Angola’s History

Early History

The first migrants to the beautiful lands of southwestern Africa were small nomadic peoples such as the Khoi-Khoi and the San. Today these two groups are known collectively as the Khoisan, or Bushmen. Their isolated way of life came slowly to an end as a new mass of dark-skinned Bantu people migrated south during the 13th to 15th centuries. The Bantu need for farmland pressured the Bushmen into pockets of arid terrain in what is now Botswana, Namibia, and Southern Angola.

The Bantu peoples filled the land that is now known as Angola. The major tribal groupings included the Bakongo in the North, the Ovimbundu in the central highlands, and the Mbundu between them. The Mbundu king, known as the Ngola, would eventually provide the name for the entire region – Angola.

Diogo Cão as seen on the Monument to the Discoveries in Lisbon, Portugal

Portuguese Colonization

During the 15th century, Portuguese explorers navigated south along the uncharted coast of Africa. One of these explorers, Diogo Cão, discovered the mouth of the Congo River in 1483. He also made contact with the Bakongo and Mbundu kingdoms. Thus began a long period of Portuguese influence in Angola. The Portuguese almost immediately began taking Angolans as slaves, a trade that would dominate Angola’s economy for almost 400 years. As their influence grew, the Portuguese established the port cities of Luanda (1575) – which would become Angola’s capital – and Benguela (1617).

After a brief interlude of Dutch invasion, Portugal regained control of Angola in 1648 and began to use extensive military force to subjugate the Bantu kingdoms. The Bakongo were defeated in 1665, the Mbundu in 1671, the Ovimbundu in 1776. Slaves were exported from all three regions, mostly to support Portugal’s colony in Brazil. Though outlawed in 1836, the slave trade did not stop until enforced in 1865 by the British Navy. Over the centuries, between 4 and 10 million Angolans were sold as slaves.

The final decades of the 1800s saw new developments as Catholic and Protestant missionaries entered Angola and began to establish churches, schools, and hospitals. In the early 1900s, railroad development and the discovery of diamonds boosted Angola’s economic value.  Portugal remained intent upon extracting as much wealth from Angola as possible. Very little was reinvested to benefit its people through infrastructure or education.

In the 1950s, as the wave of independence swept the African continent, Angolan nationalistic movements such as the MPLA and the UPA began to form. Indeed, numerous other African nations received their independence in the 1950s and 1960s, but Salazar, the Portuguese dictator, remained unyielding in his grasp on Angola.

War for Independence

Violence broke out on in early 1961 as the MPLA and UPA rose up against the colonizers.  The Portuguese military response was swift: perhaps 40,000 Africans were killed in the first months. But it was just the beginning. For 14 years Portugal pumped troops into Angola, but the rebels proved impossible to subdue. The UPA, which became the FNLA, was primarily a Bakongo movement which operated from Zaire and northern Angola, led by Holden Roberto. The MPLA drew strength from the Mbundu peoples as well as the mestiço intellectuals in Luanda, and soon proved itself a more significant threat than the FNLA. A third rebel movement, UNITA, took shape in 1966 under the leadership of Jonas Savimbi. It began mostly within the Ovimbundu tribe, but later encompassed a wider cross-section of peoples. These three rebel groups lacked effective organization; they even fought each other at times during the war. In the 1970s Portugal remained firmly in power, but the long war had taken its toll on the economy and morale of the Portuguese people.

For Angola, 1974 was the birth of hope; 1975 was the death of it. The Lisbon government was overthrown in a painless coup on April 25, 1974, and the new leadership in Portugal immediately promised independence for its five African colonies, including Angola. The date for independence was set for November 11, 1975, but in the meantime the three liberation armies turned on each other, fighting for control of the new country. Each group found international support for their military platform: the FNLA was backed by China, France, and others, the MPLA by the USSR and Cuba, and UNITA by South Africa and the USA. Crucial early victories entrenched the MPLA in Luanda, so when independence finally arrived the MPLA gained control – of a divided country. Angola was embroiled in open civil war before it even became a nation.

Civil War

Evidence of civil war in Huambo, Angola

From 1975 on, the civil war raged back and forth.  While the FNLA quickly grew too weak to vie for control, the MPLA and UNITA both consolidated their alliances with foreign suppliers.  Massive coastal oil discoveries funded the MPLA, while the diamonds of the interior aided UNITA.  With ideology and mineral wealth at stake, Angola became one of the most brutal staging grounds for the Cold War, fought by proxy between the Soviet bloc and the Western bloc. Not until 1990 did the international powers decide to pull out of a devastated country.  A ceasefire in 1991 and general elections in 1992 seemed to promise new hope for Angola.  But it was not to be.

When Savimbi refused to honor the results of the presidential elections, the nation immediately plunged back into war, starting with pogroms that killed 20,000 people in the capital city.  For two more years the war intensified, including the devastating sieges of Huambo and Kuito cities.  International pressure eventually won another ceasefire at the end of 1994, but no one thought it would last.

Both sides used the interlude to rebuild their armed forces, and war exploded onto the scene again in 1998.  This final phase was by far the most devastating, characterized by scorched-earth policies, massive population displacements, and brutal violence.  In the end, a military victory accomplished what the peace treaties never could.  When Savimbi was killed in battle in February 2002, the war came to a screeching halt.  No one had the will to go on fighting.

“Afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted, I will rebuild you..." Isaiah 54:11


The war was over, but the country lay devastated.  Millions of internally displaced peoples had swelled the impoverished cities; millions of landmines lay strewn across the countryside.  Refugees who had fled to other nations now came home to nothing.  Angola had almost no agricultural or manufacturing industry, but relied almost exclusively on imported goods funded by oil loans.  The real change, however, was in the hearts of the Angola people.  They knew that finally, after four decades of war, it was time to rebuild.

Since the end of the wars, Angola’s oil-based economy has funded rapid development, but little of the wealth has trickled down to the people, many of whom still live in true poverty.  They look to the future, but the future lies not in oil-backed loans nor foreign aid nor even internal development.  The future lies in Jesus Christ.  As Angolans rebuild their lives, their families, and their nation, He is the answer and the salvation of the nation.