Economic Histories of Forced Labor in Africa: Insights from New Sources and Approaches

AHA Session 50
Thursday, January 4, 2018: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Columbia 6 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Martin A. Klein, University of Toronto
Martin A. Klein, University of Toronto

Session Abstract

Forced labor was an integral aspect of colonial governance and development strategies in Sub-Saharan Africa. Governments with limited cash resources at both local and national level relied on forced labor for the construction and maintenance of infrastructure projects and military recruitment. Commercial enterprises also depended on a range of coercive measures to bring Africans into the labor force, such as restrictions on labor mobility and land use, and the criminalization of violating employment contracts or ‘indolence’. The sharp contrast between the pervasive use of forced labor and colonial narratives about abolition has long been known. However, fragmented documentation surrounding its use has hindered efforts to build systematic accounts of forced labor systems. The four papers in this session use new archival evidence to examine the structure of forced labor recruitment, its role within African colonial economies and state building processes, and its long-term legacies.

Gardner’s paper revisits the League of Nation’s investigation into the export of forced workers from Liberia to the sugar islands in the 1930s, placing it within the broader context of Liberia’s increasingly marginalized position in West African trade. Thiesen-Mark’s project examines the use of vagrancy laws to increase the labor supply available to mid-size farms in Liberia in the 1960s, focusing particularly on cooperation between paramount chiefs and the Liberian government. Van Waijenburg’s paper explores the place and significance of forced labor for colonial tax building strategies, complementing the predominantly labor market-oriented interpretations of the coercion schemes. Finally, Sara Lowes and Eduardo Montero’s contribution employs sophisticated econometric techniques to assess the long-term effects of the Congo Free State’s violent rubber extraction regime.

With this interdisciplinary panel we set out to deepen conversations between qualitative and quantitative approaches to the history of forced labor. More generally, we hope that our focus on the potential complementarity of different (methodological) approaches will build bridges between the work of historians, economic historians, and economists.

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