International Review of Social History

Research Article

Clandestine Recruitment Networks in the Bight of Biafra: Fernando Pó's Answer to the Labour Question, 1926–1945  *

Enrique Martino

Institute of Asian and African Studies, Humboldt University Berlin E-mail:


The “Labour Question”, a well-known obsession pervading the archives of Africa, was posed by colonial rulers as a calculated question of scarcity and coercion. On the Spanish plantation island of Fernando Pó the shortage and coercive recruitment of labour was particularly intense. This article examines two distinct clandestine labour recruitment operations that took hold of Rio Muni and eastern Nigeria, on the east and the north of the Bight of Biafra. The trails of the recruitment networks were successfully constructed by the specifically aligned “mediators” of kinship, ethnicity, money, law, commodities, and administration. The conceptual focus on flat “mediators” follows Bruno Latour's sociology of associations and has been set against the concept of an “intermediary” that serves to join and uphold the structure/agency and global/local binaries.

(Online publication August 29 2012)


*  This research has benefited from the financial support of ERC Starting Grant no. 240898 under Framework Programme 7 of the European Commission, which funds the Research Group “Forced Labour Africa: An Afro-European Heritage in Sub-Saharan Africa (1930–1975)”. I am most grateful for the generous suggestions and corrections of Alexander Keese, Andreas Eckert, Sabine Scheuring, Ineke Phaf-Rheinberger, and Joel Glasman, and of course to the editors of the present Special Issue. Most of the sources referenced are from one Spanish archive, for which the following abbreviations have been used: AGA = Archivo General de la Administración, Alcalá de Henares, Spain, IDD 15, Fondo África; C = Caja; E = Expediente; DGMC = Dirección General de Marruecos y Colonias (Colonial Office, Madrid); GG = Gobernador General de Guinea (Governor, Santa Isabel); GG Bata = Subgobernador General de la Guinea Continental (Lieutenant Governor, Bata); Curaduria = Curaduría Colonial (Labour Office, Santa Isabel); Cámara = Cámara Agrícola de Fernando Póo (Agricultural Chambers of Commerce, Santa Isabel).