CORDIS - EU research results

Forced Labour in West Central and South Central Africa: an Afro-European colonial heritage in comparative perspective, 1930-1970

Final Report Summary - FORCED LABOUR (Forced Labour in West Central and South Central Africa: an Afro-European colonial heritage in comparative perspective, 1930-1970)

The project 'Forced labour in West Central and South Central Africa: an Afro-European colonial heritage in comparative perspective, 1930-1970', addressed forms of unfree labour imposed on the African continent by European colonial regimes. It focused on a particular broader region of sub-Saharan Africa, and pointed out experiences of populations and European officials within three territories (Angola, Gabon, and Zambia) and their geographic environment. Work carried out under the Marie Curie IEF Grant envisaged understanding these dynamics, progressively putting them into a comparative framework, and looking, where possible, into the heritage of these experiences within African postcolonial societies.

An enormous amount of documentation on these processes has been discovered, most of which is still entirely unknown. The archival work carried out had often to be realised under very difficult conditions, as in Angola where access to archival files is generally complicated, and hugely benefited from the contact network of the host institution; or even in Portugal, where comprehensive inventories for the period in question are scarce. Under these conditions, the support of CEAUP was of high importance.

On 31 August 2010, the project was transferred into an ERC Starting Grant project, which is equally financed by an FP7 European Commission contribution. Research carried out so far has produced seven article manuscripts in different stages, and made possible participation in four conferences (two in sub-Saharan Africa, two in Europe). Four main trends were identified, as principal novel results of this study:

a) Organisation of forced labour became a true obsession for European administrators employed in sub-Saharan Africa. This went beyond repressive means or a simple interest in a cheap creation of infrastructure. It appears that in the 1930s and 1940s, many European administrators were constantly concerned with "organising" involuntary labour, attitudes that became obvious from the analysis of new archival material.

b) The image of labour under colonial rule as rational exploitation needs to be corrected: forced labour became a goal in itself.

c) Forced labour was one of the most shattering experiences for Africans under European rule. African rural populations were frequently on the move, in attempts to escape the burden of labour obligations. These movements could destabilise entire rural communities. In some cases, groups fled into regions that were so remote that the agents of the colonial power were effectively unable to locate and to discipline them. It needs to be stressed that these phenomena peaked in a period in which colonial rule was supposedly stabilised and somewhat 'rationalised', and in which similar phenomena should not have occurred.

d) There are strong continuities into the postcolonial period: administrative attitudes towards rural labour; distrust of populations towards the building of infrastructure; and the partly positive view of locals on the late colonial states in contrast to the failures of the early postcolonial economies; for all these, the impact of the phenomenon of forced labour is notable.

These trends will further be investigated towards the future publication of a monograph, a handbook on the history of forced labour in Africa including a large empirical part based on the data on West and South Central Africa.

Dissemination activities have been started through the abovementioned congresses on African soil, and for 2011 we foresee further activities in Ghana and Zambia. As a policy impact of the results, it is indispensable, in any actions with a view of encouraging African governments to take a stricter position against phenomena such as domestic slavery or child trafficking, to mention (and condemn) the colonial heritage. Pointing out that forced labour was a veritable obsession with European administrators is a first step in view of 'detoxicating' this political field of discussion.