By the mid-nineteenth century, the existence of physical paper created ownership – a “papereality,” or “a world of symbols or written representations, that take precedence over the things and events represented.”Footnote 1 The existence of the written register created the idea that land use and occupation could be proven, that ownership, being a farmer and a respectable colonial resident, was anchored on written evidence. In contrast to poor or enslaved urban residents, those who made use of the colonial administration had written documents recording their legal identity and inserting them as official subjects. Encoded in these documents were expressions that legitimated a narrative about the past: These were free people with Catholic names, vassals of the Portuguese Crown, and hardworking individuals who understood the importance of agriculture. Missing from these documents was any reference to skin color or a past that could jeopardize social standing or threaten someone’s prestige.Footnote 2 Recording was selective, yet these documents are rich and allow historians to reconstruct the lives of West Central African men and women and their claims to property.
Written documents were more than symbolic: They were a weapon of control for colonizers and tools in the hands of the colonized, who tapped into the power of government to assert their rights. Colonial conquest and occupation in West Central Africa were a victory of paper over memory and of writing over oral claims.Footnote 3 Written records became tools for the colonized to assert their rights and property ownership, particularly with respect to African women. Colonial records for the nineteenth century suggest that West Central African women enjoyed a series of rights and made extensive use of the colonial courts to protect their assets. In official lists of traders or owners or in traveler accounts, African women were not recognized as such, but their activities and actions determined their ability to claim rights. African women relied on the colonial bureaucracy to register their belongings, demonstrating how written records could prove ownership and conserve any disputes or negotiations behind property acquisition and transmission. The will or the land record gained new meaning, representing people, events, desires, and networks. In fact, petitions, land records, wills, and inventories reveal colonial subjects’ ability to navigate the colonial legal system and pass on their possessions to relatives and friends.Footnote 4 These records legitimated women as property owners, which bolstered their status and power in the colonial urban center. Women are not invisible or hard to find in legal cases or ecclesiastical records. In fact, they are everywhere, and it is hard to write about the Angolan past without mentioning the key roles women have played, including registering claims over things, people, and land.
Colonial authorities in Angola were accustomed, by the mid-nineteenth century, to tallying people, taxing residents, and accounting for the sale, transport, and export of human beings shipped as captives. Although earlier attempts to legislate and intervene in local practices of ownership existed, during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries there was a rush to survey land, people, and customs in order to facilitate colonial seizure and control. The introduction of new forms of registers, such as land registrations, indicates how notions of land use and occupation had changed and become associated with written registration. Paper records were integral to the Portuguese Empire. Only when land registration and wills were recorded by the official colonial scribe and not by local Africans did the Portuguese accept the documents as authentic and legitimate.Footnote 5 Once land occupation recognition was subject to formal colonial validation and moved away from local chiefs’ control, the local population was pushed to use the colonial bureaucracy to defend and acquire new rights.Footnote 6
West Central African rulers did keep land records orally, but by the early eighteenth century, several rulers began to register their territory in written documents aware of colonial changes regarding occupation and legitimacy. Record keeping about land registration indicated that Portuguese officials felt the necessity and the authority to claim land and categorize its use. In this context, West Central African rulers struggled to establish their rights; however, some Ndembu authorities created their own state’s archives, such as Caculo Cacahenda, embracing the idea that written evidence proved ownership claims.Footnote 7 In urban areas, individuals were required to identify the piece of land they intended to use, explain their plan for its use, and pay for it. Colonial bureaucrats sent agents to verify the size of the terrain and produced documents related to land possession. These pieces of paper legitimated the use of property, consolidated power over the population living in the colonial urban center, and took precedent over any other form of proving occupation.
The creation of land registries and the regulation of plots responded to changes in perceptions of governance and commodification in the nineteenth century. The local population, including West Central African rulers, articulated their own understandings of land rights and the importance of the documents they needed to maintain their social standing. Ndembu rulers, identified as Dembos in Portuguese records, Ilamba lords, Kakonda sobas, and other West Central Africans, including Luso-AfricansFootnote 8 and Portuguese officers, reinforced paper’s power through the creation of records whose existence served as proof of ownership. Community ownership or the power of neighbors and peers to recognize occupation and use rights over land, people, and cattle was no longer enough, a clear disadvantage for those who had no access to literacy or a scriber. From the perspective of the Portuguese empire at large, there was an effort to expand knowledge about conquered people, including their jurisprudence and land regimes. Although customs, referred to as usos e costumes, collected in West Central Africa in the nineteenth century were not as detailed and rich as the local jurisprudence codified in Mozambique, Guiné, or Goa, they inform us about local ideas on right and wrong, what constituted crime, and local land regimes.Footnote 9 Setting down local laws in writing was part of the effort to define rights and citizenship in Portugal and its overseas empire. They defined who qualified as a Portuguese citizen in Angola, Mozambique, and Goa and indicated how the metropolitan law was applied over non-Catholic subjects.
Colonial administrators were committed to recording information that confirmed European claims, stereotypes, and political demands. As a result, there is an abundance of written documents in Portuguese about the economic, political, and social lives of the colonized. Jurists went to the colonies to collect ethnographic information in order to construct colonial knowledge. Much of the information collected was used in the “civilizing mission” projects.Footnote 10 Produced in a context of evolutionist theories in which African populations were portrayed as uncivilized and barbaric, usos e costumes still reflect local jurisprudence, although they likely remained fluid until they were crystallized in the written codes of the nineteenth century. Not surprisingly, West Central African populations apprehended the importance of the written document and began to organize their own archives to document rights and debts that could legitimize later claims.Footnote 11 Many property records are mixed in the bundled books available at the Arquivo Nacional de Angola, and in the wills, deeds, and inventories available at the Tribunal da Comarca de Benguela. In these records, Africans claimed property, which allows an understanding on the dynamics of access to resources in the colonial centers and elsewhere. Local people, including several women, made use of multiple strategies to protect their rights, calling on local norms in conjunction with the colonial system of property recognition.
These records reveal that West Central Africans acquired real estate and material goods, which allowed accumulation and consolidation of wealth. The governor of Angola in the late eighteenth century, Francisco Inocêncio de Sousa Coutinho, remarked that the Luandan elite lived luxurious lives, surrounded by “an excessive number of Black and mixed race women that follow them anywhere, dressed in expensive outfits, adorned with gold, silver, and precious stones jewelry, carried in little chairs or hammocks around town.”Footnote 12 While there was a recognition that colonial elites and African subjects accumulated property in the form of enslaved people, clothes, and luxurious items, registering these items in writing and extending claims to land became a concern. Besides material items, West Central Africans claimed landed properties, as can be seen in “Termo de Terreno,” available at the Biblioteca da Província Benguela (Library of the Benguela Province). This document lists the individuals who requested land in Benguela from 1843 to 1894 (see Table 3.5, Granted Land in Benguela). Although property records were not introduced to protect the rights of colonial subjects, many of these individuals, including a surprising number of women, were able to access the colonial bureaucracy and claim rights.Footnote 13
Property claims in the nineteenth-century colonial records should not be taken as representative of the condition of every West Central African, but they do suggest the complexities of ownership negotiations. In addition, they reveal how, long before the Berlin Conference, European colonial violence resulted in local people losing access to land and movable property. West Central African women addressed questions of dispossession and made new appeals, employing colonial tools to advance their claims.Footnote 14
The Population under Control: Property, Law, and Its Limits
In most places, colonizing powers sought to extend their jurisdiction over territories and populations that they knew very little about. In West Central Africa, the colonial administration erected jurisdictional boundaries that gave the illusion of clear and precise control, such as labeling West Central Africans as vassals or heathens, yet these boundaries were inherently unstable and constantly under renegotiation, as attested in several cases of local rulers who challenged the Portuguese claims.Footnote 15 While during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was a concern of European agents elsewhere in Africa to record customary laws as if they were immutable, the same cannot be said about the Portuguese colonies. Portuguese agents appropriated some elements of local jurisdiction such as the mucano tribunal, in the case of West Central African societies, but also sought to impose Portuguese law on its subjects.Footnote 16 A multi normative system of local and colonial laws coexisted for three centuries, which included some recognition of West Central African juridical norms. Besides the incorporation of the mucano tribunal, colonial agents recognized the validity of unwritten contracts, such as debt practices that allowed long-distance trade to operate for most of the transatlantic slave trade era. Nonetheless, the unwritten practices were gradually dismissed by the second half of the nineteenth century and, as a result, some ethnography collected in the early twentieth century claimed that local groups such as the Ndombe did not have “any law or law courts and when they cannot settle cases in a friendly manner, they complain to the local authority.”Footnote 17
Colonial courts were not instituted to solve disputes among colonial subjects and African rulers, yet residents requested the arbitration of colonial judicial officers. In August 1828, Dona Joana Coelho de Magalhães presented a formal complaint against the sekulo, an adviser of the soba of Bisova, who had failed to pay acquired debts. The judge ordered the corporal of Catumbela to settle the dispute in favor of Dona Magalhães, demonstrating that colonial law could side with African women.Footnote 18 While Dona Joana Coelho de Magalhães’s background is not clear, she appears in ecclesiastical records as the godmother of several children, including Escolástica, a Black girl baptized in Benguela in 1801; Teresa, baptized in 1805 with no mention of her color or status, daughter of the enslaved woman Lourença; and Francisca, daughter of the free woman Marcela da Costa Arouco.Footnote 19 The ecclesiastical records also reveal that Magalhães married Francisco António da Luz Abreu in 1805, but they are silent on her color or “naturalidade,” her birth place.Footnote 20 African subjects, particularly women and young people who would not be privileged in societies ruled by elders, flocked to colonial institutions to solve issues that were ignored by local rulers, elders, or African elites.
For their own protection, residents registered before traveling between the colonial centers to avoid kidnapping, seizure, and enslavement. In one case, Catarina António de Glória requested authorization to travel as a free person between Benguela and Luanda.Footnote 21 In another, Captain Raimundo had to prove that Maria, a Black woman traveling with him to Luanda, was a freed person. Like freedpeople in the Americas, these cases suggest the risks that Black individuals faced and the mechanisms they had to employ to preserve their freedom. It is not clear whether people carried written documents with them to prove status, as happened in other slave societies.Footnote 22
By the 1820s, written documents and courts had become the method and venue for solving disputes from real estate to ownership of human beings, and several women used the colonial courts to settle conflicts over assets. Leonor da Costa Monteiro requested an audience with Captain Benites to solve issues related to the ownership of an enslaved woman.Footnote 23 In the same year, 1827, Caetano, a Black man, complained to the Benguela judge that the soldier André das Salinas (probably referring to his place of residence or birth, as das salinas means from the salt mines) had failed to deliver an enslaved woman he had inherited from a deceased relative. The judge warned Salinas he could be physically punished if he refused to deliver the captive to Caetano, her legitimate owner.Footnote 24 The local population understood that colonial institutions were appropriate venues for pursuing old and new claims, even when dealing with questions of ownership recognition over human beings.
In 1827, Margarida, a free Black woman, requested an audience with the judge of Benguela to settle a dispute with a ship captain.Footnote 25 Margarida had sold a female captive to the captain. Lather, the unnamed captive, while on board, claimed to be a free person. This type of dispute needed to be settled before sailing, as I had examined elsewhere, since the sale of free individuals was a topic of intense dispute and legal debate in Angola.Footnote 26 In this specific case, Margarida argued she enjoyed ownership rights over the sold captive, so any freedom claim was unjustified. A few months later in 1828, another Black woman resident of Benguela, Bando, also known as Filipa, went to the colonial judge to settle a dispute. Bando requested an audience with the magistrate to address a conflict with a Quibanda resident, António Xavier, regarding some goods he had stolen from her. The judge ordered both sides to attend a meeting to solve the feud.Footnote 27 West Central African women enjoyed a series of rights and made extensive use of the colonial courts to protect their property.
While the colonial administration was committed to protecting the interests and the property of Portuguese subjects, residents of West Central African societies appropriated the use of paper documents to gain their own advantage. The Secretaria do Estado da Marinha e Ultramar (SEMU) sent regulations to the overseas colonies ordering that in the absence of a magistrate (juiz de paz), the highest civil or military authority should protect the inheritance of Portuguese citizens who died without clear heirs.Footnote 28 However, the courts and the administration ended up arbitrating conflicts about rights in part because West Central Africans understood that colonial power was committed to creating paper evidence.Footnote 29 Courts adjudicated payment disputes for land sale or services. This was the case with Filipa, a free Black woman who had provided domestic services to Joaquim Inácio de Couto for nine months. They had agreed on a salary of four réis per month, but Couto failed to pay Filipa, who requested the intervention of the judge. The judge sided with Filipa and ordered her immediate payment.Footnote 30 Colonial courts intervened to protect owners, no matter if people claimed ownership over people, service, or land. Josefa Manoel Joaquim, for example, had sold a house in Catumbela and requested that the purchaser, Ana, filed the sales letter. This case reveals that land sales were taking place by the late 1820s, suggesting that a small-scale land market existed and that these sales were recorded in sales letters.Footnote 31
With the expansion of the colonial presence in the newly founded town of Mossamedes, due to its “good pastures and rich flora, optimal for cultivation [and] … rich in fresh water and cattle,”Footnote 32 the administration rushed to control access to the urban space. The southern settlement was central to the colonial vision of agricultural expansion, with impoverished Portuguese immigrants occupying African land at the expense of the local population. In the 1840s, there was an established market for urban houses, with the colonial administration in charge of registering property transmission and collecting taxes for the transaction.Footnote 33 Portuguese immigrants were advised that they could build houses in unoccupied lots. However, the houses where Europeans lived could not look like the houses in which the Black population resided, and immigrants from Portugal and Brazil received notifications from the colonial state that they had to refrain from buying enslaved people.Footnote 34
As much as they wanted to be in charge of property registration and transmission, administrators and judges had no practical authority over territories ruled by African rulers (sobas or dembos). In 1848, the secretary of Angola notified the governor that it was impossible to collect the debt owned by Portuguese subjects who lived outside of Portuguese-controlled areas. José de Oliveira Rezende owed 1:600$000 to Vicente António Fatia, who had died in Benguela. In an effort to settle the inventory, Rezende had to honor his debt, yet he was “away from the conquered land.” If he returned to Benguela, the governor was expected to seize his goods in order to pay off his debts.Footnote 35 As much as they wanted to project unity, coherence, structure, and intentionality, the state bureaucracy and its machinery were limited. In practice, the colonial bureaucracy, including its efforts to regulate law and legislate over property, was fragmented and disunited, in part due to the resistance of African rulers and their subjects who refused to negotiate with the intruders.
The colonial administration had a limited number of officers available to protect the property of colonial subjects and arbitrate conflicts. The 1866 population census presents a neat picture of a colonial society, with people classified into specific categories in the colonial centers such as Benguela and Catumbela (see Table 3.1). However, the officer in charge, Eduardo A. de Sá Nogueira, recognized its limitations since “no population counting can be exact due to the difficulties associated with [collecting data] in this type of work.”Footnote 36
The colonial administration lacked knowledge regarding the population that lived in the interior in territories nominally under Portuguese control. Houses were enumerated as well as the rulers who lived under Portuguese nominal control (see Table 3.2). These were divided into three categories: dembos avassalados, sobas independent from the dembos avassalados, and the sobas under the jurisdiction of vassal dembos, in a confusing hierarchy of subjection to colonial rule and West Central African rulers. The preoccupation with counting people, houses, and rulers was an old one and derives from concerns about collecting taxes, identifying owners, and solving disputes. The numbers fed the illusion of control and of a territory under colonial rule.Footnote 37
|Locations||Vassal dembos||Independent sobas||Sobas subordinated to dembos||Religion||Literacy|
The population was broken down by gender, civil status, place of birth, and religious affiliation (with only two categories available: Christians, meaning Catholics, and heathens). In a moment of expansion of bureaucracy and written documents, the population counting identified few literate individuals. In 1866, only 346 individuals were able to read and write Portuguese out of Benguela’s population of over 15,000. Yet this small group of literate agents created a vast number of records, including court records, in which many of the property litigations were presented. The Tribunal da Comarca de Benguela, established in the early 1850s, contains over 2,000 legal cases, most of them dealing with property litigation.Footnote 38 The court, which was initially under Luanda’s colonial administration and later made autonomous alongside the Câmara Municipal, holds the records related to litigation, rights, wills, and inventories.Footnote 39 Before the creation of the Tribunal da Comarca de Benguela, property and court records were registered among the official correspondence dispersed in the codices at the Arquivo Nacional de Angola. After the establishment of an autonomous courthouse in Benguela, records were stored at the Tribunal da Comarca de Benguela.
Colonial records are filled with cases of African women – classified as white, Black, or mixed race – who asserted ownership rights in writing, showing how colonialism, writing, and power were connected. These women exerted not only control over controlled subjects but also the ability to fight against the violence of occupation and denial of colonized rights. In some instances, the records are simple summaries of cases and not the entire procedure with details that could provide more clues about the nature of these disputes. However, they reveal that West Central Africans who lived in colonial centers, including women, negotiated their rights. The effort to settle disputes over property and clarify ownership claims, though limited in scope, provided African women in Benguela and Luanda, in West Central Africa, as well as in Lagos and Abeokuta, in the British colony of the Gold Coast, and Bathurst, in Gambia spaces to assert new economic and legal rights.Footnote 40 Still, customary law recorded in the early twentieth century stated that
Ndombe women did not enjoy any rights [to property], except to their children. She can remain living in the cubata (a wooden house with straw roof) that belonged to her husband after his death only if the heir authorizes [her residence]. Otherwise she returns to her family, and in the case of not having enough [resources] to maintain her children, her brothers oversee feeding them.Footnote 41
There is a clear disconnect between the nineteenth-century evidence and the customary law recorded later.
Empires did not aim to empower colonial subjects, particularly women; however, by the nineteenth century, many West Central African women, especially those in the elite, generated a new form of legal subjectivity that privileged the written document as a legitimate claim. The colonial judge was not the only possible site of justice for colonized subjects in the nineteenth century, yet African women made efforts to secure audiences with judges and court arbitration.Footnote 42 African women engaged with the colonial judicial system to establish claims and protect their property, including against their husbands. The petitions, appeals, and lawsuits disclose the methods and arguments African men and woman employed. Although their motivations are not clear, women looked for spaces to settle disputes, including the Portuguese imperial legal system, ironically consolidating the notion of rights as formal and written practices and solidifying colonial control. The writing culture, or the practice of registering property in writing, affected sovereignty, legitimacy, and identity, and transformed law and oral record keeping.Footnote 43
Despite the historical evidence, the discussion of property rights in the Angolan historiography has not addressed gender, without any clear analysis of how men’s and women’s rights were similar or different, or how these rights changed over time.Footnote 44 The customary law recorded in the twentieth century shows that local rulers tried to prevent women from claiming land rights, despite clear indications that West Central African women had ownership rights recognized before the Berlin Conference and asserted them under different contexts. In West Central Africa, as elsewhere, possession or occupancy was at the origin of property in the sense that whoever claimed rights got to enjoy ownership. This privileged the act of possession, those who made claims, and the system that recognized notions of private property, such as the colonial court. Inevitably the interests of those who did not care or who did not have the resources to make the original claim of occupancy suffered, as well as those without access to literacy in Portuguese.Footnote 45
Colonial governance encountered various inheritance practices in West Central Africa. Several groups along the coast and in the interior of Benguela followed matrilineal inheritance practices, in which nephews, the children of sisters, were the natural heirs. This custom regulated transmission and political rights in the case of ruling lineages, although, as seen in Chapter 2, some groups challenged the system if and when patrilineal inheritance was more convenient.Footnote 46 However, the existence of matrilineal inheritance did not guarantee women access to land or cattle. Among the Ndombe, for example, cattle accumulation indicated wealth by the late eighteenth century. Like other pastoral societies, the Ndombe did not consume the meat but used the hides for bags and the horns to make pipes, manufactured cheese and yogurt with the milk, and used the manure to enrich the soil. Cattle were a measure of wealth for pastoralists and farmers, who used it to pay taxes and settle debts, but also as part of marriage arrangements and offerings to the spirits and to honor the dead.Footnote 47 However, it is not clear whether men and women had different access to cows, pigs, and sheep. Despite the lack of information on gender accumulation, cattle had an economic value and could be disposed of, sold, or held as collateral, although few families owned large herds. As a result, by the late eighteenth century, herders in Kilengues hid the number of cattle they owned when investigated by colonial officers to avoid taxation.Footnote 48 In terms of land access, Ndombe women secured land rights after marriage, and these could be forfeited in the case of divorce.Footnote 49 The situation was different in the twentieth century, as anthropologists noticed.Footnote 50
To control and manage such flux of inheritance practices, colonial administrators imposed written records, such as wills and registers, to provide a record of ownership. There are very few wills dating to the eighteenth century, but most of those are for Portuguese men who died while in Luanda or Benguela, and all of them refer to personal property including clothes and luxury items such as silverware, tobacco cases, objects made of turtle shell, and enslaved people.Footnote 51 Some of them refer to real estates, such as the case of the postmortem will of the Portuguese trader Aurélio Veríssimo da Silva. In 1805, da Silva declared that he owned a tile-roofed house on the beach of Benguela that had previously belonged to the priest Francisco de Santa Anna Barros, revealing commercialization of real estate in the colonial urban center.Footnote 52 I have not been able to locate eighteenth-century wills or postmortem inventories of locally born people, including filhos da terra, the locally born whites who enjoyed much of the privilege and status of Portuguese-born individuals. However, burial records reveal the existence of wills. Tomé Rodrigues, for example, started writing a will while sick but died in 1792 before he could finish it.Footnote 53 Most of the wills and property transfer contracts available are for the post-1850 period, although fragmentary evidence suggests how West Central African men and women accumulated wealth.
Women also registered property in writing, although few recorded land ownership in the early nineteenth century. Most focused on protecting their interests as slave owners, preventing the escape or seizure of human property, in systems of ownership very similar to slavery in the Americas or in other colonial centers along the African coast. In 1814, Catarina da Costa appealed to the governor of Benguela that Manoel Candido de Melo had illegally taken one of her enslaved boys (moleque), Justino, to a ship bound for Luanda and requested the restitution of her human property. With the collaboration of the governor of Angola, the young Justino was located and sent back to serve in da Costa’s house.Footnote 54 Catarina da Costa was from Bailundu in the central highlands and outside of colonial control, yet she was fully integrated into colonial society and used the colonial system to win small victories such as recuperating Justino. As this case indicates, written documents became a physical manifestation of elite women and men’s subjectivity as legal agents and colonial subjects. Yet these documents silence the experience of those who were considered property, the enslaved men and women, such as Justino, who constituted an important portion of the West Central African population for most of the nineteenth century.
The colonial administration did not aspire to empower colonial subjects, yet many colonized women privileged the written document. However, access to colonial bureaucracy had limits. It was predominantly an urban phenomenon for women and men culturally exposed to the Portuguese world even if they were locally born. For example, the Benguela-born Catarina Rosa, married to the soldier Manoel de Souza, demanded that her husband return her clothes since she did not intend to cohabit with him anymore due to the “bad life she had while in his company.”Footnote 55 It is important to stress she did not seek alimony, indicating she was able to support herself. One did not have to be an elite woman to present a demand to the colonial judge. In 1826, Caraxima, identified as a Black woman, requested actions against Gira, Humba, Chacabara, and Dumba, all Black men, who had seized three children of João, one of her dependents. In this case, a woman with a clear Umbundu name presented her case to the judge in Benguela after the colonial authority in Dombe Grande failed to address her concerns.Footnote 56
Africans successfully used colonial authority and institutions for their own ends, ensuring their economic well-being and gaining access to social and legal identities. They also sought to protect their economic interests, as in the case of Andreza Leal do Sacramento, who presented a petition against Joaquim Inácio da Costa for failing to deliver an enslaved woman,Footnote 57 or Francisca Xavier Ramos, who demanded Dionisio Barbosa de Melo provide a proof of sale for the peanut barrel he sold on her behalf to the priest Tomás.Footnote 58 The records do not mention the color or place of origin of Andreza or Francisca, but in the population census of 1826 only two white women are listed as residing in Benguela. The white classification referred to those born in Portugal or locally born descendants of Portuguese individuals. In 1833, the number of women classified as white had dropped to one.Footnote 59 The small number of white women recorded as residing in Benguela and the considerable number of legal cases presented by West Central African women suggest that color classification did not prevent legal actions in the colonial courts.
In 1827, Dona Lucrécia Ferres Lobato demanded a payment of 651,828 réis from José Apolinário. To support her claim, she presented eight different sale bills and promissory notes, indicating that she had advanced enslaved people to Apolinário, who had failed to pay their value. “Facing these legal documents,” the governor issued that “Apolinário had 24 hours to honor his payment and present a receipt for it.”Footnote 60 Bills, notes, and formal processes against debtors became physical artifacts as the papers assumed the role of evidence that could be used later.
The colonial courts also became spaces to solve domestic disputes since Portuguese law favored the interests of heirs, recognizing wives’ rights to half of the couple’s property.Footnote 61 In 1827, Dona Antónia Rodrigues de Abreu submitted a divorce petition to the judge of Benguela, in order to end her marriage to Manuel Barbosa Coutinho. The divorce petition included an alimony request. Dona Antónia Rodrigues de Abreu had moved into the house of a poor relative who offered a roof, yet she “was living in misery.” Abreu also claimed that her husband had expelled her from their house to host his lover, Ana de Sousa. The judge replied that he could not arbitrate on ecclesiastical matters such as divorce, but “knowing the priest, I am convinced he will favor justice and not allow such scandalous behavior to take place.”Footnote 62 The judge stated that since the couple were legally married, husband and wife shared all the assets. In the case of divorce, it was necessary to identify all the goods and property acquired since their union, pay any eventual debts, and the remaining assets had to be divided between husband and wife. Until the division of property was settled, the judge ordered Barbosa Coutinho to provide Abreu 300 réis daily to cover her meals and needs. The end of this case is unknown, but a few months later Abreu passed away at the local hospital. According to the burial record, she was identified as coming from Luanda and married to Manuel Barbosa Coutinho. The divorce was apparently not settled before her death. However, her husband continued to cohabit with Dona Ana de Sousa in the following years, burying a child, Isabel, the newly couple had together, in 1831.Footnote 63 Despite the protection offered by Portuguese laws regarding property rights, African wives had to overcome extra hurdles and were denied a series of rights to which they were entitled, such as property or alimony, as this case suggests.
In these records, we see the variety of assets West Central African women accumulated and their ability to make sure their ownership was recognized in the colonial law, in a clear indication that any discussion about property in Angola needs to place women at the center of the debate. In 1828, Josefa de Carvalho, a free Black resident in Benguela, complained to the colonial authorities that one of her captives, Maria, had fled from her arimo (agricultural plot) in Catumbela.Footnote 64 In a single document, Josefa de Carvalho claimed ownership over a plot of land and a person. In the same year, another woman identified as Black, Laureana António, reported that one of the sekulos (advisers) of the ruler of Dombe Grande, named Candele, had seized one of her cows and beaten Teresa, one of her slaves.Footnote 65 Others complained about men who had seized their belongings, such as the case of the Black woman Filipa, also known as Bando, examined earlier.Footnote 66 Historical records reveal that several colonial residents employed Umbundu and Portuguese names.
A vast number of records list African women as owners, but colonial lists project the notion that property was a male domain. Colonial agents did not recognize women as legitimate owners or able to manage their property. In 1822, the bishop of Angola reported that “the widespread practice of concubinage led to the extreme weakness of black women, some who were enslaved Christians who belong to their own partners, others who were heathen vassals of the neighboring sobas. The Caconda priest informed me that one of his parishioners, a white man, had already baptized 75 of his own children.”Footnote 67 The Portuguese traveler António Francisco Ferreira da Silva Porto saw concubinage as an expansion of slavery since men “paid” for their wives and put them to work to increase their wealth, with the ability to reject and sell them. For him, as for many other European agents, concubinage, female enslavement, and prostitution were intertwined and synonyms, confusing bridewealth and dowry practices with bondage.Footnote 68 In the process, women’s strategies to navigate and occupy spaces in colonial societies were dismissed as sex work, and the emotional ties and collective economic effort behind their actions were denied or seen as a moral transgression. Fundamentally, West Central African women were not seen as legitimate owners, property holders, or contributors to the colonial economy, despite clear indications of their roles.
Throughout the nineteenth century, the colonial administration collected lists of traders who lived in Benguela. Inevitably, these lists (Tables 3.3 and 3.4) identified male, white traders, neglecting the role of the local population in commerce.
|José Nicolau Ferreira|
|Alexandre José da Silva|
|José Joaquim Teixeira|
|João Pedro de Andrade|
|Diniz Vieira de Lima|
|Joaquim Lopes dos Santos|
|José Apolinário Alvares|
|Manoel Pires Chaves|
|João Batista Benites|
|José Rodrigues de Magalhães|
|Francisco Ferreira Gomes|
In the list of larger traders and owners who lived in Benguela in 1869, fourteen names were identified, as can be seen in Table 3.4. Some of these clearly represented companies such as Conchoix & Freres, which probably referred to a corporation headed by Eugenio Caicoix, a French entrepreneur.Footnote 69 Only one was a woman – Dona Teresa Barruncho, the leading exporter of cotton in Benguela in the 1860s. Despite her importance, she was represented by a man, José Gonçalves da Silva Soares, as was necessary in the Portuguese Empire.Footnote 70
|Caetano Alberto de Sousa|
|Custódio José de Sousa Veloso|
|Conchoix & Frères|
|Domingos Joaquim Pereira|
|Ferreira & Costa|
|Francisco José de Freitas|
|Francisco César da Horta|
|João Ferreira Gonçalves, representing Joaquim Lopes de Castro’s business|
|Joaquim Gonçalves de Azevedo Castro and João Maria Carreira, representing Manoel António Teixeira Barbosa’s business|
|José Gonçalves da Silva Soares, representing D. Teresa Barruncho’s business|
|José Joaquim Teixeira, representing Joaquim Pereira Galino’s business|
|José Joaquim Vieira da Silva|
|Manuel António dos Santos Reis|
Similar to the West Central African rulers who embraced written culture to assert their rights during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, women resident in Luanda and Benguela also seized the opportunity. Colonial administrators produced lists of merchants (see Tables 3.3 and 3.4) that privileged recognition of men as merchants and property owners, but even so African women had a central role in exerting property rights in the first half of the nineteenth century.
African Women, Property Claims, and Written Documents
Colonial laws and courts were employed when there were disputes over property, in the form of resources such as land or, in the case of free and enslaved dependents, labor . The existence of multiple legal spheres affected colonial subjects who could employ different judicial spaces when it suited them, such as in marriage, divorce, or ownership rights. Although the introduction of colonial adjudication over local disputes, which replaced the role of elders and sobas, may have made it more difficult for West Central African men and women to access the court, elite women took advantage of the new urban legal system to insert themselves into the colonial space and claim rights, as in other African contexts.Footnote 71
Although the Portuguese legal code theoretically guaranteed women’s right to property as wives and daughters, that is, in relationship to men, the colonial administration did not necessarily view African women as capable and trustworthy in managing inheritances. Colonial officer Elias Alexandre da Silva Correa expressed doubt that women could exercise any control over their human property: “If the slaves do not agree with her choice of a husband they run away, afraid of possibly experiencing severe treatment from a new owner.”Footnote 72 Colonial observers condemned the behavior of powerful women and portrayed them as simultaneously standing up to male power, unable to manage their properties, and under the influence of their male dependents. These attitudes were not exclusive to West Central Africa, as similar public discredit of women as landholders was widespread in Mozambique from the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries.Footnote 73
West Central African women invested in urban real estate, enslaved people, luxury goods, and animals, combining different strategies to accumulate property, including controlling dependents who cultivated their land. This was the case with Joana Martinho Lopes, who died in Benguela in 1864. Although Martinho Lopes’s will has not been located, the inventory of her properties at the time of her death is available. Lopes’s inventory was considered “small” and consisted of a plot along the Cavaco River in Benguela, an arimo with ten cubatas in Dombe Grande, gold, an old trunk, a piece of golden lace, six pieces of textile, and an old blanket.Footnote 74 Most of her wealth was invested in controlling labor, or wealth in people, a system based on the rights over someone’s labor and reproduction. Her assets included a small boy, five older women, two women, two girls, a man who worked as a mason who was freed in the terms of her will, a fisherman, two men without skills, and a woman with her baby.Footnote 75 Men and elders may have had control over women’s labor, but cases such as this demonstrate certain women had rights to someone else’s labor, accumulating free and unfree dependents.Footnote 76 If the control of women’s labor was central to different systems of stratification, the ability of women to control labor favored their economic expansion. Their wealth allowed them to accumulate dependents from communities of impoverished people in troubled circumstances. Personal wealth, social prestige, and security relied on being able to control labor through ties of marriage, patron–client links, and allegiance.Footnote 77 Hence, women achieved economic independence as landowners and labor recruiters, using the labor of their children and dependents to secure prestige and safety. Married or widowed, women retained control over the products of their and their dependents’ labor. They were able to invest in trade opportunities, pay land taxes, and purchase household items for themselves and their businesses.Footnote 78 Yet Portuguese men, such as Bishop Vicente Prazeres da Costa and Silva Porto, both mentioned earlier, portrayed African women as lazy, irresponsible, or exclusively sexual beings.Footnote 79
In archival records, West Central African women appear as social actors who participated in the economic and social life of their communities. However, colonial officers viewed the enrichment of Africans, particularly women, with ambivalence. The colonial administration approved the growing production of cotton or sugarcane and portrayed it as in harmony with civilizing goals, yet at the same time African involvement competed with the enterprises of European farmers.Footnote 80 In 1877, António Ignácio Ruas requested a renewal of his two-year license for his position as administrator of the post office of Luanda. His license allowed him to work on the farm of his daughter, Ambrozina Ismánia Ruas, in the Golungo Alto.Footnote 81 Even on the eve of the Berlin Conference, when the destinies of Africans changed dramatically, women in West Central Africa were managing farms and gaining wealth through their labor. By the second half of the nineteenth century, access to property was gendered. Its access defined social status and economic power. Land ownership also structured relationships within and outside of households. More importantly, examples indicate that some West Central African women played an important role in claiming property and increased their social prestige and wealth in the process at the expense of legitimate trade.
One of the ironies of the colonial obsession with writing down property records is that it provided space for West Central African women to claim rights. Unlike in other contexts in which women’s presence in court records seems to be limited to women who were property belonging to male actors, in the Portuguese colonial records African women are everywhere, including as property owners.Footnote 82 Free Black women owned houses, plots of land, and small businesses such as taverns and shops and conducted business in the streets of colonial towns selling prepared food, fruits, fish, and water, a pattern that was replicated elsewhere in Atlantic ports.Footnote 83
After acquiring a debt with Dona Joana Rodrigues Magalhães and having difficulty honoring it, the Black woman Dionísia requested that an agent in Quilengues send her a young girl (a moleca) to liquidate Dionísia’s debt to Magalhães.Footnote 84 African women with Portuguese names had many economic roles. In the 1820s, at the height of Atlantic commerce, Francisca Lopes Pereira owned the house in which she cohabited with José Pólilo. After their relationship ended, she demanded that Pólilo vacate the house and pay for the services that the young enslaved boy and girl, who belonged to her, had provided. In colonial documents, Pereira claimed her role as the owner of a house and of enslaved children who served her and her guests, including her domestic partner. As in other relationships in the Atlantic African ports, a wealthy woman could host visitors by offering companionship, lodging, and a variety of services, such as translation, access to her networks, and even the use of her own enslaved personnel. Compensation and the return of her property were thus a legitimate claim. The primary sources that register Francisca Lopes Pereira’s rightful existence in colonial society are silent about her skin color and place of origin, thus allowing her a chance to enjoy the rights from which Black people and their descendants were usually excluded in an empire preoccupied with blood purity, status, and origin.Footnote 85
Free Black women controlled a substantial portion of the economic resources in Benguela. For example, Josefa Manoel Joaquim owned and sold houses.Footnote 86 Dona Mariana António de Carvalho, from Galangues and married to Lieutenant Colonel José Justiniano dos Reis, had canoes that sailed between Benguela and Lobito. She also exploited limestone in Lobito, an important resource for the construction of brick houses, overseeing its commercialization in Benguela and Catumbela.Footnote 87 Other residents invested in fishing and transporting goods, such as the case of Dona Ana Martins de Santa Ana who owned at least two boats that sailed to Quicombo, Cuio, Lobito, and Rio Tapado.Footnote 88
Women could also access property through inheritance. Probate documents available at the Tribunal da Comarca de Benguela show that some women inherited land, enslaved people, and goods from their relatives. This was the case with Matilde, a three-year-old girl who inherited property from her father, the Guimarães (Portugal) born trader João Batista da Silva. Her mother, Joana Luiz Borges César, acted as administrator of the probate estate since Matilde was a minor. Batista da Silva left his daughter a cubata divided into three rooms, with four doors and four windows. Young Matilde also inherited five enslaved individuals, furniture, a variety of textiles, and beads.Footnote 89 Due to the young age of the heir, her mother continued to live in the cubata and administered the inheritance on behalf of her daughter.
Probate estates also reveal that women transmitted property, including land, to nonrelatives. Dona Joana Rodrigues da Costa was the widow of Lieutenant Colonel Domingos Pereira Diniz. Her children had already died by the time she made her will, which led her to bequeath her property to Dona Florinda José do Cadaval, her “spiritual sister,” although the nature of this bond is not clear in the document.Footnote 90 Besides her house within the fortress of Caconda, Dona Joana Rodrigues da Costa owned cotton and linen textiles, a single soup bowl, three teacups, a teapot, a silver candleholder, and a set of silver cutlery for six people. Among her human property were two women skilled in leatherwork.Footnote 91 Her belongings were not luxurious, but by donating them to another woman she allowed a fellow merchant woman, Florencia José do Cadaval, to accumulate material goods and increase her wealth. This gendered strategy protected the interests of female friends and associates.
Through their wills, women such as Dona Joana Rodrigues da Costa guaranteed the distribution of goods and transmission of property. Women who wrote down their wishes and identified their property displayed a great deal of control over their lives. They were skilled enough to learn how to navigate within the colonial system and protect their relatives by preventing male family members or sobas from seizing their belongings. However, not every woman who lived in the colonial centers had the opportunity to leave a will. Josefa Soares, a single thirty- year-old woman from Libolo, died in 1864 while in Benguela.Footnote 92 Colonial authorities noticed that although she did not have a will, she had assets and seized them. It is not clear what happened to her estate.
Land registration documents also reveal the efforts of African men and women to record ownership and petition for property within the limits of the colonial bureaucracy. Even though the demarcation of land predated the nineteenth century, it was only then that the colonial government assumed the responsibility of controlling and registering it. One of Cazengo’s planters, for example, reported buying a farm from a free Black woman.Footnote 93 By 1845 men and women in Benguela were requesting permission from the colonial government to build or manage plots of land. Of the 156 land plots granted, women petitioned and registered forty of them, as can be seen in Table 3.5.
Among them was Dona Florinda Josefa Gaspar, the daughter of Joanes José Gaspar who had served as the soba in Catumbela and corporal in Dombe Grande in the early nineteenth century. Dona Gaspar married the Brazilian degredado Francisco Ferreira Gomes and established a large transcontinental family with him.Footnote 95 Women who were well positioned were able to guarantee access through inheritance but also through colonial venues, such as petitioning for access to land and paying for it. In 1861, Dona Gaspar requested and received a land plot of twenty fathoms, i.e., 36.5 m2, along the Cavaco River. Her intentions were to build a house and a garden. Dona Joaquina Martins Ramos Abreu also secured a land plot in the Cavaco neighborhood, with 45.7 m facing the west, bordering the backyard of Clementina Rodrigues da Costa’s and Dona Júlia Miguel Pereira’s houses. The back of the plot measured 78.6 m and shared a border with Dona Isabel da Luz Abreu’s house. Dona Joaquina Martins Ramos Abreu paid 1$538 reis fortes to the Benguela city hall.Footnote 96 Not far from them, Felipa Martins de Castro also acquired a plot of 36.5 m facing north and 67 facing south, where Dona Rodrigues da Costa had built her house.Footnote 97
Several women were richer and in better economic and social positions than their spouses, and their real estate and slave holdings offered them a series of advantages as lenders and credit holders.Footnote 98 In 1805, for example, the Portuguese trader Aurelio Veríssimo Vieira died after having contracted debts with a series of consolidated merchants. In his will, he declared, “I have a series of credit letters with Dona Joana Gomes Moutinho related to several slaves I shipped to Rio de Janeiro and my executor will pay her.”Footnote 99 By the early nineteenth century, Dona Moutinho was one of the most successful merchants in Benguela. She was the daughter of Dona Francisca Gomes Moutinho, another African woman who played the role of cultural broker and intermediary between Europeans and African rulers. In the late eighteenth century, Dona Joana Gomes Moutinho married the captain of the Benguela colonial army, José Ferreira da Silva, who also operated as a private trader. This relationship was apparently brief, as by 1798 she was already a widow.Footnote 100 Due to her family and marital connections, she established herself as a powerful merchant and resident of the colonial center. She owned a two-story house surrounded by farmland and a residential compound where fifty slaves lived. Among her dependents was her nephew, Caetano de Carvalho Velho, who ran the town’s butcher shop. Between 1795 and 1801, she was named the godmother of at least seventeen children baptized in the local Catholic Church, Nossa Senhora do Populo.Footnote 101 She also helped to reproduce values associated with colonialism, such as Catholicism, and guaranteed her economic position and social status through her interaction with colonial agents, foreign traders, and poor residents. Dona Moutinho economic status translated into social capital, reinforced by her liaisons with foreign men.
Wealth and social prestige offered Dona Moutinho the chance to be seen not only as a wealthy merchant woman but also as a lender and business partner.Footnote 102 Entrepreneur, slave owner, and landlord, Dona Moutinho was part of the local merchant community that maintained links with the interior (in her case, the region of Kilengues); she could easily accommodate recently arrived traders with the infrastructure she had in place. Despite her wealth, the fact that she was a woman forced her to use attorneys or proxies to represent her in official matters. Her power was also expressed in her choice of proxy (procurador) who managed her businesses on her behalf. In 1799 João Mendes de Oliveira, a priest from the island of Príncipe, and in 1806 Nazario Marques da Silva, an important Benguela-based trader, represented her in church matters.Footnote 103
Credit was central to economic transactions on the African coast, and foreigners and locals were active participants in advancing merchandise and acquiring debts. African women appear in colonial records as loaners. In the 1820s, Rosa Chamires sued Caetano de Morais, a resident of Catumbela who owed her 12$800 réis.Footnote 104 She expected the colonial authorities to help her in recuperating the loan she had provided months before. Similarly, Rita Jorge lent 7$200 réis to the soldier Pedro António. António managed to pay part of his debt, 6$300 réis, before he deserted the army and ran away. Unable to collect the remaining 900 réis, Rita Jorge filed a complaint with the colonial judge requesting that Cecilia, who cohabited with António, honor his debt. The Benguela judge sided with Jorge and demanded the payment, making Cecilia responsible for her partner’s debts.Footnote 105
The absence of local banks propelled trustworthy people with enough cash to the position of moneylenders for residents who did not have access to the credit provided by transatlantic slave traders. The credit arrangements were informal and probably unwritten and are accessible to historians only when creditors failed to recuperate their money and requested the intervention of colonial authorities or in inventories that regularly included lists of money out at interest and debt owing. For example, Maria Braxel, a Black woman, advanced 2$400 réis to the sailor Luis, and Andreza Leal do Sancramento lent 10$450 reis to José, a Black resident of Dombe Grande.Footnote 106 The motivation or goals are not stated, but it is fair to assume these men had limited access to other creditors, and both women had cash and connections. Dona Joana Francisca de Sousa acted as a guarantor and assumed the risk for her son, Manoel de Sousa Marques, who failed to pay 84$000.Footnote 107 African women’s roles as moneylenders and creditors indicate that they had control over their earnings from surplus production, petty trade, and services they provided. As a result, they had cash to lend and the autonomy to sue debtors or customers who refused to pay for their services. Ana Freire Joaquim, a Black woman who worked for Pedro António, demanded their agreed-upon payment of 32$000 réis.Footnote 108 It is not clear what type of service she performed, yet, she could sue Pedro Joaquim. In a similar case, Josefa solicited the help of the administrator of Catumbela to recover the amount of 12$000 réis for services she had provided to Juliana Gonçalves de Siqueira.Footnote 109
With the monetization of the economy and the expansion of the paper register, both men and women lent and collected money. It is not clear how these practices differed from those prior to the nineteenth century. In 1846, Mariana Antónia de Carvalho made a formal request to Eleutério Treisse to pay the remaining value of a house in Mossamedes, indicating not only that she was a homeowner but also that she had sold it on credit.Footnote 110 Lenders accepted enslaved people as pawns for those who needed credit. In 1849, the Luanda-based Dona Maria dos Reis Dionísia offered three female slaves as collateral to Dona Ana Joaquina dos Santos e Silva, the largest slave trader in Luanda by the mid-nineteenth century. Failing to return the advance, Dona Maria dos Reis Dionísia lost her slaves to a more-powerful resident who increased her wealth by accumulating the dependents and debts of others.Footnote 111
Women not necessarily registered loans and credit arrangements in notaries with promissory notes. Yet some did, such as the case of Joana Rodrigues da Costa, who died in 1850. Among her belongings were listed four credit bills for merchandise she had advanced to inland traders and two bills related to loans acquired with Manuel de Barros Cunha.Footnote 112 Women employed the courts to collect debts but not necessarily registered loans on the town’s notaries. Men, however, tended to register formal loans in notaries, with debtors and creditors presenting written documents and recognizing the importance of paper evidence. In his 1862 will, Agostinho António Ramos, a resident of Cuio, declared he owed 40$000 réis to Dona Teresa Ferreira Torres Barruncho and the same amount to Joaquim Ferreira, a resident of Novo Redondo, and both “had documents.” He also noted, “If any document shows up with debts from Bento Joanes Papata, they should not be considered since he owns me nothing.”Footnote 113 Tomé Ribeiro Antunes initiated a legal action to collect a debt from João Henriques Teixeira’s estate. Ribeiro Antunes had lent the Teixeira couple 206$936 réis to help them settle and start a farm in Luaxi/Luacho, close to Dombe Grande. He presented seven written documents registered in notaries detailing the expenses and items lent between June 1863 and July 1866, which included over 1,101 cazongueis of manioc flour (15,414 kilos), six cows, and fish to feed his people, as well as a variety of textiles, three pipas of firewater, and enslaved adults and twelve children. In March 1867, the court recognized the debt due to “proof presented in several documents” and awarded Ribeiro Antunes the right to receive repayment.Footnote 114
Despite these cases, European traders did not necessarily have the financial upper hand and relied on local traders with more cash to borrow money. The Portuguese trader Inácio Teixeira Xavier accumulated debts with several Benguela residents, many of them born locally. One was Rufina Angélica do Céu (105$415), who had married at least twice before 1850 and owned several enslaved men and women. Céu was able to sign her own name, which was uncommon among women in West Central Africa.Footnote 115
Since the colonial bureaucracy did not necessarily resolve all credit-related disputes, some individuals became frustrated and seized goods in retaliation for the lack of repayment, a practice that resembled the kidnapping of free people along the African coast to settle debt payments. In 1860, Isabel Soares da Silva, a Black woman, and José Gonçalves de Almeida, whose skin color was not identified in the documents, trespassed on the arimo, the garden of Domingos Marcelino Galvão, and removed some planted manioc. Galvão initiated a legal proceeding against the two, but it soon emerged that the couple was unhappy with Galvão’s failure to repay a debt and the slow process of the colonial bureaucracy in helping them regain their money. Silva had provided Galvão six and a half bottles of aguardente (firewater), and the Benguela judge estimated its value at 1$950. The manioc they seized and the damage to the soil and garden were evaluated at 12$000. As a result, the judge ordered the couple to pay the difference or face jail time.Footnote 116 The stories held in colonial records shed some light on the mechanisms that local men and women employed to collect loans.
Similar to the signares or nharas in Senegal and Guinea, West Central African women achieved the position of intermediaries and became important business owners during the era of the transatlantic slave trade.Footnote 117 Very few European women ever settled in Benguela, and the colonial administrators did not prevent the rise of West Central African women entrepreneurs. The collaboration favored both sides. On the one hand, local women provided foreign traders access to commercial networks, acting as traders and translators, and mediating the contact between slave traders based on the coast and internal commercial elites. On the other hand, foreign traders facilitated African women’s access to imported goods, which they would then market at a profit.Footnote 118 More interesting is the fact that the available colonial documents reveal that a number of these African women were single and did not necessarily rely on the capital of powerful men to establish themselves as business owners. Many had agents in the internal markets, such as Maria António da Silva who employed trade agents in Quilengues, and Isabel Francisca Antónia Viera who had representatives in Caconda.Footnote 119 Andreza Leal do Sacramento experienced a series of problems with José Gongo, a Black man who acted as her commercial agent in Dombe Grande.Footnote 120
Women also acted as itinerant traders, acquiring goods and people in the interior on behalf of coastal traders. This was the case with Dona Ana Teixeira de Sousa, a resident of Benguela who received goods on behalf of Manuel Ribeiro Alves to acquire enslaved people in Caconda in 1856, despite the official ban on slave exports from Portuguese territories in West Central Africa. Alves presented three witnesses, all male traders living in Benguela, who testified in favor of Alves. Dona Ana Teixeira de Sousa was ordered to pay the 1:038$150 réis she had received from Alves.Footnote 121 She had at least two enslaved young people working for her, Antonio from Bihé and Francisco from Hanha, a region near the fortress of Caconda.Footnote 122
Colonial records are not necessarily clear on the economic activities of local women but do provide some clues. In the 1840s, for example, Dona Ana Martins de Santa requested a series of licenses to send boats and as many as thirty-four enslaved individuals with fishing nets to Lobito. The judge in Benguela recommended that the regent of the fortress of Catumbela allow them to cross his jurisdiction without any problems.Footnote 123 The number of people and boats involved suggests she operated a fishing business, although the official documents never disclosed her economic activities. Many of the lists of taxpayers from the 1860s and 1870s reveal that women operated agricultural businesses in Benguela, Dombe Grande, and Egito, as can be seen in Tables 3.6 through 3.8. A list of taxpayers indicates the importance of slave and land holdings in Dombe Grande from 1857 to 1860, though the size of the landed property or the number of enslaved people owned is not known. In those three towns, forty-two people were identified as having paid or owing taxes to the Crown, including eleven women.Footnote 124
|Total tax paid|
|Manuel da Costa Souza||54,830|
|Luiz Teodoro da Silva||37,950|
|D. Teresa Ferreira Barruncho||36,700|
|Mariana Antonio Carvalho||30,800|
|Domingos Rodrigues Viana||29,940|
|Paulo Fernandes da Silva||23,190|
|D. Dionísia Josefa Fernandes||22,500|
|D. Isabel António da Luz e Abreu||15,250|
|Francisco António da Glória Júnior||13,950|
After the 1850s, cotton plantations expanded along the West Central African coast in response to growing demand in Europe and North America for cheap raw materials. The outbreak of the US Civil War in 1861 affected the availability of cotton for European industry and drove cotton prices up. The growing textile industries in Europe searched for new sources of cotton, and Angola was one of the options.Footnote 125 Local residents set up plantations relying on enslaved labor diverted into the new legitimate business, as can be seen in Tables 3.7 and 3.8. The expansion of agriculture and the plantation economy transformed the landscape, with environmental changes not yet examined. According to the Governor of Benguela report, in 1868, “The great plains that used to be covered by dense woods and served as refuge for wild animals are now clear of trees, and almost all of the land along the coast is now plantations of cotton and sugarcane.”Footnote 126
|Growers||Plantation||Location||# cotton plants||# enslaved people|
|António Pereira Barbosa Bastos||Sta. Maria||Quilundo||4,000||15|
|António Joana||St. Justa||Quilundo||60,000||30|
|Carolina Joana da Silva||Cauhita||Cauhita||3,000||10|
|José Fernandes do Porto||Quicanjo||Quicanjo||2,000||8|
|D. Elena Ferreira de Carvalho||S. Germano||Quilundo||50,000||50|
|António Joaquim Teixeira de Carvalho||S. João||Camballa||50,000||50|
|Domingos Ribeiro Alves||S. Domingos||Mottetto||200,000||80|
|Cipriano Manuel Sardinha||Gando||Gando||3,000||12|
|Roque Maria da Silva||Cauhita||Cauhita||5,000||9|
|José Cristovão Bastos||Mogollo||Mogollo||3,000||9|
|António Ribeiro da Silva Guimarães||Caôllo||Caôllo||40,000||39|
As can be seen in Table 3.7, among the eleven owners of cotton plantations in Egito were two women, Carolina Joana da Silva and Dona Elena Ferreira de Carvalho, and Table 3.8 shows that in Dombe Grande there were three women-controlled plantations: Dona Teresa Ferreira Torres Barruncho, Isabel António de Luz Abreu, and Dona Maria Dias de Jesus, who also appear in ecclesiastical and judicial records.
|Growers||Location||Year established||Number of cotton plants||Number of enslaved people|
|Tomé Ribeiro Antunes||Mama||1863||41,000||120|
|Francisco Marcelino Galvão||Tumbo||1864||1,000||40|
|João Esteves de Araújo||Luaxe||1862||40,000||100|
|Manuel da Costa Souza||Luaxe||1862||20,000||60|
|José Joaquim Geraldo do Amaral||Luaxe||1862||20,000||48|
|D. Teresa Ferreira Torres Barruncho||Luaxe||1862||NA||439|
|D. Isabel António da Luz Abreu||Dombe||1863||NA||74|
|João Henriques Teixeira||Mama||1863||12,000||48|
|D. Maria Dias de Jesus||Dombe||1862||20,000||46|
|Custódio José de Sousa Veloso||Dombe||1863||16,600||62|
|José Manuel Ribeiro||Dombe||1863||1,356||50|
|Francisco Pacheco de Sousa e Silva||Dombe||1864||3,000||30|
|Casal de Inácio Teixeira Xavier||Equimina||1863||4,000||200|
The prospects of economic gain were so attractive that important business owners, such as the versatile Ana Joaquina dos Santos Silva, also invested in plantations in Mossamedes and Novo Redondo, acquiring boats and enslaved individuals to help expand her business.Footnote 127
In 1878, the captain of Dombe Grande warned the governor of Benguela that the rush to register land in people’s names would lead to conflict. The captain stated that Floriano José Mendes da Conceição was “bragging that he is connected to the Mendes Machado family from Ambaca, and that he knows the laws, which will favor him to continue stealing as he has been doing for a long time. … Floriano claims to have documents, but these are simple pieces of paper with shallow requests making vague use of the articles from the penal code.” The captain continued that while serving in the administration Floriano took advantage of his position to acquire a plot of land for his daughter Florinda, who was a minor. Floriano argued that wasteland surrounded the plot, which allowed him to occupy a larger territory than that originally assigned to his daughter. The captain of Dombe Grande concluded, “I am convinced that this will never be solved [and will affect] the peaceful interaction with the people who inhabit this region.”Footnote 128 This case makes it clear that the first settlers were disregarded as legitimate occupiers by the simple presence of a piece of paper and the statement that their lands were wastelands. Indeed, as Conceição stated, those who knew the laws and had social connections took advantage of the system at the expense of the local inhabitants, who experienced dispossession and exclusion.
Colonial courts emerged as an alternative for West Central African subjects who failed to achieve their goals in local courts controlled by African rulers. As a result, the colonial court became a site of conflict over rights and jurisdiction between Portuguese and soba authorities. The colonial court also became the space to settle civil cases related to credit and debt that went beyond the jurisdiction of the Portuguese colonial state. Colonial subjects went to court to verify their legitimacy as property holders. While in some instances African rulers lost their land when it was labeled as unproductive or unoccupied, in other cases colonizers and colonized fought over the best solution for implementing the colonial civilizing views.
The rush to create paper trails to legitimize ownership led to the expansion of the colonial archives, containing wills, postmortem inventories, land registers, deeds, tax collections, and legal disputes. These historical documents operated as ownership evidence and reveal the changes associated with governance and property claims during the nineteenth century. Local rulers and residents embraced written evidence to protect their interests, which resulted in the creation of new traditions and the consolidation of written evidence as the only valid and legitimate way to prove property rights. West Central Africans made use of multiple strategies to protect and pursue their rights, involving customary rights and the use of colonial law and a system of property recognition. The establishment of written records and venues for petition, such as courts, allowed colonial subjects to make use of colonial apparatus to strategically survive the new legal order and claim their rights.
The colonial archives also reveal that property claims were a gendered process, and men and women employed different strategies to protect their rights. The written documents and courts allowed African women to bypass the authority of male elders or local rulers and settle disputes in a space that would favor them. The recognition of women’s right to property and inheritance in the Portuguese legal code created the space for African women to make ownership claims and accumulate assets. West Central African women were owners of human beings, goods, and real estate, but they also operated as moneylenders, debt collectors, and business owners. They were more than business partners to husbands, partners, or fathers; they administered businesses, managed farms and shops, and had active economic roles.
As a technique, writing created new spaces of power and new ways to insert colonized people into history. The resourcefulness of different individuals in adapting to the writing culture and turning it to their own ends makes the persistent commodification of West Central Africans, which will be examined in Chapters 4 and 5, more distressing. It is important to realize that not every West Central African had the opportunity to use the colonial bureaucracy and make petitions, yet the historical evidence available discloses how some contested and negotiated ownership rights. The documents show how colonial violence and dispossession operated and how certain groups of people were favored. West Central Africans, both rulers and commoners, addressed questions of dispossession and new claims, in many ways employing colonial tools to advance their claims and establish new rights. Those expelled from their lands remain silent in documentation, reinforcing their dispossession from history as well as from their land.