Angola is a large nation in South Africa, bordered by Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of the Congo, and Namibia. The country is nearly 500,000 square miles (1.3 million square km) in size, ranking 23rd in the world. It is fairly sparsely populated, however, with only about 16 million inhabitants.
Angola has been inhabited for thousands of years, with remains of humans dating back to the Stone Age. Approximately two-thousand years ago, Bantu people moved into Angola, perhaps completely replacing the existing population. Angola’s population then remained fairly static until the end of the 15th century.
In the late 1400s the Portuguese reached the Congo River, in what was then the Kingdom of Kongo, and is now Angola. The Portuguese began subjugating Angola, and continued in this campaign for nearly a century before they were devastated by a local king who had been convinced by a Portuguese man that Portugal ultimately wished to rule over his entire kingdom. This war continued for decades, until a tenuous peace was achieved at the beginning of the 17th century. Portugal continued to rule Angola for the next few centuries, with brief periods of struggle when the Dutch, French, and British refused to acknowledge their control of the territory.
The slave trade played a pivotal role in Angola’s later history, with many coastal towns flourishing as the demand for slaves increased in the New World. For many years Angola was the main source of slaves for both Brazil and the United States — two of the largest buyers of slaves in the world during that time.
When slavery began to be abolished in various countries, the economy of Angola suffered, and a period of rapid agricultural development followed. Even after Portugal banned slavery and slaving, however, it continued to live on in parts of Angola for many years. Even in the early part of the 20th century slaving still took place to some extent in the remote inner reaches of the country. This slave system gradually changed into a system of effective slavery, with heavily indentured forced labor playing an enormous role in the agricultural system of Angola until it was formally abolished in the 1960s.
Throughout much of Africa in the 1950s, nations which were controlled by Western powers brokered or fought for their own independence. To a large extent, the liberalization of these Western powers aided in this transition of power. Portugal, however, had no such liberal-leaning governments, with both the Caetano and Salazar dictatorships refusing to recognize any independence movements.
Beginning in 1961, three strong independence movements had formed in violent opposition to the Portuguese occupation: the MPLA, the FNLA, and the UNITA. The MPLA was largely Marxist, the FNLA was controlled primarily by tribal groups, and the UNITA was a Maoist organization. When Portugal’s government changed drastically in the mid-1970s, power was handed over to a coalition of these three opposition parties, all of which immediately began fighting in an enormous civil war. Various factions drew support from the world superpowers, with the Soviet Union and Cuba backing the MPLA, and the United States backing the FNLA and UNITA.
This horrific civil war continued for decades, with more than a million people directly killed by the fighting. It was not until 2002 that a lasting peace was finally achieved, with the various revolutionary factions having transformed into legitimate political parties, and the nation beginning its slow road to recovery as a democracy. Angola is now the fastest-growing economy in all of Africa, and one of the fastest-growing in the world. What was once a dangerous, uncertain place for visitors has become a tourist haven, and it appears that a lasting stability may be a very real possibility.