A tribute to an obscure battle between Portuguese and German forces seems like a fitting name for the street where I first stayed in Lisbon. I’m taking a break from Berlin to study history at the ISCTE (University Institute of Lisbon) for a few months, and as a result Portugal and Germany are unwittingly locked in competition as subjects of constant comparison in my internal dialogue.
I’ll spoil things up front by saying that the Portuguese won in this historical aside. The street’s namesake is an homage to the fighters who defeated the Germans to recapture the Quionga (or Kionga) triangle, a small territory in modern-day Mozambique.
Herois de Quionga is a short street – just a few blocks long – that slopes up a hill in the old working-class neighborhood of Arroios. The narrow, uneven cobblestone sidewalks have been painstakingly pounded into the ground stone by stone, creating an old-world look in the neighborhood and old-lady feeling in my knees. If I can make it back to Berlin without breaking both ankles I’ll call it a win.
What more can I say about this street? There’s an orange cat keeping accounts in one of the shops. I’d been calling him Afonso Henriques (after the first king of Portugal) and was disappointed to learn he’s actually named Kiko. When I first tried to pet him he vomited all over the curb.
Explaining the Luso-German conflict in the Kionga triangle offers a nice excuse to take a further step back in history. Portugal was a key player in the colonial powers’ so-called Scramble for Africa in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Here’s the continent as an imperial chessboard with Portugal’s pieces in dark purple:
European nations met at the Conference of Berlin in 1884-1885 as part of the process of carving up Africa amongst themselves according to their interests, which were mostly commercial but also a central component of national identity in the case of Portugal. Crucially, the meeting established that a country’s rights to territory in Africa should be determined on the basis of “effective occupation” – or demonstrating political authority – rather than claims of first-discovery. The conference also helped lead to the establishment of German East Africa (including modern-day Tanzania) and Portuguese Mozambique.
(On a side note, Portugal received a telling-off a few years after the conference for its plans to link its colonies in Angola and Mozambique with a stripe of territory through the middle of Africa, as demarcated in the infamous “rose-colored map.”
Unfortunately for Lisbon, this contradicted Britain’s own plans to connect Cape Town to Cairo along a vertical axis, and London issued an ultimatum in 1890 ordering Portugal to withdraw its troops from areas of British interest.)
Something I’ve learned here in Lisbon is that the Anglo-Portuguese alliance is the oldest in the world, dating back to the 14th century. Ask Portuguese academics and they’ll cite this allegiance as so famous as to be practically self-evident, although I’d be surprised if London feels the same way. Nevertheless, Britain has been one of the top players in the history of Portuguese foreign policy for hundreds of years.
So when Britain tells Portugal to impound a bunch of German ships during World War I, Lisbon does it, and Portugal subsequently joins the fighting. Africa was a major but often-forgotten theater of war, and one of the campaigns centered on the Kionga triangle, a small territory between German East Africa and Portuguese Mozambique.
The Treaty of Versailles locked in the Kionga triangle as a win for the Portuguese after they recaptured the area in 1916, and to this day it remains part of northern Mozambique. It was Portugal’s only territorial gain in World War I and shall be remembered as such for all who bother to research a small street in a corner of Lisbon. History at every turn!