Why the Name: Luanda?

Map of Angola
Map of Angola

I often wondered where the name of Luanda, the capital and largest city of Angola, came from. After the African Cup of Nations was organized in Angola in 2010, I had started thinking about it: was it a Kimbundu word, or Umbundu, or Kikongo? or did it have Portuguese roots?

Map of Luanda in the 1700s
Map of Luanda in the 1700s

Well, it turns out that, on 25 January 1576, Portuguese explorer Paulo Dias de Novais founded Luanda under the name of “São Paulo da Assumpção de Loanda”.  When he arrived on the Ilha do Cabo (Cape Island), he found an indigenous population, the Axi-Iwanda people, a subgroup of the Ambundu people which were tributary to the Kongo Empire.  The island was an important location to collect zimbo, shells used as currency by the Kongo king before the arrival of Portuguese in the area. Novais established a Portuguese settlement of about 700 people: 350 soldiers, missionaries, merchants, and officials, and families, to first gain control of the currency, before establishing himself on the mainland, opposite the island. They started to use the name of the Axi-Iwanda inhabitants as a name for the island and the town, spelling it first “Loanda, then “Luanda“.

Queen Nzingha sitting on the back of her servant
Queen Nzingha sitting on the back of her servant, during her audience with the Portuguese governor in Luanda

In 1618, the Portuguese built the fortress of Fortaleza São Pedro da Barra, and they subsequently built two more in 1634 and 1765: Fortaleza de São Miguel and Forte de São Francisco do Penedo , respectively. Of these, the Fortaleza de São Miguel is the best preserved. In 1622, Queen Nzingha had an audience with the Portuguese governor in Luanda (this was before she became queen). The city of Luanda has been the administrative center of the colony of Angola since 1627, except from 1641 to 1648 when it was under the control of the Dutch Company of West Indies.  From 1550 to 1836, Luanda was an important center for slave trade to Brazil. When Angola became an actual Portuguese colony, the city was divided between white neighborhoods and indigenous ones, as was tradition in almost all European colonies. The white colonialists lived in huge villas with servants, while the local populations lived in huts. The majority of the local population present in Luanda were Ambundu and Bakongo.  The colonial army would constantly guard the entrance to the European neighborhoods.

View of Luanda in 1883
View of Luanda in 1883

After the slave trade was abolished in 1836, Angola’s ports were then opened to foreign shipping in 1844. By 1850, Luanda was one of the greatest and most developed Portuguese cities in the vast Portuguese Empire outside Continental Portugal, full of trading companies, exporting palm and peanut oil, wax, copal, timber, ivory, cotton, coffee, and cocoa, among many other products. Maize, tobacco, dried meat, and cassava flour were also produced locally. In 1889, Governor Brito Capelo inaugurated an aqueduct which supplied the city with water, laying the foundation for major growth. After the establishment of the republican regime in Portugal in 1910, colonialism entered a new phase. The new Portuguese government started building schools in Angola. The first high school, Liceu Central de Luanda, was created in 1919. During the authoritarian Estado Novo years, Luanda was also used as a penitentiary colony, used to host convicted criminals.

Agostinho Neto
Agostinho Neto, first president of Angola

A few months after independence from Portugal in 1975, with Agostinho Neto becoming Angola’s first president, civil war broke in the country when the city of Luanda was attacked by the FNLA forces supported by Portuguese mercenaries. This assault was pushed back by the governmental army (MPLA) supported by Cubans in the battle of Kifangondo. Throughout the years, the civil war forced many people across the country to seek refuge in Luanda. After the death of  Jonas Savimbi, UNITA‘s leader in 2002, a ceasefire was reached, and Angola finally arose from over 25 years of civil war.

Flag of Angola
Flag of Angola

Today, Luanda is the siege of the country’s principal companies: Angola Telecom, Unitel, Endiama, Sonangol, Linhas Aéreas de Angola, and Odebrecht Angola (Brazilian company). Back in 1972, it was already called the “Paris of Africa.” Manufacturing is big in the city. Petroleum found in nearby off-shore deposits is refined in the city. Luanda has an excellent natural harbor. The city also has a thriving building industry, an effect of the nationwide economic boom experienced since 2002, when political stability returned with the end of the civil war. Large investments, along with strong economic growth, have made Luanda one of the fastest growing cities of Africa, and of the world. Surrounded by beautiful beaches, and rich through its culture, Luanda is truly an African pearl. Please enjoy this video of one of the jewels of Africa, Luanda.

3 thoughts on “Why the Name: Luanda?

  1. Thanks for the information. I found out that Angola was part of the Kingdom of Kongo centuries ago. That city does look nice though. Speaking of Angola, Chris Tucker found out in this one documentary over 15 years ago that he was of Angolan descent. There’s also a different documentary I want to check out called Death Metal Angola which involves multiple extreme metal bands in the country making a festival.


      1. Sure thing. I still remember that scene to this day and they even go to Angola to find more information about the tribe his ancestors came from. That’s fine if you’re not into metal bands, but I thought it was cool. Africa does have great metal bands like Wrust (Botswana), Irony Destroyed (Kenya), and Arka’n (Togo) to name a few.


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