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While every other country in Southern Africa has opened up to tourism in recent decades, Angola remains the exception—a vast Atlantic coast nation that has long been considered “out of bounds” to most visitors for myriad, shifting reasons, including the cost of living and the cost of war.

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There are no written records describing life in what is now Angola before the first Portuguese explorers arrived in 1483. Those explorers found that the region was part of the vast Kingdom of Kongo, though it wouldn’t be until more than a century later that the settlement of Luanda was founded.

Originally calling the city “São Paulo da Assumpção de Loanda,” the Portuguese made a Faustian pact with the Kongo people to get it built. Under attack from a mysterious group called the “Jagas,” the Kongo populace received military help from the colonists, but only in return for their labor, as John K. Thornton explains in his 2016 essay in the Journal of World History.

To compensate the colonists, “Kongo had to assist them build a colony, eventually called Angola, on Kongo territory around the bay of Luanda and the mouth of the Kwanza River beginning in 1575.” Thornton writes that establishing the colony fell to Paulo Dias de Novais, who would become its first governor. His successors didn’t have an easy time of it, but

in spite of setbacks and near expulsion in 1591, the Portuguese governors who succeeded Dias de Novais eventually established firm command of a sizable slice of land on the north side of the Kwanza River extending to the head of navigation of that river at Cambambe by 1600.

Between 1600 and 1836, when the slave trade was abolished by the Lisbon government, Luanda was a major port for the export of humans to the Americas. It’s estimated that as many as one million Africans were shipped to Brazil over this period. Daniel B. Domingues da Silva, in his 2010 study of service records kept by a slave merchant based in Luanda, describes the brutality and rank inhumanity of the trade that dominated the city in its earliest days.

“The frequency of vessels calling at the port allowed merchants to make several small shipments of captives in different vessels,” he writes. Separating the prisoners into groups

reduced the risks of losing an entire cargo of slaves at sea, in the event that a vessel was captured, destroyed or sank. It also allowed merchants in Luanda to dispose quickly of a highly vulnerable “commodity.” Slaves often arrived at the coast from the march from the interior exhausted, undernourished and, as a consequence, susceptible to diseases. The slaves’ condition tended to deteriorate as merchants accumulated too many captives on their properties, increasing the risks of death among slaves as a result of famine and contagions.

It wasn’t until more than a century after the abolition of slavery in the Portuguese colonies that the first stirrings of an independence movement began in Angola. In the wake of riots by coffee plantation laborers that left 50,000 dead in the early 1960s, support for the guerrilla group known as the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) grew exponentially.

The collapse of Portugal’s dictatorship in 1975 led to the European power swiftly withdrawing their presence in all their African territories. In Luanda’s case, the writing had been on the wall for the remaining European settlers for years, as John A. Marcum, writes in his 1976 analysis of the Angola’s importance in the Cold War.

“Demoralization and defections among the war-worn Portuguese military; economic dislocation and inflation; the massive emigration of 1.5 million job-seekers; and the burgeoning of anti-regime terrorism and sabotage; these were all visible to those with eyes to see,” he asserts. However,

when in April 1974 Portugal’s armed forces overthrew the government of [Prime Minister António de Oliveira] Salazar’s successor, Marcello Caetano, the American government stood surprised and embarrassed by its close ties to the ancien regime. The debacle of [the US’s] subsequent involvement in Angola flows from the same propensity to view what is happening there through the distorting lens of a larger strategic concern; this time a global shoving match with the Soviet Union.

The ensuing twenty-seven-year-long civil war in Angola, fought between what Marcum describes as “insurgent groups” of limited political vision, ravaged the country, including Luanda, as the supposed Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union became, by proxy, a very hot war indeed between the MPLA (backed by the USSR and Cuba) and UNITA, (backed by America and later South Africa) led by Jonas Savimbi.

A ceasefire only came after Savimbi died in the field of battle in 2002. Since then, Angola may have been at peace, but there are few countries that have been divided more starkly by the “paradox of plenty” that’s the consequence of many major oil exporters. It’s a situation explored by Inge Amundsen in a piece written for Comparative Politics in 2014.

“Angola’s political economy amply illustrates the trappings of the resource curse,” Amundsen writes. Petroleum exploitation

was already a key factor in the late colonial era, but the revenue increase from the mid-1980s enabled the MPLA to win the civil war and to gain control of the Angolan state and its government institutions. Today, Angola is a “resource-cursed” country demonstrated partly by its economic development and mainly by its political development.

Luanda, with its position on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, its palm-fringed corniche, and its handsome colonial architecture will be a draw for visitors to southern Africa… one day. For now, the sheer expense of the city (often cited as the most prohibitive for visitors on the planet) coupled with crumbling infrastructure and a population who have seen precious little of the potential benefits of vast state oil revenues, makes for an urban hub that is still a long way from realizing its potential.

Yet, the rich local culture, ranging from the martial art cum dance practice of capoeira to the Luandan musical genres of kizomba and kuduro, all coalesce at the city’s annual carnival. David Birmingham describes a visit during the 1980s, timed to coincide with Carnival.

“Carnival is a celebration,” Birmingham writes. But it’s not the celebration of the “strength and success” of the state that Angolan politicians would like it to be. Instead,

It is a celebration of ingenuity and survival… It is a celebration of freedom, a challenge to the awesome figures of authority which periodically pass across the historical stage… It is a celebration of youth in which grandmothers parade the offspring of their daughters with pride and finery…  But above all it is a celebration of historical tenacity and endurance in which five centuries of fishermen have absorbed and tamed peoples, cultures, religions, rituals from all over the world and made them a part of their very own distinctive Luanda carnival.

If Luanda is ever to truly overcome its legacy of bloodshed and its current, stratospheric, financial gulfs between rich and poor, then embracing the mind-set of the carnival on a year-round basis would be an auspicious starting point.

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JSTOR is a digital library for scholars, researchers, and students. JSTOR Daily readers can access the original research behind our articles for free on JSTOR.

Journal of World History, Vol. 27, No. 2 (June 2016), pp. 189–213
University of Hawaiʻi Press on behalf of World History Association
African Economic History, Vol. 38 (2010), pp. 53–76
University of Wisconsin Press
Foreign Affairs, Vol. 54, No. 3 (April 1976), pp. 407–425
Council on Foreign Relations
The Journal of African History, Vol. 29, No. 1, Special Issue in Honour of Roland Oliver (1988), pp. 93–103
Cambridge University Press