Remains found in Luanda and the Namib desert show the region has been inhabited since prehistoric times. The earliest settlers were hunter-gatherers, probably the ancestors of ‘pygmy’ tribes who still live in the rainforest regions.
Bantu-speaking groups moved into the area from around AD500, bringing their farming and metal-work knowledge and pushing the ‘bushmen’ people into remoter regions.
From around AD1100, kingdoms began forming, such as the great Kingdom of Congo. This stretched down to the river Cuanza/Kwanza, with its capital of M’banza Congo in modern-day Angola – see Map.
The Portuguese arrive
A famous queen
In the 1600s, Queen Nzinga journeyed around other states and made alliances which forced the Portuguese to pull back. But with the need for more slaves to work in the colonies of Brazil, the Portuguese returned in numbers. After Nzinga’s death in 1663, the Ndongo were forced to submit.
South of the Cuanza/Kwanza River, there were various states. The most powerful was the Kingdom of Ndongo. The Portuguese began arriving in the region from the late 15th century and were challenged by the kings (called Ngola) or queens of the Ndongo.
The ports of Luanda and Benguela were used for shipping out slaves to Portugal’s colony in Brazil. (Strong links with this South American country remain to this day – see Carnival.)
The slave trade in Angola was officially abolished in 1836. But agriculture in Portuguese-influenced territories such as Brazil and the island of São Tome relied on Angolan ‘workers’ until well into the 1900s.
From around 1850, Luanda became an important centre for shipping out goods such as palm oil, ivory, cotton, coffee and cocoa. (Angola’s capital has many historic buildings from this period and earlier – see Tourism & Communication.)
Fighting for independence
Portugal exploited its colony to the full, exporting materials such as rubber and ivory, as well as taxing the local population. After the fall of the Portuguese monarchy in 1910, some reforms were introduced and Angola became a province of Portugal.
At the Berlin Conference, when Africa was carved up among the European powers, Portugal kept Angola and also the small state of Cabinda to the north of the Congo River. This parcel of land was included because of a treaty signed by the princes of Cabinda and the Portuguese Crown.
After the World War II, political movements began to demand more rights and independence. Portugal refused and fighting broke out. After years of warfare, known as the ‘Armed Struggle’, Angola finally won independence in 1975.
Angola’s civil war
In 1976, the MPLA formed a government under Agostinho Neto. After Neto’s death in 1979, fighting between the MPLA and UNITA intensified.
The independence movement was made up of three rival groups – the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), the FNLA (National Front for the Liberation of Angola) and UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola). Joined by the common goal to free Angola, once independence had been achieved, the groups became rivals.
Foreign meddling exacerbated the civil war. The Marxist MPLA were backed by the Soviet Union and Cuba. UNITA was supported by the USA and the white government of South Africa.
In 1988, a ceasefire was agreed and maintained by a United Nations peacekeeping force. But after an MPLA election-win in 1992, won by José Eduardo dos Santos (who had succeeded Neto in 1979), the opposition party again took up arms.
27 years of civil war finally ended in 2002, when the leader of UNITA was killed. The current president is José Eduardo dos Santos, who is now one of the longest-serving heads of state.