Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Kultur-, Sozial- und Bildungswissenschaftliche Fakultät - Seminar für Afrikawissenschaften

Forced labour: an Afro-European heritage in sub-Saharan Africa (1930-1975)?

Project funded by ERC Starting Grant Agreement n° 240898 of the European Research Council, under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)


Principal Investigator:            Alexander Keese

Team members:                    Sarah Kunkel, Enrique Martino Martín, Romain Tiquet



Forced labour is one of the most frequently commented aspects of colonial rule on the African continent – and doubtlessly one of the least systematically analyzed. While the study of early modern Atlantic slavery has led in recent years to a popular debate on the issue of compensation, thus becoming an established field of study and even the subject of a kind of popular debate, involuntary labour under European colonial regimes of the late nineteenth and twentieth century has never found a more sustained interest, either from researchers or from the broader public. With the exception of some particular scandals – mostly from the early decades of the twentieth century – we find few elaborated case studies, and the comparative study of compulsory labour as element of the colonial systems is next to non-existent.






(Licence of usage: "Courtesy of CEAUP, Porto")


Forced labour was omnipresent under colonial rule. European administrations were in urgent need of cheap resources to build up systems of transport and communication within the newly conquered regions of the African continent, to create, and to maintain an infrastructure. While in the earlier periods of colonial domination, much of African involuntary manpower was employed for the transport of goods and individuals literally on the shoulders of involuntary workers, the interwar period is characterized by a shift towards road construction and road maintenance, the erection of public buildings, and the upkeep of the drainage systems and collection of litter in settlements. All European colonial systems were built on similar routines. Before the Second World War, there was little inclination in Lisbon, Paris, London, Madrid or Brussels, to channel public funds into a modernization process within the colonies. Despite the prospects of a second, more benign, colonial occupation after 1945, the problem did not immediately disappear from the agenda. Still in 1945, millions of Africans suffered from forced labour, and although the period after the war met with legal reforms and the removal of labour obligations, the process of the abolition of these techniques was slow and uneven.


Forced labour was mobilized through different techniques. Some relied on state-of-the-art principles of tax extraction: they were even combined with tax instruments that became increasingly efficient in African colonies during the interwar period. In this case, Africans had to pay an additional ‘tax’ through physical labour, during a particular number of days per year. Other colonial techniques went back to the discourse of unemployment defined as vagrancy, which the authorities in European countries had traditionally deployed in several periods and regions. ‘Unemployed Africans’ – including nearly everyone who had what was defined as an ‘insufficient’ engagement in agrarian subsistence labour during some period of the harvest cycles in rural regions – could be drafted and sent into public labour. Again in other cases, the responsibility was given to loyal auxiliaries of the colonial powers, namely, local chiefs. In these cases, ‘forced labour’ could be redefined as ‘traditional labour’, since, supposedly, it now was the ‘traditional native representative’ who was in charge of regulating the practice. All these techniques could also be used to pressure locals into accepting underpaid contracts with plantations owners, in a desperate attempt by the local populations at avoiding hard labour on the roads or in other construction projects.


Carregadores da Companhia Agricula de Algodão, Angola


(Licence of usage: "Courtesy of CEAUP, Porto")


Faced with such hardships, African populations were of course not passive. While in the interwar period, violent resistance against compulsory forms of labour was less typical than in other phases of the European presence on the African continent, it did not entirely disappear. Moreover, even under the impression of superior means of domination in the hands of European officials, African labourers developed their own forms of resistance. Mass flight movements and individual disappearance; border-crossing activities or informal deals struck between fleeing persons and local administrators who had a reputation for not being interested in forced labour – these and other reactions created a colonial situation in which in many rural areas locals were constantly on the move. From this perspective, resistance through flight was not a rare exception, but a normal aspect in the lives of African individuals under colonial rule.


Thanks to the support of ERC Starting Grant n° 240898 under the Seventh Framework Programme of the European Commission (FP7), the subject of colonial forced labour on the African continent is for the first time subject of a comparative analysis. This complex issue is linked to a series of interrelated fields, such as European tendencies in labour regulation and the treatment of ‘vagrancy’; European colonial fantasies and obsessions, namely with regard to the racist stereotype of ‘the lazy African’; the broader emergence of waged labour in the non-European context; migration and interaction between governments; different aspects of so-called ‘traditional policies’; relations of gender and generations in villages where many male adults were absent because of their labour obligations; and questions of political mobilization of African individuals in reaction to repressive realities. Forced labour destabilized local societies and compelled locals to move. Its repercussions are likely to be found even in the postcolonial period. This research project will take the long-term effects into account, notably for the period after the African independences until 1975.


Roça Diogo Vaz. transporte da calda. S. Tomé e Princípe


(Licence of usage: "Courtesy of CEAUP, Porto")


Individual Project 1: Forced Labour in Colonial Africa and its Aftermath – Understanding a Structural Phenomenon



Alexander Keese

Keese on work




  • Study of the structures of involuntary labour under colonial rule, with a particular focus on the period between 1930 and 1960, and its aftereffects
  • Exemplary empirical data based especially on Angola, São Tomé e Príncipe, Zambia, Gabon/Cameroon, and Namibia

Spreading out from the case of Angola, one of the paradigmatic territories of forced labour under colonial rule, this study focuses on a larger region tentatively called ‘Equatorial Africa’ to discuss the mechanisms of compulsory labour from a comparative perspective within a group of countries in this region, and their different types of colonial government. On the one hand, the colonial past of the territories of this region is characterized by a number of common factors. These include dependency on one or several products relevant for the export commerce; the presence of a large (South West Africa, Angola) or smaller but economically representative (São Tomé e Príncipe, Gabon, Northern Rhodesia) white settler community; and a complex interplay between European administrations and the owners of plantations, concession companies, and firms by which colonial officials were under constant pressure to deliver support for the demands of economic interests.


On the other hand, different colonial powers sought different solutions for the problem of labour scarcity, and each of the territories analyzed represents a particular approach used by the European administrations. In the Angolan case, various regional administrations are significant for the analysis of forced labour, and this project will focus on the experiences of local populations with these different local or regional styles of organizing unfree labour. Portuguese colonialism was particularly brutal with regard to the organization of forced labour routines. Portuguese administrators were overzealous concerning the question of cotton cultivation – whether in the geographically immense concession zones, such as in the Baixa de Cassange, or in the sometimes minuscule and impressively unprofitable parcels of land that we find dotted over Kwanza-Norte and Kwanza-Sul, officials did their best to ‘motivate’ peasants through systems of forced cultivation. They also resorted to the practice of shibalo labour: locals who were presumed by the administrators to be unemployed or ‘lazy’ were sent to public road labour. This labour was essential for the transport of lucrative export products such as coffee, again cotton, or other agricultural plants. Pressure was also brought upon locals, who wished to avoid recruitment for the more arduous variants of road labour, and therefore signed underpaid contracts for agricultural and mining labour throughout the region, such as on the coffee plantations in Uíge, Congo, the two Kwanza districts of Angola, the cotton concessions of Malange District, the concessionary diamond zone in Lunda District, or the fish factories in Mossâmedes. The archipelago of São Tomé e Príncipe was in this sense an extension of Angola as zone of a colonial labour regime, as the cocoa plantations on the islands were dependent on contract labourers who were often pressured into these contracts (apart from Angola, this also brings Cape Verde and Mozambique into the picture). Only in 1961/62, under the impact of the nascent anti-colonial war, did the Portuguese consider the abolition of forced labour and forced cultivation, as the last of the colonial powers active in sub-Saharan Africa.


Other, neighbouring territories saw the end of forced labour decreed in the aftermath of the Second World War. The fact that the British, the French, the Belgians, and the South Africans all had better socioeconomic conditions, made larger investment and the replacement of forced labourers with free workers an easier option for these colonial powers. Nevertheless, the French in their Equatorial African colonies were far less unambiguous about the end of forced labour than what seemed to be the case; the British in Northern Rhodesia (future Zambia), relying on local chiefs for its implementation, encouraged the application of so-called ‘communal labour’, whose frontiers to earlier practices of forced labour (e.g. through corvées) were blurred; and the South Africans, in their mandate of South West Africa, appear to have been even more ingenious in turning practices of unfree labour that had been historically endemic in Ovamboland, to the advantage of their administration without officially acknowledging that this effectively was forced labour.


This comparative perspective allows us to elaborate a model of structures, and to question the aftermath and long-term consequences of these practices. While Angola and its neighbouring territories provide the empirical geographical background of this study, the project’s objective focuses on describing structures whose larger contexts are important for the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. Without forgetting the role of the local, the larger goal of this individual project is to provide an empirically and regionally grounded handbook on forced labour under colonial rule for Africa south of the Sahara.


Trabalhos na  Rua Valsassina Beira Moçambique 1928 Cole




(Licence of usage: "Courtesy of CEAUP, Porto")

Individual Project 2: Forced Labour in Ghana from 1930: Colonial Administration and Indirect Rule



Sarah Kunkel

S. Kunkel


PhD Thesis


  • analysis of conditions in Gold Coast/Ghana
  • interpretion of labour recruitment with regard to indirect rule and the role of the chiefs in the process
  • view on the impact of labour on socio-economic structures, and relation of these structures to the transition towards a free labour market

The early twentieth century saw the transformation of parts of the Gold Coast economy into a capitalist economy, based also on the growing interest of private capital in the colony. The Gold Coast was distinct as a producer of both agricultural and mineral export merchandise. These developments created a need for an unskilled labour pool and confronted the colonial administration with the task of recruiting labourers not only for the exploitation of resources, but also for public infrastructure such as the construction and maintenance of roads and public buildings.


This individual project focuses on to what extent labour in today Ghana was coerced. The particularity of ‘forced labour’ in the Gold Coast under British administration is that it was officially non-existent. Another problem in analysing forced labour under the conditions of British rule in West Africa is the relative vagueness of the term ‘forced’. In this respect, it seems that the scholarly definitions of ‘forced labour’ are based on unacceptable forms of labour that are obviously distinct from slavery, such as child or, under certain circumstances, women labour. In addition, ‘forced labour’ is also depicted as a different category from ‘waged labour’. The combination of these more typical definitions leads easily to overlook more abstract or hidden forms of forced labour.


Even though the system of forced labour in the Gold Coast may have been less obvious than in other colonies, we have several approaches to study its existence. In the case of the Gold Coast, the question which needs to be answered is not only who was forced, but also who forced local populations to work. The British administration’s quest for loopholes conceptually created forms of forced labour that seemed different from the experience of slave labour.


The main focus of this research is one of the techniques employed to create new forms of forced labour, concretely, the relationship between indirect rule and chieftaincy. Especially with regard to indirect rule as means of recruiting labour, the effects on socio-economic structures are also of interest. Hence, this project does not exclusively focus on the role that colonial administrators played in the creation of forced labour, but also on the impact of labour models in the social relations between labourers and local authorities in rural areas, and on the meaning of labour for the individual. A focal point of this research is to ascertain the relationship between labour commitment and the social and economic status of the labourer, especially of the male adolescent, in his rural community. Moreover, it takes into account how this status changed due to his experience of free and/or involuntary labour.


To assume that the labourer did not ‘learn’ how to use labour to his advantage because he was forced, would be a false assumption. The impact of coerced labour on the socio-economic sphere is of particular interest in the transition towards a free labour market (and waged labour market) based on the voluntary commitment of the individual to work. In this respect, it will be of interest in how far power relations connected to labour recruitment continued into the post-colonial period, in which a free labour market emerged.


Machileiros Companhia do Buzi Moçambique 1930 Foto Cama




(Licence of usage: "Courtesy of CEAUP, Porto")

Individual Project 3: Feigned abolition, repressive reality? The turbulent end of forced labour in Senegal from 1930



Romain Tiquet

R. Tiquet


PhD Thesis


  • view on attitudes and reactions toward forced labour in colonial Senegal,
  • comparative analysis on the legacies and ruptures in the practices and behaviour of individuals
  • critical review on forced labour structured as a coercive institution by the colonial and the postcolonial state

This research project focuses on the mechanisms of forced labour in the Senegalese context from 1930 toward independence, including the aftereffects that forced labour had towards 1970. Many scholarly studies have been based on the idea of forced labour as a principal motor of colonial development in Sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, in Senegal, like in the other French colonies in West Africa, the historiography of forced labour regards colonial intervention in the mobilization of local manpower as a global phenomenon. However, few studies have examined the reactions of local populations and the incidence of local resistance against such compulsory labour. The core of this individual project thus fills this gap within the historiography and centers on the development of attitudes and the reactions toward forced labour in colonial Senegal.


As part of my research for my MA dissertation, I analysed the system of colonial forced labour in the French empire through the prism of colonial brutality, and through the analysis of police forces as an institution of social control. Focusing on another aspect of this system, my PhD dissertation will now look into the behaviour of the victims of forced labour. Were these victims just a passive part of the play?


In comparison to other French West African colonies, where the coercive mobilization of Africans labourers was used as fundament of the labour system, Senegal appears as a colony where a free labour market was developed at an early stage. Therefore, the predominance of a non-coercive mobilization of workers concealed some brutal forms of forced labour. These conditions seem to have continued even beyond its official abolition in 1946. In its broader chronology, the history of forced labour is a story of ups and downs. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the French colonial power found itself in an embarrassing situation as it became the target of damning criticism from the part of the ‘educated elite’ within the colonies. Critique against the brutality of the labour system turned into an important element employed by African politicians in the electoral campaigns starting mainly after the Second World War. In 1946, the Felix Houphouët-Boigny law abolished the official use of any forms of forced labour in French colonial Africa. Even after the prohibition of these practices, there are indications pointing to the survival of clandestine forms of involuntary labour, which probably continued to exist after the official abolition. The analysis of procedures of colonial exploitation will be useful to focus this study on the continuities of practices of forced labour. This period of transition, between the colonial state and independence, often described as ‘late colonial state’, is crucial to understand the political and social changes that took place in West Africa and particularly in Senegal. In order to analyze this topic with a solid methodological fundament, this study intends to combine archival research and the analysis of oral testimonies.


A main interest of this project is to take into account the legacies of these practices and behaviours – whether on the side of forced workers or on the side of individuals who recruited them – and to understand the ruptures created from 1946. One of its objectives is to interpret the development of an active local resistance throughout this period. More broadly, the aim of this project is to critically examine the structures of forced labour as a coercive institution employed by the colonial and the postcolonial state.


Serviçais recebendo ração na Fazenda Gratidão no Dande




(Licence of usage: "Courtesy of CEAUP, Porto")

Individual Project 4: Colonial Economies of Forced and Contract Labour in the Bight of Biafra (1926-1979) - Imperial Figurations, Atlantic Constellations.



Enrique Martino Martín

E. Martino


PhD Thesis


  • “Plantation island” case in the Gulf of Guinea (as with São Tomé e Príncipe) of dependence on a migrant labour force regulated by right-wing authoritarian regimes.
  • State and market led forced labour in Spanish Guinea and their interrelation.
  • Recruitment networks; labour, contract and vagrancy laws; prison labour, “prestacion personal” and road construction; continuities in the early post-colonial period.

The chain of islands in the Gulf of Guinea under Spanish and Portuguese rule were regularly accused by British civil society organizations of reintroducing working conditions that were analogous to slavery. This individual project focuses on Spanish Guinea and the mechanisms by which the colony recruited, regulated and resettled a labour force drawn from all along the Bight of Biafra, from Eastern Nigeria to Gabon. The acute labour shortage in Spanish Guinea and later Equatorial Guinea opened the way for large inter-colonial migrations and authoritarian attempts to move and fix populations. These displacements and stabilizations were regulated by precisely calculated legal and administrative techniques of contract and state-led forced labour. For the period between 1930 and 1975, three distinct constellations -that have remained unresearched- are examined.

            First; on the island of Fernando Po (Bioko) the vast cacao plantations came to be completely dependent on a Nigerian indentured labour force. Vagrancy laws were introduced in the 1930s to turn the trading based migrant populations into a tightly regulated contract labour force. By the 1940s tens of thousand of labourers had been clandestinely recruited in Nigeria and remunerated two-year contract became obligatory. The public works department on the island drew its labour from the “disciplinary brigades” of the prisons, which were kept full by petty and discriminatory vagrancy laws. Migrant labour (constituting up to 80% of the population of the island) was put at the bottom and sharp end of the island's colonial political economy.

            Second; on the mainland of Spanish Guinea, the enclave of Rio Muni, the logistics of large logging companies and of the many trading factories came to be underpinned by the imposition of colonial sovereignty by way of “prestation personal”, a type of corvée labour demanded for up to three months a year in lieu of tax or military service. Prestacion personal was continuously mobilized by the police, who were also the district administrators, for road construction and the constant work required for the maintenance of infrastructure. For Spanish African subjects this obligation lasted until independence in 1968. Close to half of the colonial state's budget was allocated to the Public Works Department and to the Colonial Police, who spent most of their time and energy on elaborately procuring forced labour.

            Third; after the decolonization of Nigeria in 1960 the Igbo and Ibibio labour force continued to arrive, either through clandestine recruitment or through an indentured Labour Treaty. In the Nigerian public sphere, the issue of widespread labour abuse in the island was as intensely discussed as the idea of boycotting and even annexing this Spanish island. For the independent government of Equatorial Guinea the presence Nigerians constituted a potential threat and by 1975 over 50,000 Nigerian laborers had fled or were repatriated from the island. During the years of the Macias Nguema regime (1968-1979), with the exit of Nigerians and in an attempt to salvage the cacao export economy of the island, forced migration and labour was reintroduced in Equatorial Guinea.


This research project will write up the subtle techniques and public controversies produced around these three historical constellations of forced labour in the former “Spanish Territories of the Gulf of Guinea”. The outmaneuvering and undermining of the colonial and post-colonial economic regimes by those forced to labour does not appear as an appendix, but is traced throughout the three constellations by following the everyday social history of the actors and the networks they were embroiled in, a method enabled by oral history, the rich variety of archival records available and the conceptual tools offered by Bruno Latour.