An anatomy of colonial states and fiscal regimes in Portuguese Africa: long-term transformations in Angola and Mozambique, 1850s-1970s

Kleoniki Alexopoulou

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


This thesis studies colonial state formation and transformations of fiscal regimes in Portuguese Mozambique and Angola, from the military occupation of the coastal regions during the 1850s-1880s to the era of independence granted, after a long war, in the 1960s-1970s. It focuses on three key questions. First, how did Portugal effectively occupy the African territories of Angola and Mozambique, secure revenue and maintain its colonies for such a long period, and why did it rely on heavy coercion and repression over long-term efforts to build consensus and enhance the legitimacy of colonial rule? Second, what were the similarities and differences between the two colonies of Angola and Mozambique in the process of fiscal capacity building? Third, how can the challenge to secure Portuguese Africa in military and fiscal terms be conceptualized in the broader context of European imperialism in Sub-Saharan Africa, especially given the limited military, economic and diplomatic leverage of the metropole?

To answer these questions I have collected data from archival and published sources and reconstructed annual time series showing long-term fiscal trends. I study the impact of the Portuguese metropolitan identity and local African conditions, such as geography, demography as well as access to land, capital and labour, on the design of colonial fiscal systems. I use comparative historical methods and perspectives, with a focus on the similarities and differences with Britain and British colonial Africa. I also compare taxation patterns, non-tax public revenue sources, government expenditure and investment policies and practices between the two colonies of Angola and Mozambique. My comparisons involve questions regarding the per capita amount of revenue, the observed expenditure priorities in absolute and relative terms and the changing foci of colonial investment programs. This international perspective allows me to assess how ‘extractive’, ‘minimalist’ or ‘developmental’ colonial policies in Mozambique and Angola were in different phases of Portuguese rule.

Chapter 2 provides an overview of the fiscal policies and practices in Portuguese Mozambique and Angola from the 1850s to 1970s. It discusses the constraints to fiscal centralization and unification and shows how colonial investments prioritized security, administration and infrastructure over welfare services. It took a long time before the colonial states consolidated their power in Portuguese Africa.  Local African leaders employed diverse strategies from resistance to cooperation to survive and maintain their local power, while concession companies controlled certain regions. As a result, these zones remained out of the supervision of the colonial state apparatus, especially during the early colonial era (1890s-1920s). This led to less centralization in decision-making and tax management. Fiscal modernization, including the capacity of the state to fund larger development projects, was also curbed by the elimination of long-term debt and the dogma of budget balance, which were core principles of Salazar’s authoritarian regime (1932-1968). Public revenues that were not allocated to military forces and administration, went mainly into infrastructural projects that facilitated imperial trade. Finally, there was no representative government to ensure legitimacy and tax compliance, neither in the metropole nor in the colonies. Portuguese Africa passed from peasant or feudalist societies to capitalist production, without developing modern political and fiscal institutions.

Chapter 3 presents a case of colonial state formation without integration. It builds on Samir Amin’s (1972) division of the African continent into three “macro-regions of colonial influence” with distinct socio-economic systems and labour practices: Africa of the colonial trade or peasant economy, Africa of the concession-owning companies, and Africa of the labour reserves. I claim that Mozambique incorporated all three different “macro-regions” in a single colony (north-center-south). Different labour systems operated in the three geographic zones since early colonization, and these differences were maintained under colonial rule, also for the purpose of tax collection. The empirical analysis demonstrated that the south, which operated as a labour reserve for the mines of South Africa, had significantly higher tax capacity than the peasant and concession economies in the north and centre, and this pattern persisted over time. Colonial rule did not alter the conditions underlying fiscal inequality between the three zones. Instead, the colonial policies and practices concerning administration, taxation, and most importantly labour, reinforced the regional differences. Over the early decades (1890s-1930s), the colonial state delegated administrative tasks to concession companies in central and northern Mozambique and until as late as 1960 used forced labour schemes. In parallel, in southern Mozambique the colonial state institutionalized labour migration to the mines in South Africa and taxed migrant incomes.

Chapter 4 focuses on the high militarization of Portuguese Africa. Specifically, it presents the results of a thorough comparison of military capacity building in Portuguese and British Africa from 1850 to 1940. It tests the hypothesis that Portugal, as an imperial “jackal” and financially weaker metropole, had to make relatively large investments in the securitization of its colonies in order to establish an internal monopoly on violence as well as to confront external threats from imperial “lions”, such as Britain. It shows that heavy military expenses in Portuguese Africa hampered long-term welfare investments. Also, organisation of colonial armies and forced labour schemes were interconnected. The colonial governments in Angola and Mozambique used private companies and local chiefs as intermediaries in military recruitment and contractual conditions were inclined to remain a dead letter.

Chapter 5 explores the political economy of railway construction in Portuguese Africa, thus the involvement of colonial, indigenous and foreign (e.g. British) actors with different interests. It shows that in some cases the colonial governments and the metropole succeeded to attract private investors. When mineral exploitation was at stake, capitalists stepped in more easily. The colonial governments, however, had a broader agenda: they aimed at effectively occupying hinterland, creating new settler communities and increasing consent of the governed. By the 1930s, infrastructures were still concentrated around urban areas populated by considerable shares of white settlers, neglecting the remote rural areas inhabited by the vast majority of native Africans. After Salazar rose to power in Portugal, the states took over the operation of most railway lines in the two colonies and funded them either out of their ordinary colonial budgets or via loans usually raised in the metropole. Railways, however, were expensive investments. I argue that in both colonies the construction of the lines relied heavily on indigenous African labourers forcibly recruited. Africans also paid hut and poll taxes to finance infrastructural projects (or service debts). Especially in Mozambique, native taxation was a crucial source of revenue, while Angola could rely more on private capital and indirect taxes on exports.

From the empirical evidence presented in this thesis, I draw the conclusion that Portugal widely used coercive institutions to enforce law in its African colonies, exactly because it was weaker than the other metropolitan powers in economic and diplomatic terms. The early colonial era is characterized by a combination of minimalist and extractive fiscal regimes in Portuguese Mozambique and Angola, that aimed at either securing order at minimum cost or at extracting resources via native taxation and forced labour; while the late colonial era is indicated by an incomplete transition from fiscal minimalism to a developmental agenda, that was actually undermined by the very means of development. The empirical evidence demonstrated that Portuguese colonialism in Africa was exceptional in the sense that a weak metropolitan power managed to sustain its authority as late as the 1970s, by building minimalist and extractive fiscal states that did not develop into welfare states even during the global post-war boom. The colonial states of Mozambique and Angola - despite their differences driven by local conditions - were both based on extreme systems of securitization and an exceptionally heavy tax burden, especially due to a continuing reliance on (direct) native taxation and forced labour.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Frankema, Ewout, Promotor
  • van Nederveen Meerkerk, E.J.V., Promotor
  • Santos, J.M.H.M., Co-promotor, External person
Award date4 Dec 2018
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789463433747
Publication statusPublished - 2018

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