The Baixa de Cassange revolt

War for Independence

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 1

The notion of African passivity in the face of colonial cruelty is oft portrayed, but the truth is that Africans fiercely resisted every form of colonial oppression thrown at them. A key example is that of the Baixa de Cassange revolts, which is generally seen as the trigger for the wider Angolan War for Independence.

African farmers in the region of Baixa de Cassange had been under Portuguese colonial pressure to grow cotton for sale and export since the 1930s. Portuguese cotton interests in Angola were owned by Cotonang, a company owned by Portuguese and Belgian investors, and by 1960 Cotonang had some 31,000 workers growing cotton across 400 farms, each optimised for maximum worker exploitation.

On top of the grim working conditions, these workers were also forced to pay obligatory colonial taxes.

An account by an Angolan native in 1961 recounts how:

"For a years forced labour a man is unlikely to get more than 400 escudos (£5) by the time the Imposta Indigena (native tax) has been taken off and the other deductions which the Chefe de Posto invents."

The main period of active revolt started on 4 January 1961; throughout the Baixa region, people blocked roads, damaged buildings, destroyed cotton seeds and burned their identification cards.

The colonial government responded with violent military repression, drafting in two units from the Portuguese army, on top of air force surveillance and bombing raids. The precise number of people killed during the revolt is disputed but appears to have been deliberately obscured by the Portuguese at the time, with some sources quoting a death toll of 243.

The actual number of Africans killed is very likely in the thousands, but difficult to assess due to the indiscriminate nature of Portuguese bombing raids. A large number of Africans were also taken prisoner or fled to neighbouring Congo. A 1999 study estimates that over 13,000 Angolan men, women and children were killed or injured as a result of Portuguese aggression, other estimates go up to 30,000.

The Portuguese drive to repress the area would trigger armed revolts in the Angolan capital of Luanda on 4 February 1961, marking the beginning of the Angolan War for Independence. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the start of the Angolan struggle for liberation, a 13-year conflict that ended on 25 April 1974 with a ceasefire and subsequent Angolan independence.