Shifting boundaries between free and unfree labor: Introduction

Carolyn Brown, Marcel Van Der Linden

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16 Scopus citations


In 1905, Henry Nevinson, at the time a well-known British journalist, visited Angola. He discovered that the slave trade was still going on in secret in that region, many years after it had officially been abolished. Deep inside Southern Africa slaves were caught; they were forced to walk hundreds of miles to the coast until they arrived at Katumbella, where "the slaves were rested, sorted out, dressed, and then taken on over the fifteen miles to Benguela, usually disguised as ordinary carriers." In Benguela's main street, there is a government office where the official representative of the "Central Committee of Labor and Emigration for the Islands" (having its headquarters in Lisbon) sits in state, and under due forms of law receives the natives, who enter one door as slaves and go out of another as serviçaes. Everything is correct. The native, who has usually been torn from his home far in the interior, perhaps as much as eight hundred miles away, and already sold twice, is asked by an interpreter if it is his wish to go to [the island of] San Thomé, or to undertake some other form of service to a new master. Of course he answers, "Yes." It is quite unnecessary to suppose, as most people suppose, that the interpreter always asks such questions as, "Do you like to fish?" or "Will you have a drink?" though one of the best scholars in the languages of the interior has himself heard those questions asked at an official inspection of serviçaes on board ship. It would be unnecessary for the interpreter to invent such questions. If he asked, "Is it your wish to go to hell?" the serviçal would say "yes" just the same. In fact, throughout this part of Africa the name of San Thomé is becoming identical with hell, and when a man has been brought hundreds of miles from his home by an unknown road and through long tracts of "hungry country"-when he also knows that if he did get back he would probably be sold again or killed -what else can he answer but "yes"? Under similar circumstances the Archbishop of Canterbury would answer the same. The serviçal says "yes," and so sanctions the contract for his labor. The decencies of law and order are respected.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4-11
Number of pages8
JournalInternational Labor and Working-Class History
Issue number1
StatePublished - Sep 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management


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