Academic journal article African Economic History

Women, Family, and Landed Property in Nineteenth-Century Benguela 1

Academic journal article African Economic History

Women, Family, and Landed Property in Nineteenth-Century Benguela 1

Article excerpt

In West Central Africa, competition and conflict over land access predated the twentieth century. Since the early seventeenth century local political leaders, colonial administrative agents, and the general population, including women, struggled over the accumulation of property, including landed property.2 As in most of the African continent, initially land was not owned individually, but was held by people who shared kinship or allegiance to a symbol of collective authority, such as the head of the land-owning family. Through their legitimate occupation of political power, local rulers known as sobas, mani, or dembos controlled access to land and decided who could use it or not.3 However, West Central Africa had a long history of contact with Portuguese colonialism and concepts of land ownership changed during the three centuries of exchange, cooperation, and conflict, although more research is needed to recognize the depth of these changes.4

The literature on land tenure in Africa stresses women's exclusion from controlling land and other means of production, which is seen as one of the reasons for contemporary poverty and poor distribution of resources. Scholars have emphasized how women, particularly single women, were alienated from land and cattle ownership rights, thus allowing men advantages in accumulating wealth.5 Observations such as, "African women are unnecessarily burdened and often unable to reap the potential benefits of their labor," are used to explain current gender disparities.6 Scholars extrapolate evidence from the twentieth century to previous periods assuming that gender and economic inequalities are the same in the present as in the past, despite a long scholarship on how gender roles are socially and historically constructed.7 The fact that, in different places, women did not enjoy land rights in the twentieth century, however, should be seen as historically constructed rather than something inherent to Africans or African women. In fact, as this study will demonstrate, land and property rights were spaces of negotiation among many actors, including Europeans and Africans. Women, however, did not remain passive. In West Central Africa during the nineteenth century, land rights faced profound change, and while the local population tried to navigate through these changes, some well-connected women managed to benefit from the turmoil. As with any other aspect of society, perceptions of land and property were bound by ideas about gender.8

The scholarship on empire building and consolidation and its relationship to ideas of manhood and womanhood demonstrate that gender hierarchies became pillars of colonialism, and women and men were assigned different spaces and rights.9 While scholars have started looking at how gender became a tool of social hierarchy in Angola in the twentieth century, few have attempted to show how men and women experienced the past differently-or even how gender organized social, economic, and political life.10 The implications of the omission of gender for Angolan historiography have been significant. The historiography of central Angola, for example, is seen as a masculine history where the image of the male warriors and the long-distance porters prevail and where women are almost invisible.11 Moreover, when discussing land access and rights, in Angolan historiography women are almost completely absent and access to land and property is portrayed as a genderless enterprise. Although studies of land and power in Mozambique have paid close attention to women actors and their role in production and land distribution, the same cannot be said of Angola.12

Scholars have shown how colonialism reinforced and created institutions that prevented women's participation in the cash economy and in land ownership, placing them exclusively as farmers.13 This study, however, explores how in the nineteenth century, under Portuguese colonial rule, women in West Central Africa had access to land and could claim property rights. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.