On Afro-European Military history and why Europe Failed to colonise Africa for four centuries

By Isaac Samuel

In Jared Diamond’s controversial book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, the African-European warfare doesn’t receive as much mention as that in the Americas, except for offering conjectural analysis and a very biased interpretation on what he thought were one sided encounters and easy victories for the Europeans.

He states that in 1498, Vasco Da Gama came to Kilwa and with his superior weaponry consisting of a “fleet bristling with cannons compelled the surrender of east-Africa’s most important port -Kilwa”. Diamond cuts the story short because the ultimate defeat of the Portuguese would spoil his narrative of European superiority, in a book that has been termed by some historians as a more politically correct version aimed at justifying European imperialism by switching the source of the superiority from the white Europeans (white supremacy) the lands they were lucky to call home (geographic determinism). 

Jared Diamond’s book is only the most popular in a long line of books that peddle this facile narrative of the overwhelming superiority of European technology that enabled them to rapidly colonise vast lands outside their home with ease.

The story – as most Europeans and the Portuguese themselves then knew- is different. In Europe’s four centuries of relationship with Africa, its constant attempts to gain any sizeable territory in the interior ended in a humiliating disaster.

First, let us complete Jared’s Kilwa story. In the late 15th century, the east-African port cities founded and populated by the Bantu-speaking Swahili had been in a slow decline for reasons beyond the scope of this article, and while the famous port cities were centralised and prosperous they were relatively small (barely exceeding 10,000 each in the 16th century) and weak, compared to the interior kingdoms in the Zimbabwe plateau (as Van Allen explains), whose gold they traded with along the Indian ocean. With no fortifications and previous experience with large-scale warfare, unlike the former, they were taken-over following an intense bombardment from the Portuguese who controlled them for about six decades before their indirect rule became exploitative. 

When the Swahili sultan of Mombasa – Yusuf Bin Hassan (previously exiled to Goa after the Portuguese had killed his father and converted him to Christianity including giving him a Portuguese wife) rebelled, renouncing Christianity in the process, and sought an Ottoman alliance, the latter sent commander Ali Beg down who expelled the Portuguese although only briefly, as a stateless people from the interior called the Zimba joined forces with the Portuguese and they forced the Ottoman troops out. The tide would turn again as the Swahili, having formed an alliance with another stateless people called the Majikenda in the interior and the Omanis from Arabia, forced the Portuguese out again, culminating in the siege of Mombasa in 1696. Here, some of the Portuguese that remained at fort Jesus starved to death. 

The Swahili would soon thereafter force their Omani allies out through an alliance with the Portuguese in the early 18th century after which the Swahili were briefly able to rule their cities independently. This marked the end of Portuguese control of the port cities. 

An even better example of the Europeans’ failed foray into the African interior was their failure to colonise the Kingdom of Kongo of which historian John Thornton’s work has been an invaluable source especially being one of the first African historians to dispel the myth of the superiority of European armies in the African interior.

Most history books on Africa’s history often only mention (or mostly highlight) the battle of Mbumbi -which was the first Luso-Kongolse military engagement that ended with a short-lived Portuguese victory in December 1622, when just one month later in January 1623, at the battle of Mbanda Kasi, the Portuguese were later defeated after a short and relatively easy battle by the Kongo King Pedro II. This battle was seldom mentioned by the Portuguese for obvious reasons.

Still not satisfied with their loss, the Portuguese engaged again, this time with the famous Queen Njinga of neighbouring Kingdoms of Ndogo and Matamba and after a series of well-matched battles which culminated with the battle of Kombi where in October 1647, she decisively defeated them, killing thousands of their soldiers and allies and ending their ambitions in her territory.

Yet again the Portuguese were undeterred in their attempt to colonise west-central Africa and just two years after Njinga’s defeat, they turned their guns on Kongo and defeated the Kongolese army at the battle of Mbilwa in October 1665 (another battle that’s highlighted in history books). They thereafter decapitated their King António I, the Bakongo would emerge from this devastating blow just five years later in October 1670 and with just one small province of Soyo (out of dozens of Kongo empire’s provinces) decisively defeated the Portuguese in the battle of Kitombo, massacring the Portuguese army and their dreaded Imbangala allies with such ferocity the few Portuguese who survived drowned in the river while attempting to escape Soyo’s wrath. Their allies were slaughtered and the few Portuguese captured were offered for sale to the Dutch as white slaves (with the hope that they would fetch more money). When the Dutch didn’t buy them, these prisoners of war were beheaded and their heads hung on stakes on Kongo’s roads. This marked the Portuguese’s last attempt to colonise the unyielding and proud Bakongo and for the next two and a half centuries until 1914, they’d be no major military engagement between the Portuguese and the Bakongo.

15th cent. Portuguse cannon from Benin city, Nigeria at the British museum -one of several cannons bought and used by the Ddo soldiers some of which were locally made immitations

Another series of military engagements that ended with the humiliating defeats of European armies were the Portuguese-Mwenemutapa-Rozvi wars in the 17th century.

Following a series of successive disputes which stemmed from the decline of  the Mwenemutapan empire, whose gold trade with the aforementioned Swahili had allowed it to thrive and expand its territory across the Zimbabwe plateau, earlier Portuguese military expeditions into Mutapa in the 1569 and 1577 had ended in failure even before reaching the actual state. 

The Portuguese would later overthrow King Nyambu Kapararidze in 1623 who then led a rebellion to recapture the throne but was defeated in 1631. The Portuguese would later claim that any African state would be taken with a few hundred musketeers (a statement Jared Diamond would be proud of even though the army actually numbered over 12,000 not a few hundred). They then joined forces with one of the claimants to the throne King Mavhura in 1629 allowing the Portuguese to establish a number of towns in the state and for four decades Mutapa was a Portuguese vassal. This was reversed with King Kamharapasu Mukombwe’s ascent to the throne in 1663. He launched a series of battles against the Portuguese, successfully driving them out of Mutapa. Soon thereafter, another state, led by Changamire, rose from Mutapa’s fringes. His ambitions set him against the Portuguese in 1684 at the battle of Mahungwe in which his army, using only spears and bows, defeated the Portuguese decisively, forcing them to flee and allowing the victorious Changamire to capture arms and other goods they had  left behind -many of which were kept at his impressive dry-stone capitals of Dholo-Dholo and Naletale (they were recently excavated). This battle marked the last attempt at a military engagement in south-eastern Africa by Europeans for two centuries and even though they were defeated and relegated to a few ports on the Mozambique coastline, the Portuguese would continue to boast in vain of how a few hundred musketeers could take an African kingdom.

These aren’t the only examples of how African armies routinely defeated European armies in the first three and a half centuries of the four centuries of Euro-African military engagements. There would be several European defeats starting with the Senegambian archers who on numerous occasions, defeated the Portuguese, Spanish and English navy’s incursions between the late 15th and early 18th century. 

The Ajuran-Ottoman alliance forced the Portuguese out of Somalia, and other more recent examples in the 19th century like the century long Anglo-Asante wars where the British army – then at the height of its power – was handed several defeats by the Asante empire. 

The decades long Franco-Wassoulou wars, Anglo-Buganda, Anglo-Bunyoro, Anglo-Sokoto, Anglo-Zulu, Franco-Dahomey wars and several others proved time and time again that the African armies fiercely fought to maintain their independence.

It wasn’t until the second industrial revolution, in the late 19th century, that  Europeans began to produce more efficient arms like the maxim gun which in turn was prevented from falling into African hands as a result of the Berlin conference embargo – combined with the conferences’ resolve for a more orderly foreign policy that prevented African states from pitting European armies against each other – that the Europeans would turn the tide and win more permanent victories in the African interior. Even then, they wouldn’t pacify these African kingdoms until the start of the twentieth century when colonialism; a six decade affair in five centuries of afro-European relations- formally began.

Asante Soldier with a gun in 1888, BM Archives

To conclude, Europeans failed outright in their initial three-centuries long attempt at colonising Africa. And this is not due to disease as many were settled in the ports along the entire coast of sub-saharan Africa including a small coastal colony called Angola which the Portuguese settled in their thousands. They also had several forts in the Asante and Dahomey coastal territory and hundreds more settled in the Senegambia and Mozambique. These numbers do not include a few ambassadors who settled in the kingdoms of Dahomey and Ethiopia allowing Africans to purchase guns which were bought as early as the 16th century by several empires including the Kanem Bornu empire, Ethiopian empire, Benin empire. In the 17th Century most of the kingdoms in the Sahel and eastern africa and in the 18th Century, virtually all major African kingdoms bought guns (see Thorton) to such an extent that the African armies often had more guns – albeit older models – than the Europeans they were fighting against. 

The Europeans often encountered strong African armies, as a result, and the battles were often well matched. It wasn’t until a combined arms embargo, co-ordinated foreign policy and the manufacture of better guns in the 1880s that the Europeans would be able to defeat and pacify African armies.


Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
By Jared M. Diamond

Navigating the Early Modern World: Swahili Polities and the Continental-Oceanic Interface Jeremy Prestholdt in The Swahili World by Stephanie Wynne-Jones

Swahili Origins: Swahili Culture & the Shungwaya Phenomenon
Book by J. de V. Allen

The Art of War in Angola, 1575-1680
Early Kongo-Portuguese Relations: A New Interpretation
Warfare in Atlantic Africa, 1500-1800
John K. Thornton

Portuguese Musketeers on the Zambezi
Richard Gray

African Military History
edited by John Lamphear

The Fall of the Asante Empire: The Hundred-Year War for Africa’s Gold Coast
Robert B. Edgerton

European Hegemony and African Resistance, 1880-1990
Front Cover
Charles Ohiri Chikeka

Show More

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