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“Fallacious Mirrors:” Colonial Anxiety and Images of African Labor in Mozambique, ca. 1929*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 May 2014

Eric Allina*
Yale University


African historiography has over the past decade begun to pay increasing attention to photographs as a source for African history. A growing body of work has raised a number of methodological and theoretical questions about how scholars can and should work with images. From their experience with written documents, historians are aware of the ideologically charged conditions under which colonial knowledge was produced. This awareness has armed scholars with a skepticism to look beyond the image itself and examine the physical and technological environment in which photographers worked. Posed studio shots that create “natural” settings and post-event retouching are only some of the practices photographers used to endow their images with a greater semblance of accuracy.

Andrew Roberts and David Killingray's “outline” of photography in Africa charts the development of photographic techniques and how their use created specific kinds of images of Africa; Virginia-Lee Webb emphasizes photographers' manipulation of not only their subjects, but also the environment in which they were photographed. What this work has produced is an oft-spoken axiom that photographic images of Africa (or any other place) ought not be taken at face value. This axiom has guided a significant amount of scholarship, although Beatrix Heintze wisely cautions against overinterpretation.

Scholars who work with written documentary evidence from the colonial period have well established the ways in which administrators, missionaries, and other Europeans represented Africans as an “other,” as they sought to create cultural and social distance between themselves and Africans. Still other scholars have combined written and oral materials to show how Africans established their own identities and interpreted colonial discourses to create alternative, liberating discursive spaces.

Research Article
Copyright © African Studies Association 1997

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Thanks are due to Paul Landau, who directed my research into the literature of photography in Africa, and also to the other participants in the Yale Program of Agrarian Studies' Graduate Student Colloquium, who provided not only thoughtful comments, but also a great title.


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48. Ross, , Report of Employment, 53.Google Scholar The Mozambique Company was one of the chartered companies that Portugal set up in the 1890s along the model provided by Cecil Rhodes' British South Africa Company. The Company governed 65,000 square miles of central Mozambique with quasi-sovereign authority from 1892 to 1942.

49. Ibid., 19,58.

50. Ibid., 60.

51. Santos, Oliveira, Reply to the Accusations Addressed to the League of Nations by Mr. Edward A. Ross (Lisbon, 1930).Google Scholar The original Portuguese version was published in 1927.

52. Ibid., 14.

53. Ibid., 21.

54. “Algumas Obervações ao Relatório do Professor Ross” [Some Observations on the Report of Professor Ross], Boletim da Agência Geral das Colónias, no. 6-8 (1926).

55. Ibid., 154.

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60. Ibid., 4-5.

61. Ibid., 5.

62. Ibid., 101.

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73. Ibid., 345.

74. Ibid., 354.

75. Rufino, , Albuns Fotográficos, volume 1, viii.Google Scholar

76. Ibid., volume 10, iii.

77. Lourenço Marques Guardian, 24 October 1929,3. Thanks once again to Dr. António Sopa of the Arquivo Histórico de Moçambique for this reference.

78. The captions are not specifically attributed to Costa, head of the Statistics Department of the Mozambique Company, leaving their authorship somewhat hazy. Further complicating the subject of authorship is the question of translation, as all the text in the series is rendered in Portuguese, French, and English. The volumes identify the translator as Frank Hildescheim, a civil engineer who, identified as being from Hamburg, was probably German.

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81. Ibid., volume 3, 61.

82. Ibid., volume 1, vii.

83. Ibid., volume 2, 60, 65, 88.

84. Ibid., volume 10, 5.

85. Ibid., volume 10, xii.

86. Ibid., volume 7, 95; volume 10, 55; volume 9, 35; volume 4, 3.

87. Ibid,, volume 10, xii.

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91. Ibid., volume 4, 16, 32.

92. Ibid., volume 6, 61.

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101. Ibid., 2.

102. I have little doubt that the Albuns Fotográficos contain a sufficient number of gendered images that this paper could have focused on gender alone.

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107. Santos Rufino, volume 10, 63. In French, it reads slightly differently: “Sacks of coffee without milk. Old ‘Artifa’ of Chinde.” Chinde is the name of a town situated where the Zambezi river meets the Indian Ocean. “Artifa” may be the woman's name. There is also a play on words, since café com leite/café au lait are staples of Portuguese and French cuisine. What is highly problematic about this image is that the English translation of the caption omits the vulgar reference to the woman's breasts, and prefaces the introduction with a sarcastic “modest.” The difference in translation cannot be due to the knowledge of the translator, for the phrase “Sacos de café sem leite” is hardly a challenging one, and the translator produced passable translations of far more sophisticated passages elsewhere in the volumes. Conceivably, the translator had some ideas about the Anglophone appreciation for vulgarity as falling short of the Francophone or Lusophone. An interesting path for additional research would be to conduct a systematic comparison of the captions throughout the volumes. The comparison would reveal whether there is logic to the omissions or differential translations.

108. Tagg, , Burden of Representation, 188.Google Scholar

109. Rufino, , Albuns Fotográficos, volume 1, vii.Google Scholar

110. Ibid, volume 9, 67.

111. Geary, , “Missionary Photography,” 48.Google Scholar

112. Gaskell, Ivan, “History of Images” in Burke, Peter, ed., New Perspectives on Historical Writing (University Park, 1992), 183.Google Scholar

113. Gaskell, , “History of Images,” 183.Google Scholar

114. Coombes, Annie E., Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture and Popular Imagination in Late Victorian and Edwardian England (New Haven, 1994), 3.Google Scholar

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