Colonial Uniforms

Rough Guide to Portuguese Colonial Uniforms

The text bellow is somewhat superficial but, it's not my intention (with this guide) to produce an in-depth work on Portuguese colonial uniformology. Roughly what you need to know is that there was no specific colonial uniform until 1899.

It is very difficult to find military iconography of the period so, a lot of digging and gluing of information is needed. Basically, because there was no definite plan for a colonial uniform and many of the units had to resort to the local industries for supplies. What we have to remember is that clothing and equipment tend to degrade very quickly in Africa, and that garrison troops often spent years forgotten in the interior. Metropolitan expeditions tended to wear the same type of uniform as in Europe, with minor alterations, completely unsuited for the tropical climate.

I hope this will be enough to get you started in Portuguese colonial wars. Although it seems a rather limited subject it is, on the contrary, a very complex and fascinating affair. The lack of information available, specially in English, is due to a general unawareness of the wealth of information needing to be rescued from old bookshelves and archives. I will try to remedy this situation with a few articles on various campaigns in Angola, Mozambique and Portuguese Guinea from the mid-1800s until 1920.

During the 1860's and 1870's, the European infantry used the same dark blue uniform of the realm. For the African expeditions white loose trousers and Havelock were used by men and officers. During the 1880's a more comfortable uniform was adopted. A lighter white coat was issued first to the men, and later also to officers for police duty. At this time a French style Havelock kepi with a square flap was used. In Angola and East Africa, officers started to introduce non regulation items and experimenting new uniforms. In East Africa, for example, officers started to use broad brimmed hats in the 1890's and by 1895 all units used the broad brimmed instead of the Havelock. The officers wore the regular army uniform: dark blue coat and (or) light blue trousers with double stripes (single for soldiers). Colour depending on branch. Artillery and Police also wore dark blue coats with white trousers and broad brims. The infantry dressed the regular "almost" white uniform. In the 1895 campaign, against king Gungunyana, in Gaza, they too adopted the more comfortable broad brimmed hat. It seems that the infantry used two types of gear. The old single black ammunition pouch at the front was used from the 1870s until the 1890s. A newer two pouch equipment seems to have been issued to the metropolitan army in 1885. Troops in East Africa were still using the old set in 1895-96. The African units were issued in 1895 with a dark blue coat for parade (although I saw a picture of a unit using them on campaign), and a light grey for other services. A red fez and greyish trouser (or whatever), completed the set. In Angola the uniforms were always a problem. The majority of units in the field during the period 1880-1900 were African. Although the native infantry units were issued with a dark brown coat with black cuffs and collars, I don't think that it was widely used for all the reasons above. A variety of brown, grey and white is more probable. Officers tended to wear white uniforms or Boer style clothing on campaign. The broad brimmed hat was undoubtedly the favoured headgear for Europeans. Native troops wore the fez and during the 1850-70 also the kepi.

In 1899 a new uniform plan was adopted for all colonies. It hoped to standardise the uniforms and equipment of all colonial units and metropolitan expeditions. For campaign purposes the khaki was adopted for all ranks and branches. The headgear was khaki Broad brimmed hats for Europeans and a khaki or red fez for the African contingents. Webbing and equipment was the same as in the metropolitan army except for the African units who had older material. Belts and ammunition pouches were black, bags were grey / khaki, cloth covered metal canteen, small metal pan and a blue-grey greatcoat. The footwear varied among officers, but knee-high boots were the most common. Some officers on campaign also used dark brown leather gaiters. The European infantrymen used boots (with or without gaiters), wile the Africans, who were issued sandals and gaiters, preferred to walk barefoot. During the 1900s campaigns in Portuguese Guinea, many soldiers, because of the tropical humidity, didn't wear the dolman. In its place they used the army issued blue cotton sweatshirt.

The standard rifle of the European units in the 1870s was the Snider. During the 1880s the Snider was replaced by the 11mm cal. Martini-Henry, which was later replaced (at the beginning of the 1890s), by the Austrian made Kropathschek 8mm mod. 1886. The African units used the Snider rifle until the 1890s when they were issued with Martini-Henrys.

The cavalry wore the same basic uniform as the infantry. In 1894, the Mossamedes Dragoon's Company was issued with a specific uniform. The cut was the same as in the metropolitan cavalry but, they were issued a light grey uniform and grey broad brimmed hat. Officers and men wore baggy riding trousers, which fastened at the ankles with puttees. In 1900 the uniform became khaki. Although they were issued short ankle boots and leather gaiters, the use of riding boots was not uncommon, specially among officers. In East Africa officers still wore their dark blue coats and light blue trousers until the 1900. The cavalry was armed with carbines, swords and revolvers. During the 1900's, both in Angola and East Africa, some mounted units started to adopt the lance. Such was the case of the 2nd squadron of the Mossamedes Dragoons during the Kwamato campaign of 1907, and in East Africa the lancers of the Barué campaign of 1902. The cavalry equipment was very similar to their British counterpart at this time. In fact the Portuguese m/873 harness and saddle are identical to the British Universal Pattern Bridle and Wood Arch Saddle of 1860 and 1856 respectively. In action the lance was used without pennon. The carbine used until the adoption of the Kropathschek, was the Martini-Henry.

The majority of this troops were European with some African auxiliaries. Their uniform, prior to the 1899 reforms, was: dark blue coat, white trousers and Havelock (later replaced by broad brims). The rest of the equipment was the same as the infantry. The most widely used gun of the earlier campaigns was the 70mm Bronze Mountain Gun. It was a small obsolete weapon, but it did the trick against the handicapped natives. The other light gun used during this period was the small Canet. Later, as the European contingents began to arrive, so did the more modern weapons, such as the Krupp 75mm Mountain Gun. 1904, and the Ehrhardt rapid-fire cannon. The Portuguese artillery used mules, oxen, donkeys and later - in some regions of Angola only - camels to carry their guns. The machineguns were usually attached to the artillery. The Nordenfeldt five barrelled machinegun was the standard weapon of any expedition. Some times, due to a lack of experienced personnel, the machineguns were manned by naval gunners.

The naval contribution to the Portuguese African expansion was of unquestionable value. It provided material and personnel to numerous expeditions in Angola, East Africa and Portuguese Guinea, and made many others possible. The ships, of the Indian Ocean Squadron, sustained a constant war against the Zanzibari and Swahili slavers of the Angoche sultanate, fighting all along the northern and central eastern coast. Capturing hundreds of "black wood" - an euphemism for slaves used by the Zanzibaris - filled dhows. The Mix Corvettes, with their landing parties, patrolled the shores and river mouths, wile the gunboats went upriver into the unknown. Numerous raids were thus made, in every theatre of war, against every kind of enemy. Some of this actions were joint operations with the Royal and French navies. The naval landing parties were usually crews from designated ships who provided a number of officers and sailors for inshore actions and garrison duties. The standard uniform adopted for sailors in the tropics was the white summer dress, with straw hat or white sailor cap. The officers retained their usual navy blue uniforms but with white topped hats. In 1886 the summer uniform became all white. N.C.O.s had red stripes on their sleeves, wile officers used gold on their cuffs and shoulders. The sailors tippet was light blue with white stripes. The shirt used beneath the tunic was white with blue horizontal stripes. The belts and pouches were black and the equipment was similar to the army. N.C.O.s and bugles also wore a cutlass. Like in the army the standard rifle in the 1870s was the Snider, followed by the Martini-Henry and Kropathschek, respectively. The bayonet in the 1870s was cutlass like but with a straight blade. The model used from 1885 onward is the one used by the army. During the Kwamato campaign of 1907, the 2nd Naval Infantry Company was detached to Southern Angola's hinterland. It received a new uniform, similar in cut to the infantry, but in blue-grey and with the light blue sailor's tippet. They were issued dark green leather gaiters, black boots and a khaki broad brimmed hat. The equipment and rifle were the ones issued to the other infantry units.