Colonial War

The war that tears Estado Novo down

Salazar’s domination floats like a grey cloud over Portugal. But a sparkle of courage is enough to trigger the freedom movement and lead to the 1974 Revolution. It was a distant war that put the dictatorship in check.​

March 15th, 1961. União das Populações de Angola (UPA) begins the attacks to the properties of white settlers, causing a terror and destruction war in the North of Angola. It was the wake of the war between Portugal and the colonies that claimed their independence. But nothing could predict the consequences that this conflict would have in the established politics in Portugal.

In the continent, news didn’t come efficiently. Diário de Lisboais the first to mention the incidents of February 4th of 1961 (the front page in that day), when Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) attacked a jail in Luanda with the goal of freeing the prisoners, ending with the death of seven policemen.



On February 5th, O Século became the second daily newspaper announcing these incidents.



However, events only started to be treated as war in the news from May of that year. Right here, the censorship and Salazar propaganda were felt in the news in the papers. On one side, the Armed Forces and the Portuguese who lived in Angola as the heroes; one another, the native black and the international community against colonialism as the villains.

About the massacre of March 15th, the death toll is never mentioned in the pages of O Século. Only two days after the newspaper mentions the events and puts them in the front page, with a text by Adelino Tavares da Silva, from Luanda: «Another attack coming from the exterior that tries to disturb the live of white and black people in the peaceful land of Angola».

Later, the same newspaper launches the section «Século no Ultramar», published on Wednesdays and Fridays. In this supplement it was reported what was lived in the overseas territories, but little was mentioned about the conflicts there, reserving that matter for other pages in the newspaper.

Instead, there were highlighted the «endless natural resources of Angola, Guinea and Mozambique», the colonies’ agricultural exploration, the parties of many Portuguese and the pride in the management that Portugal did of its patrimony.

During this time, two kinds of journalists appear: the ones that were in Angola covering several themes related to the country and didn’t expect the burst of conflicts, becoming war reporters due to circumstances; and the sent journalists embedded in the army and seconded with the mission of covering the war.



The year of 1961 is considered the annus horribilis of Salazar and Estado Novo. In the New Year’s message of 1960/1961, the first broadcasted on television, the president Américo Tomás foresaw troubles for the country.

Algeria and Congo, also African and colonized countries, earned their independence from France and Belgium, respectively. This scenario threatened the Portuguese colonies of the old regime, which already felt the foreign pressure of the United Nations.



Right in January, problems started taking shape. In Angola, several workers from Cotonang protest against the working conditions imposed by the cotton company. The protest is repressed by the Portuguese army, but the precedents for the beginning of the liberation conflict in Angola were set.

On January 22nd happens the hijacking of the Santa Maria packet-boat, commanded by Henrique Galvão. In an attempt of a military coup, the ship is renamed as Santa Liberdade, and it is achieved an international news coverage that would come to deeply shake Salazar’s regime. The photography of the banner that renamed the ship would never be published in Portugal.



In March, due to the incidents in the North of Angola, the United Nations appeals to the Portuguese government for the introduction of measures in the colonies. In Luanda and in Lisbon, Portuguese gather in big protests against the decolonization at the steps of the USA embassy.

Later, Lopes Alves, Minister of Ultramar, declared: «It is not a policy of the Portuguese Government the fact that the overseas territories are provinces and not colonies. It is a matter of national structure, which comes from the people’s sentiment, and not from a doctrine nor a Government’s determination». The diplomatic relations with the country allied of the United States were compromised.

In April, comes a new crisis, this time from inside the regime. Júlio Botelho Moniz, Minister of Defense, tired of Salazar’s resistance to the decolonization, tries to force the resignation of the leader under the regime’s legality, along with Craveiro Lopes and other personalities connected to the power. The coup, called “Abrilada de 1961”, ends failed. With the tension buildup, Salazar announces, on April 13th, the beginning of the Colonial War, with the famous declaration: «To Angola, quickly and with force».





The news that marked the turmoil in Angola at the time were highly manipulated by the regime. Of a sensationalist dimension, the journalistic tone passed on Estado Novo ideals and portrayed the rebels as savages and terrorists.



In the end of the year of 1961, on December 18th, the troops of União Indiana occupy the territories of Goa, Daman and Diu. Salazar orders the Portuguese troops to fight until death, but the governor, General Vassalo e Silva, refuses to obey and opts for surrender. The journalist Urbano Carrasco, of Diário Popular, was one of the special envoys sent to the conflict zone. He ended up arrested for several months in a concentration camp for war prisoners.





While the situation aggravated in the colonies, the tone of the news maintained subversive to the regime. «We are today and will be tomorrow in India and Africa, long live the eternal Portugal!, exclaimed the Mr. Minister of the Army addressing the troops contingent that left yesterday to Africa», it is one of the titles of the front page of O Século on May 6th, 1961. Besides that, the departure of Portuguese soldiers to war continues to be announced as if it was a social event.

However, the tears of family members who saw their men leaving were never referred in the newspapers; nor Kennedy’s new political program, which supported the liberation of the people in the African continent. The instability and the fear that were felt in the territories due to robberies and murders in the farms were treated as a myth, and about the soldiers’ reports, little was told.




In Angola, the several liberation movements of the country organized and fought the Portuguese troops. União das Populações de Angola (UPA) – later Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola (FNLA) – led by Holden Roberto, and União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA) distinguished as more significant.

Regarding the nationalism and the anti-colonial fight in Guinea and Cape Verde, these were deeply connected to the figure of Amílcar Cabral, through the Partido Africano para a Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC). The movement Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO), led by Eduardo Mondlane, conducted the anticolonial struggle in the country.

With the unfolding of war, propaganda became an effective means of psychologic combat able of disorganizing the liberation movements. Portuguese troops spread posters highlighting the poor life and health conditions that the natives had under the control of the liberation movements, instilling the fear in populations and incentivizing civils and guerrilla fighters to present and turn themselves in.



Portuguese troops also conceived the publication of a set of manuals called «O Exército na Guerra Subversiva» [The Army in the Subversive War], which served as support for the organization of the military during war.

On the other hand, liberation movements replied with their own propaganda posters. These posters were aimed especially to the native military who integrated the Portuguese army, as well as the one who lived under its protection.





In Portugal, the images and news were transmitted through this propagandistic tone.

Since journalists sent to the conflict zone accompanied the Portuguese army, the information came biased from its source, since the military themselves limited the flow of information.

Besides, the reporters sent were few, all of them carefully selected by Secretariado Nacional de Informação (SNI) and by the army. Regarding the journalists that already were in the territories when the war unexpectedly broke, despite having more freedom to report the facts, they were under previous censorship before the pieces were published.

The first war reports only gave account of the public order reestablishment by the armed forces, indicating that the people from the colonies were nothing but dissidents and terrorists. However they started to slightly change the tone. Appealing to the fight of the Portuguese against the international communism in the colonies, RTP already transmitted traces of attacks to farms, as well as of several military columns moving forward with fighting actions.

Between 1969 and 1974, Marcello Caetano spoke to the Portuguese population in a show of his entire responsibility, “Conversa em Família”. In it, he explained the policies of Estado Novo and the works the government was making, namely in the colonial war.





However, the situation at war was only softened and didn’t entirely correspond to the truth. The President even stated that the international press didn’t support the colonies’ liberation movements. Whilst, the foreign press reported the real colonial war.



As the war extended, Christmas and New Year’s messages of the Portuguese soldiers, broadcasted by RTP, stayed in Portugal’s collective memory.





The colonial war would last until 1974, when the Carnation Revolution happened. The Movimento das Forças Armadas (MFA) took Lisbon and caused the Estado Novo to fall. The war was always pointed as one of the factors that contributed for the revolution, and independence was finally granted to the Portuguese colonies.



The colonial war was the longest military conflict in which Portugal was involved, since the Restauration wars, between 1640 and 1668. The colonial war unfolded at the so called overseas provinces of Mozambique, Guinea and Angola. In the middle of 1975, an air bridge brought thousands of Portuguese from the former colonies. They would earn the designation of “retornados”, and the images of boxes and luggage pilled near Padrão dos Descobrimentos would be forever engraves in the collective memory of the Portuguese.