- A Short History of Modern Angola by David Birmingham
How to write a concise and coherent history of such a vast region as Angola, where people’s lives were often shaped by contrasting ecological, economic, and political challenges? David Birmingham, a pioneer historian of Angola in the English-speaking world, writes about the country’s past through the lens of the Portuguese empire, which gave different peoples a shared experience of colonial domination, a national border, and a centralized state whose authority they would contest into the twenty-first century. Birmingham’s narrative style is admirably loose and includes the frequent use of historical vignettes to illustrate specific time periods. Despite this flexible narrative approach, he does not fail to highlight important continuities between Angola’s historical involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, the country’s colonial experience with forced labor and dictatorial rule, and its current situation of presidential rule and deep social and economic inequalities.
Birmingham’s account starts in the 1820s, when Portugal gained a new interest in Angola with the loss of Brazil and when some politicians and businessmen, under the pressure of British abolitionism, began to envision a future for the colony based on agriculture and the commodity trade instead of the export of slaves. In separate chapters, Birmingham discusses how this economic transformation affected the city of Luanda (chapter 2), the northern hinterland (chapter 3), and the central highlands (chapter 4). The British “ultimatum” of 1890 was an important turning point in the colonial history of Angola, as it thwarted Portuguese dreams of an eastward expansion to Mozambique and stimulated Portugal to embark on a policy [End Page 233] of white settlement in Africa (chapter 5). Portuguese migration to Angola increased significantly after World War II, as the country’s expanding coffee and cotton economies attracted a growing number of white planters while Portugal also promoted the development of local industries (chapter 6). The main thread running through these chapters is the continued importance of slavery and other forms of coerced labor to Angola’s colonial economy. At the same time, Birmingham’s frequent enumerations of imported consumer goods suggests that the history of Angola’s peasantry cannot be read through the prism of coercion alone.
The remainder of the book (chapters 7–9) is devoted to Angola’s troubled existence as an independent nation. Although Cold War parties, especially Cuba and South Africa, played significant roles in the destruction of Angolan society after independence in 1975, Birmingham pays particular attention to the survival strategies of groups within the country during decades of civil war: returnees from Congo who dominated Angola’s burgeoning parallel economy, women who took charge of subsistence production, and elites who thrived on the export of oil and diamonds. While the death of the rebel warlord Jonas Savimbi in 2002 ushered in a period of hope, Birmingham points out that the devastations of war, a long tradition of authoritarian rule, and the current government’s almost exclusive reliance on oil revenues pose formidable obstacles to the political and economic development of Angola.
Like several of Birmingham’s recent books, this one lacks citations. There is a select bibliography at the end of the book, but a short list of sources at the conclusion of each chapter would have been more useful for students of Angolan history. While the absence of footnotes or endnotes makes the text extremely readable, some readers might have questions about the author’s use of historical evidence. It is clear, nonetheless, that Birmingham has relied to a considerable degree on the accounts of nineteenth- and twentieth-century travelers to Angola, especially in the first part of the book. This makes for lively reading, even if his choice of Europeans as main protagonists sometimes gives the impression that we are looking at Angola from the outside in. Birmingham’s references to novels add human drama to his narrative and are equally refreshing.
Considering that the only other historical survey of Angola in English...