Portugal’s role in World War One: Africa || Part 2

In my previous article on Portugal’s Role in World War One, we saw how the two divisions of the CEP (Corpo Expedicionário Português) fared in the muddy, cold trenches in a Flanders winter. In this article, we head to the heat of southern Africa.

Many war memorials in Portugal show the dates 1914-1918, but the official war between Portugal and Germany did not begin in Europe until March 9, 1916. Because she was attacked by Germany in Africa, Portugal had fought an undeclared war in Angola and Mozambique from the time of the outbreak of war in Europe.

At the Berlin Conference of 1884, the continent of Africa had been divided up between the European powers. Although Portugal brought to the conference her historic claims to much of the coast of the continent, history was not enough. The other European powers declared that the criterion for claimed territory was effective occupation.

The Portuguese Geographic Society in its “Mapa Cor-de-Rosa” of 1887 raised Portuguese dreams of an African Empire occupying present-day Angola and Mozambique together with all of the territory in-between.

Portuguese explorers set about staking claims on the ground and Portugal even entered into agreements with both France and Germany to this end, but fatally failed to take account of British interests in the area.

Feeling double-crossed by her Portuguese ally, in January 1890 Britain abruptly ordered Portugal to withdraw all personnel from the centre of their claim, under threat of bombarding Lisbon. This Ultimatum by their Oldest Ally is seared into the soul of the Portuguese nation, and although Portugal was forced to accept its terms in the treaty of 1891, this incident conspicuously weakened the Portuguese monarchy.

Taking advantage of the distrust between the two allies, Germany had in 1894 stolen a small portion of northern Mozambique to add to its territory of German East Africa. The Quionga Triangle lies on the southern side of the border formed by the River Rovuma.

As Portugal struggled with financial crises and a strengthening Republican movement, Britain and Germany twice secretly negotiated to partition Portugal’s African Empire. Germany coveted southern Angola and northern Mozambique because she was involved in the mining of copper in Katanga in the Belgian Congo, and foresaw railways under German control to the west coast ports of Benguela, Moçâmedes and Luanda.

Britain wanted the southern part of Mozambique, and in both 1898 and 1914 the two northern European powers were close to reaching a shameful agreement. Portugal staved off disaster by backing Britain during the Second Boer War (1899-1902) and the partition treaty was again ready for ratification as World War One broke out on August 4, 1914. Portugal immediately reaffirmed its alliance with Britain.

Germany thought that after the war was won, she would be able to confiscate those parts of Angola she coveted. The vast hinterland of Angola, its long uncontrolled southern border and the primitive communications made this part of the colony an easy target. German troops crossed the border in August 1914. They later (October 19) contrived a border dispute at Naulila, well inside Portuguese territory, in which three German border guards were killed. Retaliating, German troops attacked another border post at Cuangar, in which nine Portuguese were killed.

In December, German troops again attacked Naulila and Portugal was compelled to withdraw from the whole of the southern Humbe province.

Having dealt with the Maritz rebellion, sometimes known as the Ten-bob rebellion, Union of South Africa forces converged on the German capital of Windhoek.

Botha invaded from the British enclave of Walvis Bay, while three other columns moved north from Kimberley, Port Nolloth and Lüderitz. By mid-June 1915, the German South West African forces had surrendered. On July 7, 1915 Portuguese forces reoccupied Humbe.

In 1914, much of northern and central Mozambique was managed by several large charter companies (Niassa, Moçambique and Zambezi, which included the Sena Sugar Company which later became Tate & Lyle’s). Portuguese government control was tenuous at best and the frontier with German East Africa was largely uncontrolled. Aiming to annex northern Mozambique on August 25, 1914, German troops crossed the Rovuma River and attacked a small garrison at Maziúa, but they apologised and retreated as they had to prepare for action against the British.

Portugal sent four expeditions totalling about 15,000 men to northern Mozambique during this war, but these forces were neither well equipped nor well organised. The first expedition in 1914 proved to be little more than a handful of sick soldiers dumped into a hostile environment with little support. Similarly, the badly trained second suffered from tropical diseases, yet managed to reoccupy the Quionga Triangle after the Germans had withdrawn.

In September 1916, after the arrival of the third expedition, Portuguese troops crossed the Rovuma into enemy territory. After initial success, they were forced back over the Rovuma River, abandoning tons of supplies. The costly campaign by British troops against German East Africa eventually in November 1917 forced the remaining Germans led by von Lettow Vorbeck to cross the Rovuma into northern Mozambique. Here they were able to capture ammunition and food supplies from the Portuguese, and after a march of hundreds of miles nearly as far south as Quelimane, they returned to German East Africa in September 1918. One historian has commented that Portugal became the unwilling quartermasters for the German Schutztruppe.

General van Deventer, the South African commander of the allied forces, was highly critical of the Portuguese troops, stating that they were “… totally unreliable and a source of grave danger to their Allies. The personnel, both European and African, is of the lowest possible quality”. He also wrote that the natives of Mozambique hated the Portuguese and would do nothing to help them.

In spite of the continuing interest of both Germany and Britain in Portugal’s African colonies, by the end of the war Portugal had at least managed to safeguard her colonies from both Germany and Britain, and had also reclaimed the Quionga Triangle. For her, this was success.

By Lynne Booker
|| [email protected]

Lynne Booker, along with her husband Peter, founded the Algarve History Association. [email protected]

Mapa Cor-de-Rosa
Showing Portuguese claims in Africa 1886-1891