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Amílcar Cabral’s life as a Pan-Africanist, anti-colonial revolutionary still inspires

He was a prolific scholar — and also masterminded the end of Portuguese rule in two African nations

- June 20, 2019

Welcome to the sixth annual TMC African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular. Please read along with us this summer!

What can we learn from the life of an anti-colonial revolutionary who died 45 years ago? This week’s African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular review is of “Amílcar Cabral: Nationalist and Pan-Africanist Revolutionary” by Peter Karibe Mendy, a professor of history and Africana studies at Rhode Island College. Come for the lessons on military and diplomatic strategy to win independence during the Cold War — and stay for the decolonial inspiration that remains relevant now.

Amílcar Lopes Cabral was a Pan-Africanist revolutionary and thinker who “masterminded the end of Portuguese rule in Guinea-Bissau and Cabo Verde,” two West African countries that were Portuguese colonies until their independence was recognized in 1974 and 1975, respectively. Cabral was born in Guinea-Bissau of parents from Cabo Verde, went to university in Portugal and was assassinated in Conakry, Guinea, from where he was leading the revolution for independence. Mendy’s biography covers Cabral’s life (1924-1973) and legacy.

The 209-page book is concise and accessible — even if dense with facts about Cabral and about struggles for independence from Portugal more broadly. Readers will learn of the movement in Guinea-Bissau and Cabo Verde and about the broader Pan-African revolution to end colonialism. (The book’s table of contents and introduction are available as a free download here.)

Mendy wrote “Amílcar Cabral” because he was inspired by him. Reading, I was also inspired, in many different ways. Most inspiring, of course, was Cabral’s commitment to and solidarity with “every just cause” in the world. Cabral connected the anti-colonial struggle in Cabo Verde and Guinea-Bissau not just to other independence movements in Portuguese colonies Angola and Mozambique but also to the Vietnam War and Palestinian statehood.

How Cabral pursued his everyday life and career was also inspiring. As an academic, I am impressed by the sheer volume of his published research as an agronomist. As Mendy writes, “within a decade of his first publication on rainfall in Cabo Verde in 1949, his published writings on agronomy and agriculture totaled about sixty works.” Keep in mind that Cabral researched, wrote and published his scholarly work as he was starting a family and sowing the seeds of his revolution for independence across what was then Portuguese Africa.

As an American who grew up during the Cold War, I found the book particularly instructive about that period. Mendy’s book gave specific details about U.S. support of Portugal’s continued colonial rule in Africa. Portugal was strategically important to the United States during the Cold War, offering a prime location to monitor Soviet submarines. And so for air power to fight the anti-colonial resistance movement in Africa, Portugal relied on U.S. jets that had been supplied for NATO deployment in Europe.

Mendy also wrote about Cabral’s Pan-African solidarity with the struggles of African Americans for civil and political rights. For example, Mendy wrote about Cabral’s address after the Watts Rebellion, when Cabral said, “We are with the blacks of the United States of America, we are with them in the streets of Los Angeles, and when they are deprived of all possibility of life, we suffer with them.”

While the book’s subject could seem dated, “Amílcar Cabral” is important and relevant today. As Mendy writes:

Mendy offers a list of Cabral’s works published in English for readers who want to learn more about Cabral’s political ideology in his own words. These include “Revolution in Guinea: An African People’s Struggle” (1969), “Our People Are Our Mountains: Amílcar Cabral on the Guinean Revolution” (1971) and the posthumously published “Unity and Struggle: Speeches and Writings of Amílcar Cabral” (1975). I found Mendy’s biography so compelling that I’ll be adding these to my end-of-summer reading list.

“Amílcar Cabral” is part of the Ohio Short Histories of Africa series published by Ohio University Press. Books from the series have earned positive reviews in earlier summers, including three books on African presidents Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (Liberia), Thabo Mbeki (South Africa) and Julius Nyerere (Tanzania), as well as the biography of Nigerian environmental and political activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. The Ohio series offers inexpensive and accessible introductions to important figures and events in African history, written by experts.

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Previous posts in this year’s series: