Portugal Grants Independence to Its African Colonies

Portugal granted independence to its African colonies, freeing itself from an economically disastrous series of wars and signaling the dissolution of one of the few remaining colonial empires.

Summary of Event

At the middle of the twentieth century, the small European country of Portugal still retained nine colonies in various parts of the world: some small settlements in India, the port of Macao opposite Hong Kong on the Chinese coast, parts of the island of Timor in the East Indies, the African territories of Cape Verde, Portuguese Guinea (now Guinea-Bissau), São João Baptista de Ajudá, São Tomé and Príncipe, Angola, and Mozambique. These colonies had been in Portugal’s possession for centuries, but change was in the air. Portugal;African colonies
Guinea-Bissau[Guinea Bissau];independence
São Tomé and Príncipe, independence
[kw]Portugal Grants Independence to Its African Colonies (1974)
[kw]Independence to Its African Colonies, Portugal Grants (1974)
[kw]African Colonies, Portugal Grants Independence to Its (1974)
[kw]Colonies, Portugal Grants Independence to Its African (1974)
Portugal;African colonies
Guinea-Bissau[Guinea Bissau];independence
São Tomé and Príncipe, independence
[g]Europe;1974: Portugal Grants Independence to Its African Colonies[01440]
[g]Africa;1974: Portugal Grants Independence to Its African Colonies[01440]
[g]Portugal;1974: Portugal Grants Independence to Its African Colonies[01440]
[g]Angola;1974: Portugal Grants Independence to Its African Colonies[01440]
[g]Benin;1974: Portugal Grants Independence to Its African Colonies[01440]
[g]Cape Verde;1974: Portugal Grants Independence to Its African Colonies[01440]
[g]East Timor;1974: Portugal Grants Independence to Its African Colonies[01440]
[g]Guinea;1974: Portugal Grants Independence to Its African Colonies[01440]
[g]Guinea-Bissau;1974: Portugal Grants Independence to Its African Colonies[01440]
[g]India;1974: Portugal Grants Independence to Its African Colonies[01440]
[g]Mozambique;1974: Portugal Grants Independence to Its African Colonies[01440]
[g]São Tomé and Príncipe;1974: Portugal Grants Independence to Its African Colonies[01440]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;1974: Portugal Grants Independence to Its African Colonies[01440]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;1974: Portugal Grants Independence to Its African Colonies[01440]
Cabral, Amílcar
Caetano, Marcello José das Neves Alves
Costa Gomes, Francisco

Spínola, António de

India invaded Goa and the other Portuguese settlements on the subcontinent in 1961 and annexed them quickly and with little bloodshed. The tiny exclave of São João Baptista de Ajudá was seized by Dahomey (now Benin) the same year. More seriously, organized internal revolt had broken out as early as 1961 in Angola, in 1963 in Guinea, and in 1964 in Mozambique.

Although a minor European power, Portugal had long prided itself on its possession of an overseas colonial empire, thus the loss of São João Baptista de Ajudá and the settlements in India damaged the self-image of the nation and of its armed forces. The remaining African colonies, particularly Angola, were of far greater economic importance and had attracted significant numbers of Portuguese settlers. The uprisings in these territories were countered at first by local troops, but the scale and vehemence of the insurgence soon forced Portugal to send large expeditionary forces to Africa, thereby initiating a chain of events ruinous to the African territories and to Portugal itself. The result was that long after other European powers such as Great Britain and France had begun peaceful if reluctant programs of decolonization, Portugal found itself fighting lengthy, savage, and costly wars on a number of fronts. By 1974, nearly 200,000 Portuguese troops were involved.

Under dictator António de Oliveira Salazar Salazar, António de Oliveira and his successor, Marcello José das Neves Alves Caetano, retention of the colonies had been an article of faith. The first prominent Portuguese figure to question this policy was General António de Spínola. A veteran of the fighting in Angola and Guinea, Spínola had witnessed the failure of Portugal’s efforts and had been reprimanded by Caetano for expressing a desire for a political solution to the conflict. He was also reported to have met secretly with Amílcar Cabral, secretary-general of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and the Cape Verde Islands (PAIGC) and a major architect of African resistance.

Spínola returned to Portugal in 1973 as chief of staff of the armed forces and proceeded to publish Portugal and the Future
Portugal and the Future (Spínola)> on February 22, 1974. It called publicly for liberalization of his country’s government and for a political solution to its continuing wars. The book’s publication led to Spínola’s dismissal by Caetano on March 14, as well as the dismissal of Spínola’s superior, General Francisco da Costa Gomes. Many of the junior army officers who had served under Spínola in Guinea went on to participate in a virtually bloodless coup on April 25, 1974, that ended Portugal’s dictatorship.

Although Spínola was named the new government’s provisional president, he and his colleagues held divergent opinions about Portugal’s empire. Spínola himself hoped for a referendum in the colonies that would allow them to choose a loose union with Portugal. Spínola’s fellow officers favored turning over control to the colonies’ independence movements and an immediate withdrawal of troops. These differences led to Spínola’s resignation on September 30, and his replacement by Costa Gomes, under whom Portugal’s decolonization then took place.

As it turned out, public opinion in the colonies overwhelmingly favored immediate independence. Guinea was already largely controlled by an indigenous government, represented by PAIGC. Portugal recognized the country’s independence (as Guinea-Bissau) on September 9, 1974, and withdrew its troops quickly and effortlessly.

The situation was more complicated in Angola, where the insurgents were splintered into a number of groups. At first, Spínola encouraged the formation of a government that would favor union with Portugal, a plan that fell through when Spínola himself left office. Portugal had negotiated a cease-fire with one of the groups, the Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), on June 17, 1974. Cease-fires with the National Front for the Liberation of Angola and the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola followed on October 14 and 21, respectively. Portugal managed to negotiate an official cease-fire with the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique on September 7, 1974. The resulting agreement called for significant cooperation between the two governments, both before and after a projected independence date of June 25, 1975, but rioting by Portuguese settlers threatened the fragile agreement. Subsequently as many as a thousand Europeans a week began fleeing the country.

The process of decolonization that had begun so hurriedly in 1974 was concluded, sometimes under almost equally adverse conditions, the following year. The situation in Angola was particularly chaotic. An agreement was reached January 15, setting up a transitional government in that country involving Portugal and the three major independence movements and leading to elections and total independence on November 11. Long before that date, however, Angola had slid into nearly total anarchy as various factions battled for supremacy. Portugal proceeded with a complete withdrawal of troops and declared Angola independent as of the agreed-upon date without transferring power to any of the competing parties.

Mozambique achieved independence on June 25 as scheduled, but in this case with a Portuguese official present to hand over power to the African majority. Cape Verde became independent on July 5, after which it was anticipated that it would join in a union with Guinea-Bissau. Freedom followed for the island territory of São Tomé and Príncipe on July 12. None of the islands had been touched by the fighting on the mainland, and São Tomé and Príncipe in particular seemed inclined to pursue close ties with Portugal.

The Portuguese sections of the East Indian island of Timor declared their independence on November 28, 1975, but were invaded within days by Indonesian forces. This forced annexation, which resulted in continued bloodshed in the years ahead, was not recognized by Portugal. On the other hand, Portuguese authorities offered to return the enclave of Macao to China, but the latter declined. The two countries did, however, agree that Macao would become part of China by the end of the century, a decision effected in 1999.


Portugal’s revolution and its subsequent abandonment of its empire lifted the weight of years of oppression and senseless combat. The colonial wars—the longest fought by any European power in the latter half of the twentieth century—had drained the national economy while provoking cynicism and suspicion among the country’s population. Despite much initial euphoria, however, Portugal failed to prosper in the immediate postrevolutionary period. It was only during the mid-1980’s that such problems as the flow of refugees from the former colonies were brought under control.

In most of the former colonies themselves, conditions were far worse. Angola and Mozambique were both in ruins. Fighting among various liberation groups continued in the former country, and the loss of 200,000 Portuguese—many of them administrators and skilled workers—had crippled the latter. The civil war in Angola resisted resolution until 2002, whereas Mozambique, which was also wracked by ongoing civil war throughout the 1980’s, achieved peace in the early 1990’s, finally ushering in an era of peace, security, and democracy that has been sustained ever since. Cape Verde (which never attained union with Guinea-Bissau) was debilitated by drought in the 1970’s, as was São Tomé and Príncipe in the 1980’s, and both territories found themselves dependent on the steadily dwindling economic bases left by the Portuguese. East Timor, after much instability and bloodshed, attained full independence from Indonesia in 2002, although instabilities continued to plague it. Thus, even three decades after Portuguese departure from its colonies, all of them experienced significant trauma even as some eventually achieved degrees of greater stability. Portugal;African colonies
Guinea-Bissau[Guinea Bissau];independence
São Tomé and Príncipe, independence

Further Reading

  • Birmingham, David. “The Dictatorship and the African Empire.” In A Concise History of Portugal. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. A succinct history of Portugal and its empire from the late 1920’s to the revolution of 1974. A subsequent chapter examines the aftermath of the revolution.
  • Gallagher, Tom. Portugal: A Twentieth-Century Interpretation. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1983. A political analysis concentrating on events since the proclamation of the first Portuguese Republic in 1910. Several of the latter chapters treat the colonial wars in Africa.
  • Grayson, George W. “Portugal and the Future.” Current History 68 (March, 1975): 109-113. Good background on the 1974 revolution and its implications for the empire, and an early evaluation of António de Spínola’s rise and fall.
  • Henriksen, Thomas H. “End of an Empire: Portugal’s Collapse in Africa.” Current History 68 (May, 1975): 211-215. A brief examination of latter-day resistance to Portuguese rule in Africa. Particularly good on the complicated situations in Angola and Mozambique.
  • Hunt, Christ. Portuguese Revolution, 1974-1976. New York: Facts On File, 1976. A day-by-day account of the revolution, but with many references to events involving the colonies.
  • Marker, Jamsheed. East Timor: A Memoir of the Negotiations for Independence. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2003. Marker, a personal representative of U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan, offers an intimate account of the negotiations leading up to East Timor’s independence.
  • Wheeler, Douglas L. Historical Dictionary of Portugal. 2d ed. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 2003. An A-Z arrangement of brief articles about Portugal, the empire, and the leading figures involved in the country’s history. Concludes with a lengthy bibliography.

East Timor Declares Independence but Is Annexed by Indonesia

Portugal and Spain Enter the European Community