The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

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Cabral, Amílcar (1924–1973)

  • Vipan Pal SinghEmail author
Living reference work entry


Amílcar Lopes Cabral was an African intellectual revolutionary trained in Portuguese Marxism, who made a significant contribution to the independence movement of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde islands.

Amílcar Lopes Cabral was an African intellectual revolutionary trained in Portuguese Marxism, who made a significant contribution to the independence movement of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde islands. In his monumental Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction, Robert J.C. Young says: ‘From the perspective of African Socialism … the greatest figure of those who were forced to resort to violence in order to achieve liberation was from neither a Francophone nor an Anglophone, but a Lusophone culture: Amilcar Cabral’ (2003: 283). Born in Bafat, Guinea Bissau on 12 September 1924, Cabral attained his elementary education in Infante Don Henrique primary school in the town of Mindelo, Cape Verde. His father, Juvenal Cabral, was a mulatto from the Cape Verde islands. The people of Cape Verde archipelago, unlike those of Guinea Bissau, were mulattos whom the Portuguese assimilated with their hegemonic cultural practices.

Growing up under Portuguese colonialism, Cabral experienced at first hand the oppression of the common masses of Cape Verde. The colonial regime of Portugal’s fascist dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar created a virtual hell for the working classes of Cape Verde. This was the time when the seeds of revolution started germinating in young Cabral. He assumed the name Labrac, and began his political activities of resistance during his school days. Cabral graduated from the University of Lisbon in 1950 as a colonial Agronomy engineer. During university days, he founded revolutionary student movements and proposed active resistance to the ruling dictatorship of Portugal. In Lisbon he met several African students from Mozambique and Angola and inculcated the ideas of Third-World nationalism in them. Among these students were: Agostinho Neto and Mario de Andrade, two of the future founders of the Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), a guerrilla organisation which from 1956 onwards would fight for independence from Portugal; Vasco Cabral, who was later to join the PAIGC (African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde) and become the economic minster of Guinea-Bissau; Eduardo Mondlane, later leader of the Front for the Liberation and Independence of Mozambique. These students established the Centre for African Studies (CAS) at the home of Alda Espirito Santo, a rich man from Sao Tome. CAS was a loose colloquium of students who conducted weekly seminars on African history and politics. These young Africans often meditated over the fact that while many colonial powers were anticipating the disintegration of their empires, the Portuguese were consolidating their hold over their African empire. By 1951, CAS came under the scanner of the Portuguese authorities. Fearing persecution at the hands of Portuguese security forces, Cabral and his associates disbanded the colloquium.

After the completion of his degree, Cabral returned to Africa in 1952 and became an iconic figure for the movements which sought liberation of the Portuguese colonies in Africa. Cabral joined the colonial Provincial Department of Agricultural and Forestry Services of Portuguese Guinea, and travelled extensively across the country. The pathetic condition of Guineans living under colonial rule kindled revolutionary thoughts in the mind of young Cabral. While serving the Agricultural and Forestry Service in Guinea-Bissau, he came into intimate contact with the local masses. He went to villages far and wide and made peaceful efforts to make the people aware of their exploitation at the hands of the coloniser. However, this incited the Portuguese administration of Guinea-Bissau, and Cabral was forced to leave his job. He went to Angola, joined the Movimento Popular Libertacao de Angola (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola or MPLA), and with the help of revolutionaries like Antonio Agostinho Neto, made this movement instrumental in the revolutionary practices within the country. Cabral’s political concerns provoked the colonial administrators, and he was exiled to Portugal. He was given permission to visit his mother annually. It was the phase of an epistemological shift in the theory and praxis of young Cabral. He abandoned the peaceful path of liberation and looked upon armed struggle as the only hope for independence. On 19 September 1956, on one of two subsequent visits to Guinea, Cabral founded the Partido Africano da Independencia da Guine e Cabo Verde (African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, PAIGC). He led the guerrilla movement of PAIGC against the colonial Portuguese government in Portuguese Guinea and Cape Verde. The goal of this conflict was to capture territory from the Portuguese. With the help of Kwame Nkrumah, Cabral set up training camps in Ghana and, besides training his lieutenants in guerrilla warfare, trained them in effective communication skills that would enable them to muster the support of Guinean tribal chiefs for PAIGC.

In 1960, Cabral attended the Second Conference of African Peoples in Tunis, and the same year during a visit to Canakry he established the party headquarters of PAIGC at the Guinean capital. For co-ordinating liberation struggle against the Portuguese empire in Africa, Cabral facilitated the formation of the Conference of Nationalist Organisations of the Portuguese Colonies (CONCP), a joint front comprising PAIGC, the Liberation Front of Mozambique (FRELIMO) and Angola’s MPLA. Cabral actively started inculcating the revolutionary ideology in the minds of his followers, so that a violent struggle might be launched in the near future to liberate Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde archipelago from the Portuguese clutches. He established training camps in the Republic of Guinea and in Senegal, both of which had recently got freedom from France. The first PAIGC-led offensive against the Portuguese began in March 1962, and severely hit Praia, the capital of Cape Verde. However, PAIGC cadres were logistically inferior to the Portuguese military and this forced the PAIGC leadership to avoid a direct armed struggle on the Cape Verde Islands. Cabral suggested guerrilla warfare and on 23 January 1963 PAIGC forces clandestinely attacked the Portuguese formations at Trite fortress in the southern part of Guinea-Bissau. Cabral, as the secretary-general of PAIGC, was the guiding spirit behind the armed liberation struggle against the atrocious Portuguese colonial regime, and trounced vastly superior Portuguese forces supported by NATO, the US, Spain, and South Africa.

Cabral emphasised the role of culture in resisting the repressive forces of Portuguese colonialism and asserted that the psychological and social reconstruction of the colonised was the foundational premise for the armed struggle against the coloniser. Cabral believed that the national fight for liberation enabled the marginal human beings, who were dehumanised by colonialism, to recover their personalities as Africans. This regional assertion was more than a mere local issue and in a broader perspective it was a challenge to Eurocentric theories. The PAIGC was a revolutionary movement firmly grounded in the social reality of Guinea. It was revolutionary precisely because its guiding framework was drawn from the indigenous circumstances. Cultural assertion and psychological reconstruction, for Cabral, were the processes integral to the cause and effect of the struggle for national liberation. Robert Young succinctly sums up the anti-imperialist oeuvre of Cabral in these words:

His work stands out for the ways in which he extends his analyses from the practicalities of the creation of resistance movements, to the military strategies involved, to the vanguard role of the party in the formation of anti-colonial unity, to the forms by which cultural identity and dignity – [as] essential components of the liberatory process – can be asserted. (285)

At the First Tricontinental Conference of the Peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, held in Havana in January 1966, Cabral delivered his lecture under the title of ‘The Weapon of Theory’ (1966). Rejecting the universalised model of the Bolshevik Revolution, Cabral emphasised that national and social liberation was the outcome of ‘local and national elaboration ... essentially determined and formed by the historical reality of each people’ (Cabral 1969: 74–75). Cabral had first-hand knowledge of the situation in Guinea-Bissau, which he had gained during broad agricultural research for the Forestry Department. This was the period when he assembled detailed information about the cultural and material life of various ethnic groups and their interpersonal relations within Guinea-Bissau, and a deep understanding of the ground realities faced by the peasantry, especially the land-tilling women. Cabral was deeply conscious of promoting an ideological apparatus for the liberation movements, oriented towards the dialectics of ‘foundations and objectives of national liberation in relation to the social structure’ (Cabral 1969: 75). Robert Young judiciously says in this context: ‘It was to be Cabral himself who would formulate the fullest realization of a workable African socialism’ (2003: 246). Political liberation, for Cabral, was incomplete if it didn’t accompany a severe setback to the ‘imperialist domination on the social structure and historical processes of our peoples’ (Cabral 1969: 81). His emphasis on culture as an essential tool of resistance to the foreign domination inspired future revolutionaries throughout the world.

Cabral accentuated the necessity of giving due consideration to the internal stratification of the colonised nations, where each class had different interests in relation to the metropole. This was because Cabral could envisage the tentacles of neo-colonialism looming large on the continent. The influence of Mao Zedong, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro is clearly visible in these words of Cabral: ‘the principal aspect of national liberation struggle is the struggle against neo-colonialism’ (83). Cabral’s ‘Weapon of Theory’ is not just aimed at ending the colonial rule, but takes the end of foreign domination as the ultimate target. An independent nation, according to him, can either become a victim of neocolonialism, or take a turn towards socialism. Cabral redefined the goal of revolution in his two-pronged agenda of defeating the colonial power and bringing a violent social revolution, which could be realised by giving equal emphasis to the material as well as social and cultural aspects of revolution. He differentiated liberation from independence and argued for the pursuit of liberation from neo-colonialism: ‘the neo-colonial situation (in which the working classes and their allies struggle simultaneously against the imperialist bourgeoisie and the native ruling class) is not resolved by a nationalist solution; it demands the destruction of the capitalist structure implanted in the national territory by imperialism, and correctly postulates a socialist solution’ (86). Complete liberation, according to Cabral, could only be achieved if national revolution cultivated the ground for a social revolution.

Cabral was of the firm belief that the petty bourgeoisie benefited from colonialism but were never completely incorporated into the colonial system, and because of this ambivalent position only a small fragment of this class was revolutionary. Trapped in the conflict between colonial culture and the colonised culture, the petty bourgeoisie had no coherent interest in carrying out the revolution. Cabral was conscious of this weakness:

In fact history has shown that whatever the role – sometimes important – played by the individuals coming from the petite bourgeoisie in the process of a revolution, this class has never possessed political control. And it could never possess it, since political control (the state) is based on the economic capacity of ruling class, and in the conditions of colonial and neocolonial society this capacity is retained by two entities: imperialist capital and the native working class. (Chabal 1983: 176)

About the role of the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie in the liberation struggle, Cabral echoed the words of Lenin by concluding that the ruling classes never voluntarily give up their power: ‘the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie must be capable of committing suicide as a class in order to be reborn as revolutionary workers, completely identified with the deepest aspirations of the people to which they belong’ (Cabral 1969: 89). He asserted that the fundamental step in the liberatory praxis of a nation was the recognition of the link between the colonised elites and the coloniser at the level of culture and acculturation. The hegemonic culture of the colonisers suppressed the ability of the colonised elites to construct an identity free from colonial determination.
Cabral felt that their people were at a specific historical stage, which was characterised by the backward conditions of their economy. He believed that the anti-colonial struggle was not only aimed at liberating the colonised people from the sufferings and miserable conditions of their lives, but also aimed at restoring the right of Africans to write and narrate their own history, which had been denied to them by the colonialists. In Revolution in Guinea, Cabral aptly says:

The colonialists usually say that it was they who brought us into history: today we show that this is not so. They made us leave history, our history, to follow them, right at the back, to follow the progress of their history. Today, in taking up arms to liberate ourselves, in following the example of other peoples who have taken up arms to liberate themselves, we want to return to our history, on our own feet, by our own means and through our own sacrifices. (63)

Laying stress on the education and indoctrination of his comrades, Cabral urged: ‘Oblige every responsible and educated member of our Party to work daily for the improvement of their cultural formation’ (71). He equally emphasised the need to educate women, who could play a vital role in the liberation struggle. According to Cabral, the germ of the liberation struggle was encapsulated in the endurance and revival of culture, defined as ‘simultaneously the fruit of a people’s history and a determinant of history’ (Cabral 1974: 41–43). He claimed that people could reclaim their own history only through the optimum realisation of their own culture, which he considered an indispensable tool for the masses to confront the foreign domination. Cabral believed that liberation meant personal and active commitment. Basil Davidson aptly says in this context:

Liberation … had to mean an active and personal commitment to a process – perhaps above all, in Cabral’s concept, a cultural process – for the advancement of which a mere sympathy or ‘support’ could never be enough. With whatever shortcomings, this commitment which Cabral asked of those who followed him was the central project of his discourse, the measure of his originality. (1989: 136)

Re-contextualising the Marxist discourse that history began with class struggle, Cabral argued that the driving force of history was dependent on the mode of production instead of on class struggle. The emphasis on the cultural-historical dimension of the liberation struggle forms the crux of his philosophical oeuvre. In contrast to the Marxist presumption that history began with class struggle and hence the peoples of Asia, Africa, and America were living beyond history before colonialism, Cabral appropriated the Althusserian model and developed a new inclusive historical model within a continued Marxist framework.

Cabral’s undogmatic left-oriented analyses of the ground realities of the colony has affinities with the Gramscian model of combining theoretical ingenuity and local knowledge with emphasis on culture in the nationalist struggle for emancipation. Throughout the period of the liberation struggle in South Africa, Cabral epitomised the hope of African people for recovery and restoration. The war of liberation led by Cabral in the Portuguese colonies of Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau ended with the declaration of their independence by the Portuguese government in October 1974. Unfortunately, Cabral did not live to see independence, as he fell victim to a coup in 1973. He was assassinated by a corrupt former PAIGC comrade Kani Inocencio, on behalf of an opposing group that aimed at taking over the leadership of PAIGC. In death, Cabral was honoured at home and abroad. In 1973, the World Peace Council declared the annual Amílcar Cabral Award would be conferred on the individuals and groups who had shown exemplary courage in their struggle against colonialism and imperialism. Cape Verde’s international airport was renamed The Amílcar Cabral International Airport. In 1979, a soccer tournament for the West African countries was renamed the Amílcar Cabral Cup. However, the best tribute echoes in a common saying in Guinea-Bissau ‘Cabral ka muri’ (Cabral is not dead), which invokes the spirit of struggle and sacrifice that Cabral resurrected.


  1. Cabral, A. (1969). Selected texts by Amícar Cabral: Revolution in Guinea. An African People’s struggle. London: Stage 1.Google Scholar
  2. Cabral, A. (1974). Return to the source: Selected speeches. New York: Monthly Review Press.Google Scholar
  3. Chabal, P. (1983). Amílcar Cabral: Revolutionary leadership and People’s war. Cambridge Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Davidson, B. (1989). The fortunate isles: A study in African transformation. New Brunswick: Africa World Press Inc.Google Scholar
  5. Young, R. (2003). Postcolonialism: An historical introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of EnglishSchool of Languages, Literature and Culture, Central University of PunjabPunjabIndia