A. Greiner: Human Porterage and Colonial State Formation in German East Africa, 1880s–1914

Human Porterage and Colonial State Formation in German East Africa, 1880s–1914. Tensions of Transport

Greiner, Andreas
Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies
271 S.
Rezensiert für 'Connections' und H-Soz-Kult von:
Geert Castryck, Institut für Asien- und Afrikawissenschaften, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

The importance of caravan transportation for long-distance trade in late pre-colonial East Africa as well as the indispensable role of human porterage in the military expeditions of colonial conquest have long been established. Contemporaries knew it; travelogues literally spell it out; missionary, scientific, and colonial-administrative sources address the practical organization of caravans and porterage for their enterprises as well as the challenges or outright problems these caravans posed. The historian is faced with another kind of challenge: What additional insights, going beyond what the contemporaries already knew, can be derived from a critical reading of the sources?

In his doctoral thesis at the ETH Zürich, Andreas Greiner tried to come to a better understanding of colonial state formation in German East Africa through the lens of human porterage. Both the colonial project’s dependence on caravan transportation and its attempt to regulate, tax, control, and eventually eliminate it, both the problems Germans had with human porterage and the problems they had without are essential to understand the making of the colony: the military conquest, the territorialization, the exploitation, the governance and administration, the taxation, the recruitment of labour, and the building of infrastructure. Each aspect relied on and had a tense relation with human porterage, the only available and well-established infrastructure of overland transportation in the region. Based on this doctoral research, Greiner, currently a research fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC, published the reviewed monograph with the fitting subtitle “Tensions of Transport”.

The book consists of an introduction, five chapters, and an epilogue. In the introduction (chapter 1) the author announces that he wants to explain how statehood was constituted and how this impacted African societies (p. 5). Especially the first ambition is further elaborated in the remainder of the introduction and the book. It becomes clear that the research is primarily based on German colonial sources and a German colonial perspective. The author does an excellent job highlighting the tensions – if not contradictions – in the German assessment of caravan transportation and human porterage: both perceived as a primitive practice to be eliminated and understood as indispensable logistics for any modernization project.

The following chapters are introduced as investigating “the organization and governance of porterage in state-run expeditions” (chapter 2), “the regulation of caravan mobility” (chapter 3), “the legislative framework” for “the integration of porterage into colonial capitalism” (chapter 4), “mak[ing] traffic controllable” (chapter 5), and “replac[ing] porterage with ‘modern’ transport means” (chapter 6).

Chapter 2 zooms in on the caravans the German colonial administration organized for its own use, thereby relying on South Asian and Nyamwezi (Central Tanzanian) networks and know-how. The author addresses German stereotypes about the caravan trade, which mistake skilled porters for slaves. He also mentions the relatively good – compared to other forms of wage labour – remuneration and the excessive use of violence in the German-led or German-commissioned caravans. Throughout this chapter, as well as in the rest of the book, the perspective is not only German colonial but also primarily coastal, that is to say seen from the Indian Ocean coast. The human porters the book examines did not necessarily share this coastal perspective.

Chapters 3 and 4 deal with the endurance of the caravan system already in place when the German conquerors arrived. The German colonizers relied on long-distance trade to generate commercial and tax revenues. The strategic choice whether to arm the caravans or the chiefs, the mobile or the sedentary Africans, was taken in favour of the caravans. Enabling long-distance transportation and resisting anti-colonial rebellion matched colonial priorities yet altered the balance of power between caravans and residents at the expense of the latter.

Chapter 5 examines colonial attempts to control the caravans. Medical (sleeping sickness), residential (caravanserai), and border-crossing aspects of mobility control are discussed in this chapter. Also important is the relation between porter work and plantation labour or the opportunity to avoid plantation labour or other forms of forced labour (cf. chapter 6) by joining a caravan. More than in any other chapter, non-coastal areas are taken seriously here.

Chapter 6 focuses on infrastructural initiatives to replace caravan transportation. More than a decade of attempts to build roads failed to replace or channel human porterage. Eventually, railways – both in British and in German East Africa – relegated human porterage to a subservient role: railways were not the end of human porterage, but henceforth caravans were mainly reduced to provisioning lines to and from railway stations.

At first sight, the author mainly confirms what historians like Abdul Sheriff, Karin Pallaver, and, above all, Stephen Rockel have already written about the caravans and what historians like Michael Pesek, Justin Willis, Jan-Georg Deutsch, Tanja Bührer, and Michelle Moyd have written about colonial rule relying on African intermediaries in (early colonial/German) East Africa. On second thought, Greiner offers a missing link between these two strands. The historiography on caravans, no matter how methodologically and thematically convincing and consistent, treats colonization as the fading-out phase of its narratives and tends to pay little attention to German sources. The history of colonial rule in (early colonial/German) East Africa in turn limits the attention on human porterage to its direct use by the colonizer (chapter 2). Willis, for coastal Kenya, and Deutsch, through the lens of slavery, abolition, and emancipation, perhaps come closest to what Greiner does in this monograph.

Greiner does an excellent job reconstructing and explaining the practical and moral dilemmas the German colonizers were facing in East Africa. They could not do anything – neither financing their imperialist madness nor rolling out their colonial control – without the logistics of human porterage. They depended on the networks and skills within the caravan trade complex, which were both considered a target of the civilizing mission and needed for the colonial projects. They were stuck between their reliance on caravans, on the one hand, and the threats in terms of provisioning and violence these caravans posed to the regions they moved through, on the other hand. Colonial territorialization had to be imposed through the infrastructure of the caravans and was at the same time circumvented by cross-border human porterage. This plethora of ambivalences underpins the colonial state formation Greiner analyses in this monograph. I am not sure if these ambivalences are proof of Africans – or South Asians and Omani for that matter – having direct influence over colonial decision-making. I think they rather prove the inherent contradictions of colonialism itself.

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