11 April 1916 – Kionga Triangle

Where the borders of German East Africa and Portuguese East Africa meet at the Indian Ocean, the ‘Kionga Triangle’ has long been a point of contention between the two empires. When settlers from the younger power raised their homes south of the Rovuma river in 1894, they were in territory claimed by Lisbon, resulting in shots fired and an international arbitration. Known a century later as Quionga, the 400-square mile strip of land belongs to Mozabique, the independent African nation left behind by the dissolution of Portugal’s empire, because a military expedition reclaims the disputed territory today. It will become the sole territorial prize granted to Portugal for her service to the alliance against the Central Powers.

More than a month has passed since Berlin declared war on Portugal over the neutral country’s seizure of interned German merchant steamers waiting out the war on the Tagus river, at Madeira, and the Azores. Yet the shooting began early in the war, as German schutztruppen invaded Portuguese territory in West Africa during the opening months of the conflict and tried to spark native uprising in their East African colony. Nor has the German commander in East Africa, Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, spared Portuguese territory from military depredations, which will continue as his small army burns its way across the entire region until the end of the war. Due to the unique geography of Tanzania, which borders on three lakes, Lettow-Vorbeck is as surrounded by opportunities as he is outnumbered by enemies.

Dispatched all the way from the Iberian coast in British troop ships, four hundred Portuguese soldiers cross the boundary this morning, easily brushing aside the forty-five man German border guard and advancing all the way to the town of Kionga and the river over three days, supported by one battery each of machine guns and mountain guns. Led out of Palmas by Major Francisco da Silveira, the column stops at the banks of the mile-wide Rovuma and digs in (see above), adopting a now-familiar style of static warfare amid the mosquito-infested delta. Inevitably, disease will account for more Portuguese casualties than enemy action. When Major-General Franco Gil arrives in May with a reinforcing brigade, nearly a third of the men fail to acclimate and are returned to Lisbon without ever being sent to the front. Many of the rest die in a fruitless attempt to attack the north bank of the Rovuma under the creaking support of an obsolescent Portuguese naval flotilla.

Instead of forwarding further drafts of Portuguese men, most of the troops now being recruited are native askaris, the Arabic word for ‘soldier’ adopted by the Swahili tongue. Already adapted to the land and climate, tribal recruits are armed with 8 millimeter 1887 Kropatschek rifles — a serviceable, if old bolt action rifle that remains superior to the ‘old smokey’ Mauser model 1871 rifle, which uses obsolete black powder cartridges. Thanks to prewar frugality in the German colonial administration, many of Lettow-Vorbeck’s native troops are still armed with these; starting with few of the more modern 1898 model Mausers that are standard on Germany’s European fronts, the colonel has received some clandestine supplies of modern small arms and ammunition, but remains chronically short of both.


A British map of the Kinga triangle. Note the limited roads available for supplying armies. Via Kaiser’s Cross

As indecisive as the victory today is, the politics of Lisbon defy easy reading. Even though the Democratic Party enjoys a strong majority in both houses of the parliament elected last year, in response to Germany’s diplomatic ultimatum Prime Minister Bernardino Machado formed a unity government in March. António José de Almeida was named Premier and Minister of Colonies, a combined office that hints at the primacy Portuguese imperial pretensions will continue to enjoy over the small nation’s eventual contribution on the Western Front. After an agonized decision-making process that lasts into the summer, a Portuguese infantry division will arrive in France in one year’s time, but its officers are terrible and its support lacking, so it performs poorly in combat. Meanwhile, the war remains ruinously expensive for a nation still mired in sometimes-medieval illiteracy and poverty. Nor is the seat of a decrepit empire immune from the forces of revolution and radicalism; bombings in Lisbon signal violent discontent with the new military alliance.

If Portugal’s fledgling democracy makes a limited contribution to the new alliance, it is due to the limited means and manpower available for sustaining large armies abroad — as well as a shortage of political will in the capital. These are chief reasons why the war crisis results in a conservative takeover of government during 1917 just as the Portuguese Army finally begins to assume its full share of the apocalypse. Signs of disunity over the issue of raising a major land army are already apparent in Portuguese politics. Unable to admit failure or inability during national mobilization, today the cabinet experiences a crisis, with resignations offered that would bring down the new government; they are withdrawn two days later.

Meanwhile, the burgeoning European food crisis has already produced riots in Lisbon, necessitating a government takeover of grain assets. Along with new credit lines, among the first Portuguese requests of the war was provision of wheat supplies to deal with the unrest. In East Africa, like other theaters of conflict, famine will stalk the land in time, too. While the total number of Africans killed by fire, disease, and disorder as a result of Portugal’s war in East Africa will never be known, it is likely in the tens of thousands — many times the number of Portuguese men who will die in France.


A Portuguese machine gun team on the Rovuma, visible in the background