In the 1950s, the progress of most colonial empires towards decolonization seemed to be irreversible. A narrative, established by the late colonial administrations and affirmed by many subsequent historiographical accounts, holds that the French and British administrations, although sometimes reluctantly, organized the widespread participation of African elites in territorial rule; and that only the smaller empires under Belgian, Spanish, and Portuguese administration had not yet planned any transfer of power, and lagged somewhat behind with reforms. The agents of the two larger European colonial powers, and their governments, are said to have been committed to improving the living conditions of their African citizens, or imperial subjects, which in the end spurred on decolonization. This narrative and the appearances it is based on, however, veil the fact that there probably never was any “master plan” by which British and French politicians and administrators would have organized a rapid transition towards independence – and that decolonization frequently resulted from reactions to nationalist challenges in the territories.Footnote 1
The negotiation and ratification of Convention 105 of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 1957 appeared to be a part of this trend. The convention was to strengthen the international ban on forced labour that had slowly established itself in the 1930s. Its function was to close loopholes such as compulsory labour in so-called emergency situations, the employment of army recruits for labour tasks, and, eventually, the existence of forms of labour that were controlled by intermediaries at the local level and had often been defined as “traditional” communal obligations. Although the French government did not sign the new convention until 1969 – with the United Kingdom being the first state to commit itself to this convention (with even Portugal, as an authoritarian colonial power, following in 1959) – it was obvious during the debates on the draft of the convention that none of the colonial governments could avoid taking a clear position of supporting the battle against involuntary labour.Footnote 2
During these discussions of the 1950s, the British and the French were keen to present themselves as champions of good labour standards overseas. By 1957, only the technical terms of ratification appeared to pose some difficulties (mainly for the French), while questions of labour abuses organized or tolerated by the state were only mentioned in other contexts, in particular when “Western” governments accused the Soviet Union of abuses.Footnote 3 Therefore, apart from the very particular Portuguese case, compulsory labour was hardly an arena of conflict any more between the colonial powers and international, anti-colonial activists.Footnote 4 This apparent evolution appears to fit neatly into an interpretation of late colonial rule as finally giving way to “real” development efforts and a smooth transition towards decolonization.
However, it needs to be asked what we really know about the mindsets of French and British and other European colonial administrators after the abolition of the compulsory labour systems, which had been so important before the end of World War II. I understand as the “colonial mindset” the main tendencies of thought and points of discussion that officials represented, and the commitments they formulated – all of which were constantly adapted to cope with new problems in the field, and modified in collaboration with local informants and auxiliaries. In other words, what I call the “colonial mindset” in this analysis was no lofty, detached European planning, in ministries in the capital cities of the colonial powers, or elsewhere far away from the experiences of colonial subjects, but the result of intense activity on the ground, in which local experience and interaction played a central role, together with entrenched racist stereotypes.Footnote 5 The evolution of the positions of colonial administrators is frequently obscured by the focus of scholars on the outcome of the decolonization process – which by 1955 was still a process whose results, in sub-Saharan Africa, remained open for the historical actors.Footnote 6 Between 1945 and independence, officials of all the colonial empires had to come to terms with the shrinking legal and practical possibilities of forcing colonial subjects to work, and the British and French were, as we have seen, leading parts of this mainstream. Whereas it is obvious that labour policies were experiencing significant changes in this period, it is, at the same time, still unclear how these changing labour policies influenced the colonial mindset of administrators.
This question will be addressed here through a comparative design, which relies on empirical evidence from the ground level that I regard as representative. I rely on examples from two larger regions in the Equatorial-Central zone of sub-Saharan Africa: British-ruled Northern Rhodesia and French-ruled French Equatorial Africa (AEF). These regions did not share a common border, but they did share similar problems of colonial rule. These include a common context of decolonization, where European settlers with their own agendas of maintenance of power had a role locally, but were not the principal driving force. Even as Northern Rhodesia became integrated into the Central African Federation (the short-lived federation of Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland) in 1953, settler interests always had a limited impact upon administrative policies, as in the case of important French settler lobbies in Gabon or Middle-Congo in AEF – as opposed, notably, to Southern Rhodesia that became an unilaterally declared independent settler state in the 1960s.Footnote 7
It will also be argued in this article that the issues discussed by officials from both empires were relevant and significant for broader processes of imperial reform and resilience. Both colonial administrations underwent considerable change as compared with conditions in the interwar period. The French empire made an impressive step towards reform by 1945. On the one hand, in the direct aftermath of World War II, the De Gaulle government opened the French National Assembly to African deputies, as a kind of reward for the loyalty of colonial Africans during the war years. On the other hand, although the system of election and representation was only slowly becoming more democratic between 1945 and 1957, the presence of Africans in Paris fostered the emergence of an elite group that created for itself its own strongholds in the African territories and at the same time became an important lobby group in the negotiation of the future of France's African colonies. This generation of African leaders, which had first been integrated into the late colonial state, transformed themselves into the leading politicians of the first decade after independence.Footnote 8 Although from 1963 they were increasingly being supplanted by military officers who secured power through a wave of coups d’état, it was the impact of this first generation that guaranteed the incorporation of some colonial practices into the new societies, while others were discarded or questioned.Footnote 9
French officials of the colonial administration were compelled through the evolution of the French empire after 1945 to adapt to these changes. In discussions of the colonial past and their own role, many present themselves as early adherents of change.Footnote 10 However, during the Vichy Period in French West Africa (AOF), French officials showed strong enthusiasm for overtly repressive measuresFootnote 11 – and I will analyse in this article how the official mind was in the end able to cope with changes that were often introduced without the administrators’ consent. The principal examples for this comparison are taken from the “federation” of AEF, in part because the political battles after World War II were less strong in French Equatorial Africa and tended to obscure less the social realities of the colonial administration on the ground.Footnote 12
The case of British control in African territories at first glance differs considerably from the French case, because the British administrations managed to maintain for substantial periods a very low profile in international debates on repressive colonial labour policies. This was facilitated by the fact that the British government committed itself easily to most innovations in international labour legislation, and generally gave observers of conditions in sub-Saharan Africa the impression of a planned decolonization.Footnote 13 This apparent compliance with nationalist pressures tends to obscure the fact that British officials, at two principal points of the process, were opposed to the nationalist takeover: first in the Gold Coast and in Nigeria, and in a second phase in Kenya and the territories of the Central African Federation.Footnote 14 Much attention has lately been given to brutal British repression against the so-called Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya, but this has also deflected historical analysis from more in-depth research into the attitudes of British administrators in the other colonial territories.Footnote 15 I will for this comparison mainly employ examples from Northern Rhodesia, but, where possible, attempt to draw connections with other territories under British rule.Footnote 16
Little is known so far about the effects that late colonial attitudes towards labour and practices of compulsory labour in particular may have had on practices in postcolonial African states. The conclusion of this article will provide some first reflections on connections between the two and also enlarge the comparative perspective on the late colonial state and its transition. I will attempt to give some examples that allow a linking of the results of the comparative discussion of late colonial mindsets to the debate on and the practices of involuntary labour within the independent states, at least for the early postcolonial phase.
FORCED AND FREE LABOUR IN COLONIAL SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA: BRITISH AND FRENCH PREOCCUPATIONS
In scholarly research, forced labour loses its importance for French rule in sub-Saharan Africa after 1946, and it is nearly entirely neglected as a factor of British rule after 1925, with the exception of the years of World War II. From this perspective, compulsory labour was successfully challenged in the French case, and French worries were directed into other fields of labour, such as strikes, trade unions, family benefits, and the stabilization of an elite of free industrial labourers and public sector employees on the one hand, and worries about the uncontrolled movement of colonial populations into the cities on the other. In the debate about British rule over Africans, it is argued that the British did not use compulsory methods, except in the war years when compulsory labour services were employed to guarantee the availability of strategic resources. Scholars have been concerned with the “stabilization” of an elite of free labourers in places like the mines of the Copperbelt in the 1950s.Footnote 17
These dominant perspectives on British and French labour policies reflect a changing focus of interest from the early 1930s into the late colonial states of the late 1940s and the 1950s. However, the neglect of questions of forced labour after 1945 does not reflect the reality on the ground, as I will show in this article. It is, of course, important to separate the discourse of colonial administrators from existing social conditions and practices in the territories, and while this article is interested in practices that were part of the experiences of colonial subjects in the British-ruled and French-ruled territories of west central Africa, it will show what these practices meant for the “colonial mindset” of local officials. Therefore, both concrete practices and plans of administrators, as they were reflected in their interaction with local auxiliaries and with colonial subjects, are central to this analysis.
While international pressures and the uneasy feeling within colonial administrations that substantial reforms needed to be brought in, led to the abolition of the more open forms of forced labour, a number of circumstances existed after 1945 on which colonial officials could rely to justify continuities in compulsory practices – to justify them with their superiors, with critics, and amongst themselves. The first was the element of “traditional labour”, much cherished by the British, where the abolition of labour practices in the local context was said to be contrary to “native customs”. The second was “emergency situations”, in which it seemed still to be acceptable to make African subjects work – even if it was against their will. During World War II the whole colonial economy in the French and British empires in sub-Saharan Africa had been conditioned by an emergency situation, which was used as an excuse to introduce harsh forms of compulsory labour and extract resources from African territories.Footnote 18 After 1945, this instrument was played less openly, but it continued to be important on several occasions, and could be relied upon in flexible and artificial ways.
A third mechanism that was employed to disguise continuities in forced labour practices, was the use of vagrancy legislation. Like the concept of “emergency”, the idea of “vagrancy”, linked to other, racist stereotypes of “idle” Africans, was very flexible and adaptable.Footnote 19 It relied upon a longstanding “tradition” of criminalizing “laziness”, which had been used widely in early modern Europe, and was connected to such concepts as begging, prostitution, and other “immoral acts”, and could be punished with hard labour. While in the interwar period, compulsory labour for “vagrants” had been used as complementary to other forms of colonial forced labour, it now became possible to inflict unfree labour as punishment for criminal and immoral acts, detached from other forms of forced labour that were no longer endorsed by colonial ministries. In the case of “vagrancy” after 1946, the discourse was far more important than the practices of persecution, but anti-vagrancy measures were nevertheless used as an option and, again, the discussion of such measures sheds much light on the “colonial mindset”. I will now turn to the official abolition of, or retreat from, forced labour practices in the French and British colonial empires after World War II, which constituted the essential background for the reliance upon other forms of compulsory labour and the justification for these continuities.
In the case of the French empire in sub-Saharan Africa, the end of compulsory labour has been presented erroneously as a clear-cut, unambiguous termination of the practice. Obviously, the step of abolishing compulsory labour through a law that covered the whole empire, was impressive. For French colonial planners, the context after World War II seemed to make it necessary to sacrifice a number of the more repressive elements of colonial rule in the African continent.Footnote 20 Through a fundamental reform of African representation in French institutions, notably in the National Assembly, French politicians had brought a small group of Africans into parliament that would function as a very vocal lobby group opposing various elements of social discrimination against colonial subjects. In the aftermath of World War II, compulsory labour was probably the most contested of these elements. In a complex trade-off against restraint in other parts of colonial reform, the Houphouët-Boigny Law, named after the deputy (and future post-colonial President) of Côte d'Ivoire, enshrined the ban on forced labour within the French empire. This vote impressively reversed the war politics personified by métis Governor-General of French Equatorial Africa, Félix Eboué, who had always held that the French empire in the African continent was unviable without compulsory services for “tribal Africans”.Footnote 21 This evolution seemed to seal the fate of repressive labour structures in the French territories.
Historiographical studies about administrators on the ground have very much centred on Côte d'Ivoire, i.e. on French West Africa. In that territory, a particularly liberal governor provoked especially strong resistance during the period in which the abolition law was prepared.Footnote 22 When the law was finally voted on (11 April 1946), a considerable group of French colonial officials insisted that this would mean the downfall of all prosperous colonies under French rule. However, the fact that debates on abolition quickly disappeared seems to suggest that for all but the most “reactionary” administrators a consensus on the importance of ending compulsory labour had been reached.
This vision fails to take into account a number of clandestine continuities. Babacar Fall has rightly pointed out that clandestine forms of forced labour existed years after the 1946 legislation. He mainly highlights reservist soldiers who were redirected into infrastructure building.Footnote 23 However, this was not the only form of continued forced labour, and such continuity can be found not only in the more remote part of the empire that was French Equatorial Africa, but also in French West Africa.
In 1949, the French Inspector-General of Labour of French West Africa, Pierre Pélisson, gave a damning account of the situation of rural labour in the federation: the “natives” were said to evade their obligations and to show little respect for their contracts.Footnote 24 This was regarded as an immense problem. However, in any future research it would still be necessary to enquire further about conditions in the rural zones of AOF. For French Equatorial Africa the examples of continuity in compulsory labour are perhaps easier to find. As in most colonial systems, the French had before 1946 four major forms of compulsory labour recruitment: a labour tax, the prestations, which forced male individuals to work a number of days per year on public labour sites; pressures exerted upon locals to accept labour contracts with private owners; forced labour as punishment, which had been easy under the indigénat, a form of “native legislation” that allowed local officials and chiefs to punish individuals for disobedience, and, as I have discussed above, for “vagrancy”; and agricultural quotas that obliged peasants to plant particular products and, usually, to sell them to a specific agency.Footnote 25
The prestations ended with the Houphouët-Boigny Law, and administrative intervention in the recruitment of contract labourers became more difficult. The indigénat was abolished together with forced labour in the National Assembly, but “vagrancy” remained: not only were officials concerned about the mobility of colonial subjects, but the existing, often very ancient, legal provisions also opened pathways to other forms of punishment for “vagrants” that did not require the indigénat. Finally, in AEF, probably different from the situation in most parts of AOF, forced agriculture simply continued.
Marius Moutet, Minister of Overseas France, had been very angry in 1946 about the various signs of resistance against the Houphouët-Boigny Law and insisted that he would no longer tolerate any forced agriculture.Footnote 26 However, ten years later, in the immense cotton sector of Chad in AEF, forced agriculture was endemic. Some administrators even described these forms of obligation as “state agriculture”.Footnote 27 Nevertheless, it needs to be emphasized that also in French West Africa some practices of forced agriculture continued and that, in the case of French Sudan (present-day Mali), these conditions were oppressive enough to make the phenomenon appear in the speeches of Confédération Générale du Travail trade-union leaders: thus, it did not disappear in the new panorama of free industrial and public labour.Footnote 28 In contrast to what is known about AOF – which may nevertheless be regarded as incomplete – the mindsets, plans, and practices that characterized the administration in AEF in that period have not at all been analysed; my interpretation will focus on that gap.
With regard to British colonialism in sub-Saharan Africa, the absence of studies of involuntary labour under British rule is the result of scholars accepting British claims about conditions in their colonies – although these claims probably do not, or at least do not always, correspond to local realities.Footnote 29 In terms of obtaining international acceptance of labour policies in the colonies, officials in the British empire were far more creative than their French counterparts. The British had championed the ILO initiative in 1929, which led to Convention 29 on forced labour; they had taken an active role in the battle against the remnants of slavery in the extra-European world in the 1920s; and by 1939 they had convincingly sold an image of Britain as the only colonial state without recourse to compulsory labour. This image was partly due to public opinion in Britain that was indeed sensitive to repressive practices in the colonies, at least as long as these seemed to be directly controlled by the administration. It was also partly due to a different organization of these labour practices. Much of what the British called “native labour” in the interwar period was officially left to the chiefs, and many colonial officials argued that such practices, even if they were compulsory, had been “traditional” for ages.Footnote 30
During World War II, British officials partly forgot their qualms about directly controlled compulsory labour.Footnote 31 The war effort seemed to justify a more rigid approach to labour organization. For example, labour was conscripted for strategic resources, such as in the tin mines of Northern Nigeria, or to guarantee the availability of food through the forced recruitment of agrarian labourers for settler plantations in both Rhodesias and Kenya.Footnote 32 At the level of the Colonial Office, many officials remained uneasy about the effect that such policies could have on public opinion in the mid-term, although they believed that they were unable to find any alternative to compulsory labour during the war years.Footnote 33 The often scandalous conditions in Nigeria's tin mines, one of the most abusive sites of forced labour, made it even more difficult to resort to such practices.Footnote 34 Although it was complicated for the Colonial Office to downsize state control over labour recruitment again at the end of the war – given the pressures of white landowners and concession companies – relief amongst administrators was considerable as soon as postwar colonial policy had again returned to a status quo in which repressive labour policies were absent, at least apparently.
In the following discussion I will examine, with a comparative approach, how the issue of involuntary labour was treated beneath the surface. In theory, two mechanisms of labour provision in the British case (instead of four in the French case) could have allowed continuity in forced labour: the support of private landowners through repressive measures against “deserters” from labour contracts and “vagrants”, including intervention in the recruitment process; and the delegation of powers to chiefs who would then be entitled to organize corvée labour, eventually in the form of a labour tax. The first measure could be combined with rhetoric about the stabilization of an industrial labour force, which is discussed by Cooper.Footnote 35 The second was a possible way to prolong practices of corvée labour that were more openly used in the 1920s and 1930s, and which have found some scholarly interest in the case of the Gold Coast.Footnote 36 Opolot Okia has recently shown, in his important studies on Kenya, that British administrators were very aware of the advantages that colonial economies drew from the employment of communal labour, on the back of colonial subjects.Footnote 37 He also points to the fact that continuity of the allegedly “traditional” and “communal” form of colonial labour is likely to have played a role under British rule even after World War II. My analysis will tackle this question by looking at the case of Northern Rhodesia after 1945 and by comparing it to the situation in French Equatorial Africa.
VAGABONDS, EVERYWHERE: FRENCH DREAMS OF COMPULSORY LABOUR AFTER ITS ABOLITION
A closer look at debates within the administration of AEF allows us to re-analyse the alleged end of forced labour in the “French colonial mind”. Such debates are especially significant whenever one tries to understand what organization of labour without forced labour meant to individual officials. In this context, we come across a representative range of opinions formulated by colonial administrators who held that the Houphouët-Boigny Law was not to be regarded as the end of labour obligations and “encouragement” of Africans to work. The military commander in AEF and Cameroun, Fernand Duchaussoy, set the tone in 1946 with a fervent indictment, in which he argued that freedom of labour had begun to provoke a “plethora of vagrants” coming into the urban zones instead of taking up rural labour as a necessary obligation. The latter phenomenon, Duchaussoy claimed, had already existed under the earlier system where compulsory labour had forced villagers to spend more time in their region of origin; however, it had then been well contained.Footnote 38 Only four weeks after the promulgation of the law in Paris, the Governor-General of AEF, André Bayardelle, also showed how little esteem he felt for the way chosen in Paris:
The natives need to be instructed that the removal of obligatory labour does not mean that labour disappears completely. They have to be taught about the moral and social character of the necessity of labour. In this sense, the officials of an administrative unit will use the chiefs of the land – who have their authority from unanimous designation on the part of their subjects – in order to distribute these principles amongst the autochthons.Footnote 39
Even so, French administrators were pressured to refrain from forced labour, at least through the instrument of the prestations. The name of this measure stood for a labour tax, which had compelled the adult male population to carry out infrastructure labour for a number of days per year. It had involved whole families, as those had been charged to guarantee the transport of food to the labour sites, even if these sites were far away from the villages of the workers.Footnote 40 From 1946, such recruitment was no longer possible through the effect of the Houphouët-Boigny Law. In many of the rural districts, local administrators resigned themselves to the situation: even in the labour-intensive zones of Congo-Brazzaville, this type of forced labour slowly disappeared, although in the face of much local resistance on the part of individual officials.Footnote 41 The wood companies in this territory were amongst the most vocal complainants, as officials no longer pressured the local populations to accept labour contracts.Footnote 42
The process of organization that had characterized the labour tax in many territories had depended upon the collusion of the chiefs, and the latter had sometimes used their position to enhance their own control over village communities. As their role in setting up the worker gangs of prestation labour ended after April 1946, the power of these chiefs was now considerably lessened.Footnote 43 In some regions, officials had been convinced that an undefined type of “customary labour” in the favour of the more prestigious chiefs would survive after the end of the prestations, but these hopes proved groundless. Reports and letters by colonial officials reveal that in districts like Mossendjo in Congo-Brazzaville, where the labour tax had been quite oppressive, locals who were encouraged by the chiefs to comply with the “traditional” part of their “obligations”, simply migrated out of their communities.Footnote 44 It became even impossible for many of the rural chiefs to maintain control over young women, who had in many cases constituted a last reserve of local community labour.Footnote 45 The signs seemed to point to the emergence of a free labour market, where neither the administration nor the chiefs could think of employing compulsory methods. The existence of urban centres, such as Brazzaville or Pointe-Noire in the case of the Middle-Congo, gave workers an additional motive to run away.Footnote 46 At the same time, it was obvious from the behaviour of wage workers, in particular in construction work, that these non-compulsory workers displayed a strong inclination to desert the sites at any sign of discontent and conflict. It is thus unsurprising that the French administration had little enthusiasm for these developments – and sought remedies to counter the effects of changed labour policies.Footnote 47
Therefore, although the higher levels of the territorial administration did finally pay lip service to the abolition of forced labour, the mood on the ground was very different. Debates of the colonial administration in the districts and subdivisions, as in case of French Equatorial Africa, were not congruent with the new labour laws. On the ground, administrators, but also labour inspectors, continued to employ the same discourse on the “laziness of Africans” and their obligations to work, or the necessity to catch “vagrants” as they had before – and territorial governors and their staff were, in internal correspondence, very sympathetic to that. A principal issue was that, now that the administration could no longer extract labour from individuals as a tax, they could become liable to an extra tax if they could not prove any employment: and as many of such “vagrants” would not be able to pay this tax, they could then be imprisoned as tax defaulters and employed in road construction as prison labour. The Representative Council and the Governor of Chad introduced this modality as early as November 1948.Footnote 48 In Congo-Brazzaville, the council, including the large majority of its African councillors, was also inclined to convict individuals charged with “vagrancy”.
Here, the logic of the argument used to justify a new, more repressive legislation was to point to the dangers brought into urban life by a multitude of rural inhabitants who, free from their labour obligations in the villages, and avoiding the payment of taxes, came to the urban centres “to linger around”, in the case of young men, and “to prostitute themselves”, in the case of young women.Footnote 49 These arguments, fuelled by racist preconceptions built up in the interwar period, show the degree to which the end of the labour tax changed power relations in the countryside. Colonial administrators very gratefully responded to any such claims coming from the Congolese elite. Petitions from urban quarters such as Poto-Poto or Bakongo in Brazzaville, which urged repressive measures against incoming migrants, were used to underscore the point.Footnote 50
The Labour Inspector, Georges-Henri Connillière, was more worried about the legal side of any future manoeuvres against “vagabondism”. As he was particularly interested in movement from the countryside into the towns, he suggested rigid controls of the living conditions of inhabitants. Lodgers in the urban areas who did not work for periods seemed to him to be the easiest targets for imprisonment and prison labour.Footnote 51
In 1949 and 1950, the battle against “vagrancy” became a favourite theme for French officials who wished to reverse decisions made with regard to compulsory labour. The Inspector of Finances in Brazzaville, Robert Véron, argued that the last obstacle to recruiting compulsory labour efficiently amongst “unemployed” inhabitants of the territories was the criterion of the absence of a colonial subject from her or his home district. If this condition were to be removed – i.e. if locals could be recruited as “vagrants” because they seemed to be “idle” in their district of origin – the problem of the paucity of labour for essential infrastructure programmes would be resolved overnight:
The lack of disposition to work, and, more especially, the parasitism of the family, plague of the African society – would they not be susceptible to be efficiently fought if each [male] individual with the physical condition to work should justify his “regular and honest means of existence”, whether he finds himself or not in his district of origin?Footnote 52
In 1950, the Government-General of AEF had assembled all the elements for a new plan to create a decree against vagrancy, built again on the argument that resources needed to be employed to battle “dangerous vagabondism” that was said to exist everywhere in AEF. This argument was based on the exploding number of both male and female inhabitants of the cities, which had more than doubled in, amongst others, Brazzaville and Libreville, the territorial capital of Gabon, and more than tripled in Pointe-Noire. The spectre of young rural populations fleeing “the bush” and of cities such as Brazzaville, where 10,000 to 12,000 persons out of 32,000 adults did not have labour cards, of prostitution, and of crime haunted the thoughts of officials. The French administrators complained that only some hundreds of these individuals had ever been prosecuted, but that a majority of these cases did not lead to any judgment, thanks to the insecurity and the lack of legal means of the magistrates. The Government-General of AEF devised a plan of repression that was based, of all things, on the application of Napoleonic laws and instituted regular punishment through hard labour.Footnote 53 The result of these preparations reads as follows:
I would personally be favourable, after this law text will have better armed the judicial authorities against these real dangers, of the creation of “vagabond houses”, organized analogously to the model of the “beggar houses” foreseen by the decree of 5 July 1808. The legislation, without intending to sanction generally a personal obligation to work, should at least tend to discourage those individuals who are tempted to lead an abnormal and vagabond life, through the threat of labour under surveillance.
If we imagine a residence where such individuals can live under surveillance, it would rely on the principle to offer a kind of asylum to the “vagabond”, but also to force them to work and to correct their vices and their laziness. These are, very nearly, the terms of the 1808 decree on the beggars, whose definition comes close to that of our de facto vagabonds, with the sole exception that the latter take more dangerous activities than just begging.Footnote 54
The law project from AEF was never explicitly stopped. However, in the course of 1950 it was delayed and then repeatedly postponed by successive French governments which did not wish to treat the question of the “battle against vagrancy” in a context in which the difficult situation in Indo-China and the complications of imperial reform made it delicate to take any decisions in the way of repressive legislation. In contrast, amongst the officials in AEF there was little understanding of such hesitation. Large parts of the administration were committed to the idea that the labour tax needed to be replaced by other repressive techniques – and even as the attempt to introduce legislative measures failed, the first half of the 1950s saw the intensification of prison sentences of labour against “vagrants”, as administrators felt now encouraged to prosecute such “elements”. Therefore, attempts on the part of the colonial administration in AEF to show respect for international concerns with regard to forced labour were basically a delusion.
As soon as the ILO became occupied with the development of a new, stricter convention, leading officials in French Equatorial Africa assured the French government that their administration was unproblematic from that point of view.Footnote 55 These assertions did not, however, touch on the question of crackdowns on “vagrants”, which were always defined as a battle against vagabondism. No one really asked what these “vagrants”, whenever they were given short prison sentences, were used for.
The situation was similar with more regular prison labour.Footnote 56 After the passing of the Houphouët-Boigny Law, many governors had allowed their administrators to rely even more upon those prisoners who served longer sentences for forced labour on the roads. Article 228 of the Labour Code of 15 December 1952 had in theory closed this loophole and made such systematic use of prison labour illegal, but French officials, in particular in AEF, tended to ignore the provisions of the new law as long as they could. In April 1953, for instance, the Cabinet of the Ministry of Overseas France sent a dispatch in quite an exasperated tone, which urged officials on the ground to desist finally from using the compulsory labour of prisoners.Footnote 57 Again, reactions to this initiative were slow.
Faced with many pressures, the French officials in place still did not accept the end of forced labour as definitive. The debate about French participation in ILO Convention 105 showed that even the abolition of the prestation, now already more than ten years old, was constantly questioned. As late as December 1957, Jean Parisot, Governor of Gabon, noticed that the older ILO Convention 29 had permitted compulsory labour at times of emergency. Although this “emergency labour” was clearly forbidden by the Houphouët-Boigny Law, Parisot joined his colleagues in a general complaint that labour on the roads was too difficult to get in AEF, and that the existing system was too liberal.Footnote 58 In other words, less than one year before the constitutional referendum in the French state gave the colonial territories full autonomy, leading French colonial officials were still attempting to reintroduce the old labour obligations through the back door.
Such initiatives for a reversal in labour policies obviously came too late. In the last quarter of 1958, African ministers took over control of social and labour affairs fully, and in the period up to 1960, most efforts in territorial labour policies were centred on the complicated relationship between the political establishment and trade-union activities. However, it must be emphasized that the idea of compulsory labour was not abolished in the mindset of French administrators until the very end of empire – and that many of these officials were to stay in place during the transition period. Preliminary research suggests that this fact had repercussions for administrative routines after independence.
NO FORCED LABOUR AT ALL: BRITISH WORRIES AND APPROACHES AFTER WORLD WAR II
As I have argued, British diplomacy and politicians in the United Kingdom had successfully managed to shield British colonialism from criticism on the grounds of compulsory forms of local labour. On the ground, however, conditions were often complex, and these complexities already existed in the interwar period. Northern Rhodesia is a significant case for the variety of measures taken with regard to compulsory labour behind the official claim that there were no such practices. Although there were bigger disparities between styles of administration in British sub-Saharan Africa than in the French case (or, for example, in the Portuguese empire), Northern Rhodesia – which in 1953 became part of the short-lived Central African Federation before obtaining its independence in 1964 – is representative of the ambivalences of British late colonial administration in the African continent as a whole. It is interesting that for Northern Rhodesia, a range of good analyses of struggles and strikes in mineworking, which clearly became politicized under the Federation, and of conditions in contract labour in agriculture are available; it is in these contexts that white settler interests were strong.Footnote 59 At the same time, as in other British colonies, these studies have failed to look at the engagement of the administration in compulsory labour practices – practices that were nonexistent in the British Empire if the official British discourse from the 1930s is to be believed, with the exception of the emergency situation of the war years.
As so often, the views of the European officials in neighbouring administrations under the flag of other empires provides important indications of mindsets. In the case of Northern Rhodesia, the discourse was very clear. While opinions about Portuguese Angola and the Belgian Congo were not entirely negative, as both neighbouring colonies were considered to have the better transport infrastructure, the picture was clear with regard to labour policies. Here, Angola was characterized very negatively, as British officials stationed close to the border with this territory argued that the Portuguese blatantly employed a brutal type of forced labour. The abuses of the Portuguese administration in Angola have been discussed elsewhere, but for our analysis, it is essential that they were described in internal memoranda as fundamentally different from any of the existing British practices.Footnote 60
In contrast to these “outrageous practices”, the governor's office in Lusaka held in the first half of the 1950s that in Northern Rhodesia, no compulsory labour existed. This opinion was defended when it came to discussing the provisions for new ILO regulations on forced labour.Footnote 61 While this view echoed the official position taken in the 1930s, an ambivalence played itself out behind such commitments. In the years after World War II, several administrators held that the Northern Rhodesian population had to participate more actively in the new “development effort”. The consensus was overwhelming that black Africans would not contribute in this way without compulsion:
Development plans in the tribal areas are about to be implemented and the danger that they may be seriously held up by the reluctance of the African to engage in work in the rural areas, even when such work is for the direct benefit of his own community, is a matter for concern. The difficulty will become more apparent when development teams start to work in the field.Footnote 62
In most British colonies, the chiefs were responsible for the maintenance of (at least the) minor regional roads. By the end of World War II, the administration of Northern Rhodesia attempted to organize more coherent “native treasuries” directed by these chiefs, which would allow for the payment of work gangs in the rural areas.Footnote 63 In some zones, such as in the Southern Province, attempts were made to finance the workers through special grants.Footnote 64 Even so, such measures were exceptional; at least in the second half of the 1940s, there was a general reluctance to “interfere” in “traditional” forms of labour organization on the ground.Footnote 65 Therefore, while they always appeared to favour free labour in the sector of road construction, British officials in Northern Rhodesia were quite committed to allowing local chiefs to organize compulsory labour for “essential works”. In 1947, they obliged the chiefs to draft lists of such works, with a view to revising them but also in order to endorse their necessity in the face of any ILO or international criticism.Footnote 66
In 1959 the chiefs in Barotseland, the westernmost province of Northern Rhodesia, still used the sections of the Native Authority Ordinance that allowed them to draft compulsory labour for a certain number of days per year, in the guise of a solution to an emergency situation. Only then did British officials in Lusaka become worried about this possibility, as they (rightly) felt that the new ILO Convention 105 would make such measures even more problematic.Footnote 67
However, indirect recruitment through the “native chiefs” was not the only method of drafting forced labour. Direct recruitment for compulsory labour – although it was officially regarded as “unwanted” and barely spoken about – also continued under a variety of labels and circumstances. Already in 1947, the Governor of Northern Rhodesia, Eubule Waddington, faced down hostile Colonial Office staff in London under Creech Jones, to defend the necessity of compulsory labour in cases of major emergency. Waddington's definition of “emergency” was very wide: the regular occurrence of soil erosion was one such case that could be so defined.Footnote 68 As the Colonial Office did not explicitly regulate these cases, British administrators remained committed to such methods for the next decade, although the political panorama slowly became more complicated.
An exemplary case of the employment of compulsory labour in 1957 can be found in the Eastern Province, where works on the Lundazi and Great East Roads were carried out with such labourers.Footnote 69 Even the transport of groundnuts, for which insufficient numbers of free labourers could be found in 1957, was seen as essential enough to justify “exceptional” emergency labour for sixty days.Footnote 70 The central services in Lusaka in fact contested the right of the Provincial Commissioner to define “emergency labour” as widely as he had done, including work on minor roads and groundnut transport, but such “emergency labour” was still very prominent in larger road-building projects. Nor did the commissioner for labour and the mines in Lusaka criticize provincial administrators for the idea in itself. He was more worried about the international view of Britain's colonial labour policy, which might face criticism. Even so, he hinted at one of the fundamental reasons for the continued use of forced labour (the lower costs), musing “whether the wages offered are adequate for this unpopular work; whether rations of good quality are issued regularly and wages paid promptly upon the completion of a ticket. If all these conditions were satisfactory, would there have been no possibility of attracting voluntary labour?”Footnote 71
Finally, a debate on the services for travelling British officers came up, but only very late. Until 1957, villages were still forced to give such services for free, and there was not the slightest consideration of the fact that these services could constitute compulsory labour. In 1957, members of the African Provincial Council of the Northern Province were amongst the first to protest against these routines:
The Government stopped Chiefs from demanding forced labour from their people, yet it expects Chiefs to force their people to provide free camps, water and wood. The Chief has no power to make people make camps. This is causing much dissatisfaction in the Province and enmity between the Chiefs and their people. I have seen Kapasus abusing women to get them to carry water to a District Officer's camp.Footnote 72
This might appear to be a minor issue, but it reflects very well the fact that the British administration continued to resort to measures that appeared to be “customary”, even if they involved compulsory labour. Such practices were difficult to reconcile with trends towards colonial reform. However, even when faced with growing criticism, the territorial government of Northern Rhodesia only alleviated the impact of administrative tours and related mandatory services shortly before the end of the decade.
Moreover, direct compulsion by the British administration and the chiefs was not the only area of repressive measures within late colonial labour policy. The different forms of continuous compulsory labour were paired with two other elements of repression. First, as in the French case, the question of “vagrancy” and “undue” mobility was also on the agenda of the British authorities. Unlike in French Equatorial Africa, where the chiefs only had a limited interest in the issue, in Northern Rhodesia they were at the forefront of calls for more control and repression in these cases.
In the Northern Province, in the final phase of the war years, different chiefs demanded a more aggressive policy against “loafers” in settlements close to the railway line. The Paramount Chiefs of Lunda and Ngumbo demanded that “vagrants” be compelled to return to their villages, where they were to fulfil their tax and labour obligations.Footnote 73 New African associations, which still were strongly in tune with the interests of the chiefs, also supported these measures.Footnote 74 Two years later, the situation in the province had not changed from the point of view of the “native authorities”, which continued to discuss steps for more rigid control of “lazy Africans”, such as individual passes and inspections.Footnote 75 Shortly before, in the urbanized mining regions of the Copperbelt, the administration had prepared means to “repatriate” up to 3,000 “loafers” from Ndola and other centres, who were allegedly seeking an “idle life”, staying illegally in rented houses to evade labour obligations in their home towns.Footnote 76
In the early 1950s, the British administration acceded to the complaints of powerful local chiefs and started to exert more control over intra-territory migrant labour. In Barotseland Province, the Paramount Chief and other “native rulers” were authorized to restrain the mobility of young male inhabitants, who were likely to claim they were going to migrate to the Copperbelt but whose final destinations and willingness to carry out hard labour were regularly questioned by the chiefs and the administration. Candidates for migration were required to pay at least two yearly tax sums before departure, and by 1951, illegal migrants were caught, mainly in the urban environment of Livingstone, and sent back to Barotseland, where they were severely punished. Many endured short prison sentences that led them into temporary forced labour. The British administration applauded these tactics. It was generally held that the province needed such strategies, because vital services would cease to work otherwise.Footnote 77 In the long run, these attitudes played into the hands of the nationalist parties – mainly the United National Independence Party (UNIP) in the Barotseland case – which pointed to the repressive means tolerated by the administration and orchestrated by the chiefs, winning thereby considerable grass-roots support in difficult terrain.
The second repressive practice in which the British administration in Northern Rhodesia was strongly engaged turned on the question of “desertion” from contracts. Here, it was important that British labour laws had favoured a different set of measures of coercion when it came to the obligatory nature of labour contributions. As we have seen, the British had never had an instrument comparable to the French labour tax, but the criminalization of “desertion” from contracts – following the old master-and-servant legislation, which had been abolished in Britain in the 1870s – was very characteristic of the British situation.Footnote 78 Obviously, in a territory such as Northern Rhodesia, in which mining companies and settler plantations had a crucial impact, these issues appeared at regular intervals.
The Labour Commissioner in Lusaka, William F. Stubbs, defended the notion of “desertion from contract” against pressures from the Colonial Office to end criminal sentences against “deserters” from contracts. He argued that African contract labourers would no longer show even the minimum respect for the rights of the European owners if they were not prosecuted for breach of contract.Footnote 79 Plantation owners in Northern Rhodesia wanted even more: now that the compulsory measures of the war years were over, they wished for additional measures to reintegrate and control recalcitrant labourers who, after short prison sentences, were very likely to remain as opposed to conditions on the farms as they had been before.Footnote 80 Effectively, repressive measures against “deserters” were intensified in the second half of the 1940s, but they brought few successes, as police agents in the outlying stations were not willing to do much extra work to find these refugees.Footnote 81 In 1948, conditions had not improved, and the administration was still helpless to change the odds: very few “deserters” were caught and contract labourers were inclined to flee their occupations as soon as they had received their first wages.Footnote 82
Examples from Northern Rhodesia illustrate that the British Empire, even after 1945, was far from being untouched by the pitfalls and problems of compulsory labour. British colonial politicians and high-level administrators were quite ingenious when it came to presenting these practices as nonexistent at the official level, and professed that routines of compulsory labour carried out by the “native chiefs” were defined by “custom” and nothing else. Even so, behind this curtain of apparently more liberal practices, the internal discussions show, as much as the experiences of locals drafted for “emergency labour” or prosecuted as “vagrants”, a more repressive reality. It was the accelerated process towards independence that characterized the British colonial world in the second half of the 1950s, together with resistance and evasion on the part of the African populations, which forced the late colonial administrations to bury hidden strategies of compulsory labour.
In 1962, for the first time, a colonial power – Portugal – was taken to court before the ILO, accused of a breach of the Forced Labour Convention by the government of the now independent African state, Ghana. The experience of the ILO process against Portugal, which ended with the acquittal of the Portuguese government, showed dramatically a number of issues with regard to the transition from forced labour under colonial rule to the post-colonial world.
First of all, as might have been expected, the Portuguese case showed that the British and French had obviously not had the most repressive practices of forced labour – the Portuguese only abolished forced labour as punishment for “vagrancy”, through forced cultivation quotas and corvée labour on roads, in 1961. Secondly, however, the case also showed that an attack on colonial powers by post-colonial governments had considerable weaknesses – in a phase of strong solidarity with anti-colonial movements in the last remaining European colonies, such governments were easily criticized by European officials. In the case of Portugal, a group of reformist officials managed to compile a dossier that emphasized the wish for reform in the Portuguese colonial state of the early 1960s, sought excuses for the slow performance of this colonial state by attributing it to structural difficulties, and, principally, showed evidence suggesting that the post-colonial governments in independent African countries were far more committed to practices of coercion than the old colonial powers, including Portugal.Footnote 83 It is clear that the arguments put forward by the Portuguese officials were not at all neutral – as these European administrators were ready to use whatever propaganda weapons they had to counter international support for guerilla movements in their African territories. However, the ease with which it was possible for the Portuguese to point out these coercive practices in post-colonial African states is impressive.
Although it has not been studied as a broader phenomenon, it must be considered very likely that compulsory labour remained an important factor after independence. It was a temptation for many governments which, after the transfer of power, had to struggle with budgets that seriously curtailed the modernization plans modelled on the development projects of the former colonial states. It is plausible that the need for compulsory labour turned out to be less important when the channels for access to international credit became far more reliable by the second half of the 1960s.Footnote 84
In the case of the two strongest colonial powers in the African continent, the abolition of forced labour in 1946 (in the French case) and the end of compulsory structures related to the war effort by 1947/1948 (in the British case) could have started a trajectory in which the employment of compulsory measures to “make Africans work” could have disappeared as a policy option in the arena of infrastructure-building and other sectors. In this case, it would have been far less likely that post-colonial rulers would have made these techniques part of their own policies. However, as we have seen, the realities of life under the late colonial states were quite different. The idea of the “necessity” of compulsory labour, at least in some sectors, even if it was legitimized through high-handed interpretations of legal and administrative instruments, haunted the “colonial mindset” after World War II. This “spectre” did not vanish after independence, and led to hidden continuities in the experiences that African populations had of these repressive practices. I will in the final part of this article attempt to reflect upon the results in light of post-colonial continuities of compulsory labour. The examples that I will present here for post-colonial policies of “public labour” go beyond the region analysed in this study: they are selected to illustrate the potential for further studies on such continuities.
The French administration in French Equatorial Africa was very frustrated by the progress towards the abolition of forced labour in the form of the labour tax. Many officials deplored the loss of these techniques as part of the end of economic prosperity in the African colonies, and, shortly afterwards, they confirmed the predicted economic problems but emphasized in particular the loss of control over young, rural populations, who had before been subject to compulsory labour services. French officials focused on an alleged syndrome of “vagrancy” that they purported to be battling through repressive measures: the legal and practical means of punishing individuals who left the “good” routines of rural, agricultural labour but did not become “decent wage workers” were extended in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Although the agents of the colonial state failed with this initiative, the theme of the battle against “parasitism” – labelling as such all individuals who were not working according to the criteria of the colonial administration – remained on the agenda until far into the 1950s.
After independence, it is remarkable that some of the new governments emanating from French colonial rule chose the same discourse. The most visible continuity is the case of Madagascar, a former island colony, where the hunt for “vagrants” was phrased in identical terms to those in AEF in the late colonial period.Footnote 85 However, in other former French colonies, the arguments of the new rulers went noticeably in the same direction. In the first three years of independent Senegal, the government of Mamadou Dia insisted on the necessity of labour brigades.Footnote 86 Independent Congo-Brazzaville chose the same kind of “public duties” for the infrastructure of this new state. In 1960, measures were taken against “vagrants” in Brazzaville that strongly recalled French ideas after World War II.Footnote 87 During the 1960s “communal labour” was established for road maintenance, and became a kind of “obsession” for some Congolese administrators.Footnote 88
British administrators employed several, more hidden forms of compulsion when dealing with the rural labour force. Their techniques were sometimes so successfully concealed that scholars and observers have swallowed the idea of an empire without forced labour. The reality is, however, more complex, also reflected in the complicated discourse used by British officials in a colony such as Northern Rhodesia. While the British late colonial state preferred to work through the “native chiefs”, such organization was, nevertheless, bringing about involuntary labour under several forms. Moreover, British officials were also very devoted to other forms of compulsory labour services in which they retained direct control, such as with “emergency labour” or compulsory labour services supporting touring officials.
After independence, some of these policies appear to have retained their importance. Indications of these phenomena are clear for Ghana, where the Nkrumah government operated consistently through labour brigades.Footnote 89 For other cases, such as Zambia,Footnote 90 research has still advanced very little, although it is at least to be expected that in rural areas some continuities may be identified. For instance, where “native chiefs” defended a part of their authority, they also had the possibility of organizing such labour services as “traditional communal labour”.
Connections can still only be made tentatively between two late colonial empires and the post-colonial experience of the ensuing independent nation states, in which the idea of compulsion with regard to labour organization had not been expunged to the extent that was claimed in the international arena. I do not argue that post-colonial leaders simply reproduced repressive colonial forms of labour organization. However, it appears to be an important observation that the late colonial states did not finish with compulsory labour entirely: it remained a possibility in one form or another. It thereby transformed itself into a policy option for post-colonial governments – and this option was taken up in various cases.