ca. 1870 ‘Angolenses’

The Rijksmuseum and The National Museum of World Cultures (Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen – NMvW) in The Netherlands together hold over more than two hundred photographs by José Augusto da Cunha Moraes (1855-1933) in their collection. His father opened a photography studio in São Paolo de Loanda (now: Luanda) in 1863, and J.A. da Cunha Moraes became a professional photographer in the 1870s. By the 1880s he had produced over four hundred photographs. According to historian Jill Dias (1944-2008), his individual portraits were exceptional, for they captured the social contrasts in the capital of colonial Angola.1

José Augusto da Cunha Moraes, View of Luanda (ca. 1876-1886), Collection Rijksmuseum, RP-F-2001-7-683-1.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, inhabitants of the coastal town Loanda were divided into two categories: civilized and uncivilized.2 White Europeans constituted the elite of society, among them were landlords, traders and slave owners. 3 A minority were free Portuguese settlers, the majority came to Angola as convicts (degredados). Since early modern times Portugal had practiced degredo: the limiting or degrading of the legal status of convicts by means of forced exile.4 The exiles served a practical purpose: 97% of Portuguese migrants choose Brazil as their new home. The African colonies were no less important in the Portuguese self-perception as an imperial nation. Forced colonization provided the necessary manpower to make the overseas territories profitable. 5

José Augusto da Cunha Moraes, portrait of two women, one dressed in Angolan panos the other in a European dress, ca. 1870. Collection Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, A274-56.

Since Portuguese settlers and degredados were almost exclusively male, they formed families with local women. Their mixed race descendants were included in the Loandan elite of ‘civilized peope’. 6 These Euro-Africans acquired positions in education, in the army, clergy and public offices of the colonial administration – although their main economic occupation remained trade, including slave trade. 7

José Augusto da Cunha Moraes, portrait of a Luso-African woman in Loanda belonging to the Gamboa family, ca. 1880, Collection Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, RV-A45-52.

Dias stated Da Cunha Moraes preserved the image of this elite, 8 but didn’t include any examples. Hitherto I haven’t been able to find other secondary literature on this subject that provides photographs from the end of the nineteenth century. Unfortunately somewhat speculative, I wonder whether some of the photographs in the collection of the NMvW are portraits of women belonging to the Luso-African elite. In some of the captions of the NMvW it is explicitly mentioned the women are of mixed descent. One description (RV-A45-52) contains the family name of the sitter: Gamboa.

Experts emphasize that the Loandan elite of the nineteenth century was culturally and racially mixed.9 The category of the ‘civilized’ included Africans of different ethnic groups, who were educated, Christian, cosmopolitan, possessed assets, capital and dressed in a European manner. It might not be impossible that Da Cunha Moraes portrayed African families of the Europeanized elite of his city, who designated themselves as ‘filhos da terra‘, ‘filhos do país‘, (sons of the country) or ‘Angolenses‘.

José Augusto da Cunha Moraes, Portrait of a couple from Loanda, ca. 1870. The woman is wearing Angolese panos, the man is dressed in a European suit and shoes. The appropriate object on the table in the studio was a boat. Collection Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, RVA274-67.

Around the turn of the century, social relations in Angola transformed, leading to the subordination of the ‘filhos da terra’. Portuguese planters and administrators who failed to achieve economic and social development ascribed this to the ‘inherent barbarism’ of Africans. In their perspective, modernizing Angola equaled increasing the white population. As a consequence, the white population of Angola tripled between 1900-1930. Furthermore, a new, racially differentiated wage system was established, along with a limit for the number of Africans that could be employed in the civil service. Hence, being white became a prerequisite for positions of authority in the colonial administration. 10. By 1920 the Euro-African elite had been excluded from the administration of the colony and public life. 11

José Augusto da Cunha Moraes, Portrait of a mother and daughter, ca. 1870. The girl is holding a missal in her hand and wearing shoes, an important marker of ‘civilization’. Collection Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, RVA274-64.

  1. Jill R.Dias, ‘Photographic sources for the history of Portuguese-speaking Africa, 1870-1914’, History in Africa 18 (1991) 67-82, 68.
  2. Jacopo Corrado, ‘The fall of a Creole Elite? Angola at the turn of the twentieth century: the decline of the Euro-African urban community’, Luso-Brazilian Review 47/2 (2010) 100-119, 102.
  3. Corrado, ‘The fall of a Creole elite?’, 101.
  4. Timothy J. Coates, Convict labor in the Portuguese Empire 1740-1932. Redefining the Empire with forced labor and new imperialism (Leiden 2014) 11.
  5. Coates, Convict labor, 30.
  6. David Birmingham, A short history of modern Angola (Oxford 2015) 22.
  7. Birmingham, A short histoy of modern Angola, 23.
  8. Dias, ‘ Photographic sources’, 68.
  9. Corrado, ‘The fall of a Creole Elite?’, 102; Birmingham, A short history of modern Angola, 23.
  10. Rosa Williams, ‘Migration and miscegenation: maintaining boundaries of whiteness in the narratives of the Angolan colonial state 1875-1912’, in: Philip J. Havik & M.D. D Newitt (eds.) Creole societies in the Portuguese Colonial Empire (Newcastle upon Tyne 2015) 27-141, 134.
  11. Corrado, ‘The fall of a Creole Elite?’ 106.