The enclave's relationship with foreign powers in the 19th century informs much of the current dialogue with central authority in Luanda
Cabinda gets its name from Mafu-Ka Binda, a prosperous trader who represented the interests of the Kongo Kingdom many centuries ago in the area north of the mouth of the River Congo.
According to local legend, Cabinda gained some autonomy from the kingdom during a turbulent period in the history of the royal family. A powerful Bakongo queen, Muam Poenha, angered the king and was therefore expelled from the court at M'Banza Kongo. She fled with her triplets to the kingdom's Ngoio principality, and married a local nobleman. When he had calmed down, the Kongo king divided up part of his territory between the triplets, and one of these areas, Ngoio, later became Cabinda.
In the 15th century, the Portuguese explorer Diogo Cao arrived in Ngoio (Cabinda). The Portuguese king, Joao II, ordered him to mark Portugal's presence by erecting a large stone monument on the territory. Diogo Cao exchanged gifts with the Kongo King, and the trust that grew between the two men allowed for the development of a strong trading relationship, the principal commodity being slaves.
Cabinda became one of the most important trading stations on the West African coast with slaves being brought from the interior, loaded onto Portuguese vessels and carried across the Atlantic to Europe, Brazil and Sao Tome. European documents surviving from the 16th and 17th centuries refer to a thriving port near the mouth of the River Congo, named variously as Cabinde, Cabenda, Kapinda or Kabinda.
Relations between the Portuguese and the Bakongo of Cabinda remained strong for many centuries. In 1758, King Mambuco Puna formalized this relationship by issuing a royal decree declaring that Portugal had exclusive trading rights in the area, banning all other foreigners from conducting commercial activities in Cabinda. The decree stated that the only foreign power recognized by the Kongo King was that of Portugal.
By this period, the British and French had also established trading stations in Cabinda, and British naval ships were anchored at the port. King Mambuco Puna issued an ultimatum to the British, demanding the withdrawal of the battleships because he said he did not recognize them. In turn, the British refused to accept that Portugal had exclusive trading rights in the area.
However, Britain began to change its policy towards Portugal once the real scramble for Africa began. Other European powers started to stake claims in the area where the River Congo met the Atlantic Ocean, alarming those who had already established profitable bases in the region.
Ironically, it was an Englishman with a close relationship to King Leopold II of Belgium who caused great trouble for the British and their territorial ambitions in Africa. He was Henry Morton Stanley, a flamboyant adventurer who made the treacherous journey up from the mouth of the River Congo to Stanley Pool deep inland, signing treaties with the native population on behalf of the Belgian king.
France was also making similar inroads into the heart of Africa. Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza made a similar journey to that of Stanley, travelling inland along the Congo River and founding the town of Brazzaville in what is now Congo-Brazzaville. This not only alarmed Portugal and Britain but also Stanley and the Belgians because de Brazza had planted the French flag just across the river from where the Belgians had staked a claim to Leopoldville, which was to become their future colonial capital.
Britain decided the only way to deal with the French and the Belgians was to strike a deal with Portugal. In 1884, the two countries signed the Treaty of Zaire in London, which recognized Portuguese sovereignty over Cabinda but granted Britain certain privileges in the territory. This angered other European powers anxious for a piece of the African pie, prompting Prince Otto von Bismarck of Germany to hold a conference in Berlin to carve up Africa. Portugal lost out during the Berlin Conference of 1884. The enclave of Cabinda was all that was left of their territorial claims north of the River Congo.
The people of Cabinda were greatly alarmed by the Conference of Berlin, realizing that their future was being decided without any local consultation. In 1885, Cabindan dignitaries assembled in Simulambuco, and prepared a petition requesting Portuguese protection, but insisting upon their territorial integrity and demanding that the authority of regional chiefs be
In 1887, Joao de Brissac das Neves Ferreira was installed as the first Portuguese governor in Cabinda. The territory was governed as a separate colony until 1956 when it was incorporated into Angola. From that time on, it came under the direct authority of the Portuguese Governor General of Angola.
Some Cabindans accepted that the Portuguese would govern them as part of the Angolan colonial administration but they always viewed their land as an autonomous territory. Cabinda was administratively linked to Angola from 1956, but it remained geographically, linguistically and ethnically separate. Cabinda's natural geographical and ethnic links lay with what are now Congo-Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Despite the fact that many Cabindans felt that their geographical separation from Angola gave them the right to fight for self-determination, a spirit of Angolan nationalism developed in the enclave during the late 1950s. Cabindans were caught up in the anti-colonialist fervor, and many of them joined the war of independence against the Portuguese.
Although Cabindans feel a strong sense of regional identity, many of them have become important political figures in Angola and even in Congo-Brazzaville. For example, the Cabindan Santana Andre Pitra (or Petrov), served as Angola's interior minister, and even led negotiations about the future of Cabinda on behalf of the Angolan central government. Another Cabindan, Pedro Maria Tonha, served as defense minister in Angola, even when the country was fighting against an insurrection by Cabindan separatists. The current Angolan ambassadors in London and Canada, Antonio da Costa Fernandes and Miguel Nzau Puna, are both Cabindans. To make things even more complicated, they are also both former members of UNITA.
Cabindans have a paradoxical and complex relationship with central authority, and their struggle for independence is full of contradictions. Their history shows that despite the fact that they have always insisted upon their territorial integrity, they have ever been at the whim of larger external powers.