Mandume: The African King Who Led an Uprising Against Portuguese Colonial Rule in 1914

Mandume ya Ndemufayo was the last king of the Oukwanyama people, a subgroup of the Ovambo ethnic group in southern Angola and northern Namibia. He is known for leading an uprising against Portuguese colonial rule during World War I.

Mandume: The African King Who Led an Uprising Against Portuguese Colonial Rule in 1914
Mandume ya Ndemufayo

Born in 1894, Mandume inherited a legacy of sovereignty and autonomy as the last king of the Oukwanyama people, a subgroup of the larger Ovambo ethnic group.

The Ovambo people, including the Kwanyama kingdom, had long maintained their independence in Southern Angola until the Berlin Conference of 1884 when everything changed. At this conference, European powers divided the region without considering the wishes of the native people. As a result, the Ovambo territory was split into Portuguese West Africa and German South West Africa, greatly impacting their sovereignty and unity.

Despite this division, Portuguese and German authorities refrained from immediate occupation or administration of the region. The Ovambo ethnic group, including the Kwanyama people, remained largely autonomous and fiercely defended their territory against colonial encroachments.

However, Portuguese ambitions intensified against the Ovambo in the early 20th century, leading to the conquest of Ombandja in 1907. This defeat, coupled with the imposition of colonial rule, sparked widespread discontent among the indigenous population, laying the groundwork for Mandume’s eventual resistance.

Upon ascending to the throne in 1911 at the age of 17 following the death of his father, Nande ya Hedimbi, Mandume faced the hard task of safeguarding his kingdom’s autonomy in the face of Portuguese aggression. Determined to resist foreign influence, he expelled Portuguese traders and Christian missionaries from his kingdom and implemented measures to counter price inflation, aiming to protect his people’s economic interests.

He also refused to acknowledge Portuguese authority over his kingdom and demanded to be on equal terms with the colonial rulers in their distant capitals, challenging the colonial hierarchy that marginalize Africans. His resistance resulted in a full-scale uprising against Portuguese forces, fueled by grievances over colonial exploitation.

In December 1914, amidst the chaos of World War I, Mandume seized the opportunity to challenge Portuguese authority. His forces launched a daring attack on a Portuguese fort in Kafima, signaling the beginning of a prolonged struggle for independence. The conflict, marked by fierce battles and guerrilla tactics, resulted in significant casualties on both sides.

Mandume: The African King Who Led an Uprising Against Portuguese Colonial Rule in 1914

One notable engagement occurred at Mongua, where Mandume’s forces clashed with Portuguese troops in a three day battle. Despite inflicting casualties on the Portuguese, Mandume’s forces were eventually forced to retreat due to a lack of supplies. The Portuguese, astonished by the Ovambo’s military capabilities, started claiming that German forces were helping the Ovambo because it was unimaginable to them that Africans were able to wage war like Europeans. According to historian René Pélissier, the battle of Mongua represents “the largest direct engagement ever fought by a European colonizer against a Negro-African power or state south of the Sahara since the Ethiopian victory against the Italians”.

On September 2, 1915, Portuguese forces captured Mandume’s capital, N’giva, marking a significant setback for the Oukwanyama resistance. Forced to relocate his capital to Oihole, Mandume continued launching attacks from his new stronghold in South West Africa.

Amid the chaos of war, South African forces, aligned with the Allied powers, seized the opportunity to seize control over German South West Africa. With Germany’s defeat, the administration of the territory fell under the jurisdiction of the Union of South Africa, a dominion within the British Empire.

The peaceful conquest of German South West Africa by South African forces had profound implications for Mandume and his resistance movement. It altered the geopolitical landscape of the region, placing additional pressure on Mandume’s efforts to maintain the sovereignty of the Oukwanyama kingdom.

Mandume: The African King Who Led an Uprising Against Portuguese Colonial Rule in 1914
A dead Mandume next to South African soldiers.

As the war dragged on, Mandume found himself not only battling Portuguese forces but also contending with South African troops, who sought to assert control over the region. Mandume’s refusal to submit to foreign domination ultimately led to his demise in a confrontation with South African forces in February 1917 at the age of 23. The circumstances of his death remain a subject of debate, with some accounts suggesting he fell in battle, while others claim he chose to take his own life rather than surrender to the South African troops.

Today Mandume ya Ndemufayo’s is remembered as a courageous leader who fought tirelessly to defend his people’s rights and sovereignty, and is honoured as a national hero in both Angola and Namibia.

Mr Madu
Mr Madu
Mr Madu is a freelance writer, a lover of Africa and a frequent hiker who loves long, vigorous walks, usually on hills or mountains.

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