- Tracing the Itineraries of Working Concepts across African History
This essay takes as its starting point a question: do historians of Africa’s early and more recent pasts need each other’s labor histories when studying the relationship between work and mobility?1 A response in the negative foregrounds the differences between the economic and political worlds of Africans living before the fifteenth century and the economic and political worlds of merchant capitalism, industrial capitalism, colonialism, independence, and neoliberalism.2 This answer suggests that as people moved for the purpose of work from the early modern period, the ties forged (and severed) between people and with objects were dramatically changed from the strategies of earlier communities. We may well ask whether “labor” is even an applicable concept for periods before interactions between Africans and Europeans.
It is easy to agree that there are great differences in the histories of movement and work across the chronological divides that structure African historiography. But we might also imagine these divides as thresholds through which we peer, gaining a rich but necessarily partial view of each other’s knowledge about the common problems and questions that animate our scholarship in different ways. When we survey each other’s fields to (at the very least) keep abreast of trends that impact our teaching, we [End Page 235] recognize change and continuity differently: what is foreign on one side of the threshold is often well-known and well-studied on the other side. Practices that appear novel in the early modern and modern periods might look like an iteration of a durable strategy from the perspective of the medieval and early African pasts, not the least because specialists in these periods tend to write about much longer periods of time.
Some of the articles in this issue already straddle such chronological thresholds, looking both forward and back to draw out continuities and changes. Martino, for example, recognizes parallels between the colonial labor regimes of the plantations of Spanish Fernando Pó and earlier regimes of slavery. These similarities have inspired some scholars, Martino explains, to suggest the emergence of “neo-slavery” in West Africa in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yet, Martino also insists that the legal framework of the labor contract changed significantly the strategies of touts, “recruiters,” who would have been responsible for enslavement in an economy based on neo-slavery. The efforts of touts were, Martino argues, a unique, non-violent form of banditry that was entirely dependent on the skill and savoir-faire of trickster-recruiters. In contrast, Keese looks forward in time. He describes the complex history of forced labor in the French Congo and compares the strategies of the colonial state to those of the post-colonial state. Keese uses Jean-François Bayart’s argument that political control and labor control depended on corporeal punishment in independent Africa, seeing in Bayart’s thesis great continuity with the colonial period, even while keeping open the possible influence of Soviet labor regimes on post-colonial labor practices.3
Like Martino and Keese, this essay seeks to peer across chronological thresholds, albeit from the perspective of a student of earlier periods. The insistence that “precolonial” pasts matter is by no means a new perspective. For well over a decade historians have called for (and demonstrated the significance of) greater attention to histories that predate colonialism in efforts to understand the twentieth century.4 The success of the earliest such calls have, themselves, been called into question, as historians increasingly focus on writing postcolonial histories and as fewer train in the methods of recovering earlier, undocumented pasts.5 But it is possible to perceive in recent scholarship a (perhaps growing) interest in connecting the recent past to much older histories. New work tracks across centuries and sometimes millennia how earlier ideas about race and ethnicity, perceptions of the environment, and changing practices of faith, motherhood, and politics inform the histories of colonialism and even the decades after Independence.6 A few have even suggested that, in some cases, the colonial period—the focus of most essays in this collection—was more like a pause [End Page 236...