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The significance of Drought, Disease and Famine in the agriculturally marginal zones of West-Central Africa1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 January 2009

Joseph C. Miller
University of Virginia


Some 170 references to drought and disease along the south-western coast of Central Africa between 1550 and 1830 suggest that climatic and epidemiological factors motivated the farmers and herders of West-Central Africa in historically significant ways. Nearly all references come from documentary sources and so bear primarily on conditions in the drier and less fertile areas near Luanda and to the south, where African reactions would have been strongest.

While minor shortages of rain occurred too frequently to receive much explicit attention in the documents, longer droughts spread more widely every decade or so and attracted notice. Major periods of dryness, extending for seven years or more and touching all parts of the region, occurred perhaps once each century and produced comments throughout the documentation.

Localized minor droughts hardly disrupted the lives of Africans, who had presumably devised agricultural and pastoral strategies to take account of such ordinary climatic variation. Two-or three-year rainfall shortages produced banditry and warfare that often attracted Portuguese military retaliation. Major droughts disrupted polities and societies and hence coincided with major turning points in West-Central African history in the late sixteenth and late eighteenth centuries. In the earlier case, agricultural failures produced the famed ‘Jaga’ or Imbangala warriors, who elevated pillage to a way of life and who joined the Portuguese in establishing the Angolan slave trade. The later, protracted drought from 1784 to 1793 coincided with the historic peak of slave exports from West-Central Africa.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1982

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22 One cannot know the precise level of such losses, but scattered estimates of mortality in recent droughts, ranging upwards from one-third to one-half of the population, imply that they fell in a range of significance.

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41 Miller, Kings and Kinsmen.

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54 Miller, ‘Central and Southern Angola’.

55 Dias, ‘Famine and Disease’, richly documents this phenomenon for the Luanda region after 1830.

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