A Short Overview of Chibalo (Forced Labor) in Colonial Mozambique (1938- 1961)

Labor and Cotton Production in Colonial Mozambique, 1938- 1961

History shows that the weakest governments are the ones who rely on force to remain in power, despite the fact that this depletes their legitimacy.  The Belgians in the Congo Basin treated their subjects brutally when they could not control them, and in Mozambique, the Portuguese treated their colonial subjects like chattel.  The Portuguese government was unable to enforce their cotton regime without the help of native Police and Overseers, and concessionaire companies.  This, coupled with the later national debt led to a right- wing coup in 1926.  Previous to 1938, Lisbon’s focus was renting out male labor to the British colonies and ceding large territories to concessionaire companies.

Historically, in Mozambique, Mukume (northern Mozambican household organized work parties) and mafunana (labor exchanges in Southern Mozambique) (5, Isaacman) were the forms of labor.  Corporate and consensual, these practices were predicated on a sense of mutual, collective well-being.  The Portuguese imposed a much harsher system.  The system was called “chibalo.”  It was precisely the colonial ideal: colonized subjects working productively under coercion.  Chibalo was the naked coercion of laborers at the hands of capatazes (company overseers), propagandistas (concessionary company field agents) charged with the responsibility of stimulating cotton production in colonial Mozambique.  Additionally, local (black) policemen (sipais)  were enlisted in these efforts.  Colonial officials were to extract labor (including mandatory extended working hours) at any cost, despite the low profit margin of cotton on the global market (especially for the Portuguese).

The laborers never revolted; however they did employ non-violent forms of resistance.  For example in the Gaza province, Serra Nkanyavane, the workers were known to boil the cotton seeds, in hopes of convincing the colonos that the land was unsuitable for cotton cultivation.  Also, some would place rocks in therir cotton to cheat the cotton merchants at the market.  Also, protest songs were popular forms of resistance.   Of course, this did not change the fact that low yields and depressd cotton prices contributed to the poverty of peasant-workers.  In spite of the lack of necessary public goods, like paved roads, workers were charged with the reponsibility of transporting the cotton that they cultivated.  Couple this with the fact that intercropping (growing multiple crops on the same acreage) was prohibited and the situation becomes much clearer.  Cotton was extremely labor- intensive;  households were required to farm for about 140 days out of the year, leaving little time for the cultivation of crops (food).  Mozambican Africans were largely forced to become dependent on food markets and wages.  At the market, they faced dishonest salesmen who would lie about the weight of the cotton and underpay them and sipais who would intimidate the peasant-farmers.

For men, there was the option of becoming an agricultore do algodao– eligible for relocation into planned cotton communities (concentraos de algodao).  Also, they were eligible for technical help from the state, production bonuses.  Of course, their autonomy was undercut by sipais, who exerted their authority in every manner possible- violence, threats, bribes.  It is important to note that women were not afforded these incentives and protections.  They were never protected from being conscripted for labor like the (male) agricultore do algodaos and they had far less body and monetary autonomy.  While men were more likely to be targetted for labor conscription in cotton fields, the prevaling attitude was that agriculture was “women’s work.”  Women were still responsible for growing the staple crops- and when they could not, they were expected to forage for roots and bushmeat for subsistence.  As usual, women carried the burden.

The Portuguese cotton scheme was predicated on the ability of the colonial regime to divert household resources, particularly labor away from the food economy and into commodity production.” (Allen Isaacman, Cotton is the Mother of Poverty: Peasants, Work, and Rural Struggle in Colonial Mozambique, pg. 152)

It is important that colonial economies were designed to complement the global economy without ever competing with other economies.  These were extraction economies, in which the wealth of the colony was used to bolster the wealth of colonial powers.  Within the colonies themselves, the suppression of production (often textiles, indigenous agriculture, staple crops, foodstuffs), planned agricuture, forced labor and the lack of investment in health and childcare services are manifestations of the subordination of the nationalist interests of the subjugated nation.  This, perhaps is why post-colonial nations often found themselves with underdeveloped infrastructures in rural areas and anemic schools.  Schools were designed for the training of workers, and the roads served the urban elite.

I alluded the one dilemma faced by post-colonial nations and leaders in the face of globalization and the neoliberal agenda in my blog post entitled “July 11 is World Population Day: My Response To Malthusian Arguments For “Overpopulation”

I’m reminded of the dilemma of post-colonial nations in the 1960s and 70s: “Do we nationalize our natural and mineral resources for which we have little equipment, or do we allow ourselves to be re-colonized by multi-national corporations? Neo-liberalism (the impetus behind the creation of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund), globalism and corporate interests have colluded to essentially re-colonize former colonies. The continued displacement and disenfranchisement of indigenous peoples in a global-political economy is a repeat, on a larger scale, of the creation of colonial metropolis’.  Polarize the rural and the urban, fracture national identities, create an underclass mired in generational poverty and uneducation, and you’ve essentially re-colonized the “developing world.” The tides of immigration to “Western” nations are often met with xenophobic legislation and enforcement (see: USA, Arizona, SB1070).  Also, the relocation to urban centers means far less land wealth among indigenous peoples, and far more wage-slavery and renting of living spaces.


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