Amilcar Cabral: Freedom Fighter

Amílcar Cabral
Amilcar Cabral, 1924-1973

Carlos Pinto Santos
Translated by John D. Godinho


1924: Amílcar Cabral is born on September 12, in Bafatá, Guinea. – 1932: Moves to Cabo Verde. – 1943: Finishes secondary schooling in Mindelo, on the island of São Vicente. – 1944: Obtains a job at the National Printing Office, in Praia, the capital of Cape Verde, on São Tiago Island. – 1945: Is awarded a scholarship and begins his studies at the Agronomy Institute, in Lisbon. – 1950: Graduates from the institute and starts working at the Agronomy Center, in Santarém. – 1952: Returns to Bissau under contract with the Agricultural and Forestry Services of Portuguese Guinea. – 1955: The Governor demands that he leave the colony; Cabral goes to work in Angola; he joins the Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). – 1956: The African Party for the Independence of Cape Verde and Guinea (PAIGC) is founded in Bissau. – 1960: The PAIGC establishes a delegation in Conakry, capital of the Republic of Guinea; China gives support to the training of members of the PAIGC. – 1961: Morocco welcomes members of the PAIGC. – 1963: Open warfare breaks out on January 23, with an attack on the military installations at Tite, in southern Guinea-Bissau; the PAIGC sets up a northern battlefront in July. – 1970: Pope Paul VI grants an audience on July 1 to Amílcar Cabral, Agostinho Neto and Marcelino dos Santos. On November 22, the Governor of Guinea-Bissau decides to establish a “commando” operation to which he gives the name of “Mar Verde” (Green Sea), whose goal is to capture or eliminate the leaders of the PAIGC located in Conakry: it fails! – 1973: Amílcar Cabral is assassinated in Conakry on January 20.


Setting: a one-story house, painted white, stands alone at the center of a wide courtyard; a huge mango tree grows in front of the house; a shed used as a garage; the place is in Conakry, capital of the Republic of Guinea, whose president is Séku Turé. Time: 3 o’clock in the morning, January 20, 1973. Action: A car, a VW, is being parked under the shed. Two spotlights focus on the car occupants – Amílcar Cabral and his second wife, Ana Maria. Out of the darkness a stern voice orders that Amílcar be tied up. He struggles and refuses to be subdued. The leader of the raid presses the trigger and hits Amílcar in the region of the liver. Amílcar, crouching on the ground, suggests that they talk. The reply: a burst of machine gun fire aimed at the head of the founder of the PAIGC. Death is immediate. The perpetrators: Inocêncio Kani, the first to shoot, a guerrilla war veteran and former PAIGC navy commander; the others are members of the party, all Guineans.

In other points of the city where the some 500 PAIGC militants are living, the remaining leaders of the party stationed in Conakry are arrested by groups participating in the uprising. Among those arrested are Aristides Pereira, Vasco Cabral, José Araújo. They are all taken to a scouting boat that heads for Bissau. On January 21, Séku Turé receives the leaders of the party uprising at the presidential palace. Everything indicates that he supports Cabral’s assassins. But, surprisingly, the President of Guinea-Conakry gives them no protection. He orders that the conspirators be arrested, instructs the Army to temporarily hold all members of the PAIGC and intercepts the boat that was taking the imprisoned leaders to Bissau. Séku Turé then sets up an international commission to investigate all of these events. Gradually, the old leaders of the PAIGC are granted their freedom. The party’s Superior Council for Liberation decides to go further in the investigation.

From that point on, conclusions are reached fairly quickly because of a web of intrigue, denouncements, accusations and betrayals. Approximately 100 party members are indicted, tried and executed. This number includes the majority of those who participated in the crime. But it also includes a number of innocent people. This type of occurrence is inevitable. The death of Amílcar Cabral, the almost uncontested leader, gives rise to a chain reaction of hatred and passionate reprisals. In such an atmosphere, it is difficult for justice to be impartially served, especially at a time when no one is interested in abating the war against Portuguese colonialism.

The truth is that the assassination brings about no benefits for the Portuguese Army; the guerrillas intensify their activities. As of March 1973, the rebels have a new weapon at their disposal – the ground-to-air missile Stella – which effectively cancels out the air supremacy of the Portuguese armed forces. In May of that year, the Governor of Guinea-Bissau, General António Spínola, advises Joaquim da Silva Cunha, Minister of National Defense, that “…we are getting closer and closer to the possibility of a military collapse.” Then, on September 24, in the forests of Madina do Boé, the PAIGC unilaterally declares the independence of Guinea-Bissau.


Under the dim light of a kerosene lamp, Juvenal Cabral sits at home, in Cape Verde, writing a memorandum to Vieira Machado, Salazar’s minister in charge of colonial affairs.

We are in December of 1941 and the minister is paying a visit to the city of Praia, capital of Cape Verde, on the island of São Tiago. Cabral’s letter reaches the hands of that government official who, most likely, doesn’t read it. Why bother with the opinions of an obscure Cape Verdean elementary school teacher?

Nevertheless, the document is quite significant. In it, Cabral expresses his worries about the drought and the famine ravaging the archipelago and proposes that the minister adopt some policies to improve the situation: locate and harness water sources, establish an intensive reforestation program, protect agriculture, do away with land taxes, create a line of credit for farmers, protect the humble civil servant.

His son, Amílcar, is now 17 and attends high school in Mindelo. He does not yet feel confident enough to help his father in his crusade in favor of Cape Verde. But, through his father, he has been made quite aware, since an early age, of all the problems that affect his country.

By now, Amílcar has an assumed name. He is Larbac. That’s how he signs his love poems: Quando Cupido acerta no alvo (When Cupid Hits the Bull’s-eye), Devaneios (Daydreams), Arte de Minerva (Minerva’s Art), among others. The themes indicate classical influences. His inspiration comes from the poets he studies in school: Gonçalves Crespo, Guerra Junqueiro, Casimiro de Abreu. Amílcar’s lyricism (Larbac is Cabral spelled backwards) is not noted for its originality. It does, however, reveal a romantic sensitivity that is present in his adolescent prose writings, his short stories, annotations and commentaries, where we can already detect a strong awareness of what is happening and a desire to participate in the life of his island world. A while later, in Lisbon, these feelings will become even stronger.


Amílcar Cabral delivering a speech at the University of Rome, upon being granted an honorary degree.

“He was born with politics in his head. He was the son of a politician. Juvenal used to talk to him about averything.” These words are pronounced in 1976, a year before Amílcar’s death, by his mother, Mrs. Iva Pinhel Évora, wife of Juvenal Lopes Cabral.

Memórias e Reflexões (Memories and Reflections), published in 1947 by Amílcar’s father, is a singular book in which the author recollects his life, discusses the problems of his times and the environment in which he lived, describes facts and events that clarify historical developments and shed light on the social origins of the future leader of the PAIGC.

Juvenal is born in Cape Verde in 1889. One of his grandparents is an important landowner. But his fortune doesn’t last long in view of the natural disasters that afflict the islands. His paternal grandfather is a cultured man, also of some means, who names the child Juvenal, after the Latin poet of the same name. Juvenal doesn’t get to know his father, who meets a tragic death when the boy is a mere two months old. At first, the child remains under the care of his grandfather, but later goes to live with his godmother, Simoa Borges, who will pay for his education. First, he studies at the Viseu Seminary, in Portugal. Juvenal is destined for the priesthood. But a prolonged drought at the turn of the century makes it financially impossible to keep him studying there. So, he returns to Cape Verde and, in 1906, we find him studying at the St. Nicolau Seminary. But at the age of 18 he abandons his studies and leaves for Guinea in search of a job. First, he manages to become a civil servant in Bolama and, later, begins his activities as a teacher, even though he has no diploma.

The family is living in Bafatá when Amílcar Cabral is born on September 12, 1924. The birth certificate, however, states that the newborn’s name is Hamílcar, his father’s way of paying homage to the famous Carthaginian Hamílcar Barca.

Simoa, the godmother, dies in 1932 and leaves Juvenal a few tracts of land in Cape Verde. He, his wife Iva and Amílcar return to the islands, where they remain throughout the difficult years of World War II. Under Salazar’s regime, the cost of living soars and goods and supplies become scarce. In 1940, a particularly severe drought causes widespread starvation, resulting in the death of more than 20,000 Cape Verdeans. Then, between 1942 and 1948, a new calamity ravages the islands, killing 30,000 more.

In the meantime, the Portuguese military contingent on the islands has grown considerably, giving rise to innumerable conflicts with the local population and bringing into greater focus the underlying feelings of racism and colonialism. There are practically no public assistance services to relieve the effects of drought and famine. The islands become underpopulated as the result of emigration to S. Tomé and Angola and, later, to América.

Juvenal never remained silent. In 1940, he sends a memorandum to the governor in which, based on historical data, he predicts that there would be a drought in the years to follow. His predictions come true. Later, he will write a document to the minister in charge of colonial affairs. (This terrible period of successive calamities in Cape Verde is masterly described by Manuel Ferreira in his novel Hora di Bai).

This is the atmosphere in which Amílcar Cabral spends his early childhood and adolescent years. If, on one hand, his father gives the example of public conscience and civic engagement, within the limits permitted by Salazar’s fascism, his mother, Iva Évora, on the other, is for young Amílcar an example of love and affection, of family protection and of dedication to her work. Iva labors all day on a sewing machine to help the family overcome, as wel as possible, the many crises they have to face. Later in addition to her activities as a seamstress, she gets a job a in a fish-packing factory. Amílcar’s mother and her capacity for self-sacrifice will serve as an example which he will pass to the young militants of the PAIGC.

At age 20, Amílcar is thoroughly familiar with the degrading living conditions of the Cape Verdean people. He is immersed in political idealism, absolutely convinced that there will be better tomorrows, that there will be inevitable changes in the world through a new order arising out of the post-war chaos.

In high school, Amílcar is a brilliant student and graduates with outstanding grades, 17 out of a possible 18 point total. He leaves for the capital, Praia, where he gets a job as an apprentice at the National Printing Office, while he awaits the result of his application for a scholarship so he can continue his studies. At long last, he leaves for Lisbon in 1945.

The choice of his major studies at college, obviously, reflects his father’s influence: he will become an agricultural engineer.


Amílcar Cabral arrives in Portugal in 1945. This is a year of great hopes and expectations for Portuguese democrats. But such hopes soon vanish when Salazar manages to continue his dictatorial regime with the tacit approval and support of the victors of World War II.

Cabral’s first wife, Maria Helena de Athayde Vilhena Rodrigues, was his classmate at the Agronomy Institute. This is how she describes her first meeting with her future husband, with whom she would have two children, Iva Maria and Ana Luísa. The description was written by Mário de Andrade:

“I met Amílcar during our freshman year at the Agronomy Institute, in 1945. School had begun in November and he arrived in December…I didn’t belong to his group but I remember very well seeing him among the other students. He stood out, since he was the only negro in the group…Amílcar had not taken the college entrance examination…Everybody talked about him…they praised his intelligence and, on top of that, he was very pleasant and easygoing. As far as his political activities were concerned, I remember that my fellow students were gathering signatures in support of democratic movements. Amílcar was actively engaged in these antifascist student organizations. Whenever there was a general meeting, he acted as moderator because he expressed himself so well…In the beginning of our third year, in October, 1948, we were in the same group, which was composed of the last twenty-five students who had passed the examinations.”

Amílcar is remembered by his classmates and friends as a person of contagious energy, a great sense of humor, and an enormous capacity for making friends. He is charming and women are easily attracted to him.

“He was the best dressed and groomed of all of us,” recalls his friend, the journalist Carlos Veiga Pereira.

“My brother could make friends anywhere,” says Luís Cabral, Guinea-Bissau’s first president. In an interview to the newspaper Diário Popular, he revealed that “…It was because of Amílcar’s charm that the soviets gave us the missiles to control the Portuguese Air Force. The Italian tycoon Perelli was his friend and gave us the officer uniforms we used. It was all because of friendship and affection.”

Even having to attend to his studies, his political activities and his romantic affairs, he still found time to practice his favorite sport: soccer.

And, according to the sports columnists, he could have made a career of it, if he had wanted to. His performance with the institute’s football team was so impressive that he was invited to play for Benfica, one of the top teams in Portugal. But Amílcar doesn’t accept the offer and prefers to stick with the informal games at school.

He feels an irresistible calling during his college years, a feeling that affected other Negro students as well: it was necessary to return to Africa. Not only because of his family, which he loves so deeply, but because “…millions of people need my contribution in the hard struggle against nature and against man, himself…There, in Africa, in spite of the beautiful and modern cities on the coast, there are still thousands of human beings who live in the utmost darkness.” In 1949, he writes: “I live life intensely and from life I have extracted experiences that have given me a direction, a road that I must follow, whatever the personal losses that I might come to suffer. That is my reason for living.”

The life he is referring to is lived in Lisbon, at the Agronomy Institute, in the Casa dos Estudantes do Império and through the books that open up horizons for the understanding of the world of his times. One of such books has a fundamental influence: Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie négre et malgache (Anthology of the New Black and Malagasy Poetry), edited by Léopold Sédar Senghor. This book convinces him that “…the Negro is awakening everywhere in the world.” He theorizes on the condition of the Cape Verdean man, the result of the miscegenation of the archipelago’s first inhabitants, black and white. He knows that the number of mestiços (people of mixed races) is already six times that of the whites and three times that of the Negros. From a psychological point of view there is a “Cape Verdean spirit,” a cape-verdeanness. This profession of faith must be brought into harmony with his militancy.

During his fifth year at school, Amílcar returns to the archipelago for a summer vacation. He wants to teach and pass along to his fellow Cape Verdeans all the knowledge at his disposal, whether it be in his special field of studies, soil erosion, or in general culture. He delivers several lectures on the Radio Clube de Cabo Verde, in the city of Praia, covering the soil characteristics of the islands. He recognizes that, despite the difficulties, the economy of Cape Verde is based on agriculture. As such, it is essential that the man in the street be elucidated, be well-informed, be made aware. Amílcar discusses the problems of the elite in Cape Verdean society. There is a need for the creation of an intellectual vanguard that will give the anonymous Cape Verdean citizen all the information about his traditional problems. As he says: “The members of the organization must bring light to those who live in ignorance.”

Such information must travel beyond the borders of Cape Verde and become global in nature so as to be available anywhere in the world. This is Amílcar’s task as a militant: to make Cape Verdeans aware.

But the Portuguese authorities are quick to forbid his access to the radio waves. In the same fashion, they forbid him to give a night course at the Central School, in Praia.

“Make Cape Verdeans aware of Cape Verde,” is a slogan that also reflects what is happening in Angola, where a group of young intellectuals has gathered around the poet Viriato da Cruz and has adopted the motto: “Let’s discover Angola.”

Back in Lisbon, Amílcar makes connections that put him in close contact with other students from the Portuguese colonies. This is a group of young people, members of the urban African lower middle-class, who are conscious of the rebellious feelings against colonialism and who have the advantage of being well-educated and cultured. They are active in the Portuguese democratic youth movement known as MUD Juvenil, the Movement for Peace. As Amílcar Cabral put it, they have an ideal that distinguishes them from the Europeans – it’s: the reafricanization of the spirits.

This search for an identity brings about the creation of the Center for African Studies at the home of the Espírito Santo family (whose most important member is Alda Espírito Santo, a native of S. Tomé). In spite of the frequent interference of the secret police (PIDE), some of the most important questions affecting Africa are discussed there. Amílcar’s participation in these debates has a decisive influence.


After graduating from the institute in 1950, Amílcar goes through a period of apprenticeship at the Agronomy Center, in Santarém. Shortly thereafter, Juvenal Cabral dies. Then, in 1952, Amílcar returns to Bissau, under contract with the Agricultural and Forestry Services of Portuguese Guinea.

The man who arrives in Bissau is a 28-year-old agricultural engineer whose goals are not limited to those connected with his profession (in which, incidentally, he has always shown great competence). The most important of these goals: to raise the awareness of the Guinean common masses. As he says is a memorandum to the members of the organization, during the struggle for liberation, in 1969: “I didn’t come to Guinea by mere chance. My return to my native land was not occasioned by any material need. Everything was carefully planned, step by step. I had great possibilities of working in other Portuguese colonies and even in Portugal itself. I left a good job as a researcher at the Agronomy Center to take a job as a second class engineer in Guinea…This was done following a plan, an objective, based on the idea of doing something, of contributing to the betterment of the people, to fight against the Portuguese. That’s what I have done since the day I arrived in Guinea.”

The “Engineer,” as he will be called by his compatriots, is in the best position to carry out the task of “raising awareness.” As manager of the agricultural station at Pessubé, he is able to contact rural workers, including Cape Verdeans. But it’s difficult to bring the Cape Verdeans and the Guineans together to form a common front. It will be difficult to the very end, even though a number of Cape Verdeans gather around him (Aristides Pereira, Fernando Fortes, Abílio Duarte, among others). His political activities run parallel to his professional work. He is in charge of the planning and implementation of Guinea’s agricultural sensus; his final report is, to this day, the first dependable collection of data for a more accurate knowledge of Guinean agriculture.

In the beginning, Amílcar tries to act in strict observance of the law. He drafts the by-laws of a club dedicated to sports and cultural activities open to all Guineans. The Portuguese authorities do not permit it to function because the signers of the document do not have a government issued identity card.

In 1955, Governor Melo e Alvim forces Cabral to leave Guinea, although he permits him to return once a year for family reasons.

That very same year, a group of Asian and African countries hold a conference at Bandung, Indonesia, the Bandung Conference, which gives birth to the movement of nonaligned countries in world politics. That year also marks the end of the first Vietnamese war of independence and the beginning of open warfare by the National Liberation Front (FLN) of Algeria. Amílcar Cabral has been transferred to Angola and is working in Cassequel, as an engineer…and coming into direct contact with the founders of the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), of which he becomes a member.

During one of his visits to Bissau, on September 19, 1959, a new party comes into existence founded by Amílcar Cabral, Aristides Pereira, Luís Cabral, Júlio de Almeira, Fernando Fortes and Elisée Turpin. Its name: African Party for the Independence and Union of Guinea and Cape Verde (known by its Portuguese acronym PAIGC). It is, obviously, an underground organization that will acquire legal status only four years later when it establishes a foreign delegation in Conakry.

This is a period of exhausting activities for Amílcar Cabral. He continues his botanical and agricultural studies that force him to travel frequently between Portugal, Angola and Guinea.

In November, 1957, he attends a meeting in Paris called to discuss and plan the struggle against Portuguese colonialism; he makes contact with anticolonialists in Lisbon; goes to Accra, capital of Ghana, for a Pan-African meeting and then heads for Luanda when the Pidjiguiti massacre occurs. In January of 1960, he attends the Second Conference of African Peoples, in Tunis, and goes to Conakry in May. That same year, he goes to an international conference in London where, for the first time, he denounces Portuguese colonialism. But here he leaves it quite clear, as he did throughout the years of struggle, that he is not against the Portuguese people. His battle is exclusively against the colonial system.

Historical research and the testimonials of many of the participants in the events show that the PAIGC’s leader always made himself available for negotiations with the Portuguese government, but such openness was never accepted by the dictatorship regime.

Between 1960 and 1962, the PAIGC operates out of the Republic of Guinea. Its activities are developed along three courses of action: to prepare militants and party workers to spread the party line in the interior of Guinea; to obtain the support of neighboring countries (a very complicated affair because the Republic of Guinea intended to use Amílcar Cabral’s Guinean supporters to carry out its own political agenda and because Senegal showed its hostility for six years) and, finally, to marshal international support.

War breaks out in 1962 against the Portuguese Establishment. Seventeen years have gone by since Juvenal Cabral’s son arrived in Lisbon to attend college.


In an article published in the Expresso, of January 16, 1993, José Pedro Castanheira describes many of the circumstances surrounding Amílcar Cabral’s death. Three years later, Castanheira delves deeper into the subject in his book Quem mandou matar Amílcar Cabral?(Who Ordered Amílcar Cabral’s Death?).

There are several acceptable possibilities. Using the tactics of “divide and conquer,” Portuguese policies had been able to separate the Cape Verdeans from the Guineans. The former are, by and large, the children of mixed races (mestiços), are better educated and are favored by the central government. They occupy positions which are less demeaning and enjoy preferential treatment. When the PAIGC is founded, the top echelon is made up of Cape Verdeans, while the foot soldiers are Guineans. Amílcar Cabral, himself, is considered to be a Cape Verdean, even though he was born in Guinea. As a result, there were always conflicts and tensions within the PAIGC. In 1973, the war of national liberation is approaching its moment of victory. The political leaders are still Cape Verdeans. Probably, the impending success in the struggle exacerbated the confrontation within the party.

Séku Turé, who had been an African leader of great prestige since 1958, is now losing influence. On the other hand, Amílcar Cabral has become a well-known personality in the African and in the international political scenes, receiving support from a wide range of sources that go from China and the Communist regimes to the Scandinavian countries. Turé’s big dream of taking over Guinea-Bissau and creating “Great Guinea” is now in danger. It is quite probable that he gave his nod of agreement to the rebels – all Guineans – to carry out the assassination. Cabral would be out of the way, the PAIGC would become divided and would, for all practical purposes, come under Turé’s control. (In May, 1974, Leopold Senghor, President of Senegal, did not hesitate in declaring to Colonel Carlos Fabião and to Ambassador Nunes Barata that Séku Turé had been the instigator of Amílcar Cabral’s murder.)

And, finally, there is the PIDE/DGS, the secret Portuguese state police. For a long time, at least since 1967, that organization had been trying to kill Cabral. Some of the guerrillas who had been taken prisoners were brain-washed into collaborating with the police apparatus. This was shown to be true in relation to some of the participants in the assassination. Everything leads one to believe that, to some unknown degree, the PIDE was not unaware of the conspiracy.

Reports at the time indicate that Amílcar Cabral was conscious of the fact that he might be betrayed by his comrades in the liberation effort. He had commented several times before that: “…If anybody is going to hurt me, it will be someone who is among us. Nobody else can destroy the PAIGC, except ourselves.”


PAIGC guerrillas listened to a live broadcast of Radio Conakry covering Amílcar Cabral’s funeral.

Amílcar Cabral was buried in the cemetery of Conakry. Thus, the most enlightened African leader of his generation, the principal theoretician of the armed struggle for African liberation leaves the political scene.

But Amílcar would die several more times, considering that his life was lived in accordance with his ideals, that he had led a guerrilla movement with one goal in view, as so often stated and written by him – the establishment of a fraternal community that would flourish when the two peoples forced to engage in war freed themselves from their common oppressor.

On November 14, 1980, Amílcar Cabral died a second time, as an undeserving victim of a settlement of accounts. On that day, Nino Vieira led a coup-d’état that destroyed Amílcar’s great dream of making Guinea and Cape Verde one country or, at least, a union of states that would be able to withstand the hegemonist ambitions of the Dakar and Conakry governments. As a result of the coup, the PAIGC, which he had founded, was irremediably divided.

Cabral died once again as the result of the ostentation, the corruption and the bloody hatred in the solution of political differences that ensnared many of the Guinean leaders.

He died as the result of the utter poverty, disease and famine that decimate the people twenty years after independence was so admirably conquered in the forests of Madina do Boé.

He was killed once more when his old comrades engaged in a fratricidal fight that brought upon Guinea-Bissau a type of destruction terribly worse than the one caused by the eleven years of colonial revolution and that resulted, probably, in the wholesale surrender of national sovereignty in a pathetic attempt to continue enjoying the drunkenness of power.


by Amílcar Cabral – Praia, Cabo Verde, 1945

Mother, in your perennial sleep,

You live naked and forgotten

and barren,

thrashed by the winds,

at the sound of songs without music

sung by the waters that confine us…


Your hills and valleys

haven’t felt the passage of time.

They remain in your dreams

– your children’s dreams –

crying out your woes

to the passing winds

and to the carefree birds flying by.

Island :

Red earth shaped like a hill that never ends

– rocky earth –

ragged cliffs blocking all horizons

while tying all our troubles to the winds!