For him, no country had ever achieved its independence from a colonial power without fighting and victims.

The best document in the book is The facts about Portugal’s African colonies, published in London in 1960, a serious j’accuse against the colonial system:

   Eleven million Africans are subjected to the Portuguese colonial domination. The Portuguese colonies stretch across about two million square kilometres, which corresponds to 5% of the continent and more than Spain, France, Germany, Italy and England together. The African population of this colony has been reduced to slavery by a small country, Europe’s most backward nation.
   These two million square kilometres possess many natural resources. The earth is rich in agricultural products and cattle. The subsoil contains iron, coal, manganese, oil, bauxite, diamonds, gold and precious metals, etc. The diversity and beauty of nature provide possibilities for tourism.
   In spite of the presence of these natural riches, some of which are exploited by the settlers, the Africans have a standard of living inferior to the vital minimum. Their situation is of servants in their own country.
   After slave traffic, the conquest through arms and the colonial wars, came the complete destruction of social-economical structures of African society. Next followed the phase of European occupation and the increasing settlement of these territories by Europeans. The lands and belongings of the Africans were looted, the Portuguese imposed the “sovereign tax” and made mandatory the culture of certain products; enforced forced labour and organized the deportation of African workers; they began totally controlling the collective and private life of the population, using now persuasion now violence.
   As the European population increased so did the contempt for Africans. They’re excluded from a whole range of jobs, including certain less specialized jobs. Openly or hypocritically, racial discrimination is practised.

This is just part of the horrors. Medical care was almost non-existing; the infant mortality rate was 40%. Thousands of families were expelled from their lands to make way for settlers to build coffee plantations. Another economic resource was forced labour: every year 100,000 Mozambicans were exported to the mines in South Africa and Rhodesia. “This business of forced labour provides Portugal with one of the most stable sources of foreign income.” The colonies also worked as an inner market for Portugal to sell its goods, since Africans were “forced to buy second-rate Portuguese products.” This is why Salazar, and later Marcello Caetano, did not want to lose the colonies, and were right in saying that without them Portugal would sink. Without them, Portugal would have no solution save live by its own means.

Cabral also provided a list of arguments for colonialism presented by Portugal at places like the UN, “miserable arguments, devoid of any human or scientific basis, to justify or cover up its crimes.” It must have been really tortuous for the Portuguese diplomats repeating these absurdities at the general assembly, in the presence of other nations that only recently emerged from colonialism. To whit: the historical rights since they “discovered” them; the “civilizing mission;” the “assimilation” of Africans, which is connected to the previous one, that is, the fact that with time Africans could become almost like Europeans, gaining a higher level of civilization and citizenship; the creation of a “multiracial society;” the idea that the colonies were part of the national territory; the fact there there’s a “state of peace” in the colonies, although like the peace in Portugal, it was kept by armed forces and tyranny. Cabral had witty replies for each of these arguments, but I personally loved how he dismantled the myth of the “civilizing mission:” “This mission is conducted by an underdeveloped country, with a GDP smaller than Ghana’s, for instance, and which has been incapable, so far, of solving its own problems.” This is hilarious and so well-stated. It’d sad if it weren’t completely true, and it’s sad even so; when Portugal became a democracy in 1974, it was the second poorest country in Europe, Franco’s Spain being, I think, the first. Ghana, oh, that one hurt. But Cabral gets better. “Portugal is an underdeveloped country with 40% illiterate people and its standard of life is the lowest in Europe. If it could have a ‘civilizing influence’ on any people it’d be a sort of miracle.” Ah, but Cabral obviously doesn’t know Portuguese history, we are a nation of miracle believers.

It’s also necessary to say some words on the status of assimilated. These were Africans who had achieved Portuguese citizenship and so were slightly better than their countrymen. But even so Cabral shows the many amazing contradictions in this. “99,7% of the African population in Angola, Guinea and Mozambique is considered ‘non civilized’ by Portuguese colonial laws and 0,3% is considered assimilated. In order for a non civilized person to achieve the status of assimilated he has to prove economic stability and enjoy a higher standard of living than the majority of people in Portugal. He must live like a ‘European,’ pay taxes, serve military service and know how to read and write Portuguese correctly. If the Portuguese had to fulfil these conditions, more than 50% of the population would have no right to the statute of civilized of assimilated.” (His italics.) But this status didn’t necessarily improve their lives. “The non civilized Africans, particularly the city ones, must carry on them the respective passbooks and respect the mandatory curfew at nine in the evening. A smart assimilated always carries an ID with him; when the authorities and settlers wish to let him in, this constitutes the only valid evidence that he’s a human being.” They also earned 3 or 4 times less than a European, and there were lots of jobs they couldn’t practice, like sellers or taxi drivers.

I hope this has helped you get a better understanding of the dynamics of the colonial system in the Portuguese colonies. It may be useful to know for the coming posts, or it may just be interesting to know altogether. In any event, this was the situation Cabral was up against when he decided to fulfill his dream of a free Guinea-Bissau. “I firmly believe that our struggle is not just ours, because we are fully identified with the desires of our People and,” he once wrote. And indeed he rallied his people to fight for its freedom. Today he’s considered a hero, and I have no reason to disagree with that.

Next week we start with Angola.

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