The Journal of African History

Research Article

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

Joseph C. Millera1

a1 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.


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 W. Gervase Clarence-Smith very kindly allowed me to make use of his unpublished papers on climate history in southern Angola.