Writing on Mozambique, pt. 4: A truncated history of colonial Mozambique II

Like just about any other process, colonization is deeply contradictory. It emanates from the drive to conquer and subjugate for economic reasons, but there’s no such thing as just “economic reasons.” There is pride and prestige involved, and that becomes a significant motivating factor as well. They operate in conjunction. But this matter of pride and prestige comes from the subjugation of entire peoples — and brazen exploitation — and somehow this is transmogrified into a civilizing mission. Colonialism came to bring civilization, commerce and Christianity to the masses, after all. So, really, relax, we’re doing you a favour by occupying your country and killing thousands and perhaps millions of you and stealing your natural resources and, where possible, exploiting your labour. Hooray! But here, I’m not too concerned about how the Portuguese elite used colonialism to feel better about themselves [see PA 108-116]. Rather, I’m going to focus on the imposition of certain politics as they played out in Mozambique.

Indigenato: Citizen and Subject

In 1950, according to a census cited by Perry Anderson, Mozambicans numbered about 5.67 million (not including the Portuguese settlers) [PA 109], and white settlers numbered about 48,000 [PA 100] and mestiços (“mixed”) numbered 25,000 [PA 110]. While official Portuguese ideology was anti-racialist, the regime set up a legal system of differentiation between Portuguese citizens and natives/subjects — needless to say, the categories corresponded to racial lines. The entire system of separation was called Indigenato:

Article 23 of the Decree-Law excludes all natives from any rights vis-a-vis non-native political institutions (i.e. the caricature of voting and common rights possessed by the white population). Article 9 restricts freedom of movement. Article 32 states that work is an indispensable element for the native’s progress and permits administrative enforcement of it. Article 26 specifies that obligatory labour can be enforced for fiscal default. [PA 108]

As Article 9 notes, Mozambicans were subjected to pass laws that restricted their (legal) movements — this was not very different from South African apartheid. Theoretically, though, after jumping through certain hoops, Africans could become “civilized,” or assimilated. One of the criteria was education, and as Anderson notes, the proportion of Mozambicans (as compared to settlers or mestiços) in any kind of education was minimal. In 1956, there were only 120 Mozambicans in secondary school out of nearly 6 million people; and higher education was entirely inaccessible. [PA 110] (My point in noting this isn’t to say that they should have made becoming “civilized” easier, but that there was a serious disparity in the accessibility of education.)

The conceptual differentiation of Indigenato (i.e., between the civilized and the indigenous) translated into two separate regimes of law — the law of the Portuguese metropole for the civilized, and customary/tribal law for the indigenous. But to say that the bifurcation of legal regimes came about as a result of the conceptual differentiation would be misleading. Rather, steady and piecemeal practices (and laws) of separation from and control over native populations were systematized into the sweeping Indigenato, formally adopted in 1928 [BL 12].

Legally without citizenship and effectively without civil rights, Africans were frozen in menial professions with minimum wages, relegated to separate and inferior schools, and subject to arbitrary beatings, life-long banishment in penal colonies, and forced labour on plantations, roads, railroads and docks. [BL 15]

One of the most important aspects of Indigenato was the appointment of “chiefs” (régulos) who were at the ‘lowest rung’ of the Portuguese administrative structure. The hereditary régulos were responsible for administering their populations, could themselves appoint sub-chiefs, and enforced their rule through native police forces. The Portuguese often appropriated pre-colonial authority structures into the system (we will talk about this below), but would just as easily appoint a new (pliant) chiefs where convenient [BL 16-17]. Because much of the pre-colonial (or para-colonial) Mozambican political and social scene was in flux, this meant constructing a “customary” and reifying it through practice [BL 11]. These chiefs would allocate land and other resources, collected colonial taxes, recruited labour to fill the quotas of Portuguese authorities and the corporations, and sometimes supervised cash crop production in conjunction with the colonizers. They were also supposed to regulate conflicts among constitutents. The régulos were paid commissions on whatever services they provided to the colonizers [BL 17]. (The system of régulos was not just a rural thing, moving to cities meant coming under the authority of a new régulo, not necessarily prescribed according to geographical/community origin [BL 17].)

Régulos were thus the direct point of interface between Portuguese colonialism and local communities. For the most part, they collaborated with the Portuguese authorities in the subjection and exploitation of Mozambicans, as described above and in more detail in my last post on the economics of colonial Mozambique. However, there were many régulos who used their positions to subvert the colonial regime, and to collaborate with liberation movements (we’ll talk about this more in the next post). In some cases, régulos took their entire constituent populations across the borders to escape the particularly stringent Portuguese regulations (though ultimately this simply meant changing colonizers) [BL 20]. Régulos who did well by the Portuguese could consolidate their economic and political positions [AP 121], whereas those who opposed or simply didn’t live up to the expectations of the Portuguese could be detained, dismissed and otherwise punished [BL 20].

By the 1960s, the system of Indigenato was being legally repealed as the Portuguese colonizers sought to “modernize” the system (economically and politically) in response to international protests and the growing traction of the liberation movements operating out of Tanzania [BL 20]. The dismantling didn’t really lead to much. The discrimination against Mozambicans still existed, the régulos were even further systematized (given uniforms and such) and native reserves remained [BL 21] — indeed, the chiefs were given more leeway in repression because of the increasing influence of liberation movements [BL 22] — and coercion of labour still took place [BL 25], though it was no longer legally sanctioned [BL 21]. As we noted in the last post, the eradication of Indigenato, and, indeed, of colonialism itself, nevertheless settled Mozambique into market capitalism, the dispersion of dependence upon manufactured commodities, and the dependence upon wage labour and credit — in various ways — for many Mozambicans.

It’s interesting to see how this divide between the “civilized” and “native” corresponds to the economic dualism described in the previous post, i.e., between the “modern” and “traditional” sectors of the economy. The point, of course, is that this dualism, to the extent that it exists, is superficial, and that one exists because of the other. Mahmood Mamdani refers to the use of political instruments (in this case, a dualistic system of law predicated upon forced labour) to extract capital from the Mozambicans as primitive accumulation [MM 44] — in Marxian theory, this is that initial accumulation of capital before it is thrown into self-replicating processes that no longer depend on brute political/coercive instruments. His point is that the economic identities (i.e., the proletarianisation) imposed upon Mozambicans were more the result of political instruments than because of market features (i.e., to use Anderson’s terms, “incentives”). That is to say, the political imposition led to the particular economic situation. While this is true, the systematization of Indigenato was the result of a build-up of such piecemeal political moves, which were developed precisely to facilitate and legitimate economic exploitation. Which is to say, the newly created political identities of Mozambicans were predicated upon the economic relationships that were imposed upon them by the Portuguese. There seems to be some kind of theoretical chicken-or-egg debate between Mamdani and O’Laughlin that I’m not going to get into in more detail, I need to read more of Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject before I can comment on it. (Perhaps it’s best to just say, “It’s dialectical,” and walk away.)

Constructing the Customary…

I mentioned above that the Portuguese authorities, in imposing the régulos (or, as Harry West notes they were referred to, autoridades gentilicas) appropriated pre-colonial authority structures into the system. It might be more apt to call them “para-colonial” structures: Portuguese colonialism was first concentrated about the coastal regions, made inroads starting in the southern part of Mozambique, and the northern part was the last to be conquered and colonized (starting in earnest in 1917) [HW 147]. This means that the pre-colonized structures were probably influenced to some degree by the existence of the Portuguese and associated trade. So, for instance, in the northern part of the country, several people migrated to the Mueda plateau to escape “the regional trade in slaves” before formal Portuguese colonial conquest [HW 144]. But it’s probably important to note that the Portuguese didn’t introduce slavery or the slave trade, just distorted the demand:

[W]hile colonial practices and policies bore the unique stamp of the Portuguese and their interests, the incidence of African authorities exercising unpopular functions among their populations was not altogether unfamiliar. [...] To suggest that the Portuguese introduced extractive and coercive rule in Mozambique with the establishment of autoridades gentilicas would [...] be contrary to vast historical evidence. [SKJ 472]

What differed was the scale of the enterprise, all uniquely directed in the Portuguese colonial system, and the incorporation into a global market, as we’ve mentioned before. It’s important to note this to avoid romanticizing pre-colonial social relations and political dynamics (and, no, colonialism was seriously not better than what came before it).

Like other colonial powers, the Portuguese held ahistorical and opportunistic notions of customary law and ‘tradition’ which often resulted in the pursuit of potentially conflicting objectives. [AP 121]

The Portuguese superimposed relatively rigid hierarchies on a variety of forms of decentralized and often semi-autonomous social and political forms of organization across Mozambique. While they wanted to identify “true” chiefs they also looked to appoint those they felt would be more loyal to colonialism — and often this meant selecting someone who was not a ‘legitimate’ authority figure in the eyes of the local communities. [AP 122] Many régulos and their subordinates were thus in a position where they appropriated legitimacy from above — the colonizers. (And that is aside from the ire they raised in carrying out the agenda of the colonizers for potential personal gain.)

… in the South

In the southern parts of Mozambique (Gaza and Inhambane), in the mid-19th century, Nguni conquerors came from the west and established a system of governance for the extraction of tribute and subjugation of local populations [SKJ 474]. The Portuguese conquered these areas not too long thereafter (I’m guessing, because I can’t find precise figures, in the late-19th century and very early-20th century) and built their régulo system on top of the three-tiered schema laid down by the Nguni. I’m not sure if the Matswa people were conquered by the Nguni, but if they were, this schema follows:

[...] among the Matswa people of Inhambane a three-tiered system of tinganakana, hosi ya muganga and hosi ya hombe, was transformed into a hierarchy of chefe de povoção, cabo de terras, and régulo by the Portuguese. [SKJ 471]

The régulo is the highest position of the three. What’s interesting to note here is that the three-tiered system laid down by the Nguni was rather new and strange — not traditional at all — for the inhabitants of the area.

In other parts of Inhambane, it wasn’t a simple three-tiered system that was appropriated. In the Mocumbi district, Euclides Gonçalves describes a structure where the local big man, mu hombe would have influence in a given area (a dozen contiguous households). A mu hombe with wider support and popularity than his own area was a nhadibandze. The nhadibandze would call upon madota, elders of persuasion and authority, to help settle disputes. Above this rank was the inganacana, who also relied on a council of elders. The tinganacana would administer territorial subdivisions under the authority of a cabo, who would often rely on a military force/messengers (the t’induna). Cabos would act under the authority of the incoma — the highest authority — who also had t’induna to rely upon. In addition, the cabo and incoma would refer to a council of madota (elders). [EG 32-33]

The Portuguese appointed most incoma as régulos, and maintained the cabos, who were now “invested with unprecedented power at the expense of nhadibandzes and wa hombe” [EG 33]. The conflation of pre-colonial authority with colonial authority “while effective, was not complete” [EG 34], as the appointment of incoma had involved long succession power disputes (circumvented now by the imposition of colonial authority), and the selection of cabos was not always legitimate. (Gonçalves doesn’t seem to talk about a third colonial position below régulos and cabos, but I suspect the newly colonially-authorized authority figures, overlapping as they did with pre-colonial figures, continued to rely on the subordinates in various ways — though they now had unprecedented powers of taxation, labour recruitment, etc.)

… in the Centre

In a coastal part of the central province of Zambezia, a three-tiered system was imposed upon pre-existing relationships. The successor of an area’s founding elder was the mwinha wa elabo, several mwinha wa elabo would recognize a nyakawa, and several nyakawa would recognize a mazambo. Under Portuguese colonialism, the three tiers were more-or-less appropriated as chefes de murda, groups of whom came under the authority of a samosoa, several of whom came under the régulos. [SKJ 471]

… in the North

The correspondence wasn’t quite as direct in the northern parts, which, as we’ve noted, were the last to come under direct colonial conquest, but there was still a reliance on pre-colonial structures. Harry West provides a detailed breakdown of colonial conquest in the Mueda plateau in the province of Cabo Delgado, and it may be instructive to see how this worked out to see the contradictions, unevenness and construction that took place in imposing colonial rule.

The settlements in the Mueda plateau were founded by groups of (later referred to as) the Makonde, fleeing from the regional slave trade and looking for better defensible land. A founder of a settlement (or his descendant) who had opened up previously uninhabited land for habitation was referred to as the nang’olo mwene shilambo (or elder steward-of-lands), in addition to being referred to as elder steward-of-the-settlement, the nang’olo mwene kaya. The steward-of-lands would ‘give’ land to newly arrived stewards-of-the-settlement, but almost under no circumstances would that land ever be taken back. [HW 144-145]

As settlements grew and split off from one another, there were many stewards-of-settlements. But settlements might also have moved close to other settlements for better defense and security. Settlements had substantial autonomy over internal affairs, including land distribution. The nang’olo mwene kaya (steward-of-settlement) would often organize trade caravans to coastal areas, and would play important roles in land disputes. [HW 145-146]

The Portuguese invaded the plateau in 1917, propelled by the necessity to establish defensive positions against the Germans to the north in Tanganyika. They burned 150 settlements in two months, crushing the Makonde resistance. The Portuguese demanded that each settlement send forth its ‘chief’. In some cases, the nang’olo mwene kaya would go ahead, but in many other cases would send a delegated junior. Other times, because no representative was being sent, subordinates would go on their own to avoid the continued brutality of the Portuguese, and sometimes would go to usurp power. In some cases, “the settlement sent the village idiot to pay back-handed respect” [HW 147]. People were permitted to rebuild homes once a ‘chief’ had presented himself and had taken a Portuguese flag back to the settlement, and then the chief was required to allocate labour to the Portuguese for military building projects.

At the end of the war, jurisdiction of the area was turned over the Nyassa Company for direct exploitation. This is an important point, often the Portuguese colonizers would turn administration of entire areas over to corporations as concessions. The Company saw too many chiefs to deal with directly, and had them select chiefs to oversee chiefs — called capitães-mor. Here was the creation of a position where none had existed before. Beneath the capitão-mor, designated now with collecting hut taxes and providing forced-contracted labour, was a wajiri (who corresponded with the pre-colonial nang’olo mwene kaya, or delegate/usurper). [HW 147-148]

The Nyassa Company’s lease expired in 1929 and the Portuguese colonial authority took direct control over the area. Capitães-mor were now put under the authority of a régulo, drawn from their ranks. “Thirty-one regulados (each controlled by a specific régulo) were created in the plateau region” [HW 148]. The régulo often corresponded to the pre-conquest nang’olo mwene shilambo, or a powerful warlord [HW 149].

Each régulo, dressed in a uniform provided him by the colonial administration, received orders from the Portuguese post administrator and passed them along to his capitães-mor, who in tum passed instructions on to their wajiri. [HW 148]

What had previously been rather autonomous groupings of people had now come under the direct authority of chains of command. It’s important to note, though, that the pre-conquest authority structures, from south to north, were not timeless and primordial sacred ‘traditions’, but were rather the products of often rapidly changing historical circumstances:

In the north, the tiered systems which the Portuguese encountered and modified to their own purposes were frequently the political products of slave-lords whose power to exact tribute grew rapidly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries during which local forms of ‘traditional authority’ were radically transformed. [SKJ 474]

And, of course, nor did the system of authority adopted by the Portuguese — that of régulos — correspond neatly to the pre-conquest schema or preserve it in any meaningful way. Indeed, the introduction of unprecedented powers and the evisceration of autonomy substantially transformed social and political relations among settlements and groups of people. The colonial customary system was a politically convenient construct, and that interfered with local power relations that were far, far more complex than I’ve described above, and which were in a state of flux due to the rapidly changing circumstances.


PA: Perry Anderson. “Portugal and the End of Ultra-Colonialism 2.” New Left Review I, no. 16 (July-August 1962): 88-123.

EG: Euclides Gonçalves. “Local Powers and Decentralisation: Recognition of Community Leaders in Mocumbi, Southern Mozambique.” Journal of Contemporary African Studies 24, no. 1 (2006): 29-52.

MM: Mahmood Mamdani. “Indirect Rule and the Struggle for Democracy: A Response to Bridget O’Laughin.” African Affairs 99, no. 394 (September 2000): 43-46.

BL: Bridget O’Laughlin. “Class and the Customary: The Ambiguous Legacy of the Indigenato.” African Affairs 99, no. 394 (September 2000): 5-42.

AP: M. Anne Pitcher. “Disruption without Transformation: Agrarian Relations and Livelihoods in Nampula Province, Mozambique 1975-1995.” Journal of Southern African Studies 24, no. 1 (March 1998): 115-140.

HW: Harry G. West. “’This Neighbor is Not My Uncle!’: Changing Relations of Power and Authority on the Mueda Plateau.” Journal of Southern African Studies 24, no. 1 (March 1998): 141-160.

SKJ: Harry G. West and Scott Kloeck-Jenson. “Betwixt and Between: ‘Traditional Authority’ and Democratic Decentralization in Post-War Mozambique.” African Affairs 98, no. 393 (October 1999): 455-484.

  del.icio.us this!

6 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    yathavan said,

    August 11, 2008 @ 1:40 pm

    Nice entry.
    Did you go to ACI by any chance?
    I saw a picture of you in another entry and i think i recognize you but I’m not sure.
    If not, my bad lol.

  2. 2

    noaman said,

    August 11, 2008 @ 7:34 pm

    Thanks. Yeah, I did go to ACI.

  3. 3

    yathavan said,

    August 12, 2008 @ 4:12 pm

    oh. i don’t think you know/remember me but i think i talked to you once. i was in grade 9 the year you graduated and you talked to me on grade 9 day lol.

  4. 4

    noaman said,

    August 13, 2008 @ 2:12 pm

    Wow, that was six years ago. I’m sorry I don’t remember you — I can barely remember what I had for lunch yesterday.

  5. 5

    nomes » Writing on Mozambique, pt. 5: Liberation and Revolution said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 2:24 pm

    [...] of pieces how the borders between Mozambique and its neighbours were, sometimes, porous enough for entire communities to cross over. The river Rovuma comprises most of the northern border of Mozambique with what is now Tanzania, [...]

  6. 6

    nomes » Writing on Mozambique, pt. 6: Independence said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 3:19 am

    [...] colonial administrative/governance system of régulos (chiefs), which we covered in great detail here. For most Mozambicans, the régulos were the interface between Portuguese colonialism and their own [...]

Comment RSS · TrackBack URI

Say your words