Academic journal article African Economic History

VIRTUAL ABOLITION: The Economic Lattice of Luwalo Forced Labor in the Uganda Protectorate

Academic journal article African Economic History

VIRTUAL ABOLITION: The Economic Lattice of Luwalo Forced Labor in the Uganda Protectorate

Article excerpt

Introduction

During the colonial period most Africans would have had, at the very least, a passing familiarity with the coercive labor apparatus of bula matari.2 In all of the European colonies, Africans worked, either due to market forces- which included their own wants-the demands of taxation, or because of the implications of a threat. In terms of threat, Africans also displayed their own agency in regard to coercion. For example, on 24 December 1928 an exasperated British district commissioner in the Eastern Province of the Uganda Protectorate complained to his superior that members of the Nubi community in his district had refused to perform "traditional" unpaid forced labor, known as luwalo, or pay the commutation fee in lieu of the work.3 They claimed immunity from coercion based on the Nubi's long-standing service in the King's African Rifles.4 In response, the provincial commissioner reaffirmed that the Nubi "cannot have it all ways," and that they should be made either to perform the work or pay the commutation fee.5 Despite the Nubi's historic soldiering for the British, they had to work or pay. The luwalo labor and the commutation fees were too important to ignore.

And yet, notwithstanding the provincial commissioner's forceful pronouncements, by 1939 luwalo was abolished. The abolition of luwalo came about in the aftermath of the passage of the International Labour Organization's (ILO) Forced Labour Convention (C29) of 1930. As a signatory to the Forced Labour Convention, Great Britain made certain types of compulsory labor illegal in its African colonies and, in fact, as we shall discuss, saw a decline in the use of paid government forced labor after the signing of the Convention.6 In the Uganda Protectorate the passage of the Forced Labour Convention led to the almost immediate cessation of some types of government forced labor, like tax labor. In the case of luwalo, and also forced porterage, abolition became a more gradual affair. Luwalo lingered on, primarily due to its vital fiscal utility to the Uganda administration which foreshadowed its later transition into a form of taxation after apparent abolition.

Despite the deeper economic importance of luwalo, it was always justified by the British administration as a continuation of African tradition. The administration viewed luwalo as a sort of "unpaid feudal labour."7 Colonial unpaid forced labor, in general, is often viewed as a "traditional" artifact that was unearthed or reconstituted by European colonial administrations for their own purposes.8 It is not surprising, therefore, that scholars have described luwalo as more of an example of an innocuous, traditional labor as opposed to a coercive colonial labor practice.9 According to Holger Hansen, "in spite of the fact that it was unpaid, luwalo was much less resented than kasanvu . . . It was generally accepted as traditional Buganda custom."10 P. G. Powesland, in his early work on the economic history of the Uganda Protectorate, likewise defined luwalo as "a practice sanctified by long tradition."11 On the other hand, the anthropologist Joan Vincent has written that the colonial era administrative expansion of forms of labor like luwalo outside of Buganda to other parts of the Uganda Protectorate "hid the degree to which these were colonial inventions."12 Perhaps, the focus on origins obscures the reality that luwalo was part of a continuum of exploitative labor practices, characterized by the perpetuation of unequal social relations and accumulation. Luwalo eventually came to an end, but the exploitation of African labor continued in a different way.

Political pressure from the British Colonial Office (CO) in London, following the passage of the Forced Labour Convention, eventually forced the administration to consider some sort of timely abolition of this labor practice. This, in turn, caused the administration in Uganda to gauge more explicitly the economic cost of abolishing luwalo. …

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