Unfree labour in the Angolan coffee economy, 1830-1960

Wilberforce Institute Webinar, Thursday 20 May 2021, 4PM – 6PM BST

Dr Jelmer Vos

Lecturer in Global History

University of Glasgow


We hope you will join us for the last of our Wilberforce Institute Webinars for this academic year. On Thursday 20 May, at 4pm (BST), Dr Jelmer Vos of the University of Glasgow will share with us some of his latest research on the history of forced labour in Angola.

The first coffee estates in Angola using enslaved workers emerged in the 1830s. African smallholders long remained the dominant producers of coffee in this Portuguese colony, but in the 1930s and especially after World War Two settler production based on a system of forced wage labour expanded dramatically, making Angola one of the largest producers of robusta coffee in the world. Forced labour became a prominent feature of colonial life in Angola, and eyewitnesses and historians have long debated the continuities between this form of labour coercion and proto-colonial slavery.

This paper intervenes in this literature with three propositions. First, Angola differed from other colonial coffee economies where foreign planters played a dominant role (Côte d’Ivoire, Madagascar, Kenya) as the Portuguese government, despite fierce international pressures, was unwilling to withdraw their support from the settler economy. Second, forced labour resembled ‘modern slavery’ as described by Kevin Bales, in the sense that the system treated African farm labour as ‘disposable’. Third, despite this, its roots lay not so much in proto-colonial slavery, but rather in the equally old system of compulsory porterage. 

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Southern Africa Information Group (Ottawa), and Komitee Zuidelijk Afrika (Amsterdam). Coffee for Canada Means Blood for Angola. Don’t Buy General Food. 1972.