Incarnated spirits: sorcery, mutual dependencies and normative production in southern Mozambique (1890–1940)


Sorcery is a constitutive element of reality in several territories of Mozambique. According to these local cosmogonies, spiritual agents meet and interact in the context of everyday practices. From an ontological perspective, spiritual entities are incarnate and thus directly affect people’s lives. The spirits of the dead, incorporated in the living, exert an ‘invisible’ yet powerful influence on society and therefore on the production of knowledge of normativity. Given this spiritual context, along Mozambican colonial history, especially between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Portuguese colonial policies treating sorcery and the local social meanings involving the power of spells were fundamental aspects underlying the establishment of mutual and asymmetric dependencies, especially because of the strategies of colonial mimetic governmentality.

More recently, a multitude of African agencies involving local beliefs has been the focus of a number of studies. These reflections largely reveal the strategies of resistance and reinvention used by so-called ‘native’ populations in the face of colonial imposition. My research, however, proposes a diverse examination: the working hypothesis also postulates an agency of these very beliefs held by the Portuguese colonial agents. Faith in spells, as a daily practice, was therefore not relegated to the sphere of ‘savagery’, but, incorporated by colonial governmentality, made possible by the emergence and manipulation of new power strategies by the colonizers. This assertion relies not only on the fact that the Portuguese benefited from this set of beliefs as a justification for exerting different forms of social control – either due to disagreements in daily life or the need to recruit labor – but also on the awareness that such beliefs could neither be eradicated (since they were deeply rooted in the local system of beliefs), nor should such an elimination even be attempted given their constitutive role in the new rearrangements of mimetic colonial governmentality. On the other hand, it should be emphasized that local agents, who assume new positions of power and acquire other bargaining possibilities in the judicial arena, also begin to benefit in various ways from the new apparatuses of administration and justice.

The change in power relations opened gaps for colonizers and colonized alike to benefit from the new dynamics established by colonization, even if the gains were asymmetrical. It is precisely in the incorporation and reproduction of the perception of otherness that the mutuality of dependence is verified.

Thus, my research aims to examine and map the normative production resulting from the process of mutual dependencies established around spells and sorcery, specifically in the districts of Lourenço Marques, Gaza and Inhambane since the so-called 'effective occupation' campaigns started in 1890. By means of analyzing court cases, milandos (disputes), official correspondence, minutes and reports from administrative authorities, laws, treaties, newspapers, ethnographic accounts and oral interviews, the research also aims to contribute to the overcoming of the traditional dichotomies between 'collaboration' and 'resistance' that have flourished in the field of the history of African colonization in the last decades.

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