The idea of the ‘white man’s burden’ dates from our grandfather’s time, or earlier. At the turn of the twentieth century, it was used to both justify and attack imperial endeavours. Today, the white man’s burden lives on in ideas of guilt or responsibility for inequalities made more visible in a globalising world. Activists exploit these feelings to mobilise support for their causes, one of the most visible being the drive to end ‘modern-day slavery’. In my effort to uncover the history of forced labour in colonial Africa, I searched out letters and reports written by observers and agents of empire to grasp how these practices affected African life and how these individuals viewed colonial labour. In tracing this history, it is the views of Africans themselves that reveal the depth of depravity and height of hypocrisy woven into the fabric of ‘modern slavery.’
And work shall set you free
Having taken much of the nineteenth century to abolish slavery and the slave trade, the rulers of Europe’s African ventures found themselves in need of a workforce at the dawn of the twentieth. Building empire—for gold, God and glory—was hard work, and few Europeans were willing to go to Africa and bend their backs under the tropical sun. At the same time, Europe had just justified wars of conquest and colonisation under the guise of eliminating slavery. European colonies could thus hardly return to the slaver’s whip. How, then, could Africans be made to work in the service of empire?
Colonial rulers across the continent came to the conclusion that Africans would be forced to work anyway. The specific laws authorising this varied, but they were all undergirded by a general agreement that Africans lacked the intellectual and moral capacity to appreciate the value of labour. According to this self-serving, racist ‘paternalism’, European colonisers were obliged to force Africans to work for their own good. Yet even as colonisers claimed Africans would be ‘saved’ by European civilisation, colonisers made them vulnerable to new forms of servitude.
Portugal’s laws expressed this move most explicitly. Africans had a “legal and moral obligation” to work and, if they did not, colonial authorities could and would force them to do so. The chief architect of the law made clear the role race played in his thinking. For him, Africans were “big children”. Work, meanwhile, was a form of education that could “transform beasts into men”. As such, the state would impose “up to the state of extermination, as many other obligations as might benefit” what he called, “those backward negroes of Africa, those ignorant outcasts of Asia, those half-savages of Oceana”.
Under Portuguese colonial rule, Africans were compelled to grow rice and cotton, among other crops, and forced to sell to state buyers at fixed prices. Others were taken to work on road-building and other infrastructure projects, for which they were paid little or nothing. Still others were forced to work for white settler-farmers or large gold and sugar companies, where their work was dirty, dangerous, and disagreeable. What all these types of labor shared was a tedious toil, frequent exposure to violence and premature death, and a level of pay that barely met the needs of existence.
Believed by many, but not by all
No less a figure than Frederick Lugard, who was knighted for his service to the British empire—‘service’ which included institutionalising forced labour in colonial governance—recognised that Africans might regard forced labor as a “white man’s slavery”. Indeed, the words that Africans used to condemn colonial labour made clear just how vile this labour was, and how little it differed from the slavery of the past. On encountering a group of seven Africans who had been taken for contract labor, an African man in central Mozambique warned that the man who had taken them would beat them, feed them less than their bodies required for sustenance, and ‘sold blacks as if they were chicken or goats’. To the great frustration of the agent who had contracted them, they then took to their heels, he reported.
While Africans had the clearest view of such practices, some settlers or visitors were skeptical of a ‘civilising mission’ that seemed more like a “veneered barbarism”. One such traveler, Henry Nevinson, visited Portugal’s colonies and saw the inhumane treatment African workers suffered while cultivating cocoa destined for Cadbury, the British chocolate maker. He reported in his book Modern Slavery that few of these workers received payment and even fewer managed to escape bondage, positing that forced labor in Portuguese-ruled Africa was no different from the “slavery of our grandfathers’ time.” He meant that colonial forced labour, regularly justified as part of the so-called civilising mission, was no different from the racially-justified chattel slavery of generations past.
Nevinson’s reference to slavery can be best understood as political rhetoric, since colonial forced labour was different from earlier forms of servitude in Africa. Slave masters at times treated slaves with great brutality but, having invested much capital in their purchase, regarded them as valuable property. In contrast, white settlers in Africa often treated forced labourers “much worse than any ass or ox they possess”, because if an African worker fell ill or even died, the settler suffered no loss. As one colonial governor in Mozambique put it in 1910, “with the death of an ox or an ass they are out the money it cost them”. Or, in the words of an elderly African in Angola, who in the early 1920s could recall a time when slavery was still legal, “the slaves were better fed then we forced labourers are for we are not property”.
Portugal’s colonies: unexceptional in their brutality
The plight of Africans in Portugal’s colonies received the most attention, both because the Portuguese did less to camouflage their coercion and also because poor Portuguese settlers depended more heavily on state-imposed labour. That said, by virtue of being born black all those living in colonial Africa were legally vulnerable for state-sanctioned bondage. Vulnerability was the rule to which tenuous exceptions existed: women, children, the elderly, soldiers, African chiefs, and the infirm were often exempt from forced labour. These categories offered some protection, but they were elastic. It was not always clear whether one qualified, and the exceptions were inconsistently applied according to the whim of European officials. Indeed, colonial officials and colonists routinely ignored these and other regulations, and Africans were quite normally left without the protection of the law. In the words of historian Gregory Mann, colonial practices could generate a ‘black hole’ that obscured their very nature. The colonial powers also took their time in abolishing forced labor in Africa, which saw no real demise until the years after world war two.
If Africans had long known that colonial forced labor was little more than a new form of servitude, it was ideas of sovereignty and rights new to the post-war world that made plain to all the contradictions inherent to the colonial system. African activists turned such ideas on the system itself, making it impossible to ignore its antiquated nature, and used them to advocate for a new and more just social order.
Activists today again use the language of ‘modern slavery’ to inflame moral sensibilities, suggesting that we co-exist with the evil of slavery in both time and space. It permeates our electronics, clothing, and even our food. One challenge remains the same: how should those advocating change make their case without calling into question the capacities of those whose rights they champion?