The Making of Imperial Peripheries: The musseques in Late-Colonial Luanda

By Juliana Bosslet, SOAS, University of London

Angolan magazines in the 1960s and early ‘70s often insisted that Luanda was “the most Portuguese” of all African cities. The supposed exceptionalism of the Portuguese colonial case led not only academics but also contemporary social actors to analyze it as a development somehow apart from the British and French empires. Portuguese backwardness, the country’s inability to “civilize” its colonies, and even the high levels of miscegenation and settlers “going native,” amongst other widely held beliefs, had long been deployed to justify this exceptionalism. However, despite the uniqueness of each colonial experience, the Portuguese territories in Africa shared important developments with contemporary empires in the continent, including the rapid urbanization of a few centers, as was the case of Luanda.

Late-colonial Luanda was shaped and reshaped by movements both in and out of the city and within the city, as poorer residents were constantly being pushed further from the center. Residents of post-WWII Luanda mostly came from elsewhere: many migrated from the metropole, others came from Angola’s countryside and from other parts of the empire, such as Cape Verde and São Tomé e Príncipe. Therefore, workers’ experiences in the colonial capital of Angola during the last decades of Portuguese occupation were marked, above all, by mobility. The encounter between people with such diverse backgrounds took place primarily in a particular space of the city: the musseques, Luanda’s shantytowns.

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Luanda, the city and the musseque. Notícia, May 1974.

Luanda’s allure is well-documented in colonial archives and in Angolan literature. Without disregarding the cultural and symbolic factors that attracted thousands of immigrants to Luanda from the late 1940s onwards, my own research focuses mainly on the economic and social motives that brought men and women into the city seeking to improve their living conditions.

Movements of workers within the empire with Luanda as a destination are well recognized by scholars. The Portuguese regime encouraged movement through the creation in the 1950s and 1960s of Settlement Funds and a National Employment Services. These were part of the Portuguese colonial strategy to portray itself as a unified nation composed of geographically separated territories. Policy-makers called their empire a nation, and their colonies overseas provinces. In a context of economic growth and industrialization, colonial companies in Luanda looked for a skilled labor force mostly in the metropole, while recruiting unskilled temporary workers in other parts of Angola, particularly in the South-Central regions. Newcomers from other parts of the Portuguese empire, in spite of their economic situation, enjoyed a privileged social status compared to Africans born in Angola. The periphery of Luanda, with its musseques and popular neighborhoods, reproduced colonial social stratifications.

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Popular Neighborhood on Luanda’s Periphery. Amaral, 1968.

Migrants from Portugal to Angola were not always skilled workers. On the contrary, Angolan newspapers show a constant struggle throughout the sixties and early seventies to attract skilled workers to the so-called overseas province. Destinations elsewhere in Europe or America seemed to have had a higher appeal. The numbers of unskilled migrants settling in Luanda in the late-colonial period were significant. During the sixties, Portuguese and Angolan sociologists noticed that metropolitan migration to Luanda caused competition for jobs in what they considered to be low-skilled occupations suited to uneducated African migrants. The British Council in Luanda reported to London an increasing number of low-qualified Portuguese requesting permits to move to Australia, as their expectations of social mobility were not fulfilled in the colony.

In 1961 labor institutes and inspections were created in Angola and Mozambique. This was a move made by the Portuguese regime to address home pressures but also requirements coming from the International Labor Organization (ILO). The Angolan Labor Institute’s project was to create a modern and reliable, but apolitical, African urban working class, following development theories that had supported colonial reforms elsewhere a decade earlier. In Angola, their plans met fierce resistance from employers resorting to migrant labor, trade unions not willing to accept low-paid Africans, and from African workers evading becoming a working class.

The data produced by the institute shows the importance of mobility to labor experiences in late-colonial Luanda, but they were uninformative when it comes to racial segregation. Instead of classifying workers as blacks, whites, or mestiços, labor statistics were often divided between those born in Angola and those coming from abroad. This was a deliberate move to mask existing racial discrimination. It should be noted that, by the 1960s and ‘70s, a considerable sector of the white population was from Angola. Hence the statement that many skilled workers were born in the colony, as indicated in official data, did not mean that they were Africans. When asked about equal opportunities amongst different groups by the ILO, the institute claimed to not be able to provide such information as surveys were not based on racial criteria in Portuguese territories. Meanwhile, in confidential documents, the institute’s employees recognized the existence of discriminatory practices related to job opportunities, without however providing numbers to support it.


The City Makers. Notícia, Februrary 1971.

In late-colonial Luanda, the musseques became the space of encounter between long-term urban residents and those who had just arrived. During this period, they were turned into a reservoir of labor for developing industry. But they should not be reduced to that. In a context of the liberation war and international critique of colonialism, the musseques provided a space where escape from police control, though not easy, was still possible. The labyrinths of unplanned roads opened opportunities for clandestine urban dwellers to hide from police repression. Newspapers and the Municipal Council saw them as “the space of transgression,” as residents insisted on building illegal houses in private but empty spaces regardless of local governments’ projects to urbanize the city. They were also a space of cultural production and consumption, where musicians wrote and played their songs and forged their own images of nation. The musseques are often linked to an idea of Angolaness, and this Angolaness, as Marisa Moorman argued, was in fact cosmopolitan. As musseques in late-colonial Luanda became a space of encounter, new identities and new forms of urbanity had to be forged. This encounter, however, had not been always peaceful. In fact, tensions amongst different groups living side by side in shantytowns were not uncommon. Many of these conflicts, often defined in confidential documents by colonial authorities as expressions of racial hatred, concealed a class struggle.

In my Ph.D. thesis, I am looking into ways workers in Luanda experienced social change when it came to working conditions and modes and relations of production. Throughout my research I came to realize that these experiences were more deeply connected to political developments in Lisbon and in the so-called West than is usually accounted for. This might seem obvious considering the nature of the Portuguese dictatorship and the rising international criticism of colonialism. However, these deep links are usually overlooked in scholarly work on both Portugal and Angola. Even though what is called “the colonial question” is usually considered one of the major factors explaining the survival and fall of the Portuguese Estado Novo, the impacts of the empire on particular aspects of the development of both the metropole and the colonies are usually neglected. A more interlinked reflection upon the Portuguese empire, connecting metropolitan and overseas developments is needed for a more complex understanding of historical processes. But historical research should go beyond an imperial perspective in order to throw light on the changing position of Portugal and Angola in the world and the impacts it had on the decolonization process.

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Houses and Shacks in a musseque in Luanda. Amaral, 1968.

Colonialism affected social and labor relations in late-colonial Angola in many ways still to be studied. Portuguese colonialism is often seen as exceptional and its denouement is viewed as a delayed version of events elsewhere. A global approach focused on multiple interactions and exchanges can certainly help understand similar patterns of colonial rule when it comes to labor relations, as well as the particularities of the colonial encounter in Angola. Luanda, for its centrality in the Portuguese empire, and the labor question, for its importance in international and national debates, represents an excellent case for such a study.


Juliana Bosslet is a Ph.D. candidate at SOAS, University of London, working on the social history of labor in Luanda. She holds a first-class BA degree in History from PUC-Rio and a MPhil from UFF, Brazil. Her MPhil thesis, A Cidade e a Guerra: Relações de Poder e Subversão em Luanda, is in process of being published.


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