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ILO Expertise and Colonial Violence in the Interwar Years

Front Cover of Universalizing Social Rights
Palgrave
Mar 2013

“ILO Expertise and Colonial Violence in the Interwar Years,” in Sandrine Kott and Joëlle Droux (eds.), Universalizing Social Rights: A History of the International Labour Organization and Beyond (London: Palgrave, 2013).

In 1925, the Temporary Slavery Commission of the League of Nations was in the midst of investigating how best to end global slavery when a troubling report was submitted for its consideration. Unlike most reports received by the commission that described the existence of slavery primarily in autonomous non-European countries such as China and Abyssinia, this one documented rampant abuses in Portuguese Angola and Mozambique, that is, in territories directly under European control. The report was submitted to the League by a group of distinguished philanthropists, and was written by Edward A. Ross, one of the most prominent American socio logists of his day. The report, based on thousands of interviews with residents in both colonies, described how Portuguese officials and white settlers regularly beat, raped and even killed Africans with impunity. At the core of this abuse, Ross argued, was a forced labour system in many ways worse than slavery.

In sixty pages of examples, Ross described cases of Africans being forced to work in desperate conditions for months and sometimes years without pay. No one was exempt, not the elderly, pregnant women or children as young as twelve. The consequences were predictable: unable to work their own land, those forced into labour suffered from chronic semi-starvation, mis carriages and disease. Social networks broke apart as individuals were sent far from home to work, sometimes never to return.