Transport routes and the transformation of rural livelihoods


The modernization of transport and its contradictions

Transport routes and the transformation of rural livelihoods

Building spaces of communication

Concepts of space on the move

Movements and communications in academic inquiry

Conclusion: Insights gained through the Symposium

The second field of reflection and debate focused on the economic and social impact of transport, movement and communication on the people and areas concerned. In what sense have regional conditions and histories been affected by the dynamic of certain types of transport routes and communications ? Or vice versa, what influence did conditions in various parts of the region have on the history of transport and communication?

These questions were addressed by the papers of Mariana Candido, Emmanuel Esteves and Maria da Conceição Neto presented in Session 3 (under the same heading as this section) and by an additional paper supplied by Jelmer Vos, circulated in absentia. All of the papers dealt with different forms of transport and traffic along particular transport routes during specific periods of Angolan history, and asked about their specific consequences (economic, political, social, demographic) for the regions and populations concerned.

Mariana P. Candido's paper addressed the period from 1830 to the late 1860s in the Caconda region on the central plateau, which was crossed by one of the main caravan routes between Benguela and the interior. This was the period of transition from slave trade to 'legitimate' trade, when the now illegal but persistent long-distance trade in slaves and the growing 'legitimate' trade in ivory, beeswax, rubber, and agricultural produce by means of porter caravans brought a series of fierce epidemics to the area. Candido focused primarily on the demographic impact of both trade and disease on Caconda, which she attempted to trace in censuses from that time. In her inquiry, she arrived at a distinction of factors, such as the female-centred slave-trade for export, the male-specific trade in long-distance goods or the massive exodus of male landowners that turned women into the very basis of agricultural production. Candido thus managed to draw a very nuanced picture of the region's demographic development and the consequences thereof. She concluded that there had possibly been a dramatic decline in the population around the middle of the century as a result of smallpox, which in turn was due to long-distance trade and drought. Nevertheless, it would be "difficult to associate demographic decline exclusively with the outbreak of disease." Demographic changes are complex processes that can point to a variety of factors.

The subsequent discussion brought up the question of the use and limits of African censuses in measuring population movements and demographic change during the early colonial period. It was agreed that their value as a historical source frequently rested less in the numbers they reported than in the categories used.

Another trade link with substantial effects on regional history, this time during the transition period to colonial rule, is examined in a paper by Jelmer Vos, entitled "The Economics of the Kwango Rubber Trade, c. 1900", which was circulated among the participants in absentia. The paper addresses the intense, albeit short-lived rubber trade across the Kwango river just after it had become the eastern border between Angola's Congo district and the neighbouring Congo Free State. Certain Kongo groups (notably the Zombo) were the protagonists in this trans-border trade. Based on the study of government and missionary documents from both sides, the paper reconstructs precisely how the Kwango rubber trade was conducted and why it was at odds with the interests of the Congo Free State, and thus the root of much turmoil from the above-mentioned Yaka migrations to Zombo plans to attack the colonial agents of the Congo Free State, the so-called Bula Matari (originally the Kongo designation for Henry Morton Stanley), with the help of the Portuguese.

By this time, the main transit route through central Angola (see above) was already experiencing a major transport revolution: the construction of the Benguela Railway line. In his contribution, the Angolan historian Emmanuel Esteves discussed its consequences on the Central Planalto between 1889 and 1950, arguing that although native Africans profited very little from the railway, it became "the basis of globalization, economic change, mobility and social development in this region." For the Portuguese, the Benguela Railway was a new means of transport that opened up the hinterland for effective military deployment and the realization of their colonial plans, not to mention the disciplining of the population. Economically, it served to control the established main trade route and open up new areas for economic development. In several respects, the railway became a symbol of colonial stability. For the Africans, who initially looked at the railway with a combination of fear, curiosity and admiration, it meant, after all, a loss of political and economic freedom. This was reflected in tales of threat and horror and an increase in possession and healing cults.

Maria da Conceição Neto took up this line of thought by focusing on the economic and social consequences of road-building for transport in the Huambo region (again on the central plateau) during the first half of the 20th century. Similar to Esteves, she stressed the ambivalent character of the modernization of transport. Initially, roads were clearly seen as an instrument of progress, on the one hand, and as a symbol of the massive use of forced labour on the other. It was not the construction of the railway system but the expansion of motorized transport that meant the final blow for the economic autonomy of the local population. On the other hand, the creation via the road network of regional and national spaces with new centres and peripheries established a new hierarchy of social groups and gave rise to significant cultural changes. In the consciousness of ordinary Angolans, for whom the free movement of individuals and goods was of enormous consequence, it took some time to arrive at a more positive assessment of the new transport system after the traumatic experience of forced labour on the roads. Gradually, the road network promoted their individual and collective freedom of movement and combined with the railway system is now, at the beginning of the 21st century, a key factor in the reconstruction of the country. It was hoped that the road network would in the future work towards greater economic and social integration of different zones and people and thus help to achieve more national unity in Angola.

Some heated debate on the beginning of "modernity" in the region followed hot on the heels of these two contributions. Some participants suggested that the colonial modernization of the transport systems merely served to accelerate transformation processes that had already been initiated in the pre-colonial period.

Lukonde Luansi, Emmanuel Esteves and Mariana Pinho Candido
Lukonde Luansi, Emmanuel Esteves and Mariana Pinho Candido
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Latest revision: 13.03.2004