Producing modus vivendi: labour, punishment and governance under the rule of the Nyassa Charter Company (Mozambique, 1891-1929)

Forschungsprojekt

In 1891, the Portuguese government signed contracts authorising private companies to administer large areas of territory in one of its main colonies in Africa – Mozambique. Generally speaking, these concessions had two primary objectives: to promote the economic development of the administered territories and to guarantee the preservation of Portuguese sovereignty in the region. In return, the companies would have the power to make laws, hire officials, police borders, control trade in the region and also the right to collect hut taxes and to tax any agricultural and industrial activity.

Starting in 1899, when the Portuguese government passed a law obligating all ‘indigenous’ peoples of its colonies to engage in labour, the company responsible for the administration of the northern region of Mozambique, the Nyassa Company, transformed the exploitation of labour into its main source of income. Through successive increases in hut taxes, a large part of the local male population ended up being forced to use their labour force as a form of payment to the company's demands. If they did not do so ‘voluntarily’, they could be criminally accused and punished with the penalty of correctional labour. 

But punishment, whether through corporal or labour penalties, was not always the best strategy in an environment where healthy, active and productive bodies were of the utmost importance for the success of the company’s economic endeavour. Violence, social control and domination represented issues that, in this context, were accompanied by negotiations, adaptations and the search for coexistence arrangements.

The main goal of my research project is to map and scrutinise how this minimally stable balance between governance, punishment and labour exploitation was locally established. Through the analysis of official correspondence, memoires, laws, treatises, newspapers and court cases, I ask questions such as: What types of treaties and agreements did the Nyassa Company established with local chiefs? In addition to the possibility of rebelling or fleeing to a neighbouring territory, were there legal mechanisms that could be mobilised by local populations? Did these mechanisms come to be used? If so, how and when?

By taking up these questions, my intention is to contribute to the understanding of how the administration of private companies generated specific normative production arrangements in African territories, and to better grasp the creation and maintenance of dependency relations connected to colonial domination.

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