The irrelevance of the Military Revolution in the Portuguese conquest in Angola

The evolution of the conflict in Angola was considerably different than traditional warfare in Europe. West Central African armies, tactics, and technology are often regarded as backwards or “primitive” by Eurocentric accounts when compared to Western military power at the onset of the Military Revolution. However, as previously shown, military success needs to be evaluated in regard to its effectiveness in its respective environment and not by how it should conform to or deviate from one specific model that assumed global primacy by the nineteenth century.'’4 The Portuguese conflict in Angola provides an interesting perspective on how the European military technologies fared against non-Western armies and outside of an European context in the early modern age. Looking at the first fifty years of the Portuguese conquest in Angola (1575-1625), it was hardly spectacular and brought few returns, especially when compared to other examples of European expansion. The several setbacks imposed by African armies on the Portuguese, combined with the constant need to negotiate with local polities and adapt to different military realities in West Central Africa, clearly show that the key elements that support the military revolution theory were simply absent from the Portuguese enterprise in Angola. Similar to recent revisionisms to the Spanish conquest in the Americas, the technological advantages granted by firearms to the Portuguese were not as decisive as initially believed.'” While in Europe they were used mainly by infantry to penetrate heavily armoured enemies, in Angola almost no native forces wore any sort of armour, save for Kongo’s heavy shield infantry. Although firearms offered great range, they had a slow rate of fire, and the tactical employment of volley fire tactics required large armies of musketeers, which was simply not possible for the small Portuguese contigents in Angola. Despite its initial psychological impact, capable of inflicting fear in the African troops, by 1594 local witnesses claimed that African infantry fearlessly rushed musketeers and attempted to snatch their weapons from their hands.66 The employment of firearms by the Kongolese and Njinga’s armies, as well as other sobas also show that this technology was not unique to the Portuguese and not a revolutionary element for the occupation. Therefore, the military technolog)' of the Portuguese, which was heavily employed across European battlefields at the time, was ill-guided when fighting dispersed enemies and in guerrilla warfare.67

Other technological advantages, such as cavalry forces, heavy armour troops or ocean-sailing gunships were not determinant enough for the Portuguese in Angola. Contrary to Thorntons claim that cavalry was not used in Angola, due to the tropical environment, its existence is documented across several sources. However, its numbers were simply not enough to provide any significant military edge. According to an inventory on the number of Portuguese troops in Angola in 1603, the interim governor had only thirty-five horses among his forces, which were reduced to seven by 1606.68 By 1630, according to reports, no more than sixteen horses supported the Portuguese forces in Angola, showing that cavalry was used in Angola, but employed mostly for communication with the guerra preta and reconnaissance rather than used to charge enemy troops. African warlords like Kafuxi Ka Mbari also showed great ability in handling cavalry units, and there are countless reports of Portuguese cavalry’s being swarmed by enemies, who without fear attacked cavalry.69 Portuguese heavily armoured infantry, though offering an important advantage as an anchor around which Indigenous allies organized their formations, was not always well suited to fighting in the Angolan jungle and highlands. Like the Spanish in the Americas, Portuguese troops had to shed some of their armour, due to the heat and to improve manoeuvrability. The use of poison arrows also countered Portuguese armour, because a single wound could prove fatal, as described by a Jesuit who noted the significant casualties in the Battle of Mbata (1623), resulting from arrows imbued with a deadly poison, called banzo or cabanzo.70 Naval dominance and riverine navigation, though valuable for securing shipping lines along the Kwanza for Portuguese fortresses, did not offer much else and could not support Portuguese efforts further than the Quindonga Islands, which limited the supposed revolutionary trait of the gunship.

Another crucial argument of the military revolution thesis, the rise of professional large armies, is once again an absent element from Portuguese colonial expansion. The small number of the Portuguese contingents in Africa, even with a technological edge, could never match the military power of the kingdoms of Kongo or Ndongo or that of other local territories ruled by powerful sobas along the Kwanza River and in the Central Highlands. The massive death toll from the tropical diseases and complicated recruitment hindered the establishment of anything resembling the large professional armies of Europe. Another characteristic of the Portuguese military conquest in Angola was its essential private nature. Like Spanish ventures in Mexico and Peru, the enterprise of Novais was self-financed, to the point that he was bankrupt by the time of his death, in 1589. Cortes, Pizarro, and Dias de Novais took on the financial and military responsibilities of their enterprises in the name of the Crown, and in exchange for shouldering the financial burden of their missions, they were rewarded by the allocation of lands, the exploitation of Indigenous populations, and economic privileges in the new territories.71 Rather than a state-sponsored enterprise driving imperial conquest in the Americas and Angola, its private nature meant that Iberian monarchs did not assume any costs of migrating troops to its colonial settings. Even after the integrations of those conquests to the Portuguese Crown’s domain, the governors had to bring their own troops. As a result, both the Portuguese forces and the Spanish forces had to rely heavily on Indigenous forces for the fulfilment of their military expeditions.

Lastly, perhaps the clearest example displaying how the innovations carried by the Military Revolution lacked a decisive role in Angola’s conquest can be seen in the emergence of a hybrid style of warfare, developed over several years of shared conflicts between Africans and Europeans, as the “proper way to wage war” in that specific geographical and cultural context. European military tactics proved disastrous in the Angolan highlands and jungles, and an optimal employment of its technological tools could never be replicated in that environment, due to the absence of the conditions enjoyed by Western European armies. Instead, Portuguese own military largely adapted African formations and could survive only through the recruitment of several Indigenous allies. The conquest of Angola, rather than conforming to Parkers’s outdated claim that infantry firepower, capital gunships, and artillery fortress carried European imperialism, fits much better with the recent revisions made by scholars like Sharman or Lee, who highlight the vital role of local Indigenous forces and paint the European position as one of deference to non-Western powers during the sixteenth-century and seventeenth-century expansions. As shown through previous examples, this was clearly the picture of the Portuguese conquest in Angola.

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