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

  • Joseph C. Miller (a1)

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.

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2 Dias Jill R., ‘Famine and disease in the history of Angola, c. 1830–1930’, Journal of African History, xxi, iii (1981), 349–78.

3 Cf. the analysis of evidence for similarly oscillating good rains and droughts in eastern and south-eastern Africa in the remote past by Webster J. B., ‘Drought and Migration: the Lake Malawi Littoral as a Region of Refuge’, in Hinchley Madalon T., ed., Proceedings of the Symposium on Drought in Botswana (Durham, N.H., 1979), 148–57. Also Webster J. B., ‘Noi! Noi! Famines as an Aid to Interlacustrine Chronology’, 137, and Herring R. S., ‘Hydrology and Chronology: the Rodah Nilometer as an Aid in Dating Interlacustrine History’, 38–86, in Webster J. B., ed., Chronology, Migration and Drought in Interlacustrine Africa (New York, 1979).

4 Pre-eminently Gibson Gordon D., ‘Himba Epochs’, History in Africa, iv (1977), 67121. Also Larson Thomas J., ‘The Significance of Rain-Making for the Mbukushu,’ African Studies, xxv, i (1966), 2336; Hauenstein A., ‘Rites et coutumes liés au culte de la pluie parmi différentes tribus du Sud-Ouest de l'Angola’, Boletim do Instituto de Angola, xxvii (1967), 532; xxix (1967), 528; Mittelberger Carlos, ‘A chuva e a fome entre os Cuanhamas’, Estudos ultramarinos, VI (1956), 131–72. Extensive comments for the seventeenth century appear in João António de Montecuccolo Cavazzi, Descrição histórica dos três reinos do Congo, Matamba e Angola (tr. and ed. de Luguzzano Graciano Maria) (Lisbon, 1965), esp. book i, paragraphs 14–16; book ii, paragraph 2. See also footnotes 46 and 47 below.

5 On climatology: Queiróz Dário Xavier, Variabilidade das chuvas em Angola (Luanda, 1955), and Distribuição da precipitação na Provincia de Angola (Luanda: 1952). Also Trewartha Glenn T., The Earth's Problem Climates (Madison, 1961), 111–20, 138–48; Pittock A. B. et al. (eds.), Climatic Change and Variability: A Southern Perspective (Cambridge, 1978). Sharon Nicholson has extended her work on Sahelian West Africa to cover the southern hemisphere: ‘African Climate and Environmental Changes During the Past Five Centuries’ (unpublished final report to the National Science Foundation, 1980). I am grateful to Dr Nicholson for allowing me to see this report.

6 Miller Joseph C., ed., The African Past Speaks (Folkestone, 1980), esp. introduction.

7 Esp. Thornton John K., ‘The Kingdom of Kongo in the Era of the Civil Wars, 1641–1718’ (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California at Los Angleles, 1979), chap, i, and ‘Demography and history in the Kingdom of the Kongo’, Journal of African History, xviii, iv (1977), 507–30.

8 By Beatrix Heintze, work in preparation.

9 Dias, ‘Famine and Disease’; Gervase Clarence-Smith W., ‘Drought in Southern Angola and Northern Namibia–1837 to 1945’ (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, unpublished seminar paper, 1974). I would like to acknowledge the stimulation I received from the opportunity to participate in the SOAS working group on climate and history led by Dr Humphrey Fisher in 1974–5.

10 Hitchcock R. K., ‘The Traditional Response to Drought in Botswana’, in Hinchley , ed., Proceedings, 91–7; Gervase Clarence-Smith W., ‘Climatic Variations and Natural Disasters in Barotseland, 1847–1907’ (University of Zambia – School of Education, History Staff Seminars, unpublished paper 1977).

11 Cf. Nicholson, ‘African Climate’.

12 Dias, ‘Famine and Disease’ and works cited therein, and also footnote 5 supra.

13 Silberbauer G. B., ‘Social Hibernation: the response of the G/wi Band to Seasonal Drought’, in Hinchley , ed., Proceedings, 112. One may also consult with profit the works of Dirks Robert, especially ‘Social Responses during Severe Food Shortages and Famine’, Current Anthropology, xxi, i (1980), 2144.

14 For this region: Gibson, ‘Himba Epochs’; Hauenstein, ‘Rites et coutumes’; Mittelberger, ‘A chuva e a fome’.

15 Gibson , ‘Himba Epochs’, 98.

16 Pittock et al., Climatic Change and Variability. See also Tyson P. D., Dyer G. J. and Mametse M. N., ‘Secular Changes in South African Rainfall’, Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, ci (1975), 817–33; Tyson P. D., ‘Southern African Rainfall: Past, Present, and Future’, in Hinchley , ed., Proceedings, 4552; Cooke H. J., ‘Botswana's Present Climate and the Evidence for Past Change’, in Hinchley , Proceedings, 53–8.

17 E.g. Nicholson Sharon, ‘The Methodology of Historical Climate Reconstruction and its Application to Africa’, Journal of African History, xx, i (1979), 3149.

18 Thornton, ‘Demography and History’, 529, makes this observation for the area south of the mouth of the Zaire river.

19 Webster , ‘Drought and Migration’, 152.

20 Cited in Historia angolana (Luanda, 1979?), 56.

21 A fuller statement of these ideas appears in Miller Joseph C., ‘Lineages, Ideology, and the History of Slavery in Western Central Africa’, in Lovejoy Paul E., ed., Ideology of Slavery in Africa (Beverly Hills, 1981), 4172.

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.

23 Cf. Curtin Philip D., ‘Epidemiology and the Slave Trade’, Political Science Quarterly, lxxxiii (1968), 190216; Dawson Marc H., ‘Smallpox in Kenya, 1880–1920’, in Janzen John M. and Feierman Steven, eds., The Social History of Disease and Medicine in Africa (special issue of Social Science and Medicine: Part B – Medical Anthropology, xiii B, iv, 1979), 245–50.

24 Cf. Miller Joseph C., ‘Legal Portuguese Slaving from Angola: Some Preliminary Indications of Volume and Direction, 1760–1830’, Revue française d'histoire d'outremer, lii, i–ii (nos. 226–27) (1975). 135–76.

25 Dawson, ‘Smallpox in Kenya’.

26 Gibson , ‘Himba Epochs’, 52.

27 The notion that African diseases infected Brazil via the slave trade is nearly a cliché in the literature on Brazilian medical history; e.g. de Freitas Octàvio, Doenças africanas no Brasil (São Paulo, 1935).

28 See Appendix.

29 dos Santos João Marinho, ‘Angola na governação dos Felipes: Uma perspectiva de história económica e social’, Revista de história económica e social, iii (1979), 5376. For a contemporary observation: Sousa Coutinho letter of 26 November 1772 (Arquivo Histórico Ultramarino (AHU), Angola, cx. 36).

30 de Cadornega António de Oliveira, História geral das guerras angolanas (1680) (Lisbon, 19401942), 1, 70.

31 ‘Quando chove ha muito mantimento, mas não ha quern o coma’: de Azeredo José Pinto, Ensaios sôbre algumas enfermidades d'Angola (Lisbon, 1799), 49.

32 Joseph C. Miller, Way of Death: the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730–1830 (in preparation), and related studies.

34 Birmingham David B., Trade and Conflict in Angola (Oxford, 1966), 78103.

35 Thornton , ‘Kingdom of Kongo’, 182–7.

36 Joseph C. Miller, ‘Central and Southern Angola to ca. 1840’, and Gervase Clarence-Smith W., ‘Class Formation in the Central Highlands of Angola, 1840s to 1910s’, in Heimer Franz-Wilhelm, ed., The Formation of Angolan Society (forthcoming).

37 Miller Joseph C., ’Requiem for the “Jaga”’, Cahiers d'études africaines, xiii, i (no. 49) (1973). 121–49; but cf. Thornton John K., ‘A Resurrection for the Jaga’, Cahiers d'ėtudes africaines, xviii, i–ii (nos. 69–70) (1978), 2237; Miller, ‘Thanatopsis’, ibid., 229–31; and Hilton Anne, ‘The Jaga reconsidered’, Journal of African History, xxiii, ii (1981), 191202.

38 Cadornega , História geral, 1, 52–3; Bràsio António, ed., Monumenta missionária africana – Africa ocidental (Lisbon 19521971), iii, 333–6.

39 Miller Joseph C., Kings and Kinsmen: Early Mbundu States in Angola (Oxford, 1976), 194210.

40 In such situations, typically ‘Deprived at home, starving children and adolescents form foraging and bandit gangs…’: Dirks , ‘Social Responses’, 30. Webster, ‘Drought and Migration’, 152, has noticed the correlation of drought with raiders on a wider scale.

41 Miller, Kings and Kinsmen.

42 Dirks, ‘Social Responses’; in general, Laughlin Charles D. Jr., and Brady Ivan A., eds, Extinction and Survival in Human Populations (New York, 1978). Cf. Webster , ‘Noi! Noi!’, 12, for other parts of Africa.

43 Dias Gastão Sousa, Relações de Angola (Primórdios da ocupação portuguesa) (Coimbra, 1934). 154, 179.

44 Estermann Carlos, Etnografia do sudoeste de Angola (Lisbon, 19601961), 1, 43; Urquhart Alvin W., Patterns of Settlement and Subsistence in Southwestern Angola (Washington, D.C., 1963), 123; Heintze Beatrix, ‘Die Vassallentribute in Angola im 17. Jahrhundert’ (manuscript in preparation), n. 29; Vail Leroy and White Landeg, Capitalism and Colonialism in Mozambique (London, 1980), 120; also recently in Angola during drought, according to reports.

45 Ravenstein E. G., ed., The Strange Adventure of Andrew Battell of Leigh in Angola and Adjoining Regions (London, 1901), 19 ff.

46 Miller , Kings and Kinsmen, 144–5, paraphrasing van den Byvang M., ‘Notice historique sur les Balunda’, Congo, i, iv (1935), 433–4.

47 Miller , Kings and Kinsmen, 200–1.

48 Cf. Appendix and Miller, Kings and Kinsmen.

49 Miller , Kings and Kinsmen, 163–6, 232–4.

50 Miller , Kings and Kinsmen, 164–5; Larson , ‘Significance’, 24, 28, 32, 35; Hitchcock , ‘Traditional Response’, 9196.

51 Birmingham , Trade and Conflict, 78103; Miller Joseph C., ‘Nzinga of Matamba in a New Perspective’, Journal of African History, xvi, ii (1975), 201–16.

52 Miller, ‘Southern and Central Angola’.

53 For a modern instance, Clarence-Smith, ‘Drought’; parallel movements of herders from drier to moister regions in time of drought are cited in Herring R. S., ‘The View from Mount Otuke: Migrations of the Lango Omiro’, in Webster , ed., Chronology, Migration and Drought, 51, 58; R. A. Sargent, ‘The Generations of Turmoil and Stress: A Proliferation of States in the Northern Interlacustrine Region, c. 1544–1625’, in Ibid. 232–3.

54 Miller, ‘Central and Southern Angola’.

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

56 Inter alia: Beach David, ‘The Shona Economy: Branches of Production’, in Palmer Robin and Parsons Neil, eds, The Roots of Rural Poverty in Central and Southern Africa (London, 1977), 43–4, 56; Clarence-Smith W. Gervase, Slaves, Peasants and Capitalists in Southern Angola, 1840–1926 (Cambridge, 1979), 84; Fage John D., ‘Slaves and Society in Western Africa, c. 1445–c. 1700’, Journal of African History, xxi, iii (1980), 289310; Hartwig Gerald W., ‘Social Consequences of Epidemic Diseases’, in Hartwig Gerald W. and Patterson K. David, eds, Disease in African History: An Introductory Survey and Case Studies (Durham, N.C., 1978), 38, and passim; Northrup David, Trade Without Rulers (Oxford, 1976). 74–5; Sargent , ‘Generations of Turmoil and Stress’, 235; Spear Thomas T., The Kaya Complex: A History of the Mijikenda Peoples of the Kenya Coast to 1900 (Nairobi, 1978), 100; Tosh John, Clan Leaders and Colonial Chiefs in Lango (Oxford, 1978), 57, 269; and many others. For the general point, Dirks , ’Social Responses’, 30.

57 de Lacerda M. Pinheiro, ‘Notícia da cidade de Benguella, e dos costumes dos gentios habitantes daquella sertão’, Annaes marítimos e coloniaes, v (1845), 489.

58 On the nutritional trade-off see Vail and White , Capitalism and Colonialism, 219.

59 Miller, ‘Lineages, Ideology, and the History of Slavery’.

60 E.g. Kasanje: Miller Joseph C., ‘Slaves, Slavers, and Social Change in Nineteenth Century Kasanje’, in Heimer Franz-Wilhelm, ed., Social Change in Angola (Munich, 1973). 929.

61 Klein Herbert S., ‘The Portuguese Slave Trade from Angola in the Eighteenth Century’, Journal of Economic History, xxxii, iv (1974), 894918; Miller, ‘Legal Portuguese Slaving’.

62 Miller , ‘Legal Portuguese Slaving’, 156–60.

63 E.g. da Cunha letter, 6 March 1755 (AHU, Angola, ex. 27).

64 Cadornega , História geral, 1, 138–9.

65 Sousa Coutinho letter, 28 May 1766 (AHU, Angola, cx. 31).

66 Miller, Way of Death.

67 Cf. Fage John D., ‘The Effect of the Export Slave Trade on African Populations’, in Rathbone R. J. A. R. and Moss R. P., eds, The Population Factor in African Studies (London, 1975), 1523; Anstey Roger T., The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition (London, 1975), 81–2; Birmingham David, ‘Central Africa from Cameroun to the Zambezi’, in Oliver Roland, ed., The Cambridge History of Africa – Vol. 3, from c. 1050 to c. 1600 (Cambridge, 1977), 519–20, 522. But cf. growing recognition in other circles of ecological constraints on population: Thornton , ‘Kingdom of Kongo’, 6; Guy Jeff, The Destruction of the Zulu Kingdom (London, 1979), 4 ff.

68 Thornton, ‘Demography and History’, for the only historical calculation of population densities.

69 Cf. Spear , Kaya Complex, 112–13; Bryson Reid, Climatesof Hunger (Madison, 1977).

70 Thornton John K., ‘The Slave Trade in Eighteenth Century Angola: Effects on Demographic Structures’, Canadian Journal of African Studies, xiv, iii (1980), 417–27.

71 Bryson , Climates of Hunger, 3 ff.

72 E.g. van Leynseele Pierre, ‘Ecological Stability and Intensive Fish Production: The Case of the Libinza People of the Middle Ngiri (Zaire)’, in Burnham P. C. and Ellen R. F., eds., Social and Ecological Systems (A.S.A. Monograph 18) (London, 1979), 167–84.

1 I am grateful to the following for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper: Jill Dias, Beatrix Heintze, David Henige, Chet Lancaster, Sharon Nicholson and the members of the University of Virginia History Department Faculty–Student Seminar. W. Gervase Clarence-Smith very kindly allowed me to make use of his unpublished papers on climate history in southern Angola.

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