Academic journal article African Economic History

Gender, Foodstuff Production and Trade in Late-Eighteenth Century Luanda

Academic journal article African Economic History

Gender, Foodstuff Production and Trade in Late-Eighteenth Century Luanda

Article excerpt

Dona Rita de Belém supplied Luanda's public market with six exeques1 or about 792 pounds of manioc flour in September 1788. In January of the following year, she supplied another five exeques. Both deliveries were made through her own boats.2 The manioc flour was produced on the banks of the Kwanza River; while part of it might have been retained for subsistence proposes, the surplus was transported to the public market to feed the population of Luanda and the slave ships that were anchored off its bay.3 Farmers, traders, porters, owners of vessels, boatmen, grocers, and street vendors were part of a network that made it possible for foodstuffs produced in the semi-rural suburbs and alongside rivers to reach consumers in Luanda. Beyond Dona Rita, many other women and men engaged in the foodstuff trade. They composed a very diverse group of individuals and occupied different positions in the food supply network.

The introduction of new crops in Western Africa has been regarded as the main benefit of early European interaction with the region. The reasons for this development are many, including the subsistence needs of European settlers, as well as the supplies required by crews and slave cargoes of ships dispatched to the New World.4 Meanwhile, these new crops contributed to improve local diets and accelerate population growth.5 Cassava was one such food: brought from Brazil by the Portuguese during the sixteenth century, it subsequently gained favor in West Central Africa. Manioc comes from the cassava plant native to tropical America that typically grows about five to 12 feet high and sometimes reaches as high as 18 feet. The cassava plant tolerates poor soils, pests that destroy other crops, and is exceptionally resistant to drought, turning it into a well-suited crop for tropical Africa.6 By the eighteenth century, cassava leaves, roots, and its derivatives, had become major components of the diet of local populations in the Portuguese colony of Angola.7

In recent decades, gender has become an integrated part of African history. However, most studies have privileged the twentieth century, with relatively little information known about the precolonial era.8 Accounts left by eighteenth and nineteenth century travelers and explorers highlight the singular role of women as farmers excluded from owning property. Women's work was commonly defined as limited to cultivating the land to provide for their husbands and children while their participation in trade activities was almost always neglected by observers. Yet, as sources from Luanda, the colonial capital of Angola, show, women were able to accumulate property, including land, and engage in trade activities for their own benefit. These records allow us to better understand the role of gender and the contribution of women in the socio-economic fabric of the colony.

By the late eighteenth century, women were key agents in the economic development of the colony. In the case of Luanda, women owned slaves, sailing vessels, shops, real state, and land. Some became active participants in local, regional and sometimes international trade, either alone or as commercial associates of foreign-born husbands and partners. The most successful among them became known as donas, reflecting their socio-economic status and affiliation to Portuguese culture.9 Women like Dona Rita possessed agricultural properties within and in the outskirts of the city where crops were cultivated and animals were raised for household consumption and to supply urban markets.

In this study, I explore the participation of both men and women in the production and trade of foodstuffs in late-eighteenth century Luanda, with a particular focus on manioc flour, an essential staple in the diets of the town's residents. Drawing upon registers produced by scribes of the public market and license requests to engage in retail commerce, this study suggests that the supply of foodstuffs was an alternative for small and mid-scale traders who did not have enough capital to enter the slave trade. …

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