This is the third in a series of posts on the Global Colonial 1914-18.
Whatever one’s views on the causes, significance and consequences of the ‘Great War’, few deny that it was ‘world-historical’ as an ‘event’ or series of events. 1914 is offered by Hobsbawm as the end of the ‘long nineteenth century’; a periodization which is widely accepted as giving birth, finally, to ‘the modern world’. The horrors of the Great War, then, are quintessentially the horrors of modernity. The bodies of the Great War are the product of a particular configuration of nationalism, militarism, technology, class relations, capitalist expansion and an effective state administration, which enables death at this level of efficiency and magnitude. The fog of war does not arise from irrationality, but from the awe-inspiring complex edifice of modern political organisation playing out its tragic fate amongst white European nations. If we are looking for the ‘big picture’, this, it seems, is it.
Yet the ‘big picture’ metaphor is only expressive in a two-dimensional and static framing of history, rather like a painting. Said suggested on the other hand that thinking musically might be a more appropriate way of conceiving the pluralities of historical time. Musical counterpoint, in which independently moving melodies weave in and out of each other, creating resonances, harmonies, dissonances and an altogether more complex sound, was his method for thinking about the historical relationship between colonies and metropoles. Neither is subsumed under the other, and they may have different rhythms and patterns, but they move simultaneously through time. The hope is that reading history contrapuntally enables us to hear multiple melodies, neither cacophonously (although this may be itself productive) nor monotonously, but in a way which discloses both the relatedness and distinctiveness of human experiences.
With this in mind, in what follows I reconstruct some fragments of historical melodies in what is now called Mozambique from the period of the Great War, thinking about what this might disclose for our present histories and remembrances – what David Scott might call our own ‘problem-space’. The East African Campaign – if it is remembered at all in the metropole – is remembered mostly as the site of a brilliant and gutsy guerrilla campaign by the German commander Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and a small hardy detachment of Schutztruppe, who surrendered two weeks after the declaration of the Armistice having cunningly evaded the British throughout the war. Yet, this romanticised history of innovative military tactics in exotic tropical climes heavily obscures almost everything about the historicity of the war in East Africa – indeed it obscures much of the history of the campaign itself. Clearly, part of our contrapuntal reading must be a reading of these missing notes and melodies within the campaign.
Beyond this, however, the reading must open up the historical presence and experience of the peoples in what was at the time called Portuguese East Africa. If the ‘Great War’ began in Africa, it did not necessarily mean the same across the continent as it did elsewhere. Whilst both deadly and destructive, the matrix of war-related destruction was also configured by specific colonial historical relations of violence, prestige and dispossession, as well as by political struggles within the colonised space. These experiences resonate in unexpected, but important, ways with the ‘world-historical’ moment of the war.
Histories of Conscription
Conscription – enforced military enrolment – was an acute wartime phenomenon in Europe as it became clear that the volunteers for the trenches were drying up. However, it had been a chronic phenomenon in colonial Mozambique (‘Portuguese East Africa’), where it was accentuated by the war from 1914. ‘Conscripts’ were not called conscripts, and colonialism was not called war. Accompanied by the whip and palmatoria rather than the promise of glory, many captured and enslaved people were sold to become the armed enforcers of large colonial estates. The historic phenomenon of military conscription in this territory operated within a broader but fragile apparatus of colonial extraction and predation, in which forced labour – agrarian, construction and military – went hand in hand.
The colonial system in much of the territory until the nineteenth century depended on an inherited landholding system known as the prazos. These were private estates granted to initially Portuguese settlers by the Portuguese crown, which entitled the holder to utilise the resources and peoples inhabiting the lands as they broadly wished. This entailed in most cases attempting to force the peoples inhabiting the land (the ‘tenants’) to pay off what they owed in hut taxes or ‘rent’ with their labour on the prazo estates. Yet, the settlers were poorly equipped to manage their lands, barely able to stave off tropical disease and ill-supported by the Portuguese crown in terms of manpower. As a result, there was also internal demand for Africans to become the armed enforcers within huge colonial estates. Whilst some did volunteer in return for a promise of no further re-sale by the owners, many of the private armies raised by the prazo-holders consisted of men who had been captured and enslaved elsewhere, and sold to prazo-holders.
This kind of ‘conscription’ was of course not particularly stable. Whilst many of those sold chose to remain attached to the estates into which they were sold and enforce the predatory structure of the estates, prazo-holders also experienced multiple rebellions and desertions by their enslaved armies of enforcers. In particular, during the nineteenth century, productivity on the estates was so low due to the capacity of African communities to evade compulsion and the absence of investment, that prazo-holders began to try to sell off their enslaved armies to the lucrative slave trade headed for Brazil. The Chikunda – the slave armies of the prazos in the Zambesi region – mobilised and deserted to form autonomous and migratory communities from the late nineteenth century onwards.
In the wake of the Berlin conference in 1884, where Portugal had just about clung on to nominal imperial control of its African territories, it was forced ultimately to lease them to mostly British, French and German capital through the establishment of colonial companies from 1891. The Nyassa Company, the Mozambique Company and the Zambezia Company took over the vast lands formerly occupied by the prazos. Although better supplied with capital and administrative capacity, and run more like plantations than the former estates, the foundation of their extractive capacities was fundamentally the same – coerced military and agrarian labour based on ‘taxing’ the surrounding African populations, and, increasingly, supplying demand for migrant labour in South African mines. Between 1891 and 1929 these companies were the foundation of the colonial rural economy. Labour was not however limited to agricultural production – the infrastructure developed by these companies was also created by forced labour, known as chibalo.
When war was declared in 1914, then, numerous Africans were already working within a system which conscripted their labour forcefully as instruments of production and of violence. The forced growing of cotton, for example, certainly required both in large quantities, being labour-intensive and therefore producing famine amongst those who had little time to grow food. Yet as demand for cotton surged with the war, so the demands on the peasants were stepped up. Resistance and resentment towards this system were however widespread, as documented through acts of sabotage, evasion and low productivity rates.
The Invisible Bodies
What did the declaration and conduct of war mean, then, in Portuguese East Africa, in a context where compulsion and violence were already written into the fabric of everyday life? In a general sense, conscription intensified and developed new and more aggressive forms. This produced a sharp acceleration in suffering amongst many of the populations – yet the enormous pile of bodies produced remains largely invisible to commemoration practices.
One key aspect of this intensified conscription was in the practice of press-ganged military porterage. Tens of thousands of Africans from the north of Mozambique – a relatively sparsely populated area – were forced to carry supplies and equipment for the Portuguese, British and German forces, following around the military detachments with even less equipment and provisions than the already poorly-prepared European and colonial soldiers.
Estimates of the total numbers of porters involved in the whole Allied campaign in East Africa are around 1,000,000, with up to 95,000 dead amongst those used by the British alone (c.600,000). A death rate of around 20% of the porters of the East Africa Carrier Corps is more than double the 9% death rate for British troops, reflecting active policies of imperial indifference to their conditions. Given the much worse conditions experienced by both troops and porters within the Portuguese army, the death rates are likely to be higher still. The biggest killers were not bullets but disease and malnutrition. Yet, for the Germans and the Portuguese, there are no clear numbers – the porters were never counted, their ultimate disposability being a founding assumption of those colonial war machines. One particularly chilling number is however offered by the then director of the Zambezia Company, who claims to have sent 25,000 men as porters, of whom only 5,000 returned, and those who returned being in such a state as to cause horrors to onlookers.
The writings of Cardoso Mirão, a Portuguese sergeant serving in 1917, testify as much to the systematic de-humanisation of these men. His writings were suppressed by the fascist dictatorship which took power after 1926 for bringing the army in to disrepute:
“Não são homens porque não têm nome; também não são soldados, porque não têm número. Não se chamam, contam-se. Formam-se a varapau, põe-se-lhes uma carga à cabeça e pronto…”
‘They are not men, because they have no name. They are not soldiers, because they have no number. You do not call them, you count them. They are placed into formation by force of the stick, you put a cargo on their heads and that’s it.’
Amongst the inhabitants of northern Mozambique, which was being raided by German forces with regularity, forcible predation was not limited to those who were taken as porters, but imposed on the villages of the region, which were forced to deliver up food and supplies to passing armed forces of all stripes. The Nyassa Company had practised similar kinds of predation for decades – episodes are recorded where the women of Makonde villages were kidnapped and held as hostages until their husbands and families delivered some kind of ‘taxation’ to the company. In these periods of evasion and depopulation, famine and disease spread easily amongst the general population whose coping systems had been destroyed. Drought in 1918 compounded the numbers dying from hunger and also forced migration. At Versailles, the Portuguese claimed that the war had resulted in the loss of 120,000 indígenas (natives), for which it wanted compensation.
War and colonialism, in Portuguese East Africa, then, functioned in profoundly similar ways in terms of how the African populations were organised, exploited and ultimately killed by the demands of extractive predation. Clearly, there was a new intensity to the system in the north of the territory when operated by multiple hungry militaries rather than by a sparsely staffed monopolistic colonial company. For example the demand for road and rail infrastructure rapidly increased, meaning an increased demand for chibalo. Moreover, the more competitive character of colonial relations between the Europeans in this period – as compared to their previously collaborative nature – opened up a series of further opportunities for rebellion and war amongst the peoples across the region, some of whom had been ‘pacified’ only recently, to which we will return. In this sense, the declaration of war between European powers was not trivial for the peoples of the regions. Yet, neither was it a transformative moment of rupture that marked the entry of African peoples into ‘modern’ systems of organised violence as it seemed to do in Europe.
The specifically strange and destructive shape of the war in northern Mozambique requires, as part of the explanation, an understanding of the historical role of white colonial prestige and racial anxiety within the imaginaries of the European parties to the conflict. W.E.B. Du Bois argued strongly that the global colour line was intensifying as part of the struggle between labour and capital within the white nations. Moreover, he argued that it was Africa itself which was at the time understood as having the greatest exploitative potential for furthering European economic expansion. A desire to retain control within Africa was thus a key animating concern for all the imperial powers of the period, even if not directly strategically related to the war in Europe.
Whilst Du Bois was, I think, right about the centrality of imperial aspirations for control of Africa in the period, in this argument he downplays the significance of imperial status and prestige in their own right as a political force. The fate of the armies in Portuguese Republic in East Africa during the war, and the collapse of the Republic in the years afterwards, seemed to turn in large part on an attempt to avoid imperial embarrassment and the shame of degeneracy amongst its European counterparts. Whilst this aspect of Portuguese colonial history is known in general terms, it is not often brought into dialogue with the questions about the global significance of the war.
Although at the Berlin conference Portugal seemed to have salvaged recognition of its African claims, a series of secret British-German treaties had made plans for the partition and re-allocation of its territories. The last of these was signed in early 1914. This was on top of the fact that the colonial companies in Portuguese East Africa after 1891 were heavily capitalised by other Europeans, as already noted. Its failures to functionally occupy the territory and suppress slavery, its chronic poverty and its degenerate old habits of miscegenation with African populations were all seen by its imperial rivals as evidence of Portuguese backwardness. This backwardness, if admitted, undermined Portuguese claims to administer African territory, since an ability to profitably cultivate or develop colonial possessions was a cornerstone of the justification for the division of Africa in the first place.
When Portugal entered the war, its expressed primary objective was to protect its colonial status, even though it could barely afford to do so. It could not have been said to be doing well out of its colonial possessions as profit-making enterprises in 1914. But this did not prevent the committal of thousands of troops and state money by the Republicans to the defence of the colonies. Despite this, it won no military victories, lost equipment and supplies to the German raids and largely failed to assist its allies. More Portuguese soldiers died in Africa than in Flanders, but the vast majority simply from disease and poor conditions rather than through rare instances of combat. The gulf between its imperial anxieties and its tactical capacities extinguished tens of thousands of lives, both in terms of the European and askari troops, and in terms of the Africans who died in the effort to keep this colonial war machine afloat.
This is not to claim any ethical prestige or advantage for the relatively more successful war machines of the Germans or the British in East Africa – efficient producers of death and suffering in their own way, although both would claim superiority and restraint on this front. But the Portuguese engagement with the war makes the point more starkly about the centrality of colonial possession and imperial prestige to ‘great power’ global political status at the time – in this sense, the war arguably provoked a greater existential crisis for the political identity of the Portuguese than the British or Germans.
Imperial anxiety also contributed to the rise of authoritarian political tendencies within Portugal. Although the long-running fascist dictatorship of Salazar did not emerge in Portugal until the late 1920s, two authoritarian coups took place during the war which mobilised themselves around the threat of losing the colonies and the need to reinforce its imperial status. Authoritarian and later fascist politicians bought strongly into the image of crumbling and decadent Portuguese colonial settlers who had ‘gone native’, running the colony into chaos and vice. It was only a firm, Catholic hand that could redeem the glory of the Portuguese empire.
The response from this point onwards would be to rapidly extend the presence of Portuguese settlers and administrators into Mozambique and to classify it as an ‘Overseas Territory’ of the Portuguese nation, broken into provinces which largely picked up the boundaries of the colonial companies. Re-writing the shameful history of the war, the administration censored works which had criticised the campaigns, such as that of Mirão, and chose instead to affirm it as a moment of multi-racial national co-operation. This attempt is inscribed in Mozambique’s war memorials from the 1930s, in particular the Padrão da Grande Guerra. Located not at the sites of battlefield in the north of the country but in the capital in the far south – in front of you as you step out of the train station – is the monument to the Great War. As noted by Verheij, this is not a monument to the past dead, as other European monuments of the time were – it is the projected imaginary of a flourishing colonial present. Interestingly, it is one of the few places where Africans are projected as equal participants in the war – not a concern at the time of war, but only afterwards within a project of authoritarian integration.
Uprisings, Collaboration, Repression and Escape
The largest and most destabilising armed confrontations of the period 1914-1918 in ‘Portuguese East Africa’ however were not between Europeans working through imperial rivalries, but took the shape of multiple African uprisings against colonial predation and rule. These uprisings are strongly commemorated in present-day Mozambique as key moments in national and nationalist histories, preserved in history textbooks, banknotes, political speeches and so on. Clearly, they offer a point of departure for a historical narrative of African agency and political resistance which resonated with the anti-colonial projects of the liberation fronts at the time, and their attempts to preserve their hegemony in the present. Yet, the rebellions need not only be woven into nationalist dogma – they can also be read back into a larger historical fabric of violent and non-violent resistance to extractive and authoritarian tendencies past and present. They also speak to the mobile and transnational character of resistance strategies in southern Africa, and to the historical power of rivalries within the territory.
The Chilembwe rebellion, which took place against the British in neighbouring Nyasaland (Malawi) in 1915, was nonetheless a concern for the Portuguese. Chilembwe, a Christian preacher trained in the United States, had been a vocal and active anti-colonial campaigner for some time. In particular, he widely protested the racist basis of colonial rule, advocating instead the equality of men before God, and demanded an Africa for the Africans. The uprising consisted of planned co-ordinated attacks on the British settlers and infrastructure by hundreds of Africans, and for about two weeks succeeded in mobilising large numbers of people and controlling much of the non-urban space. The rebellion was violently suppressed with a mixture of British- African and Portuguese-African troops and ultimately failed. Nonetheless it decisively changed attitudes amongst the British about the assumed docility and loyalty of the peoples of Nyasaland, and demonstrated to some extent the significance of inter-imperial collaboration against anti-colonial rebels.
The Portuguese on the other hand did not need lessons about the potential of rebellion in East Africa, particularly in Zambezia. This region resisted integration successfully into Portuguese rule for centuries, culminating in a series of long armed struggles with the autonomous Barue people from 1880 which had only ended in 1902. Others further south, such as the Gazan king Ngungunhana, had only been finally defeated in 1895. Relations with the Ngoni people in the region had also been complex, turning largely on managing rivalry between them and the Barue.
The emergence of a huge uprising in 1917 by the Barue / Makombe leaders was only a surprise then to the extent that it successfully co-ordinated other groups such as the Sena and Yao to mobilise simultaneously against colonial rule. They were also joined by the Chikunda, the descendants of the enslaved armies from the prazos. The Barue recognised the spiritual and political leadership of the role of the Makombe (leader), although there was competition for that role. The immediate cause for the rebellion was an upsurge in the demand for forced labour, to work on infrastructure projects in support of the war effort, as well as the breaking of various promises around taxation by the Portuguese. Under this rebellion, which lasted from March until November, 100,000 fled and hundreds of loyalists were killed. In comparison to the rather feeble numbers and state of troops deployed against the Germans, the Portuguese rapidly deployed 20,000 well-armed, well-paid Ngoni mercenaries, with a licence to plunder women and resources, to put down the rebels with as much force as possible. Many of the Barue leaders and the Makombe fled across the border to Malawi.
In the north of the country during the war, the Makonde increased their ongoing resistance against the Portuguese, facilitated by promises of German abolition of the hut tax and chibalo, which had also been made towards the Yao and Makua. As with the Barue, the demands for chibalo had increased as a result of the war demand for infrastructure, and the peoples of the plateau found that the autonomy that they had been used to was under threat. Whilst the Germans supplied arms, they did not fight alongside the Makonde, who had also never been fully incorporated into Portuguese rule. Rather, fighters mobilised by Malapende, a powerful figure in Makonde history, managed to fight the Portuguese forces in the bush and in the villages until 1917. The Portuguese finally mobilised 2,000 well-armed Yao against the Makonde, torching 150 Makonde villages for suspected collaboration with the Germans during between April and June in 1917. Malapende could not bear to see his people subjected to the cruel conditions of forced labour, so he fled into to another zone and waited.
Forty-five years later, when the Mozambican liberation activists were looking for a base and an entry point into Mozambique, it is not surprising that they began in Tanzania, and moved through the Muedan plateau. The Makonde had been to some extent historically defined by resistance to the slave trade, Portuguese colonial rule and the predation of the Nyassa Company throughout the twentieth century. The sudden massacre in 1960 of Makonde protestors who had been called to the governor to make their grievances known was a key moment in the lead-up to the founding of Frelimo in 1962. In this sense, the war of 1914-18 was a key moment which re-inscribed the character of colonial domination, and which would have a long-standing impact on the peoples of the region as political actors. The spirit of Malapende was seen to return to Mueda within the mapiko dances after independence – commemoration practices of the ‘living’ spirit rather than the dead bones.
Neither did independence necessarily see an end to forces of rebellion and resistance in Mozambique. This is well-documented in terms of resistance to giant state farms and enterprises developed in the socialist period, often involving harsh conditions across the country. But in Zambezia in particular, recent years have seen multiple uprisings by workers attached to mining concessions who have staged repeated occupations of mines in Muiane (2008, 2014) to demand back wages from mining enterprises. What seems unusual is that these particular enterprises closed more than twenty years ago. Memories, it would seem are long. Zambezia was also one of the provinces where Renamo destabilisation penetrated most deeply in the 1980s, and which has regularly voted for opposition parties and candidates. Whilst the lineage is more opaque and complex than amongst the Makonde, it is clear that anti-colonial rebellion is neither the beginning nor end of practices of and desires for autonomous organisation and resistance within this space.
Reading the Great War Contrapuntally
Digging up the invisible bodies of the Great War in East Africa and their historical conditions is not merely an exercise in extending a present sense of horror at the past evils of colonial rule, and lamenting its disproportionate impact on the bodies of the colonised. It is also this, of course, and this is a legitimate purpose of inquiry where the hegemonic mode of commemorating empire is as sanitising as it is. But something else is happening here to the story of global modernity via European explosion in 1914 when we bring these other bodies – living and dead – into view.
Historical sociology uses multiple categories and analytic framings as a way of explaining and exploring the emergence of modernity – the consolidation of territory, the spread and development of capitalism, the emergence of nationalism – and these are shorthand ways of describing phenomena which are identified as part of larger systematic and global processes. Violence and death are certainly acknowledged as part of the story of modernity, but they are epiphenomenal to a large extent – they do not ‘explain’ much in and of themselves but may only ‘express’ the underlying tensions in processes of nation-building, market-opening and so forth. This is a key point of constitutive difference with other stories of the same events – as a case in point we might look at the contrast between the poetic, aesthetic renderings of European war deaths as futile and tragic, and their sociological counterparts which explain the same events as products of militarism, imperialism and so forth. What the poet may see as tragic, the historical sociologist might understand as tragically produced by a particular historical conjunction of modern forces.
The contrapuntal reading offered above of the Great War in Mozambique however offers a point of departure for thinking further about the relationship between death, indifference, race and modernity. Whilst by no means comprehensive, four particular issues come to mind which have ongoing resonance for global order in the present day.
First, it is clear from the conduct of the war that colonialism was foundationally built on deep institutionalised structures of deliberate indifference to suffering and death amongst non-white populations – slightly ameliorated if they were tied officially to imperial service but basically not at all if the people in question simply had the misfortune of living for centuries in space claimed by colonial powers as property. To understand racism as functioning not primarily through name-calling and open violence bolstered by eugenicist science, but the studied and deliberate indifference to one’s death and suffering based on skin colour, brings us closer to understanding its structural implications as a governing principle of ‘modern’ human experience. That these structures and principles are ubiquitous, active and deadly in the present within Western-led global order need hardly be demonstrated – the recent decision to stop boats saving refugees from drowning in the Mediterranean being a case in point.
A second point brought up by the contrapuntal reading is the value and necessity of re-attaching our understanding of the ‘military’ sphere to broader matrices of death and destruction within societies. In this reading, I have suggested that deep continuities run between military and other forms of labour conscription in colonised Mozambique, which themselves have their own continuities with practices of enslavement and extortion. Whilst military historians have assiduously reconstructed various campaigns for the sake of learning about them, flashes of the underlying social and political struggles inevitably come through as ‘colour’, ‘context’ or ‘detail’. This contrapuntal reading, beginning in the ‘context’ clearly illustrates the fantasy of separation which marks military deaths from others, which compounds the structures of racialised indifference marked above. This also speaks to analytic traditions within historical sociology that seek to separate out different domains of power.
The third point follows on from the first two raised about structural indifference and the pervasive and interconnected character of violence in the colony – and it is that the patterns of devastation and transformation wreaked by the war between European parties had a specific and distinctive form in colonial space, tied as it was to other much longer and widespread campaigns of ‘pacification’/repression and ‘development’/exploitation. In the Portuguese case, both of these activities were pursued violently, but also met with substantial local resistance, which had to be negotiated and managed. The pursuit of protection for colonial structures inflamed inter-group relations, expanded the supply of arms and at times resulted in the expanded toleration of sexual abuse against women. Yet, it also produced moments of opportunity for rebellion and re-organisation amongst the African populations, many others of whom simply chose to migrate to less violent spaces. That the colonial powers often and usually assisted each other with putting down rebels – even if not always – indicates the strategic priority of global colonial power over local tactical gain.
The final point brought out by the contrapuntal reading is that memories of violence and repression are long-lasting, and relatively quickly re-activated under similar conditions. In Mozambique, the last ten to twenty years has seen multinationals appear and re-activate many plantations and mines formerly run by colonial companies, often with the backing of the government and IFIs. These have displaced thousands of people, provoked a number of protests, and often result in fairly bad labour conditions. Whilst not enforced with the whip or threat of ‘re-education’, workers have poor wages and little freedom to protest their situation. With the government seen as broadly complicit with these widespread structures of dispossession in the name of development, the question remains as to what the outcome will be – whether traditions of resistance will be re-activated, and in what form.
To think about the war of 1914-18 in its global dimensions then is to open up one’s ears to the contrapuntal histories of the time, lived and experienced by people across the world engaged in multiple configurations of domination and struggle, and animated by different purposes. Yet, without a sense of the worldwide matrix of death, privilege and destruction instituted by global colonial order, however, the attempt to narrate the ‘world-historical’ character of the period falls woefully short of its universalist aspirations, and its potential to help us think about the future.
 The Portuguese were not alone in relying on forced labour, of course. Across the border in Niassaland (now Malawi), the thangata system required Africans to offer free labour to European estates.
 Given the context, the number is likely inflated / invented, but may not be so far off. http://www.publico.pt/culturaipsilon/noticia/a-grande-guerra-que-portugal-quis-esquecer-1664212
 Material in this section from Paice, Tip and Run.
 The role of askari troops in this region is huge, constituting the vast majority of those fighting under European flags. Time and space do not permit a proper treatment of the complex and ambiguous role that they occupied; sworn and faithful to empire, yet themselves subjected to colonial racism and forms of violence. Moreover, the Yao were known for switching between fighting for the Germans and for the British interchangeably. See Barkawi’s work on Indian troops in the British army for insightful reflections on the significance of this mediating war-space.
 Paice, Tip and Run
 Isaacman, A, The Tradition of Resistance in the Zambesi Valley.
*** I also want to acknowledge the excellent documentaries produced by David Olusoga on The World’s War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire – watch them if you can.