Out and about: A look at the archives of Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde

Recently, I had the incredible opportunity to visit the Archives of Southern and Western Africa as part of the Max Planck Institute for Legal Theory and Legal History’s research project “Global Legal History on the Ground: Court Cases in African Archives“. Specifically, I worked at the National Archives of Angola (ANA), the Institute of National Archives of Cape Verde (IANCV) and the National Historical Archives of Guinea-Bissau (INEP), where I collaborated on the identification (ANA), digitization (IANCV) and cataloguing (INEP) of court cases spanning the 18th to the mid-20th centuries.

Contextualising legal history: Archives of Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde

Angola, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau are part of the so-called “Lusophone world” – countries that speak Portuguese as their dominant language. Each of these countries has a vast similarity of legal heritages that reflect the interactions between African societies and the legal systems imposed during the colonial period.

In Angola, for example, the ANA possesses a variety of documents, including codes, documents concerning a general government secretariat and the general government of Angola, documents about the press, customs, courts, as well as correspondence, reports, minutes, notes, indigenous passbooks, slave lists, statistical maps, clearance guides, military documents, and more. In the codes relating to the period of slavery you can even find the marks that masters put on their slaves to identify them (Dulley, 2016). Unfortunately, not all of the bundles corresponding to the documentation found in the ANA are organized, which may cause difficulties for the researcher in locating such documentation.  Nevertheless, an “Oral Archive” area has been created, where we can find various recorded testimonies about Angola’s liberation struggle, including testimonies related to the Trial of Fifty, an important moment in the history of Angola’s independence movement.

Digitizing legal proceedings in Cape Verde (IANCV) © Priscila Lussinga Pedro Catimba

In the case of the IANCV (Cape Verde), the files are in their entirety and duly organized, so it is possible to find very detailed information about the cases, allowing researchers to reconstruct not only the history of colonial law, but also of other African rights and local people’s understandings of law and justice. The court cases archived at the IANCV reflect the social, political and economic reality of the time in which they were recorded. However, although these documents reflect the reality of the time, colonial or Eurocentric categorization can influence the way this information is presented and interpreted. Despite these possible organizational barriers, researchers can overcome them through critical and contextualized analysis, extracting valuable information and revealing deeper aspects of historical and social reality.

INEP (Guinea-Bissau) is facing significant challenges due to the political instability experienced in the region. This instability has not only affected the country’s governance and security, but has also had direct consequences for the preservation of and access to historical archives. Unlike the archives I visited in Angola and Cape Verde, which have consolidated structures, INEP reveals a more devastating reality. The precarious organization of its documentation is evident, with many files poorly preserved and many in an advanced state of deterioration. Fortunately, these files are already being sanitized and catalogued as part of our “Global History on the Ground” research project.

African court cases: An important source of global legal history

As a researcher dedicated to the study of African history, with a particular focus on the history of Angola, the collections found in the National Archives of Angola have allowed me to understand in a more complex way how access to justice took place during the colonial era. An important source in this regard are court cases as they, in line with the aims of “Global Legal History on the Ground”, allow us to see how the local population engaged in normative knowledge production. The court cases found in the ANA reveal the complexities of the power relations between colonizers and the colonized. These documents include labor contracts and disputes over land ownership, showing how the colonial system was used to maintain order, perpetuate inequalities, repress resistance and seize the property of Africans (Candido, 2022).

Identifying court cases in the National Archives of Angola (ANA) © Priscila Lussinga Pedro Catimba

Alongside the Institute of the National Archives of Cape Verde, I also came across the court cases belonging to the collections of the Praia Court Fund and the Ribeira Grande de Santo Antão Court Fund. These collections are of great importance to researchers interested in the study of Cape Verde’s legal history, as the files provide a wealth of information, including petitions, judgements, orders, rulings, court records, among others, which can be explored in various ways.

Within the framework of the National Institute of Studies and Research of Guinea-Bissau, the court cases to which I had access are part of the collection of the National Archives and are a wealth of information for researchers interested in the history of the Guinean judicial system. These documents show how the administration of justice worked in the colonial period, the day-to-day running of the legal and administrative systems, their structure and legal procedures. 

Overall, when I analyzed these archives, I was deeply moved by the evidence of the various forms of resistance and legal adaptation on the part of local communities. The records of resistance movements, petitions and court cases highlight the remarkable capacity of ordinary people to act in pursuit of justice and defense of their rights, even in the face of often oppressive legal systems. This resilience and determination is truly inspiring and reinforces the continued importance of defending justice and equality in all spheres of life.

Outside the National Historical Archives of Guinea-Bissau (INEP) © Priscila Lussinga Pedro Catimba

But how do you do legal history at ANA, IANCV and INEP?

My visits to the archives of Angola, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau were very enriching. Doing legal history in these countries requires a careful and contextualized approach because, despite being colonized by the same country, each African nation has its own identity in legal history shaped by a complex interaction between local traditions, colonial systems and post-independence developments.

As a first step, it was essential to identify the archives relevant for my specific research, considering their temporality and geographical location. This phase requires a comprehensive understanding of the various repositories available, from national archives to records held by local judicial and administrative institutions. After this identification, it is important to pay attention to the formal procedures for accessing the archives, which may include obtaining specific permissions, complying with legal requirements or research protocols established by the institutions holding the records. In addition, it is prudent to observe any restrictions or guidelines governing the use of the documents.

A subsequent step involves a thorough examination of the documents of interest to the researcher. This examination requires not only the identification of laws, decrees and court records, but also the evaluation of official correspondence, administrative reports and other sources that offer comprehensive perspectives on the legal environment in question without refraining from a historical and social contextualization specific to each African country.

Making legal history in Angola © Priscila Lussinga Pedro Catimba

While these initial steps are probably relevant for much archival work across the globe, the archives at ANA, IANCV and INEP also brought their own specific obstacles. African archives often have problems with preservation and access, which sometimes made my research more challenging. In addition, I recognized that historical narratives often reflect Eurocentric perspectives, which led me to adopt a critical and sensitive approach to reconstructing and reinterpreting (specifically) Angolan legal history in a particular way.

Challenges faced when working with historical documents in Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde

Working with historical documents, especially court records, in the archives of Angola, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau has been a journey full of obstacles and profound discoveries for me. From the beginning of my work in these archives, I was confronted with the reality of limited preservation and restricted access to these valuable records, and it was a constant struggle to overcome the bureaucratic and infrastructural barriers that often hinder our work, especially in Angola.

Furthermore, the linguistic diversity spoken in Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau represented an additional challenge. In these countries, despite having Portuguese as their official language, the majority of the population communicates in Criollo. Learning to interpret what was being spoken by the populations of these regions required a significant effort on my part. However, every word deciphered and understood brought me a sense of fulfilment and a deeper understanding of the cultural and historical richness of these countries.

Despite the difficulties, each obstacle overcome has gained significance in my personal journey as a researcher. Through these experiences, I have learnt to value not only the documents themselves, but also the challenging and rewarding process of uncovering the secrets of the past and contributing to the historical knowledge of these regions so rich in culture and traditions.


Researching legal history in African archives, particularly in Angola, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau, has been a truly fascinating and challenging journey for me. By immersing myself in these sources, I have come across a wealth of documents that reveal the complexity of legal and social relations over time. From labor contracts to territorial disputes and court cases, each document has given me a valuable insight into how law was practiced and understood in African societies.

In short, for me, the archives of Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde are more than simple structures that hold mere collections of historical documents; they are portals to the past that offer a perspective on the dynamics of power, justice and resistance that have shaped these regions over the centuries.

Exploring these archives is truly like taking a trip back in time, allowing me to witness first-hand how laws and legal practices have been influenced by a mixture of external imposition and local resistance. This experience has not only enriched my understanding of the past, but has also allowed me to more fully appreciate the world we live in today, understanding the deep roots of many contemporary legal and social issues.


Cândido, Mariana (2022), Wealth, Land, and Property in Angola, Cambridge University Press.

Dulley, Iracema (2017), Fontes e contextos do Arquivo Nacional de Angola: entrevista com Alexandra Aparício [Sources and Contexts from the National Archives of Angola: An Interview with Alexandra Aparício], Revista do arquivo geral da cidade do Rio de Janeiro, 12/2017, 229-245.

Cite as: Catimba, Pricsila Lussinga Pedro: Out and about: A look at the archives of Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, legalhistoryinsights.com, 27.06.2024, https://doi.org/10.17176/20240628-130422-0

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