Julia Seibert. In die globale Wirtschaft gezwungen: Arbeit und kolonialer Kapitalismus im Kongo (1885–1960). Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag, 2016. 247 S. (broschiert), ISBN 978-3-593-50519-0; ISBN 978-3-593-43405-6; ISBN 978-3-593-43431-5.
Reviewed by Samuël Coghe
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (January, 2017)
J. Seibert: In die globale Wirtschaft gezwungen
The history of capitalism is back. Challenged by the rise of global history and spurred by the 2008 global financial crisis and its consequences, historians have begun to re-examine the role of capitalism in the emergence of the contemporary world. See e.g. Jürgen Kocka / Marcel van der Linden (eds.), Capitalism. The Reemergence of a Historical Concept, Bloomington 2016; Larry Neal / Jeffrey G. Williamson (eds.), The Cambridge History of Capitalism, 2 vols, Cambridge 2014; Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton. A Global History, New York 2014. As title and subtitle indicate, Julia Seibert’s study connects to this re-emerging field. But its origins go further back in time, as the book is based on a Ph.D. thesis which Seibert started in 2006 in a graduate school on forms of unfree labour in history at the University of Trier, where she also defended in 2012. Accordingly, Seibert looks at capitalism from the vantage point of labour history, thus embedding her study in an important subfield of African history, which after its apogee in the 1970s and 1980s was perhaps somewhat outshone by the postcolonial turn, but which never really disappeared. Andreas Eckert, Capitalism and Labour in Sub-Saharan Africa, in: Kocka / van der Linden, Capitalism, pp. 165–186.
The book analyzes through which labour regimes and with what consequences colonial officials and companies forced the people and the resources of the (Belgian) Congo into the global economy. Divided into three parts with eleven chronologically and thematically ordered chapters, it spans 75 years, from the foundation of Leopold II’s Congo Free State in 1885 until 1960, when the Belgian Congo became independent. While the first part (“Transitions”) deals with the Congo Free State (1885–1908), its infamous “red rubber” policies and the causes and consequences of the take-over by the Belgian state in 1908, the second part (“Crises”) focuses on four sites of colonial labour during early Belgian rule (ca. 1908–1930): roads and railways, (gold and copper) mines, (palm oil) plantations and (cotton) fields. The last part (“Corrections”) is about protest against labour regimes, from the part of the International Labour Organisation, mine labourers and Patrice Lumumba.
Throughout this thoughtfully constructed and well narrated study, Seibert advances two main arguments. The first argument is that the integration of the Congo in the world economy was, contrary to liberal-capitalist ideology, based on the expansion of various forms of unfree labour, such as forced rubber collection, coerced wage labour in mines and on plantations and the forced cultivation of cash crops in the villages. Unfree labour, hence, did not come to a halt with the Belgian take-over in 1908. On the contrary, to further the "mise en valeur" of the Congo, the Belgian state formally re-allowed forced labour in 1909 and actively helped large private enterprises with the (forced) recruitment of labourers, in turn for these enterprises’ tax payments and investments in transport and social infrastructure. Secondly, taking an Africanist perspective, Seibert argues that this process involved widespread violence and profoundly disrupted social, economic and cultural orders of African societies, leading to their impoverishment and/or collapse.
While both arguments are convincing and well laid out, they are not fundamentally new. Seibert’s study draws upon a rich historiography on labour regimes and economic production in the Belgian Congo. See e.g. David Northrup, Beyond the Bend in the River. African Labor in Eastern Zaire, 1865–1940, Athens 1988; John Higginson, A Working Class in the Making. Belgian Colonial Labor Policy, Private Enterprise, and the African Mineworker, 1907–1951, Madison 1989; Osumaka Likaka, Rural Society and Cotton in Colonial Zaire, Madison 1997; Samuel H. Nelson, Colonialism in the Congo Basin, 1880–1940, Athens 1994. Yet, by combining several geographic regions, sites of labour and commodities over a long time span, Seibert aims to go beyond these usually more narrowly focussed studies and to offer a more comprehensive and diversified view. This “panoramic approach” makes “In die globale Wirtschaft gezwungen” a very informative and worthwhile read. Most importantly, it allows Seibert to show that forced labour recruitment and labour-related violence were not isolated phenomena, but systemic elements of capitalist expansion in the Belgian Congo well beyond Leopold’s reign.
This approach also has its pitfalls, however. It is not always clear how the rather short individual chapters contribute to the existing and more detailed historiography (see note 3). More troubling is that Seibert’s arguments have a somewhat repetitive character and tend to reproduce a dichotomous view of colonialism, with exploitative companies and a ruthless state on the one side and victimized and/or heroically resistant Africans on the other. This Manichean view is particularly obvious in the last chapter, a kind of epilogue, in which Seibert pits the “colonialist” speech of the Belgian King Baudoin I at the independence ceremony in 1960 against the accusatory narrative of “resistance” of Congo’s first Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Both (post-)colonial and African studies have been seeking to overcome such dichotomies, by stressing the manifold tensions of colonial rule, the cleavages within African societies and the ways Africans also sought to take advantage of colonial structures. Ann Laura Stoler / Frederick Cooper, Between Metropole and Colony. Rethinking a Research Agenda, in: Frederick Cooper / Ann Laura Stoler (eds.), Tensions of Empire. Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World, Berkeley 1997, pp. 1–56; Eric Allina-Pisano, Resistance and the Social History of Africa, in: Journal of Social History 37 (2003), pp. 187–198.
Overall, the study would also have benefited from a stronger comparative and transnational stance. Embedding the Congo in a broader (Central) African context would have allowed Seibert to better substantiate, explain and/or nuance her claims that Belgian labour policies were exceptionally coercive and violent (e.g. p. 8, p. 155 and p. 163). Compared with mine and plantation labour in Angola or São Tomé and Príncipe, forced cotton cultivation in Mozambique or the concessionary companies in French Equatorial Africa, it is hard to discern much specificity about labour regimes in the Belgian Congo – or about the international critique they provoked. See e.g. Todd Cleveland, Diamonds in the Rough. Corporate Paternalism and African Professionalism on the Mines of Colonial Angola, 1917–1975, Athens 2015; Jeremy Ball, Angola’s Colossal Lie. Forced Labor on a Sugar Plantation, 1913–1977, Leiden 2015; Catherine Higgs, Chocolate Islands. Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa, Athens 2012; Allen F. Isaacman, Cotton is the Mother of Poverty. Peasants, Work, and Rural Struggle in Colonial Mozambique, 1938–1961, Portsmouth 1996; Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, Le Congo au temps des grandes compagnies concessionnaires, 1898–1930, Paris 1972.
This critique notwithstanding, Seibert’s book has much to offer. I particularly liked the densely argued chapters on the copper mines of Katanga (chapters 6 and 10), for which the author has conducted extensive archival research as well as field work. In Chapter 10, for instance, she draws on in-depth source material, including personal files of mine labourers and oral interviews, as well as on the insights of conceptual history and collective memory studies to analyse changing labour relations. She convincingly argues that the “stabilization” of African workers near the mines, through long-term work contracts and spousal accompaniment, not only disrupted ethnic identities, but also created new structures and solidarities that allowed for more effective rights claiming and collective resistance.
Despite the title, the 1940s and 1950s are dealt with very summarily, so that it remains unclear how labour regimes and social relations changed during the “second wave of industrialization” and the era of development. Compare with Frans Buelens / Danny Cassimon, The Industrialization of the Belgian Congo, in: Ewout Frankema / Frans Buelens, Colonial Exploitation and Economic Development. The Belgian Congo and the Netherlands Indies Compared, London 2013, pp. 229–250. Another open question is whether the inclusion of case studies on, for instance, (smaller) enterprises producing for the domestic market or urban labour would have complicated the overall picture of how the Congolese entered the global economy. And finally, while this book contains many well-chosen images and helpful maps, it would have deserved more careful proofreading.
In conclusion, Seibert’s study is a well written and persuasively argued story about coercive labour regimes in the Congo Free State/Belgian Congo from the 1880s to the early 1940s. It combines the logics of capitalist enterprises and the Belgian state with Congolese experiences, worldviews and resistances into a coherent, though sometimes dichotomous, narrative of exploitation and disruption.
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Samuël Coghe. Review of Seibert, Julia, In die globale Wirtschaft gezwungen: Arbeit und kolonialer Kapitalismus im Kongo (1885–1960).
H-Soz-u-Kult, H-Net Reviews.
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