Theme and Purpose
By Beatrix Heintze and Achim von Oppen

Illustration from the' Cantino Planisphere' (1502)

Overall purpose

This symposium was intended to foster debates on a topic which deserves more attention in African studies than it has received so far, and for which the case of Angola can provide unique insights: the impact of transport routes and communication networks on more general historical processes, notably the creation or transformation of spaces in the widest sense of the term. For this purpose, the symposium has brought together scholars from a wide range of locations and disciplines who are all specialists in Angolan/Central African studies and who all work on aspects of this topic but have so far had no opportunity to debate their findings with each other in a focused way. The symposium produced a better understanding of the long-term dynamics of communications which, in Africa in general and Angola in particular, have shown a remarkable potential not only to transcend boundaries, but also to create new barriers.



Relevance of the theme

Travel routes are central to historical processes. They create new political, economic, social and cultural opportunities, but also dangers. They are means of exchanging people, goods, skills, knowledge, and ideas. They constitute forms of communication which feed into processes generally identified with 'modernisation' and 'globalisation'. However, barriers to travel, which have found even less academic interest up to now, also have significant effects, providing protection against conquest and other threatening influences, helping to defend monopolies, yet also obstructing developments of a more beneficial kind. Natural and political barriers are frequently also barriers to knowledge.

Angola is a particularly good example of this theme because, in the course of its long history, lines of travel, transport and communication have played a significant but, at the same time, precarious role. They were not only channels of movement for people, goods and ideas but also created or transformed a variety of spaces which, however, were often unstable and subject to change. This impact ranges from the old 'kingdoms' to projects of the Angolan nation-state that are still being violently contested; from the zones of trading, contact and influence that made Angola a gateway to central Africa to its inclusion into the Atlantic sphere and global society. Up to now, however, Angola's participation in these wider spaces has not been equal throughout the country and inhabitants. It has involved only parts of them, and to different degrees. Through its particular historicity and multiplicity with regard to routes, spaces and boundaries, Angola can be seen as a microcosm of Africa. Its case is of great significance, both paradigmatically and empirically, for the understanding of historical processes and future potentials in the region (the current "conflict zone of Central Africa") and beyond that, for the continent as a whole.


Contribution to current research and debates on the theme

The means, organisation and routes of transport and movement, on the one hand, and media and practices of communication, on the other, have been addressed in a variety of studies on Africa. These studies, however, have usually treated these subjects more or less in isolation from each other and without much attention to their wider historical impact. Current approaches either look at transport and movement in a technological, micro- and macro-economic, demographical, geographical, geopolitical or development perspective, [1] or they ask about the media and effects of communication processes in a context of debates on civil society and human rights. It seems that only historical studies, with their propensity to a combined and more long-term perspective, have started to take an interest in the changes of and interaction between these processes and in their fundamental importance for the (re-)structuring and perception of space. [2]

It is no coincidence that historians of West Central Africa, with the Angolan sphere at its centre, have a particularly long record of studies which touch on the issues of trade, travel routes, communications and spatial change in various more comprehensive perspectives. At present, a number of these historians, along with scholars from other disciplines, are involved in efforts to move this issue from a more marginal to a more central position in their research, while still maintaining the wider historical perspective. It is these scholars whom we intended to bring together through this symposium, to enable for the first time a focused exchange of views and results of such work.

This endeavour must be seen against a backdrop of research in which Angola, internationally and particularly in Germany, has received only marginal attention to date. This is not only due to a prolonged period of colonial rule (until 1975) and internal wars (up to the present), but also to language barriers which themselves represent a communication problem. Only a few western researchers have mastered Portuguese. The possibilities for field research and archival studies in the country have been very limited up to now. Yet Angola — a name which is not restricted here to the boundaries of the present-day state, but extends to the whole former sphere of Angolan influence in West Central Africa — is also a country whose history we are able to trace five hundred years into the past with the aid of written sources, a rarity on the African continent. For an even longer period, the region has been a gateway for a multiplicity of movements and influences, both from the African interior, starting with the so-called 'Bantu expansion', and from the coast, notably since the arrival of the Portuguese in the fifteenth century. The latter event triggered a variety of new movements, or 'traffic', in both directions which have continually made Angola a transit zone and were tied to the long-distance trade in slaves and 'legitimate' goods, later followed by research expeditions.

Existing polities or states, starting with the kingdoms of Kongo and Ndongo, were dramatically influenced by these new communications links, while the Mbangala (the feared 'Jaga') were perhaps to some extent even their product. The Atlantic slave trade, in whose wake ever larger areas of the interior of the country were reached via established routes, shaped the country for centuries. Each year, thousands of human beings were transported overseas from West Central Africa as slaves, with up to 40,000 a year in the peak years before the trade was officially abolished, to a total of several million, many of whom died before they even reached the coast. The long-term socio-political and perhaps also demographic consequences of this trade are a central theme in Angolan history.

For a long time, these new, externally generated dynamics were characterised by a few rather linear long-distance connections. Along these main routes, not only material 'goods' (in this case especially slaves and European products), but also experiences, fears, knowledge, views of history and information were transported which then triggered a variety of other historical processes. Apart from a few pieces of research dedicated to oral traditions, however, the wider impact of this traffic has only been briefly touched upon in existing studies on Angolan history, without being examined in any depth. Yet alongside long-distance trade, regional forms of exchange, transport and communication also arose, despite the obstacles and limitations imposed by the slave trade itself and the violence it entailed in certain areas.

In the nineteenth century, after the prohibition of the Atlantic slave trade, the commerce in 'legal' products (wax, ivory and rubber) created new links between the coast and the interior of West Central Africa and also within the interior itself. This 'legal' trade, which was combined with a new slave trade within the interior, resulted in an increasingly closely meshed network of travel links. These routes, which were also followed by the great research expeditions, were usually not 'new'. What was new was the fact that they created connections between various older stretches, linked them with the coast, and opened them up for Europeans coming from the coast or even beyond who were outside existing trade networks. Looking at modern maps, it is striking how far main roads and railways into the interior of the country coincide with the old long-distance trade routes. Still more recently, however, air links, telecommunications and electronic media have made communications rather independent of geography and therefore have given them a more wide-reaching character. All these modern means have again  transformed the spaces they cross and connect, triggering or accelerating important historical processes. An open question is the extent to which these new connections have also changed the conditions of access to knowledge and information, and thus to decision-making and acting, i.e., whether they are changing the chances of participation in political, economic and social communication. Will the legacy of the past continue to play a role here, and if so, will it have delaying, stabilising, or even facilitating effects? These discussions, which have considerable importance for the future of the country, must necessarily include scholars from Angola itself and give them more opportunity to contribute their views than they normally have in international fora.

Angola is still one of the richest countries in Africa in terms of labour and mineral resources. For centuries, it has therefore attracted desires from outside Africa. More recently, the country's rich oil and diamond deposits have supported decades of civil war, which triggered new movements and spatial formations of their own. Only now have tangible hopes been raised for a new departure into better times. Travel and communications have always played a central role in shaping this history, with particularly long-lived consequences since the 'discovery' by the Portuguese. However, these historical processes should not just be interpreted as a simple response to transatlantic influences or, more recently, to 'globalisation' — a view among researchers which has been favoured, among other things, by the enormous imbalance in sources available and the lack of involvement of fieldwork-based methods and disciplines. The creative capacities of Africans themselves is still often underestimated. This does not mean that Africa can be sufficiently understood by looking at "local" initiatives in limited areas. The case of Angola demonstrates that the history and future of particular regions can only be grasped by understanding the multitude of translocal, transregional and global connections they have often been enmeshed in for centuries.


[1]      A review of existing studies, which cannot be presented in detail here, shows that the established analyses of movements of labour and goods (migration and trade) are complemented by a more recent interest in less conventional practices, often at micro-level and/or under conditions of violence (informal entrepreneurship, "smuggling" of strategic resources and arms, displacement by war, etc.).

[2]      See, for instance, the panel "Africa in Motion: Transportation and Transformation in the 20th Century" accepted for the African Studies Association (U.S.) Meeting 2002, which included case studies on other parts of Africa.

Angola on the move
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Latest revision: March 2, 2004