Cultural exchange and circulation of military knowledge
THE PORTUGUESE CONQUEST OF ANGOLA IN THE SIXTEENTH AND SEVENTEENTH CENTURIES (1575-1641) A military revolution in West Central Africa?
Miguel Geraldes Rodrigues
Over the past couple of decades, the literature surrounding the field of military history has traced a series of military transformations in Western Europe between the fifteenth century and the eighteenth century, and it described how they radically changed the landscape of warfare during the early modern era. Often assembled under the rubric of the Military Revolution, this literature depicts how a structured sequence of several key technological innovations and organizational reforms revolutionized not only the nature of military conflicts in Europe but its sociopolitical development as well. Beginning with the introduction of gunpowder technologies in siegecraft and open battlefields, the advent and spread of new artillery weapons and firearms brought fundamental changes to traditional European warfare, prompting the development of new military tactics, improvements in the military architecture, dramatic increases in the size of military contingents, and the emergence of professional national armies. The combination of those reforms triggered, in turn, broader structural changes in Western European societies outside the military realm, including rampant taxation for its populations, the centralization of administrative powers, and the emergence of modern absolutist monarchies. While the original accounts of the Military Revolution framed this process strictly within Western European borders, military historians gradually expanded the concept to the non-Western world, linking the military revolution concept to larger narratives of European expansion and Western imperialism.1
Although the debates surrounding the Military Revolution have captivated numerous scholars over the years, the historiography of the Portuguese Empire has, puzzlingly, greatly overlooked and ignored most of its discussions, especially given Portugal’s pioneering role in the European oceanic expansion. The Portuguese overseas empire presents specific cases regarding key topics of the Military Revolution, such as the primacy in transoceanic navigation and naval warfare; a wide range of contacts (and conflicts) across different military realities in Asia, Africa, and the
Americas; and a unique experience associated with the logistics of administering and financing a large and heterogenous empire across the world. Portuguese oceanic expansion also spilled into the period that military historians commonly identify as the core of the revolution. What, then, can Portuguese imperial history add to the debates in the context of the Military Revolution? How does its military experience compare to other European realities? Were any of the key elements that comprised the Military Revolution reflected in the Portuguese overseas expansion? Did any of the military, tactical, or technological innovations witnessed in European warfare play a decisive role in overpowering foreign military powers encountered by the Portuguese across the world?
This chapter addresses the history of the Portuguese overseas empire in the international debates over the Military Revolution and attempts to assess through its themes the global diffusion and impact of Western military innovations in European colonial expansion. Portuguese imperial history can offer a valuable contribution to broader military historiographical discussions, particularly to narratives of Western imperialism and European military supremacy during the early modern period, because its study presents several instances of European warfare waged across distinct geographical and cultural contexts. To explore those topics, the chapter will focus on a generally overlooked region in the debates of European imperial conquest and colonialism before the Industrial Revolution, namely West Central Africa. Here the Portuguese directed a conquest in Angola during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with mixed results, presenting a distinct case study on cross-cultural warfare and on the limits of European military expansion during the early modern era. By looking at the military encounters between Europeans and West Central African polities like the kingdoms of Kongo and Ndongo, this chapter illustrates how the technological and tactical innovations carried out by the Portuguese from the Military Revolution fared on an extra-European stage. It explores different instances of political negotiation, intercultural exchange, and military acculturation in Angola and shows how those processes ultimately led to the emergence of a unique style of hybridized warfare shared by both Portuguese and West Central Africans armies, offering a non-Eurocentric perspective of this conflict. Lastly, the conquest of Angola is placed within broader narratives of the Military Revolution, to evaluate whether the Portuguese conflict in West Central supports or dismisses the arguments behind this thesis.