Skip to main content

Review of Slavery By Any Other Name: African Life under Company Rule in Colonial Mozambique


By Will Nyerere Plastow

Slavery By Any Other Name: African Life under Company Rule in Colonial Mozambique. Eric Allina. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville and London, 2012. Pp. 255. ISBN. 978-0-8139-3272-9 (pb). £44.50.

Between 1892 and 1942 the Mozambique Company ruled much of what is now central Mozambique by royal charter on behalf of the Portuguese state. During this period, the Company oversaw a massive forced labour system in which tens of thousands of Africans were compelled to participate. Eric Alliana’s Slavery by Any Other Name is highly detailed and informative account of the role of “modern slavery” in Company governed Mozambique. Researching this book, Allina was able to gain unprecedented access to the previously lost Mozambique Company archives. This historical gold mine, in addition to the over 100 interviews Allina conducted in the mid-1990’s with Mozambican elders who had lived under Company rule, allows him to paint a particularly rich and detailed account of life during the period. The juxtaposition of the Company’s official statements and legal declarations, against the statements of Mozambicans and front line Company administrators, allows Allina to be particularly effective in explicating the gap between official regulation and the brutality of on-the-ground practice.

The first half of the book broadly looks at the discourses and practices that constituted the Mozambique Company’s exploitative labour regime. At an official level the company justifies its activity with all the classical racist platitudes of colonialism. Colonial labour law, passed in 1899, stipulated that “[a]ll natives of Portuguese overseas provinces are subject to the moral and legal obligation to seek to acquire through work the means they lack for subsistence and to improve their own social condition (p.4)”, and granted the company the right to “impose (p.5)” this obligation on those who would not fulfil it “of their own free will (p.139)”. What this law meant in practice was that almost any African male who was vaguely capable of working was potentially open to press-ganging by company agents to serve as [in practice] unpaid labour for white private concerns. What is most striking about Slavery By Any Other Name is the sheer extent of the arbitrariness, hypocrisy, brutality and incompetence of Company Rule that Allina has meticulously documented. Although, due to massively inadequate understanding of local populations, the company’s labour programme was ruinously inefficient almost every aspect of African life was disrupted and damaged by Company activity. Throughout the book, Allina drives home the point that whatever formal rights the company granted Africans in law or official proclamations, on the ground these were always tenuous with Company practice consistently driven by the desire to dominate and exploit African labour.

The second half of the book focusses more strongly on the ways in which Africans attempted to resist and actively engage with company rule in order to achieve some degree of stability and prosperity in their lives. This section reads well alongside other accounts of subaltern resistance emphasising how most resistance took the form of avoidance and utilised the superior local knowledge of the African population rather than risk direct confrontation. This section also includes interesting descriptions of how a few Mozambicans were able to take advantage of the limited rights granted to them and carved out positions of moderate prosperity for themselves within the colonial order.

Ultimately, Slavery by Any Other Name provides an extremely detailed account of the role of forced labour within a privatised colonial regime that encompasses both African and European perspectives. With the exception of the introduction and the conclusion the text is largely descriptive, and as a whole the book does not seek to add any specific new insights to postcolonial theory. It is however infused with a strong political commitment to highlighting the brutality and hypocrisy of colonial forced labour regimes [which were not limited to Mozambique] and does provide an interesting analysis connecting Mozambique’s colonial past to its postcolonial present. This text would be of interest to scholars researching colonial history in general, and of particular relevance to anybody with an interest in colonial legal systems, subaltern resistance to colonialism, or the modern history of slavery and forced labour.

Reviewed by: Will Nyerere Plastow, University of Cambridge.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 74 (December 2012), pp. 84-86]

Article keywords:

Article Categories: