From 1885 until 1915, the south of Angola was war. War in all forms and for all reasons known in Portuguese Africa - from cattle-thieving raids and ethnic revolts to international armed conflict - with such intensity and participation of European contingents seldom seen south of the Sahara. It would become, from 1904, the proving ground of a not so small part of the Portuguese Officers Corp and the touchstone of their ability to conquer. In short, Southern Angola would be the Indochina, Madagascar the Sudan and Morocco of a Portuguese colonial Renaissance.
This part of Angola, that spreads from the sea to the Cubango river is located in the so called "Savannah Region", stretching inland into deepest Africa, across the continent, until it reaches the East Coast. Poked by baobab trees, thickets and small bush woods, it's a land rich in cattle that grazes in tender pastures called chanas, confined to the south by the "hunting territories" criss-crossed, at this time, not only by pombeiros ( Portuguese traders or salesmen who travelled the hinterland: pombe), but also by British, American, Brazilian, German and Scandinavian professional hunters, French missionaries and Finnish Lutherans! Further still are the deserts and barren lands which characterise Southwest Africa. The most predominant ethnic group populating the area is the Bantu, which migrated from the north and are represented by the Ovambo, Herero and Nyaneca-Humbe, with the non-Bantu formed by the Hottentot-Bushmen and Va-twa.
On August 21 of 1879 a Boer trek arrived in Humbe. A delegation sent to the soba (chief) Chaungo was attacked, and on August 25 the Boers stormed his libata (African village) killing 25 people and putting him on the run. The Governor of Mossamedes which was informed of the incident six months latter, quickly invited the Boers to settle on the plateau. In September of 1880 they were given permission to settle an almost independent colony in Humpata. The government gave them 200 acres per family, and 277 Cape Dutch (name given to them by the Portuguese), 50 servants and Bastardos (Boer and African half-castes) under the authority of Jacobus Frederik Botha, three-hundred rifles in all, almost tripled the total white population on the plateau. Two new vectors of conquest and, specially, trade were therefor introduced: The horse and, even more important, the wagon. With the introduction of 100 horses and 2000 oxen, Portuguese trade got the autonomy that it longed for.
The period 1880-1881, which saw the beginning of as new era in the South, ended with the settlement of a French Spiritian Mission in Huila, under the relentless efforts of Father Duparquet. Although being foreigners and therefor seen as suspicious characters by the Portuguese, they turned out to be not only the Hearts & Minds on the plateau but, being Catholics of Alsacian extraction, became the hidden sentinels against the German advance from the south.
This conflict, presents itself as a typical example of a recurring opposition between local traders and Portuguese military, and specially has an example of the transfer of fiscal power in the hinterland. The funantes were complaining since February 1885 that the Humbe robbed them and that Chaungo, who refused to pay taxes, had forbidden his subjects any contact with the fort and all whites, except those from the mission. They explained to the authorities that the 60 men garrison was too weak to protect them from armed assaults, and that only recently had Chaungo been forced to stop collecting a tribute that he traditionally imposed on traders. In June 1885, Nunes da Matta sent 120 African soldiers and auxiliaries to re-establish order but, the lieutenant in command, for reasons unknown, retreated and didn't force Chaungo to pay indemnity for damages.
Although in 1891 the Portuguese had their cavalry squadron, many of the troopers didn't know how to ride. Given the task of organising a relief column, major Justiniano Padrel, the energetic commander of the 4th Caçadores* Battalion followed the district commander, captain Luna de Carvalho's advise and hired the services of a local mercenary chief named Tom, a Tswana, who rented his services at a lower price than the Boers (only half of the stolen cattle). This mercenaries of varied ethnic background (Herero, Bastardos, Bushmen, Berg-Damara, etc.), that roamed from the Gambos to the Kaokoveld (South West Africa), allied themselves to the highest bidder, which weren't necessarily the Portuguese authorities. But since they refused to follow orders from others than the Boers, Padrel was forced to request their help. For their services the Boers demanded double wages and the presence of a doctor.
To engage the first Portuguese-Ovambo war, without the prior consent of the district governor, was a serious decision. The Kwamatos, because of their modern rifles, were feared by all, including their more numerous neighbours the Kwanyama. Padrel received the support of 3500 Kwanyama auxiliaries sent by King Weyulu which arrived at the fort on July 9. By now he had 4600 men under his command. With two guns, and commanding the most important expedition mounted in Southern Angola till this date, the self confident Padrel forded the Cunene at Pembe. Without delay, he marched on Big Kwamato, soba Iquera's embala, were Luhuna had taken refuge. Then, suddenly everything fell apart. The region is a vast plane pocked with bush woods that offer good protection for shooters. Commanded by Iquera's son, the Kwamatos and their allies, concentrated around Padrel's men, and on the night of the 12th to the 13th fell upon the Portuguese camp at Dombeafungue with around 10 000(?) men. The battle raged for nine hours. The Portuguese claimed 200 Kwamato casualties against seven wounded and two dead Kwanyama on their side. But the Krupp had been disabled with a broken axis. On the 13th, 2500 Kwanyama left the column. Of the other African auxiliaries only the Himba showed any intention of staying until the end.
Without the possibility of being reinforced, all officers agreed that the column should retreat or face annihilation. First simulating an advance, the column retreated in good order and under fire for seven hours. The askaris had to charge twice before they could all reach the Cunene river by 3 p.m. of the 13th. Padrel had lost 11 dead and 31 wounded, many by cold-steel. The column had been saved by Padrel's and his staff's sang-froid. At Dombeafungue the Portuguese had to face an Ovambo coalition that in spite having heavy losses (around 800 casualties), did no sue for peace and was prepared to resist.
With most of Luhuna's chiefs captured the war was over. It had lasted five months. Of the 6632 captured cattle heads half was divided among the volunteers and half went to the Crown. Padrel left Humbe on the 1st of August 1891.
But the south still belonged to the ones who could raid it or had enough firepower to cross the vast wild hinterland, such as the Hottentot and the Boers or the British and Scandinavian hunters who sold huge quantities of arms and ammunition to the Kwanyama. For a month, from the 4th of January until the 5th of February 1893, a group of Boers and 9 Portuguese cavalrymen had to chase another Hottentot raid, killing thirty and retrieving 500 cattle and 6 horses.
The Third Humbe Revolt, 1897-1898
In 1897 the Humbe rebelled for the third time in twelve years. It was the most complex revolt of all. Its origins lay in a serious epidemic outbreak of bovine plague. The disease started in East Africa (1892-1893), and crossed the continent. It must have been one reason of the Matabele and Mashona revolts of 1896. The German authorities of Southwest Africa vaccinated all settlers cattle but cruelly left the Herero cattle to die. The Portuguese warned of what was happening south of the Cunene, forbade all cattle trade and ordered a massive vaccination. In order to protect the vaccination brigade sent to Humbe from probable Hottentot raids, colonel Artur de Paiva, a veteran of many campaigns in Central Angola, requested the presence of the Mossamedes Dragoons Company (European) that had replaced the Irregular Squadron. On the 22nd of October 1897, 151 men commanded by four officers arrived in Humbe. Most of them arrived on foot due to the horse sickness which had killed almost all their mounts. They were greeted by an apocalyptic sight. Everywhere was the stench of death, rotting carcasses and pestilent pyres. It became almost impossible to supply the troopers, so on November 26th the squadron was ordered to retreat from Humbe. Lacking supplies and with a great number of sick, the squadron started to move by platoons. On December 6, the 4th platoon under sergeant-major Silveira was the first to leave, followed next day by the 2nd and 3rd platoons under captain Baltazar de Brito and, on the 11th, the 1st platoon, made up of sick and convalescents with only two mules and a horse, under the command of lieutenant João Carlos de Saldanha, Earl of Almoster. The Humbe were by now refusing to vaccinate their cattle, spurred by the witchdoctors, they accused the Portuguese of administering bad medicine and using the sickness as an excuse for sending troops to fight them. In a short time the herds had melted like ice under the sun.
The Portuguese forded the Cunene river at Pembe (the same of 1891), on September 19th. The Kwamatos were waiting. From the 20th to the 24th there were some minor firefights. Then the Kwamatos tried to paralyse the column, that was still on the Cunene riverbank, by killing the ox and horses. To free the stranded square, governor Aguiar sent captain Pinto de Almeida, on the 25th of September, with a strong detachment of troops who's numbers were enough to conquer the Ovambo kingdoms: Two artillery pieces (old mountain-guns), two dragoon platoons and six infantry platoons, totalling 255 Europeans and 244 African soldiers, aided by many armed auxiliaries. A guide led the troops to a clearing were the Kwanyama hidden among the trees started to fire at the officers and then closed in. The cavalry charged, but the terrain was ill suited for them and many mounts were thus lost. Then the artillery stopped firing. At Umpungo the Portuguese had fallen into the favourite Kwanyama trap, who fired devastating volleys from their modern rifles - bought from the white hunters and traders - at a distance of 100 meters. Against such a concentration of firepower, unusual in the dark continent and specially in Angola, the Portuguese discipline crumbled as ammunition ran low. The bugle sounded the retreat but, it was too late. The auxiliaries had routed before the Kwamatos charged for hand-to-hand combat, brandishing their maces and assegai. Aguiar who stayed in camp 2 miles behind did not move in support of the surrounded square. His ineptitude was such that, when he finally decided to send infantry with ammunition, the supporting artillery fired upon the retreating survivors that emerged out of the bush. Killing three officers and 22 soldiers. In the clearing, the remaining soldiers were all slaughtered.
The Portuguese government soon made plans to beat the Ovambo. From a report made in July 1905 by a Portuguese officer who travelled beyond the Cunene to gather information, the Ovambo could call up to 18 000 men armed with 8000 rifles. The new governor of Huila, captain Alves Roçadas decided to prepare the terrain for future expeditions. In June, Hangalo, the despotic ruler of Mulondo, refused to let the Portuguese build a fort on his territory. He had been spared by previous expeditions to Humbe. On the 25th of October, his fortified embala was bombarded and taken. His 1000 men army was defeated and his head was cut-off as a warning to others. From 1905 until 1906, Roçadas, in a series of operations, cleared the plateau and Humbe of all potential threats to his rear and established a fort in Kwamatwi territory (Fort Roçadas), on the other side of the Cunene river, in front of Humbe. One of the prises of this campaign was the capture of the long time fugitive Luhuna.
Captain Roçadas organised everything, leaving nothing to chance. He gathered 10 artillery pieces, four machineguns and 1602 rifles, plus 44 wagons and empty bags to be filled with sand as needed.
Armies in Southern Angola
A Campanha do Cuamato, Velloso de Castro, (Loanda 1908)
Roçadas na ocupação do Sul de Angola, Almeida Teixeira, (Lisboa 1935)
Campanha do Humbe 1897-98, Luiz de Pina Guimarães, (Lisboa 1938)
Os auxiliares na ocupação do Sul de Angola, Gastão Sousa Dias, (Lisboa 1943)