A Portuguese Palestine
This year marks the centenary of a forgotten effort to carve out a Jewish homeland in the vast Portuguese colony of Angola. Adam Rovner describes the little-known attempt to create a Zion in Africa.
In the autumn of 1902 Dr Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), the Austro-Hungarian author and prophet of modern political Zionism, found himself admitted to the corridors of power in Whitehall. Thanks in part to the efforts of his friend the Anglo-Jewish author Israel Zangwill (1864-1926) Herzl met the colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain. Herzl found Chamberlain to be sympathetic to Jewish national aspirations. In April 1903 the two met again after Chamberlain had returned from a visit to British colonies in Africa, just weeks after state-sponsored attacks against Jews in tsarist Russia had shocked the world. Chamberlain fixed Herzl in his monocle and offered his help to the persecuted. ‘I have seen a land for you on my travels,’ Herzl recorded him saying of his rail journey across what today is Kenya, ‘and I thought to myself, that would be a land for Dr Herzl.’ Though Herzl was initially cool to the proposal, he recognised the significance of the offer. The world’s most powerful nation had acknowledged the six-year-old Zionist Organisation as the instrument of Jewish nationalism and offered land under the British Empire’s protection.
Herzl’s deputy in London continued to negotiate with Chamberlain on what erroneously came to be called the ‘Uganda Plan’. By mid-summer they had agreed on a draft charter for an autonomous settlement in the East African Protectorate. The solicitor and MP David Lloyd George drew up the document. Herzl announced the proposal at the opening of the Sixth Zionist Congress in Basel on August 23rd, 1903. According to the stenographic record of the Congress, the news was greeted with thunderous applause and Zangwill called out triumphantly: ‘Three cheers for England!’ One supporter recognised that the Rift Valley began in East Africa and ended in Palestine, thus linking the biblical homeland - albeit tenuously - to the British territory on offer. But Herzl admitted in a speech to the congress that the planned ‘New Palestine’ in Africa could not take the place of Zion. Still he urged an exploration of the territory.
A three-member Zionist commission sailed for East Africa in December 1904. Herzl did not live to see the expedition set off; he had suffered a fatal heart attack five months earlier. On the commission’s return the members published a generally negative report on the possibilities of mass settlement in the Guas Ngishu Plateau of western Kenya. The Seventh Zionist Congress convened in Basel in 1905 to discuss the pessimistic findings. Zangwill still championed the acceptance of British suzerainty over a Jewish territory in East Africa, but without Herzl’s leadership the majority of delegates now stood in opposition. At a rancorous emergency session Zangwill and his allies failed to muster the necessary votes to pursue the plan. ‘If we decline the East Africa project,’ Zangwill warned the congress, ‘we will experience the relief one has after the removal of a painful tooth. But we will recall, too late, that it was our last tooth!’