Pursuing Private Goals, Negotiating Constraints. Non-State Actors, Wealth and Colonialism(s) in African History

In recent years, historiography has seen a rising interest in the research of actors within the colonial sphere. Informed by subaltern and postcolonial studies, historians have shed light on the agency of colonial subjects, explored the ambivalent roles of European actors, and questioned the assumed distribution of power. The proposed panel continues in this vein of historiography. Focussing on African and European non-state actors, we ask whether and to what extent they were able to pursue their own interests using and utilizing colonial situations.

Historians of Africa have directed their attention to African migrant labourers, bureaucrats, and soldiers struggling to make a living within the spheres of colonialism. To work for a colonial regime provided Africans with opportunities for social upward mobility, economic wealth or political power. Farm and mine labour at times allowed to increase one’s (economic) agency and to secure positions of influence within African polities. At the same time, Africans were often subject to oppression and violence..

On the other hand, for European colonial actors, colonial situations opened a myriad of ways to amass wealth. In pursuing their agendas, they could exploit the power dynamic established by colonial regimes. Despite being colonial actors, many of these Europeans did not act to promote colonial projects, but as “free riders” were rather interested in personal enrichment. Focussing on enrichment in colonial contexts allows us to examine the conditions under which European actors managed to get rich at the expense of not only colonial subjects, but also colonial systems.

On a more conceptual level the panel addresses the question of how and in what distinct ways specific forms of colonialism, e.g. settler colonialism, enabled or repressed actors' social or economic upward mobility. Thereby, questions touching upon colonialism and wealth appear in a fresh light. In what ways did different forms of colonialism facilitate individuals’ means of accumulating wealth? How can historians approach the issue of wealth and colonialism(s) comparatively, without levelling the nuances and specifics of particular forms of domination in Africa’s colonial history?

The panel disputes economic, social, and political opportunities and constraints of colonialism(s) for various actors, ranging from migrant labourers to trading companies. Papers may cover such questions as: to what extent did settlers profit from infrastructures and coercive measures without themselves contributing to the colonial system? On the other hand, in what way did African intermediaries and labourers perceive their work as being beneficial to their personal social and economic situation? What goals did they have in mind when seeking to accumulate “wealth” within the sphere of colonialism?

These questions open windows for more nuanced and critical discussions of the broader topic of wealth and the legacies of colonialism(s) in Africa.