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Dash-peonage: the contradictions of debt bondage in the colonial plantations of Fernando Pó

Abstract
Abstract

Dash in pidgin English means an ancillary gift to an exchange. What happened when the dash became attached to the indentured labour contracts that the Spanish Empire brought from Cuba to their last colony, Spanish Guinea? On the island of Fernando Pó, which came to be almost wholly populated by Nigerian labour migrants, the conditional gift in the form of a large wage advance produced a particularly intense contradiction. In the historiography of unfree labour, the excess wage advance is thought to create conditions for the perpetuation of bondage through debt. However, in imperial contexts, the wage advance did not generate compliance and immobility; exactly the opposite – it produced unprecedented waves of further escalation and dispersed flight. The dash was pushed up by workers themselves and relayed by informal recruiters. Together they turned this lynchpin of indentured labour and debt peonage into a counter-practice that almost led to the collapse of the plantations in the 1950s. The trajectories of the dash led to a more pointed version of the foundational thesis of global labour history: namely, that it was actually free labour, not unfree labour, that was incompatible with labour scarcity-ridden imperial capitalism.

Résumé

Dash, en anglais pidgin, signifie un don accessoire dans le cadre d'un échange. Que s'est-il passé lorsque le dash est devenu rattaché aux contrats de travail en servitude que l'empire espagnol a ramenés de Cuba dans sa dernière colonie, la Guinée espagnole ? Sur l’île de Fernando Pó, pour un temps presque entièrement peuplée de travailleurs migrants nigérians, le don conditionnel, sous la forme d'une avance sur salaire importante, a généré une contradiction particulièrement intense. Dans l'historiographie de la main-d’œuvre non libre, l'avance sur salaire excessive passe pour être créatrice de conditions de perpétuation de la servitude par la dette. Cependant, dans des contextes impériaux, l'avance sur salaire n'a pas généré de conformité et d'immobilité ; tout au contraire, elle a produit des vagues sans précédent d'escalade et de fuite dispersée. Ce sont les travailleurs eux-mêmes qui ont poussé le dash, ensuite relayé par des recruteurs informels. Ensemble, ils ont fait du pilier que constituaient le travail en servitude et le péonage de la dette une contre-pratique qui a presque conduit à l'effondrement des plantations dans les années 1950. Les trajectoires du dash ont conduit à une version plus appuyée de la thèse fondatrice de l'histoire de la main-d’œuvre mondiale, à savoir que c'est en réalité la main-d’œuvre libre, et non la main-d’œuvre non libre, qui était incompatible avec le capitalisme impérial marqué par une pénurie de main-d’œuvre.

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Africa
  • ISSN: 0001-9720
  • EISSN: 1750-0184
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