Monday, May 14, 2018

Who Digs the Ditches

Annamaria on Monday

Whenever colonizing Europeans moved into new territory, they needed to figure out what to do with the people who already lived there.

In North America, through battles, geographical displacement, bringing in new diseases, and other forms of oppression—intentional or accidental, they nearly wiped out the indigenous people.  Once they took over the territory, the Europeans—largely the British, but also the French and Spanish—brought in African slaves to do physical labor.  Colonizers, by definition, are not physical laborers.

In South America, the Spanish and Portuguese did some of the same things, but whenever large cadres of workers were wanted, they also enslaved the local people, especially—outside of Brazil—for mining and agricultural work, both huge sources of wealth, which was exported home to the Iberian Peninsula.

I am not sure how this issue was handled in India, but I hope our resident expert, Sujata will weigh in on this subject.

In British East Africa, things were different.  Colonization there began after the Brits had battled slavery worldwide for decades and were bragging about it.  They couldn’t very well secure a labor force by enslaving the local population.  But then who was going to dig the ditches and do the washing up?  They needed the tribal people to work for them.  But not by forced labor. Voluntarily.  For wages, of course.


It all depends on your definitions of “forced” and “voluntarily.”

Once European settlers began to move into BEA, the British administrators had to find local people willing to work for wages. Trouble was, the tribal people in that area of Africa had a generally comfortable life style without money. They had always lived simply in a place where food and shelter were quite easy to acquire.  Their attitudes: Money?  What’s that and why would I want it?

Women working
Men, not working

An added difficulty was that the local cultures generally dictated that men did not work at all, except for herding cows and fighting off bands of cattle rustlers from rival tribes.  Everything else—building houses, growing food, carrying water and firewood, these were women’s work and beneath the dignity of men.  Oh, oh. 

The British devised clever ways to get the tribal people to work on farms and public works projects.

First came an interesting rule.  The colonizers took over all the land, which had formerly belonged to nobody but was used by whoever occupied it.  The interlopers divided it up into parcels and sold it cheap to any European who would spend 400 pounds turning it to productive use—farms mostly. Then, the administration ruled that, for the privilege of remaining where they were,  ‘natives’ living on the property had to work for the new owner six months out of the year.

This provided labor for quite a number of farms, but not all that was needed, and not for public works.  Encouragement to take ‘gainful’ employment was still needed.

The next scheme was ingenious.  The government imposed a hut tax on a population that had no money.   If you lived in a hut—no matter where it was and no matter how long you had lived in it—you now had to pay a tax to stay there. To get the money to pay the tax you had to work for it.  The fringe benefit for the government was an inflow of cash to the British.  Anyone who lived in a hut (read “everybody”) now needed a job.  Whatever else we may think of him, the person who invented this was a genius, don’t you think?

The third way was to fall back upon a sure-fire scheme—taxing the production of alcoholic beverages.  It worked beautifully in England.  Why not here?

The Kikuyu were the tribe the settlers had most to do with.  The Europeans said this tribe had “a talent for domestic service.”   Their fathers and their grandfathers going back at least a millennium had been brewing their favorite cocktail—muratina.   They used the drink as part of their celebrations—births, initiations, weddings.  They fermented it from the fruit of the sausage tree, which grows wild and is plentiful. How nice!

But not anymore.

Until now raw materials for the booze had been free, and the hooch was made by the people who consumed it.  Now, every gourd or cow horn full would bring workers to the labor force, because—guess what?  In order to get the money to pay for the license, the muratina makers now have to charge money for the product.   The buyers needed to work for the money to pay for their party libation.  License fees (and fines collected from bootleggers) went—where else?—into the government’s swelling coffers.  Swell ain’t it?

É voilà, ladies and gentlemen.  A people who formerly lived free have now been brought into that peculiar form of slavery known as The Economy!



  1. Great piece. Fascinating information. Thanks for sharing. I never thought about how this transpired. I'm sure a million traditions were lost in the process, never to return.

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Susan. I am sure you are right about the lost traditions. Some of them were, I am sure beautiful and their loss mournful. Others, though, have persisted, and at least from my Twenty-First Century perspective, need to be lost forever. I speak of the subjugation of women. The folks with the cushy lives during the old days were--almost always--the men of the tribes. Their cultures made slaves of the women. In many ways this is still going on among the pastoral tribes, at least in Kenya and Tanzania that I know about.

      Your comment inspires me to work on another piece about just this. Stay tuned and another big thanks for this inspiration.

  2. I read your post while sitting at the edge of the river in Bristol at the heart of where slave ships brought new "merchandise" from Africa for "processing" before shipping them off to the New World. Chilling.