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

Project Conference in Accra and Ho, Ghana, 20 to 23 January 2014

Pathways into colonial (and postcolonial?) coercion: The creation and evolution of forced labour in sub-Saharan Africa under colonial rule, 1890–1975


International Conference in Ho, Ghana, 20–24 January 2014, organized by ForcedLabourAfrica and re:work Berlin with the University of Ghana


Conveners: Kofi Baku (University of Ghana at Legon), Andreas Eckert (re:work at Humboldt University at Berlin), Alexander Keese (ForcedLabourAfrica and Humboldt University at Berlin)


Compulsory labour was a characteristic element of the colonial presence on the African continent from the second half of the nineteenth century. Practically all colonial administrations established on African soil in this period urged for a rapid extension of existing systems of building and transport infrastructure. European metropolitan governments were nevertheless reluctant to allow for any larger investments over longer periods, except in some very circumscribed cases. Forced labour was a straightforward solution to this problem. It allowed colonial officials to proceed with infrastructure projects – and caused a great number of unexpected difficulties, such as flight and resistance, strategic crossings of colonial borders by the African subjects, instability in rural areas, and obsessions on the part of the European agents on the ground, who had to organize the policing of involuntary labour together with ‘native’ intermediaries.


The issue of forced labour becomes yet more intriguing when we attempt to bring the role of ‘native rulers’ into the picture. Colonial administrators always had to rely upon the auxiliary function of chiefs and headmen in the recruitment of labourers – whether the colonial agents would admit this function or not. British practices of colonial domination in West, East and Southern Africa are particularly interesting in this regard, as the British colonial institutions delegated a good part of the practice to the ‘native chiefs’. The nature of these mechanisms is often very little understood by historians, who overlook these repressive elements of British labour organization in the African colonies, as they were frequently hidden behind euphemistic technical terms such as ‘communal labour’ or ‘customary labour’.


Very little has been discussed so far about the continuities of the colonial variant of compulsory labour in the African context. It may definitely be interesting to ask if the strong distrust against central institutions and public intervention that is characteristic in many rural zones of the African continent, needs to be explained through the dramatic experience of forced labour organized by the colonial state. Moreover, the forms of compulsory labour that were employed in several African states after independence, and which were often based on colonial models, may have also had a role. The identification and analysis of forced labour in postcolonial settings is complicated by the fact that in the discourse on forms of “new slavery”, many variants of compulsory labour are put under one label. This makes it sometimes complex to find out if they belong to the same framework.


Colonial forced labour is not slavery. While the borders are sometimes blurred (slave descendants within village communities may be the first to be singled out for compulsory labour in the colonial context), the recruitment of forced labourers to work for the colonial state, or for private employers through the intervention of this state, is clearly distinguishable from a loss of individual liberty that gives persons a (partial or full) property status. Historical research has clearly focused on the second of these two types of involuntary labour relations. Over the last three decades, a number of innovative studies have analyzed the continuities and perpetuation of various forms of slavery under colonial rule. To the contrary, forced labour that was directly organized by the colonial state has remained at the margins of studies: it has often simply been taken for granted, without any more profound discussion of its mechanisms, its implications, and its effects, and, finally, its comparative dimension.


These issues were discussed – within the history of Ghana, of West Africa, of the history of the African continent, and of global labour history - in an intensive, thematic conference held at Ho, Ghana. Ho is the regional capital of the Volta Region, a region that had one last experience of massive slave-raiding during the Asante incursions of 1869 to 1871; a territory that then came under the rule of the German administration of Togo from 1884, which was infamous for corvée labour; and was then part of British Togoland (where officially no compulsory labour existed), neighbouring French Togo (where the administration openly used different variants of forced labour). It became finally integrated into Ghana, a country that for its colonial period is a particularly interesting case with regard to forced labour, as officially such practices were no longer existent by 1918. However, all the complexities of enforced communal labour organized by the chiefs find a kind of model in the Ghanaian case. Therefore, Ho and its region historically stand at the crossroads of different processes, which are intriguing from a comparative perspective, and may be regarded as clearly symbolic for the broader questions that were central to the conference. The events attempted to create a lively debate and exchange between Ghanaian, West African, and international scholars.



Detailed Programme and Abstracts

20 January 2014


Introduction at Accra

The issue of colonial forced labour, and the experiences connected to these practices, are an important fact for the memory of African societies. ForcedLabourAfrica, with the generous support of its partner, re:work Berlin, attempted to introduce the general public into these questions at the occasion of an evening talk at Coconut Grove Hotel, Accra. Kofi Baku, Andreas Eckert, and Alexander Keese discussed the role of forced labour and future steps towards its interpretation. This was followed by a lecture given by the most eminent of labour historians working on sub-Saharan African, Frederick Cooper, who offered an analysis of forms of labour in colonial Africa.


Keynote Lecture: Work, workers, working class: the ambiguities of “free" labor in colonial Africa

Frederick Cooper (New York University)

Marx wrote that labor under capitalism was free in a double sense: free from slavery or other forms of direct coercion and free of any alternative to laboring for wages. This paper explores the tensions between the ideological imperatives European powers in Africa faced to demonstrate that they were freeing labor in Marx's first sense and the difficulties of developing free labor in Marx’s second sense. It underscores the problem they faced in getting Africans to work when colonial rulers did not think of Africans as workers. Eventually, the colonial powers – France and Britain most clearly – came to realize that notions of wage labor and a labor market were inadequate for their purposes and they had no choice but to plunge into the social complexity of developing, managing, and disciplining an African working class. But that class had to be distinguished not only from dominant classes–those controlling economic and political resources – but from the mass of Africans as well.