Amílcar Lopes da Costa Cabral was a Pan-African revolutionary whose anticolonial resistance brought Portuguese colonialism in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde to its knees. As a leader focused on liberation, he also defined and redefined the boundaries of and between, revolutionary action and revolutionary theorisation. He demonstrated the ways in which being a freedom fighter was inextricable from theorising liberation. For him revolution was also and always critically thinking, and revolution was also and always actually fighting. Revolution was “both… and.” Thus, as a theorist of decolonisation, Cabral stands out because, as Ferreira explains, “when he recognized that there was a breach to be closed, he stepped into it.” Cabral was willing to put his whole body, mind and soul on the line to achieve the outcome he believed was necessary for the liberation of his people… And so till the sea devours the earth, the shores of Cape Verde and the forests of Guinea-Bissau will echo with the strains of his name, “Viva Cabral!”
A short biography of Amílcar Cabral – pre-PAIGC: 1924-1955
Cabral was born to Cape Verdean parents in Bafata, Guinea-Bissau, on 12 September 1924. Cabral’s father, Juvenal Antonio da Costa Cabral, was from a wealthy and influential family. Through this genealogy, Juvenal bequeathed to the young Amílcar, a strong political education, a love of poetry, and an interest in agriculture. His mother, Iva Pinhal Evora, was not born into an affluent family. She nevertheless provided her son with a very special sense of self-determination, discipline, purpose, personal ethics, and an unshakeable iron will. Iva and Juvenal Cabral separated when Amílcar was 5 years old. This had a marked impact on Cabral’s childhood as the domestic financial situation in which Cabral found himself deteriorated. His mother had to struggle to care for him and his siblings. And so, Cabral never forgot the difficulties of his early years and later spoke of poverty as one of the reasons which would lead him to revolt against Portuguese colonialism.
Cabral was home-schooled until he was twelve and proved himself to be an exceptionally brilliant student. He finished what was meant to be four years of primary school and seven years of secondary school in only eight years. In the autumn of 1945, at the age of twenty-one, Cabral travelled to Portugal to pursue a five-year course of study at the Instituto de Agronomia da Universidade Técnica de Lisboa (the Agronomy Institute at the Technical University of Lisbon). He attended university on a scholarship provided by the Cape Verdean branch of the Casa dos Estudantes do Império (CEI) (the House of Students from the Empire)… a colonial government–financed social development centre for students from Portugal’s colonies. During his studies in Lisbon, Cabral had to work to supplement his academic stipend, but also found time to get involved in various social and political groups, including Movimento Anti-Colonialista (MAC) (the Anti-Colonial Movement), and Comité de Liberação dos Territórios Africanos Sob o Domíno Português (CLTASDP) (the Committee for the Liberation of Territories Under Portuguese Domination).
On 27 March 1952, Cabral graduated, at the top of his class, with a degree in agricultural engineering. He was the only student of African origin in his cohort of 220 students. One of those students was Maria Helena Rodrigues, who was later to become Cabral’s first wife. He tried to get a job in the Portugal with the civil service, but was prevented due to systemic racism in the service. He then returned home, determined to decolonise Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau. On his return, Cabral gained employment as a “grade two agronomist.” As part of this job he travelled more than 60,000 kilometres and collected data from approximately 2,248 everyday Guinea-Bissauans. This would provide him territorial advantage in the armed anti-colonial struggle later on.
During this time, Cabral was also making political connections for the cause of decolonisation, in both Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau. Due to his immense knowledge base, persuasive powers and irrefutable arguments, he was able to convince citizens across the national and social divide to join in with the anti-colonial cause. These included civil servants, entrepreneurs, well as urban workers, peasants, rural villagers and athletes. When the Portuguese colonisers caught wind of these activities, he was reportedly exiled from Guinea Bissau – banned from returning to reside. Thus, in 1955, Cabral returned to Portugal.
Amílcar Cabral and the founding of the PAIGC: 1956-1973
After several petitions, Cabral was however, eventually given permission to visit family in Guinea-Bissau. It was on one of this permitted visits, on 19 September 1956, that Cabral co-established the political party that was later to become the PAIGC – the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and the Cape Verde Islands (Partido Africano para a Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde). Rafael Paula Barbosa was its first president. Amílcar Cabral became secretary-general. The party’s intentions were initially to peacefully campaign for independence. However, this changed after the Pidjiguiti massacre in 1959, where Portuguese soldiers opened fire on protesting dockworkers, killing 50 of them. This caused many of the people to turn to the PAIGC. This also convinced the PAIGC of the merits of an armed struggle, against a domineering power that did not consider the people they governed human. So, an armed struggle was declared in March 1962.
After a failure of tactics in the towns, resistance activity moved to the rural areas and adopted guerrilla-style tactics. Under Cabral’s leadership, the PAIGC liberated three-quarters of the countryside of Guinea in less than ten years of revolutionary struggle. Beginning in 1963, Cabral took his party into an open war for the independence of Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau. Cabral distinguished himself among modern revolutionaries by long and careful preparation, both theoretical and practical, which he undertook before launching the revolutionary struggle, and, in the course of this preparation, became one of the world’s outstanding theoreticians of anti-imperialist struggle.
This intellectual strength distinguishes PAIGC as one of the few movements started by the “educated elite” that enjoyed the full support and participation of the masses. Within three years after the beginning of armed struggle, more than two-thirds of the country and
population were being administered by the PAIGC. The armed struggle relied on the “creative destruction” of the social and economic trappings of colonial life, as well as their complete replacement with new structures. Most anticolonial movements on the rest of the continent, whether or not they engaged in armed struggle, were content with stepping into the shoes of the colonial powers, rather than burning the shoes and rethinking, dismantling or unpacking the concept of colonial power itself.
Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde were and are a drop in the colonial ocean. Yet, this “creative
destruction” was a profound threat to maintaining the old order. Therefore, with the complicity of France, Portugal invaded Guinea-Conakry and Senegal in 1969-1970, to achieve the aim of destroying the PAIGC, which had offices in Conakry. They failed. Portugal military resources were stretched thin, as they were, at the same time, also repelling connected armed struggles in Angola and Mozambique. The Portuguese, late to the colonial game, forcefully and brutally held on to their colonial possessions. They used napalm with devastating effect in their African colonies.
After the Portuguese invasion attempt failed, Portugal then adopted a stealthier approach. Inocêncio Kani, allegedly with the backing and support of PIDE (Portugal’s secret police), assassinated Cabral in Conakry on 20 January 1973. Cabral had been walking home with his second wife, Ana Maria Cabral. The timing was not accidental. The Portuguese government knew that the PAIGC planned to declare independence in 1973. They feared that this could lead to greater pressure for decolonisation elsewhere and perhaps to a challenge of their authority within Portugal itself. They thus exploited divides within the PAIGC. This contributed to Kani’s assassination of Cabral. Yet one of the most significant successes of Cabral’s leadership was that he had developed a party that could and did operate effectively without him. Despite the death of Cabral, the PAIGC was able to proceed with the planned declaration of independence of Guinea-Bissau a few months later, on 24 September 1973. This was later recognised by a 93–7 UN General Assembly vote in November 1973. Cape Verde became independent in 1975.
Nevertheless, the light of a revolutionary was extinguished too soon, and the PAIGC felt the loss of his mind and spirit keenly. The world became a poorer place with his untimely passing. And a thousand melodies of mourning were written, so that the earth will always remember his name. Viva Cabral, Viva. Across the continent, in classrooms, in road names, in books and in music… we remember. Viva Cabral, Viva. The light of a revolutionary never dies, as long as his name never dies… as long as his name never dies.
The Anticolonial Theory of Amílcar Cabral
While Cabral is often described as a Marxist, he did not necessarily define himself in this way. He had Marxist political education surely, but did not join or form a Marxist or communist political party. He did understand that colonisation was embarked upon for economic ends and had significant economic impact. Thus, anti-colonial revolution had to have as its primary aim the people’s needs… anything else was merely useless self congratulatory rhetoric. Chabal, one of Cabral’s foremost biographers, describes Cabral as a “nationalist.” However, Cabral’s brand of nationalism was not focused merely on taking control of colonial borders, but on substantive eternal justice for those who found themselves trapped within them.
Cabral believed that resistance must be active, grounded and engaged in with full commitment, not just to one’s individual needs, but to the needs of those who are already here, the memories of those who have gone ahead, and the hopes of those yet to be born.
“The fight of a people, the resistance of a people, has various forms. As I already told you, our resistance began quite some time ago. Since the day that the Portuguese had the idea of dominating us, exploiting us, our resistance began in Guinea. Our resistance in Cape Verde began since the day that the social situation clearly demonstrated that—dependent on the Portuguese colonialists—our people in Cape Verde were exploited, humiliated, exported like animals, dying of hunger.” Resistance and Decolonization
“…a land is only truly liberated if it manages to throw off foreign domination of a country’s economy—if we in fact manage to liberate the economy of our country from all foreign exploitation.” Resistance and Decolonization
“we are not going to eliminate imperialism by shouting insults against it. For us, the best or worst shout against imperialism, whatever its form, is to take up arms and fight. This is what we are doing, and this is what we will go on doing until all foreign domination of our African homelands has been totally eliminated.” “The Weapon of Theory.”
“In combating racism we do not make progress if we combat the people themselves. We have to combat the causes of racism. If a bandit comes to my house and I have a gun, I cannot shoot the shadow of the bandit; I have to shoot the bandit. Many people lose energy and effort , and make sacrifices combating shadows. We have to combat the material reality that produces the shadow.” Return to the Source
“We are fighting so that insults may no longer rule our countries, martyred and scorned for centuries, so that our peoples may never more be exploited by imperialists not only by people with white skin, because we do not confuse exploitation or exploiters with the colour of men’s skins; we do not want any exploitation in our countries, not even by black people.” Revolution in Guinea.
On Theory and Struggle
Cabral’s embedded use of theory came from a realisation that praxis and theory are not separate elements of revolutionary struggle. Praxis without accurate and critical thinking would lead to failure of action. Theory without action helps no one and nothing.
“every practice produces a theory, and that if it is true that a revolution can fail even though it be based on perfectly conceived theories, nobody has yet made a successful revolution without a revolutionary theory.” “The Weapon of Theory.”
“Always remember that the people are not fighting for ideas, nor for what is in men’s minds. The people fight and accept the sacrifices demanded by the struggle in order to gain material advantages, to live better and in peace, to benefit from progress, and for the better future of their children. National liberation, the struggle against colonialism, the construction of peace, progress and independence are hollow words devoid of any significance unless they can be translated into a real improvement of living conditions.” Return to the Source
On Imperialism, the Postcolonial State and Independence
For Cabral, imperialism, colonisation and neo-colonialism as enacted in Africa, operated to destroy both the history and future of African peoples. Any struggle to escape these forces had to take into account the nature and impact of those forces.
“The colonialists usually say that it was they who brought us into history: today we show that this is not so. They made us leave history, our history, to follow them, right at the back, to follow the progress of their history.” Return to the Source
“Let us be precise: for us, African revolution means the transformation of our present life in the direction of progress. The prerequisite for this is the elimination of foreign economic domination, on which every other type of domination is dependent”. Revolution in Guinea
“We must practice revolutionary democracy in every aspect of our Party life. Every responsible member must have the courage of his responsibilities, exacting from others a proper respect for his work and properly respecting the work of others. Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories…”
“The problem of the nature of the state created after independence is perhaps the secret of the failure of African independence.”
“Neocolonialism is at work on two fronts – in Europe as well as in the underdeveloped countries. Its current framework in the underdeveloped countries is the policy of aid, and one of the essential aims of this policy is to create a false bourgeoisie to put brakes on the revolution and to enlarge the possibilities of the petty bourgeoisie as a neutraliser of the revolution”. Revolution in Guinea.
On the People – their place and power
Ultimately, Cabral believed that power belonged to the people – all the people… equally. There was no room in his thinking or struggle for intra-divisions, class distinctions and hierarchies of humanity. African people were his mission, his army, his mountains, his theory… and his soul.
“We must act as if we answer to, and only answer to, our Ancestors, our children, and the unborn.”
“Tony Gifford told you that I’m a great revolutionary. It’s not true. I am a simple African man, doing my duty in my own country in the context of our time. My comrade Ron Phillips said that I am his hero. We have no heroes in our country – the only heroes there are the African people.” Our People Are Our Mountains
“A people who free themselves from foreign domination will be free culturally only if, without complexes and without underestimating the importance of positive accretions from the oppressor and other cultures, they return to the upward paths of their own culture, which is nourished by the living reality of its environment, and which negates both harmful influences and any kind of subjection to foreign culture. Thus, it may be seen that if imperialist domination has the vital need to practice cultural oppression, national liberation is necessarily an act of culture” Return to the Source
“”return to the source” is the denial, by the petite bourgeoisie, of the pretended supremacy of the culture of the dominant power over that of the dominated people with which it must identify itself. The “return to the source” is therefore not a voluntary step, but the only possible reply to the demand of concrete need, historically determined, and enforced by the inescapable contradiction between the colonized society and the colonial power, the mass of the people exploited and the foreign exploitive class, a contradiction in the light of which each social stratum or indigenous class must define its position.” Return to the Source
“There are no mountains at all. Our people call the hills in Boe region, in the south-east, mountains, because in Guinea we don’t really know what mountains are… As for the mountains, we decided that our people had to take their place, since it would be impossible to develop our struggle otherwise. So our people are our mountains.” Our People Are Our Mountains
Cabral put his body on the line and his mind as well. In his praxis, there was no mind-body split, no room for demarcating the thinkers from the soldiers. The immortalisation of Cabral’s work and name, in song and in culture, means that long after we have gone from this dusty earth, the shores of Cape Verde and the forests of Guinea Bissau will still echo the strains of his name, “Viva Cabral, Viva”. The light of a revolutionary never dies, as long as his name never dies… as long as his name never dies. “Viva Cabral, Viva”.
Cabral, Amílcar. Resistance and Decolonization. Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.
Cabral, Amílcar. Return to the Source. NYU Press, 1974.
Cabral, Amílcar. ‘The Weapon of Theory ’. Address delivered to the first Tricontinental Conference of the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America held in Havana in January, 1966.
Cabral, Amílcar. Revolution in Guinea: African People’s Struggle. 2nd Revised edition. London: Stage 1, 1979.
Cabral, Amílcar. Unity and Struggle: Speeches and Writings of Amilcar Cabral. Vol. 3. NYU Press, 1979.
Cabral, Amílcar. Our People Are Our Mountains: Amilcar Cabral on the Guinean Revolution. Committee for Freedom in Mozambique, Angola & Guiné, 1972.
Chabal, Patrick. “The Social and Political Thought of Amilcar Cabral: A Reassessment.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 19, no. 1 (1981): 31-56.
Chabal, Patrick. Amílcar Cabral: Revolutionary Leadership and People’s War. Africa World Press, 2003.
Ferreira, Eduardo de Sousa. ‘Amilcar Cabral: Theory of Revolution and Background to His Assassination’. Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies 3, no. 3 (1973).