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As Lições de Jill Dias

Maria Cardeira da Silva
Clara Saraiva


The history of Angola Jill Dias never wrote

Malyn Newitt

Texte intégral

1As we meet to celebrate the memory of Jill Dias, it is difficult to think of any scholar whose death has so profoundly affected the academic community. To those who did not know Jill it is not always easy to explain what was so special about the life and work of a scholar who, after all, never published a book. In Oxford in the 1950s there were many learned fellows of Colleges who believed that it was beneath the dignity of gentlemen scholars to use their doctoral titles and that it was rather vulgar to write books. Pure scholarship was an end in itself, and one or two learned articles published in obscure academic journals was their only communication with a wider, if still very narrow, audience.

2However, this hardly describes Jill Dias. Rather, one should look at the support she gave to generations of students, her willingness to assume necessary but stultifying administrative tasks, her success in manœuvring within the world of academic politics, and the time she spent as an editor both of the journal Revista Internacional de Estudos Africanos and of volumes such as the Actos do II Seminário Internacional sobre a História de Angola and the volume O Império Africano 1825-1890. It is in large part by such labours that her contribution to historical scholarship is to be appreciated.

3Yet Jill did plan a major book, a History of Angola, which was to be published by Christopher Hurst. The book was never written and it is notorious that, since the pioneering work of Douglas Wheeler and René Pélissier (1971), no historian has attempted a comprehensive history of Angola. This is the book that Jill Dias was eminently qualified to write and it almost seems that other scholars have held back from producing the work that should have been hers. However, the magisterial chapter on nineteenth century Angola that she wrote for the volume O Império Africano 1825-1890, as well as her published articles, give some indication of what her History of Angola would have been like (Alexandre e Dias 1971).

4African history came to maturity during the 1960s when events on the continent commanded international attention, and when so many hopes for a better world were pinned on its newly emerging nations. During this decade historians juxtaposed, in a direct and uncompromising manner, the indigenous, traditional world of pre-colonial Africa with the ruthless and exploitative colonial system that was imposed on the continent in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was history seen in starkly contrasting hues of black and white and Angola differed from other newly independent African countries only in the length of time of the colonial 29 contact. The trajectory of Angolan history was the same and was clear for all to see–an evolution from traditional society to colonial overrule and post-colonial nationalism, via the brutal exploitation of the slave trade and forced labour, and with examples of proto-nationalism discernible as early as the seventeenth century.

5Jill Dias sought an understanding of the forces that created modern Angola that was more complex and modelled its history in a more nuanced manner. Angola’s history had to be understood, not just as an African narrative, but as part of the wider history of the Atlantic. From as early as the sixteenth century the region south of the Zaire had become part of an Atlantic world that linked Portugal, the islands, western Africa and Brazil through the medium of oceanic trade. To describe these commerce-driven societies, which were dominated by the slave trade and which, by the middle of the nineteenth century, had transported two million slaves to Brazil, in purely negative terms prevented an understanding of the long term development of Angolan history.

  • 1 All the quotations from Jill Dias´ original texts in Portuguese are my own translation.

6During these centuries, dominated as they were by the slave trade, the people of Angola participated in a rapidly expanding Atlantic economy, which, paradoxically, strengthened the economic and even the demographic base of society. A key determining factor in Angolan history, affecting “both the demographic structures and the economic and cultural differentiation” has been “the variability and instability of the rainfall” (1997:601)1. So, one crucial consequence of Angola’s immersion in the Atlantic economy was “the introduction of new food crops, particularly maize, manioc and groundnuts [which] transformed the scope and scale, although not the techniques, of Mbundu agriculture before 1800, presumably increasing resistance to famine” (Dias 1985: 287). Far from suffering depopulation during the period of the Atlantic slave trade, the population of Angola grew because of the practice of retaining within society female slaves valued both for their productive and reproductive capacity, enabling the agricultural and artisan sectors of the economy to expand to service Atlantic commerce. As Valentim Alexandre and Jill Dias put it, throughout much of Angola

artisan production, jointly with such activities as agriculture, fishing, gathering, hunting and cattle breeding not only assured the basic subsistence of the African populations but also supplied the commercial networks. Paradoxically, in many parts of Angola, the Atlantic trade helped to reinforce and develop these activities” (Alexandre and Dias 1998: 326-7).

7For Jill, it was not the era of the slave trade that led to the impoverishment of the people of Angola but the transformations that occurred in the early twentieth century.

8Until the middle of the 19th century, the slave trade remained the single most profitable commercial activity in Angola, but the penetration inland of this Atlantic economy, and in particular the dealing in slaves, profoundly modified African society: “Many men competed to maximise their autonomy, their prestige and their power, manipulating the existing rules of lineage succession principally through the acquisition and accumulation of additional male and female dependents as slaves” (Ibidem: 331).

9A considerable proportion of the slaves rounded up for sale were retained within Africa to strengthen the power of the elites and their lineages. Traditional rulers were able to accumulate wealth and build their client networks, but at the same time new elites emerged whose wealth and power rested solely on their commercial ties with the Atlantic world. For both traditional rulers and the new elites, “the hegemony of ruling families… rested above all on their superior control of manpower, guns and other imported trade goods…. Their fortunes were thus strongly influenced by the nature of their participation in the colonial export economy” (Dias 1985:289) and imported textiles and firearms “became transformed into the symbols and ceremonies of homage, power and obligation” (Dias 1998: 334-5).

10The abrupt end of the Atlantic slave trade around 1850 coincided with the emergence within the Atlantic zone of expanding markets for other African products–notably ivory, groundnuts, palm oil, wax, rubber and coffee. The production and exchange of these commodities became the motor for Angolan history in the 19th and early 20th centuries and encouraged the deeper penetration of the Atlantic economy, privileging those groups that could command the manpower necessary for their production and portage. Slavery as a social institution, therefore, did not die with the closing of the Atlantic trade. “Despite changes in Angola’s export economy, the capital and resources of Mbundu chiefs and moradores continued to be tied up mainly in land and “slaves” (Dias, 1985: 302) Towards the end of the 19th century, however, slavery began to evolve into various forms of clientage and forced labour and, although Jill could write “it is hard to tell how far the growth of “legitimate” trade increased inequalities and antagonisms already existing between different segments of the population” (Ibidem: 303), there is little doubt that she thought that these economic transformations helped to create the deep social divisions which have marked 20th century Angola.

11It was not only traditional African societies that experienced these forces of change. Like the African rulers of the interior, the Portuguese and Afro-Portuguese creoles also expanded their power and productive capacity by acquiring clients and slaves who filled the roles of “carrier, pombeiro, soldier artisan and domestic”. These slaves were “overwhelmingly female”, just as the slaves sent to Brazil were for the most part men (Alexandre and Dias 1998).

12The emergence of the Angola creoles was another major theme, which dominated Jill’s work. Jill Dias was aware of the importance of the Afro-Portuguese and accorded them not only a distinct ethnic identity but gave them a central and autonomous role in Angolan history. The creole societies of Cabo Verde and São Tomé, and the black Portuguese of West Africa, were familiar enough to historians, but the creoles of Angola were too often dismissed simply as a marginal element in colonial society. In a lengthy essay on the Ambaquistas, Jill set out not only to describe this important group but to discuss the wider impact of creole communities in Angolan history.

13In studying ethnic identities, she wrote, “we must reject the idea that they represent categories or things that are inert, permanent or static” (Dias 1997: 600). Ethnic identities were always in a state of dynamic change though they were seldom the result of mass migrations. The importance of trade for all the populations of the Angolan hinterland, coupled with the uncertainty of the rainfall, made the history of the populations of Angola one of “small dislocation… and not the result of mass migration as are described in the majority of “migration epics” recorded in some oral traditions”. Between the 16th and 19th centuries the most powerful force transforming identity and social structure was the Atlantic economy (Ibidem: 603). “It was the expansion of the commercial networks which brought the European imports to the interior of Angola which stimulated the appearance of new political and cultural identities” (Ibidem: 604).

14Among the new identities that came into existence as a result of the penetration of the Atlantic economy were the Afro-Portuguese creoles, often generically referred to in the19th century as Ambaquistas. To understand the Ambaquistas it had to be understood that they were not a descent group as such. The term “hid a reality that was extremely changeable and heterogenous in social and cultural terms” (Ibidem, 605). Although some of the Ambaquistas claimed descent from unions between Portuguese and African women, it was a mistake to define this group as essentially mestiço. The greater part were descended from slaves, refugees and “other African elements which from the seventeenth century had come together under Portuguese protection” and, as Jill wrote elsewhere, developed “a consciousness and a collective pride in a Christian, catholic and Portuguese identity in juxtaposition to the “heathen Africans of the sertão” (Dias 359-60).

15This group of “independent settlers” became experienced sertanejos linking the Portuguese commerce of the coast with the societies that produced the slaves in the interior. For them, Ambaca was not so much a specific place as “a network of family and social relations” (Dias 1997: 608).

16By the middle of the 18th century creole communities had spread out as far as the Kasai river and the central highlands. Early in the 19th century it was this group that pioneered new lines of commerce, especially in wax, groundnuts and palm oil. The profits of their trade were “invested principally in women and girls” who were employed in agriculture, producing food for the coastal cities and increasingly specialising in coffee production. The penetration of the Angolan hinterland by the Atlantic economy placed premium on transport. European traders based on the coast were at a permanent disadvantage because they could only recruit carriers with difficulty and at great expense. The need for carriers was one of the factors that kept the internal slave trade alive after the closure of the Brazilian market in 1850, and was the earliest manifestation of that pre-occupation with labour supply that was to mark modern Angolan history. The Ambaquistas had better access to sources of labour but they also dealt in cattle and developed the practice of harnessing oxen–which Jill calls the boi-cavallo–for long distance transport. The theme of transport was developed still further and the revolutionary impact of steam navigation on the Cuanza, which began in the 1850s, played a crucial part in stimulating trade by making both imports and exports cheaper.

17Ambaca, the centre of trade and settlement that gave its name to this group, was a frontier region in two senses. It was not only on the borders of the Portuguese colony ruled from Luanda but “constituted a ‘frontier’ in the metaphorical sense as a place of interaction between different social and cultural models, between the European and the African” (ibidem: 607). As well as Portuguese, this group spoke a dialect of kimbundu which was to become the lingua franca of all the regions where they traded.

18Although the Ambaquistas spoke kimbundu and were, in many respects, similar to other groups (like the Mubire) whose identity was defined by their involvement in trade, they were culturally distinct in their adoption of many of the markers of European culture. They differentiated themselves by wearing European clothes, especially shoes, and they used Portuguese names. They thought of themselves as Christians, built European-style houses and grew European foodstuffs. Many of them were literate and prided themselves on being able to write. They considered themselves to be “white” and Portuguese. As colonial government sought to expand the area of its operations, Ambaquistas were recruited into the colonial service as soldiers, interpreters and administrators and many of them came to occupy similar positions in the independent African states. In both the colonial and the independent African spheres their position and influence was cemented by judicious marriages. Indeed it was principally the Ambaquistas, who enjoyed “great prestige among other Africans” who spread Portuguese influence in the interior in the nineteenth century (Ibidem: 615).

19In the creole societies of Guinea and the islands women had played a central role and the Angolan creole communities were no different. “Angolan women occupied strong positions at all social and economic levels of the two coastal nuclei, from the black quitandeiras up to the donas of the great commercial houses… directing prosperous businesses and households of slaves” (Alexandre and Dias 1998: 350). The “powerful influence of women” was also felt in the articulation of creole language and culture. The example of D. Ana Joaquina dos Santos e Silva, “widow of two white traders” (Ibidem: 373), illustrated the particular character of creole society. Described as “the richest merchant and landed proprietor of Angola” (Ibidem: 386), she financed a large part of the trade of Angola and “invested a substantial part of her fortune… in the alluvial lands along the Bengo… to produce aguardente and small quantities of sugar”(Ibidem: 447)

20In a perceptive essay published in 1984 on the formation of the creole elite of Angola, Jill described one important way in which this group differed from its African counterparts–“A defining characteristic of persons belonging to this creole elite was the replacement of the collective ownership of land and goods by individual property… according to the Portuguese model” (Dias 1984:64). This allowed the accumulation of wealth over generations in the hands of a single patrilineal family.

21The decline in the influence of the creoles became marked towards the end of the 19th century and, as their influence declined, so opinions of them changed. Instead of being considered people of prestige and the principal disseminators of European influence in the interior, they “were pictured as physically degenerate in comparison to European Portuguese” and they were treated as “swindlers” (trapaceiros), “jews” (judeus) and “gypsies” (ciganos) or, in the words of Ferreira Diniz, “a type of native, semi-educated, semi-civilised, one of the worst elements within the native population” (Dias 1997: 618-620).

22The political power of the elite creole families in post-independence Angola, and the importance of Angola’s place in the twenty-first century world of the south Atlantic, is self-evident. However, the peoples of Angola, the descendants of the slaves as well as the elites, were already major participants in the formation of the Atlantic world as early as the seventeenth century. That Jill Dias singled out and incorporated these actors so prominently in the History of Angola that she never wrote, points to the original perspective with which she was viewing the past and to the strong social and cultural relations that she identified as linking the pre-colonial with the post-colonial world. This view of Angolan history, so clearly set out in her published papers, compounds the regret that the scholarly world must have at her untimely death.


ALEXANDRE, Valentim and DIAS, Jill, 1998, O Império Africano 1825-1890, Nova História da Expansão Portuguesa, X. Lisbon, Estampa.

DIAS, Jill, 1998, “Angola”, in ALEXANDRE, Valentim and DIAS, Jill, 1998, O Império Africano 1825-1890, Nova História da Expansão Portuguesa, X. Lisbon, Estampa.

1997, “Estereótipos e Realidades Sociais: quem eram os “Ambaquistas”, Actos do II Seminário Internacional sobre a História de Angola. Lisbon, CNCDP: 598-623.

1985, “Changing Patterns of Power in the Luanda Hinterland. The Impact of Trade and Colonisation on the Mbundu ca. 1845-1920”, Paideuma, 32: 285-318.

1984, “Uma questão de identidade: Respostas intelectuais às transformações económicas no seio da elite crioula da Angola portuguesa entre 1870 e 1930”, Revista Internacional de Estudos Africanos, 1, 1984: 61-94.

DOUGLAS, L. Wheeler, and PÈLISSIER, René, 1971, Angola. London, Pall Mall Press.


1 All the quotations from Jill Dias´ original texts in Portuguese are my own translation.


King´s College, London

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