The modernization of transport and its contradictions


The modernization of transport and its contradictions

Transport routes and the transformation of rural livelihoods

Building spaces of communication

Concepts of space on the move

Movements and communications in academic inquiry

Conclusion: Insights gained through the Symposium

The first of these foci addressed the history of the actual movements and means of transport that shaped the routes and communications addressed in the Symposium. How did these mobile activities develop in and beyond Angola? How have different types of movement and means of transport influenced each other in the given historical contexts, be it through complementarity, competition or contestation? Contrary to ideas on the linear modernization of transport, what continuities and ruptures, simultaneities and disjunctures can be observed from a historical perspective? How did these contradictions affect the spatial organization of transport and communication, both in the short and the long run?

Contributions to these questions were mainly grouped in Session 2, "The Modernization of Transport and its Contradictions", although further evidence was also provided by papers at the following session (see below), as well as by Roquinaldo Ferreira's paper in Session 4. Each of the four contributions by Maria Emília Madeira Santos, Rosa Cruz e Silva, David Birmingham and Roquinaldo Ferreira focused on one particular type of transport, examining its development not only in technological but also in political, socio-cultural and spatial terms.

In her contribution on land transport between the coast and the hinterland, Maria Emília Madeira Santos approached these questions from a broad and long-term perspective. She emphasized the intermittent character of Portuguese expansion into the Angolan hinterland, where African political power was based. The four consecutive phases can roughly be characterized as, entering into contact with African rulers, negotiating rights of passage to the remoter interior, the take-over of political control (the so-called "pacification" period), and finally, the annihilation and replacement of African political power. For Santos, this eastward drift in search of control was a primary feature of Angola's colonial history from the 15th to the early 20th century. "African" communication networks were largely used in the early phase but were progressively expanded, sometimes even replaced by other routes that seemed more suitable for the exercise of Portuguese administrative control, facilitating the transportation of troops as well as goods. These new roads by-passed existing long-distance paths, whose passage was still largely controlled by local African rulers up to the late 19th century. Colonial occupation, on the other hand, took place on broad roads for bullock carts and trucks, the construction and use of which were beyond the scope of African knowledge and practice. The effect was a progressive bifurcation of transport systems and routes, a development that seemed incompatible both in practice and mutual perception. While to African eyes "modern" roads often led to the middle of nowhere, the Portuguese perceived the "heathen" paths as running in endless circles.

In another long-time but regionally more focused case study, Rosa Cruz e Silva examined the development of shipping along the lower Kwanza River, a crucial gateway to the interior along the northern route from Luanda. In contrast to the preceding paper, she produced a more interactive picture of Portuguese and African roles in the emergence of new transportation techniques. In her view, the introduction of steamship navigation in the 19th century could only succeed eventually by building on autochthonous knowledge and skills. As the most vital axis of communication between the Atlantic ports and the resources of the remote interior, the Kwanza corridor should be understood as a complex contact zone between newcomers and residents, coast and hinterland, and both African and European populations. The result was a sharing of technical and ecological knowledge that belies ideas of modern transport and communication technologies as essentially tools of European supremacy.

These findings matched to some extent those of Emmanuel Esteves on the Benguela Railway. He pointed out more strongly, however, the ambivalence in African experience with this new transport technology, distinguishing between an earlier, more inimical and later more receptive attitude.

Two other interesting case studies investigated instances where new transport systems had ultimately not been widely adopted, or at least not to the degree that might have been expected, despite their potential for decentralized mobility. In both cases, political and historical rather than ecological (tsetse fly) contexts seem to have posed more crucial obstacles.

Roquinaldo Ferreira presented a paper on the use of horses in Southern Angola between 1670 and 1730, notably in warfare. Historians of Angola generally take it for granted that horses were of no consequence in colonial warfare, let alone in civilian forms of transport. They had do be imported initially from abroad and thus constantly replaced by further imports. One reason for their rejection seems to have been that horses in Angola succumbed easily to disease. The more trenchant reason for a lack of horses in the country, however, was of a political nature. Horse-breeding and the import of mares was forbidden, apparently for fear that Africans might appropriate them as a powerful means of fighting and therefore advance more speedily. Ferreira clarified that horses were in fact used less on Angolan routes than on those of West Africa, but more often than generally assumed, notably for military purposes in the hinterland of Benguela in the south. One reason seems to be that Brazilian merchants enjoyed preferential treatment when importing horses as a backload on their slave ships. By the late 17th century, Benguela had become a key slave port after the Luanda government turned to it to compensate for the decline in trade in the north and the Brazilians seized the opportunity. On the other hand, Ferreira dismissed the belief that Africans were so frightened by horses on the battlefield that they would not go near them. Their tactics and military culture were clearly different, but there are many examples of African soldiers skilfully fighting soldiers on horseback. This may have reduced the attractiveness of this technology, despite more favourable conditions on the supply side.

During the discussion, the rationality of being afraid of horses in early modern warfare was defended. It was also suggested that the mentality of the horses should be taken into account as much as that of the soldiers, and that the spreading of this kind of transport was not influenced by the rationality of violence alone, but also by the wider political, economic and ecological context.

The use of animals for civilian transport, in contrast, was the subject of a contribution by David Birmingham. In a very graphic presentation, he examined the case of Héli Chatelain, a Swiss missionary and entrepreneur. Chatelain tried to introduce modern ox-wagons in the central Angolan highlands to improve the supply line between the coast and his "self-financed mission-station on the plateau which aimed to protect Africans who were at risk of being captured by slave-hunters." Birmingham's main point was the clash between Chatelain's firm belief in modern technologies, on the one hand, and the enormous practical, economic and organizational difficulties he encountered, on the other. When his bullock carts turned out to be unprofitable, Chatelain set his hopes on the electric telegraph for a while and later on the railway. However, all of the various communication and transport initiatives he used in his struggle against slavery failed before long simply because they were at odds with the regional and historical context in which he operated. His projects finally came to a halt for political reasons in 1910. With the "motor revolution of the 1920s", a new age of transportation and communication got underway for the highland of Angola (and beyond). By that time, however, Chatelain's attempts to revolutionize long-distance transport had already been defeated by the laws of cost and profit.

Manfred Schmitz, Ana Paula Tavares and Lukande Luansi
Jean-Luc Vellut, David Birmingham and Maria da Conceição Neto

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Latest revision: 08.03.2004