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. 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. 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 no. 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.

Principal Investigators
Keese, Alexander PD Dr. (Details) (African History)

Participating external organizations

Duration of Project
Start date: 09/2011
End date: 02/2015


Last updated on 2021-28-07 at 13:29