W. J. Samarin: The Black Man's Burden

The Black Man’s Burden. African Colonial Labor on the Congo and Ubangi Rivers, 1880–1900

Samarin, William J.
African Modernization and Development
New York 2019: Routledge
Anzahl Seiten
XII, 276 S.
€ 48,09
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Tristan Oestermann, Institut für Geschichtswissenschaften, Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf

Why should someone read a 30-year-old reprinted book about African colonial labor on the rivers of the well-researched Congo Free State and the French Congo? Because this book still opens new perspectives on labor in the specific area as well as on labor in Western Africa in general. When it was first published in 1989, the research community hardly received the book. Its author, who died in 2020, was not a trained historian but a missionary linguist, specializing in Central African languages.[1] Apart from the decline of African labor history in the 1990s, this might explain the neglect. This is a pity because Samarin changes the perspective on labor in the early colonial Congo basin and anticipates many of today’s research trends like Global Labor History and the New History of Capitalism.

Samarin’s aim is to analyze, „how whites […] created an indigenous work force“ (p. 1) along the Congo and Oubangui rivers. He points to the blind spot in Africa’s labor history: Hinting at the Marxist classics of the field[2], he rightly observes that these authors declare that colonialism destroyed older modes of production and created new forms of capitalist work relations. However, these authors rarely explain how this actually happened. Samarin argues that this process was mainly linked to violence. However, he makes an important contribution by nuancing this picture, demonstrating that Europeans used every form of relationship to mobilize workers. Concentrating on the French and the Free State governments and various missions, Samarin shows that the Congo colonies relied on a diverse labor force: Laborers were migrants, slaves, indentured slaves, forced laborers, or wage laborers – and many worked in what is today called „hybrid“ labor forms.[3]

Samarin focusses on several vital groups of African workers who are rarely mentioned in labor histories of the Congo. During the first years of colonial rule, Europeans could hardly mobilize Congolese labor. Therefore, Samarin writes, „[t]he first workers were not, however, the indigenous ones. But they were African“ (p. 3). Europeans hired workers from Sierra Leone, Lagos, the Gold Coast and many other African regions. In pointing out the importance of migrant labor, Samarin draws attention to a crucial category of colonial workers in West and Equatorial Africa, which still remains under-researched. Another important yet hardly analyzed group are the so-called Bangala workers, recruited on the Congo and its tributaries. They were employed ubiquitously by the Europeans and praised as reliable and industrious. Samarin argues that these self-confident Bangala workers really were Bobangi and related peoples with navigational skills, who controlled pre-colonial trade on the Congo River. A reason for their absence in the historical literature might be that they were, according to Samarin, not forced laborers, on whom the historiography of the Congo basin usually focuses. Their recruitment „took place deliberately, by enticing the young with things that would attract them […], and the privilege to be armed and to travel on the steamers. Thus arose the salaried workers from the indigenous peoples“ (p. 79). Also local generational and social conflicts played a role: „It is assumed that in poorer villages, or in those where wealthy men had control of most of the options, young men were more willing to seek their fortunes with the whites“ (p. 79).

Transport was a main use for labor in the early colonial Congo. With the examples of Bakongo porters on the road between Matadi and Kinshasa, and the workers on the rivers, Samarin explores how the states used slavery, violence, forced labor but also mutually beneficial alliances to mobilize labor on land as on water. Often, these forms of labor overlapped. Among the wage laborers, there were many indentured slaves. When Europeans demanded workers from chiefs, the men and women they received were mostly slaves or clients. Colonialists thus frequently paid wages to slaves. At other times, they bought or confiscated slaves – not for humanitarian reasons, but to use them as laborers. Usually, freed men and women then had to work without pay until they had paid back the money used for their purchase. Occasionally, however, wage labor for Europeans provided a haven from severe oppression. Then slaves did not return to their masters but stayed in the emerging labor market.

The book also has weaker parts. Three sometimes self-repeating chapters are dedicated to missionary societies which ransomed slave children and were furnished children by the state. As part of the colonization effort, the missionaries put these children to work, in order to transform them into a new generation of local workers, usable for the state. The last chapter, finally, is on female workers, who were auxiliaries or sexual partners for Europeans as well as for African soldiers. Mostly, they performed servile labor – and indeed, many of them were slaves, captives, or hostages who were often „married“ to soldiers to control their labor. Today’s reader would certainly wish for women being included in all the chapters.

What is also problematic from today’s perspective is that Samarin constantly writes about „blacks“ versus „whites“. Furthermore, the reader wishes for a stronger focus on African agency. In Samarin’s account Africans mostly respond to what Europeans did. Also, only few African individuals feature in the book. Instead, Samarin operates with ethnic groups etc. Of course, in African history as well as in labor history the sources often do not allow to get beyond collective terms. Therefore, it is positive that Samarin recurrently shows how unstable and shifting ethnic identities were and how their emergence was related to labor. Last, but not least, there is an important blank spot: the omission of private businesses like trading firms or concessionary companies as employers. Generally, private European business in Africa before World War One is still under-researched – notably regarding labor relations.[4] Especially because Samarin draws a uniquely nuanced picture of labor for the governments, one must ask whether this perspective would not also nuance the picture of the private Red Rubber empires?

Generally, the book would have benefited from a foreword on Samarin and the reprinting of this book. Moreover, the reprinting was done on the cheap. On at least one page (p. 93), you can even see that a sentence was underlined by a reader of the original copy which was just scanned.

These, however, are only minor points given the richness of this book. Samarin not only draws a detailed and nuanced picture of labor in the Congo colonies. His findings are most relevant for labor histories of early colonial Western and Equatorial Africa in general. After more than 30 years, the book hopefully will have the impact on African labor history which it deserves!

[1] J. Clancy Clements / Salikoko Mufwene, William J. Samarin, 7 February, 1926 – 16 January, 2020, in: Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages 35 (2020), pp. 207–212.
[2] E.g., Peter C.W. Gutkind / Robin Cohen / Jean Copans (eds.), African Labor History, Beverly Hills 1978.
[3] Andreas Eckert / Marcel van der Linden, New Perspectives on Workers and the History of Work. Global Labor History, in: Sven Beckert / Dominic Sachsenmaier (eds.), Global History, Globally. Research and Practice around the World, London 2018, pp. 145–162, here p. 150.
[4] Gareth Austin, African Business History, in: John F. Wilson et al. (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Business History, London 2017, pp. 141–158, here p. 145.

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