Volume 10, Issues 2 & 3
Brown Water of Africa: Portuguese Riverine Warfare 1961-1974. John P. Cann. St. Petersburg, FL: Hailer Publishing, 2007. 248 pp.
Brown Waters of Africa is the second volume in John P. Cann’s planned trilogy of works that examine the Portuguese counterinsurgency in its former African colonies. This book explores the role of the navy in these campaigns from approximately the late 1950s until the end of hostilities in 1974-75. Cann closely examines the naval anticipation of and response to the largely overlapping insurrections in colonial Angola, Mozambique and Guinea in order to highlight the importance of the naval effort, which to date has been historiographically overshadowed by the ground campaigns. The author skillfully reconstructs the Portuguese navy’s creative efforts to overcome a general state of unpreparedness, a lack of trained personnel, decades of statutory neglect, a “blue water” (deep sea) focus and acutely limited resources and transform itself into an effective, primarily riverine, or “brown water,” counterinsurgency outfit.
The book squarely accomplishes its objectives, which include tracing this under-examined campaign, examining the navy’s imaginative, flexible and adaptive approach and highlighting the marine force’s myriad contributions. The author explains that “the military job of the Portuguese Navy was to control the waterways in enemy areas, inhibit insurgent movement, counter these small groups through ambushes in the riverine areas, project power ashore, and supply villages and troops.” Cann’s detailed examinations of the three theaters explore the execution of these various tasks. He also superbly captures the changes over time within the Portuguese navy’s martial and political approaches, offering explications for both successes and failures. The author instructively places these developments within broader continental and geopolitical contexts to help readers better understand the local and international dimensions, ramifications and implications of the campaigns, which at times circumscribed the navy’s efforts. Cann also cogently portrays the dominant Portuguese army as a conservative impediment to the forward-thinking navy, providing concrete examples of cases in which the former impeded the endeavors of the latter, thereby undermining its own objectives.
Brown Waters would be well received in a collegiate-level military history course. Yet, it might just as easily be plucked off the shelves of a mainstream bookstore and enjoyed for its accessibility and well-documented accounts of pivotal campaigns, decisions and maneuvers. For those readers who are not well-versed in the respective martial and political strategies associated with insurgencies and counterinsurgencies, the author deftly weaves explanations into the text, drawing upon his own experience as a U.S. Naval Officer.
Cann’s evidentiary base is broad. He fruitfully mined little-used naval archives and augmented the written record with over a dozen interviews of Portuguese veterans (fuzileiros) of these naval campaigns. He also draws upon a wide collection of secondary source material, which enables him to include useful comparative scenarios, such as the French and American riverine campaigns in Indochina. However, for all of its strengths, the evidence that Cann marshals is ultimately unable to gauge the efficacy of the Portuguese navy’s efforts because the insurgent perspective is never considered. Consequently, the authors’ claims of naval successes come across as speculative, perhaps predicated on uncritically adopted declarations made by his Portuguese informants. Did the Portuguese navy really “control the waterways and deny the enemy usage of these passages,” or did insurgents simply exert more care when using them, intentionally avoiding engagement, as the author occasionally acknowledges? Testimony from former insurgents would potentially either confirm or challenge Cann’s claims; in their absence, readers are left to ponder these assertions on their own, with little supporting evidence.
This evidentiary lacuna also problematizes Cann’s examination of the campaign to win the “hearts and minds” of the colonized population. While he correctly asserts that the political component of any counterinsurgency campaign is crucial, readers are presented with examples of the Portuguese opening new schools and clinics and vague and unsubstantiated allusions to “trust-building” and “new political and economic freedoms and financial prosperity” that the indigenous population was supposedly enjoying in the 1960s and 70s as evidence of Portuguese success on this front. If the population was the ultimate prize, as Cann compellingly argues, he doesn’t make a strong enough case or supply sufficient evidence to convince us that the Portuguese actually won this battle. In fact, most scholars of Africa will object to Cann’s broader portrayal of the colonized population’s relationship with both the colonial regime and the liberation movements. In this version, the Portuguese navy was comprised of “humane explorers, agents of bringing improvements to the lives of those whom they met,” heroically “protecting and supporting” indigenous communities against the insurgents, who aimed to “intimidate and subvert” them. In practice, repression at the hands of the Portuguese via violent pacification campaigns, brutal forced labor schemes and unremitting vigilance is what sparked the insurgencies in the first place; the time was well past when allegedly “humane” measures could turn the local population against their brothers-in-arms who were busy trying to remove the colonial yoke. Cann also extends his decidedly Cold War-inspired analysis to those neighboring nations that provided sanctuary to the insurgent movements. While the author’s strategic and military assessments of this support are insightful, he needlessly denigrates the sympathizing African heads of state, including Touré in Guinée, Kaunda in Zambia and Nyerere in Tanzania. For all of the dashed dreams, broken promises and ill-fated economic manipulation for which post-independence African leaders were responsible, the reality remains that Portugal oversaw the marginalization and devastation of African populations more intensely, more thoroughly and for a much longer time than did any of these indigenous administrations. Innumerable typos also detracted from the book, though this fault rests with the publisher, not the author.
Cann’s book is at its best when it focuses on the naval campaign and the remarkable exploits of this undermanned and underfunded branch of the Portuguese military. Detailed accounts of the navy’s endeavors in northern Angola in the wake of the 1961 uprising in the colony and the superb reconstruction of the invasion of Conakry in 1970 – Operation Mar Verde – are but two examples of what render the book such a valuable scholarly contribution. Thankfully, the majority of the book stays true to its primary purpose, featuring only occasional tangents to distract the reader from the otherwise interesting and well-organized narrative.
Todd Cleveland University of Minnesota