A Case for the Use of “Coloniality” versus “Colonial/Postcolonial”

I am beginning to think that colonial/postcolonial are insufficient terms for conceptualizing the occupation and exploitation of lands and peoples. A good example of this insufficiency can be seen in the general reluctance to study supranational organizations and multinational corporations as colonizers, especially in the absence of a colonial administration within the colonized territory. This is where the concept of “coloniality” can be useful. “Coloniality” goes beyond terms whose definitions are contingent upon the presence or absence of a colonial state and administration. Beyond structures, coloniality focuses on discourses and practices of colonialism in the colony.

A few months ago, I tweeted the following commentary and musings on the topic of Non-State Actors As Colonizers (which was subsequently given the hashtag #RubberBarons:

European multinational corporations came to Africa before European states did. Colonialism does not require the colonizer to be a state. There’s this reluctance to consider what the World Bank/IMF/etc have done in Africa’s post-colonial states a form of neocolonialism. Colonizers need not be state actors. If we’re going to truly study colonial and post-colonial history, we need to acknowledge that.

Belgium colonized the Congo through a multinational corporation called Abir Congo Company (originally founded as the AngloBelgian India Rubber Company, and later known as the Compagnie du Congo Belge). In a May 26, 1885 article in the New York Times, entitled “The Congo Free State: The Advantages Offered to this Country,” King Leopold II of Belgium touted the benefits of exploiting the vast natural resources in the newly formed Congo Free State. “A new state has thus been formed of the basin of the Congo. It’s territory is neutralized, an African Belgium, in fact; its boundaries are fixed; and the limits of the possessions of Portugal and France on either side as well… And now commences a political existence for the International Association of the Congo, whose rulers’ only object still continues to be to introduce freedom and civilization and equal privileges for all within its boundaries.” (emphasis mine)

In order to fix the borders, Belgium had to manage the outside threats (i.e. France and Portugal) as well as the threat within- the Africans who, being numerous and resistant to efforts to attempts to externally imposed lifestyle changes, had to be disciplined and punished by force. Discursively  these Africans were not-humans, not-beings. They did not warrant recognition in the above newspaper article, which touted the civilizing and liberating influence of Belgium’s colonial occupation of the Congo. Legally, these Africans were also ‘exceptions,’ who were not subject to egalitarian laws which prohibited enslavement. Even beyond that, where sovereignty was extended, the law was not. This was further enabled by the presence of the multinational corporation and its paramilitary force in the colony. A quasi-parastatal, ABIR was permitted to rule without law.


The above photo was originally captioned, “Nsala of Wala in the Nsongo District (ABIR Concession)”. The original description states that Nsala sits “with the hand and foot of his little girl of five years old — all that remained of a cannibal feast by armed rubber sentries. The sentries killed his wife, his daughter, and a son, cutting up the bodies, cooking and eating them.” The “rubber sentries” refers to the ABIR militia. In short, under the auspices of bringing “civilization” “liberty” and “equal rights” to the Congo, Belgium engaged in the exploitation, trafficking, slavery, genocide, and displacement of millions of Africans. All for rubber.

Firestone Tires was a multinational corporation that got wealthy from rubber plantations in Liberia. Unilever, an Anglo-Dutch multinational corporation, formerly an amalgamation of Lever Brothers and Dutch margarine producer Margarine Unie (a 1927 amalgamation of Anton Jurgens’ Margarinefabrieken (nl) from the Leverd family and Samuel van den Bergh), used to own what we know today as Nigeria (palm oil was and is a valued commodity used in soaps and food), and large swathes of the Congo.

In short, I think that it would be interesting to track a history of multinational corporations on the continent of Africa through their name changes. It would provide a valuable insight into today’s land and water grabs.
Where conceptions of colonial/postcolonial posit a rupture in history and governance, they do not account for the continued exploitation of human and natural resources in the postcolony, nor do they account for the borrowed forms of nationalism and the founding and continued violences wrought by postcolonial states. Furthermore, where postcolonial studies often seek to undo or deconstruct the binaries of colonial discourse, they reintroduce the binary structure when they place “postcolonial” in opposition to “colonial.”

Reading List:

  1. Achille Mbembe’s On the Postcolony
  2. Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost:A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa

1 Comment

  1. You might be interested in the work of Michael Watts, in the Geography Dept., U.C. Berkeley. A number of years ago we collaborated on a long term study of contract farming, including international corporations. His work through the years on colonial and post-colonial dynamics, particularly in Africa, are excellent.

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