PRECOLONIAL ANGOLA AND THE ARRIVAL OF THE PORTUGUESE

Angola Table of Contents

Although the precolonial history of many parts of Africa has been carefully researched and preserved, there is relatively little information on the region that forms contemporary Angola as it was before the arrival of the Europeans in the late 1400s. The colonizers of Angola, the Portuguese, did not study the area as thoroughly as British, French, and German scholars researched their colonial empires. The Portuguese, in fact, were more concerned with recording the past of their own people in Angola than with the history of the indigenous populations.

The limited information that is available indicates that the original inhabitants of present-day Angola were hunters and gatherers. Their descendants, called Bushmen by the Europeans, still inhabit portions of southern Africa, and small numbers of them may still be found in southern Angola. These Khoisan speakers lost their predominance in southern Africa as a result of the southward expansion of Bantu-speaking peoples during the first millennium A.D.

The Bantu speakers were a Negroid people, adept at farming, hunting, and gathering, who probably began their migrations from the rain forest near what is now the Nigeria-Cameroon border. Bantu expansion was carried out by small groups that made a series of short relocations over time in response to economic or political conditions. Some historians believe that the Khoisan speakers were peacefully assimilated rather than conquered by the Bantu. Others contend that the Khoisan, because of their passive nature, simply vacated the area and moved south, away from the newcomers.

In either case, the Bantu settled in Angola between 1300 and 1600, and some may have arrived even earlier. The Bantu formed a number of historically important kingdoms. The earliest and perhaps most important of these was the Kongo Kingdom, which arose between the mid-1300s and the mid-1400s in an area overlapping the presentday border between Angola and Zaire. Other important kingdoms were Ndongo, located to the south of Kongo; Matamba, Kasanje, and Lunda, located east of Ndongo; Biť, Bailundu, and Ciyaka, located on the plateau east of Benguela; and Kwanhama (also spelled Kwanyama), located near what is now the border between Angola and Namibia. Although they did not develop a strong central government, the Chokwe (also spelled Cokwe) established a significant cultural center in the northeast of present-day Angola.

The precolonial kingdoms differed in area and the number of subjects who owed allegiance, however nominal, to a central authority. The kings might not directly control more land or people than a local ruler, but they were generally acknowledged as paramount. Kings were offered tribute and were believed to possess substantial religious power and authority. A king's actual secular power, however, was determined as much by his own personal abilities as by institutional arrangements.

The African kingdoms tended to extend their lines of communication inland, away from the Atlantic Ocean. Until the arrival of the Europeans, Africans regarded the sea as a barrier to trade. Although the sea might supply salt or shells that could be used as currency, the interior held the promise of better hunting, farming, mining, and trade.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress