Geography of the Portuguese Colonial War

A key part of military history is the terrain the campaigns are fought over. So I thought I’d up a quick description of the geography of the areas contested in the Portuguese Colonial War.


Angola covers 1,246,314 square km on the southwest coast of Africa (Cann, 1997). The climate is tropical. The Atlantic coast is about 1,650 km long. The central plateau covers 60% of the country and starts 50 to 200 km inland. Even further inland another plateau rises to 1,600 m.

In 1960 there were 4,830,283 people. 95.2% black, 3.5% white, 1.1% mixed (mestiço), and 0.2% others (Cann, 1997). The blacks had nine bantu ethno-linguistic groups and two non-bantu. Nine African languages were spoken. There were 94 distinct tribes and 101 ethno-linguistic sub-groups. Most of the population was on the coast on in the central plateau. Most of the black population were animists with a small minority of Christians (Humbaraci & Muchnik, 1972).

Angola had the Belgium Congo (Zaire) to the north, Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) to the east, and South-West Africa (Namibia) to the south (Cann, 1997). Most guerillas activity was in the northern jungle and the arid desert of the east. Population density in these areas was very low.

The northern border with Belgium Congo was over 2,000 km (Cann, 1997). The Congo River formed part of this border; otherwise it had mountains, swamp, jungle, and elephant grass. The jungle and elephant grass extended south of the border. The few roads were, in fact, just dirt tracks.

The Cabinda enclave had a 200 km long northern border and was the most densely forested areas in Africa (Morris, 1974)

The southern part of Region III in the district of Moxico is an immense plan of grassland (Davidson, 1981). The area is 391,000 square km and 1,000 m above sea level (Humbaraci & Muchnik, 1972). The terrain is flat and open with few trees or bushes although forest interrupt the savannah occasionally. The plateau slopes slightly to the south-east and is crossed by numerous rivers. The area is flooded during the rainy season. The population was only 38,000. The local tribes are Chokwes, Luvales, Lundas, Mbundas, Luchazis, Kangalas, Kwanglis, and Khoi-San. The last named are huntes where as the others are shepherds.

Luanda to Lisbon is about 7,300 km. Luanda to Lourenço Marques in Mozambique is 3,000 km (Cann, 1997).


Guinea-Bissau covers 36,125 square km on the western coast of Africa (Cann, 1997). The climate is tropical.

In 1960 the population was 525,437 giving a high population density for tropical Africa (Cann, 1997). Most of the them were in the western coastal deltas. 99% were black.

They were in two primary groups (Animists and Muslims) and 28 ethno-linguistic groups (Cann, 1997). The ethnic groups included (from larger to smaller) (Chaliand, 1967):

  • Balantes
  • Mandjaks
  • Fulahs (Muslim)
  • Mandingos (Muslim)
  • Pepels
  • Mancags or Brames
  • Felues
  • Bissagos
  • Several smaller groups (Beofadas, Bairotes, Cassangas, Banhuns, Sarakolle, Balantes-Manes, Pajadincas)

Animists account for about 70% of the population – the Balantes alone comprised 30% – and Muslims for about 30% (Cann, 1997). The Muslims have customary chiefs, an aristocracy, social distinctions, domestic slaves, itinerant traders, and clustered round huts. The Animists lack much of that. For the animists the family group is central. They have age groups but lack other social distinctions. The old man (homem grande) of a village is particularly respected. They lack a clergy. There are only only loose ties between Animist villages. Even the huts (rectangular) within an Animist village are dispersed around the fields. The Mandjaks, although Animist, are midway between the two systems with a clergy, social distinctions based on wealth as well as age groups, and an embryonic customary chieftainship. The Balantes provided good fighters to both the Portuguese and PAIGC. In contrast the Muslim Fulahs were staunchly pro-Portuguese and fought the PAIGC.

The west contains the tidal deltas of six rivers, surrounded by mangrove and swamp forests, and some small islands (Cann, 1997). The twice daily tides turn this area into a swamp. The rivers are navigable far inland; ships of 2,000 tons can navigate the rivers up to 150 km inland. Only 80% of the land area (28,000 square km) is above the mean high-tide mark. The largest of the islands are Pecixe, Bissau, Bolama, and Como.

The north and east is higher, although never more than 300 m, and the coastal forests give way to sub-Saharan savanna (grasslands and scattered trees) (Cann, 1997). This area had the lowest population density and was the most susceptible to guerilla infiltration.

The town of Bissau was the administrative centre (Humbaraci & Muchnik, 1972). It had a population of 26,000. Other main centres were the capitals of ethnic groups e.g.: Kancuru (Manjak-boks), Bula (Mancagne).

Guinea-Bissau had the former French colonies of Senegal to the north and the Republic of Guinea to the southeast (Cann, 1997).

The rainy season is from mid-July to mid-October (Cann, 1997). The rest of the year is virtually rain free. Ground movement was difficult during the rainy season, although this affected the Portuguese more than the insurgents. The PAIGC called the rainy season Pincha Tugas “because this is the time of year we wear them down and worry them to death” (Chaliand, 1967, p. 87).

Bissau to Lisbon is about 3,400 km (Cann, 1997). Bissau to Luanda in Angola is 4,000 km.


Mozambique covers 784,961 square km on the east coast of Africa (Cann, 1997). The climate is tropical.

In 1960 the population was 6,603,653 (Cann, 1997). 97% were black. The blacks were divided into ten ethno-linguistic groups and 86 distinct tribes. Mozambique has 19 tribes in 17 language groups and no less than 68 distinct ethnic strains (Morris, 1974).

Mozambique borders Tangayika (Tanzania), Nyasaland (Malawi), Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) the Republic of South Africa, and Swaziland (Cann, 1997).

Mozambique mostly comprised the 1,000 km long coastal belt (Cann, 1997). In contrast the north and northwest, next to Tangayika (Tanzania) and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), were forested / bush areas with low population densities. It was these areas were most of the guerrilla activity occurred.

Lisbon to Beira airfield is about 10,300 km (Cann, 1997).

Macadamised Roads

Initially most roads in the African colonies were just dirt. As the war progressed the Portuguese instigated an upgrade programme to create Macadamised roads.

Macadamised roadsare essentially gravel roads constructed with a base layer of larger stones (75mm) and a top layer of smaller stones (20mm) (Wikipedia: Macadam). Some modern matadmised roads have a binding sprayed on.

?? Venter seems to call the resulting roads “sealed” ?? check for source ??


Cann, J. P. (1997). Counterinsurgency in Africa: The Portuguese way of war 1961-1974. Hailer.

Chaliand, G. (1967). Armed Struggle in Africa: With the Guerrillas in “Portuguese” Guinea. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Humbaraci, A. and Muchnik, N. (1974). Portugal’s African Wars: Angola, Guinea Bissao, Mozambique. The Third Press.

Wikipedia: Macadam

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