Language, power and mutual dependencies: Interpreters and justice administration in Colonial Mozambique, 1895-1974


Despite the relevance of African interpreters in colonial administrative and legal systems on the African continent, these agents have so far occupied a marginal place in legal historical scholarship. Especially from the end of the 19th century onwards, when several European nations put into practice aggressive policies of domination and occupation of African territories, the ability to overcome language barriers became an extremely valuable asset. European languages were not widely known among Africans, in the same way that colonial agents and European settlers lacked basic communication skills in African languages.

In this context, the colonial authorities had recourse to the work of interpreters. The establishment of a private indigenous court in Mozambique in 1926 saw the institutionalisation of the activity of interpreters and the obligation for them to take part in the court’s proceedings. In this case, the reform of the Portuguese legal system allowed Africans who could speak Portuguese to take a prominent place in colonial society.

This study seeks to understand the role played by African interpreters in the colonial administration with particular emphasis on the justice system. By focusing on the case of Mozambique, it assumes that these agents not only participated in the creation of colonial law but also produced it. The study’s main argument is that African interpreters in Mozambique had power that went beyond simply facilitating communication between colonisers and colonised. Instead, they had leeway to manipulate the translations according to their  own objectives, making it possible to assert their power in the social, political and legal spheres. On the one hand, this shows that Africans who are often portrayed as collaborators had their own agency and, in many cases, played and reshaped the colonial justice system. On the other, it tones down the centrality and power of colonial administration and its representatives, who, as the sources suggest, were constantly pushed into circumstances of mutual dependency, that is, situations where the achievement of their objectives depended on the knowledge and action of Africans.

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