Guthrie on Monteiro, 'Portugal e a questão do trabalho forçado: um império sob escrutínio (1944-1962)'

José Pedro Monteiro. Portugal e a questão do trabalho forçado: um império sob escrutínio (1944-1962). Lisbon: Edições 70, 2018. 404 pp. EUR 21.90 (paper), ISBN 978-972-44-2060-8.

Reviewed by Zachary Guthrie (University of Mississippi)
Published on H-Luso-Africa (August, 2019)
Commissioned by Philip J. Havik (Instituto de Higiene e Medicina Tropical (IHMT))

Printable Version:

The “labor issue,” particularly the use of forced labor, has long been central in the history of the Portuguese Empire. International exposés of Portuguese labor practices were crucial in shaping global perceptions of the Portuguese Empire as a particularly brutal perpetrator of labor coercion, and in turn helped shape an often unexamined historiographical assumption of the Portuguese Empire as a uniquely retrograde example of colonial rule, an anomalous outlier within the broader history of European colonialism. The assumed divergence between the Portuguese colonies and other African colonies has become particularly marked within histories of the late colonial era, since the processes of imperial reform following World War II that ultimately brought about decolonization were not mirrored in the Portuguese empire. As a result, the burgeoning historiography of late colonial Africa, which has charted the changing interactions between African colonies and European empires against the backdrop of shifting international norms and expanding international institutions, has largely excluded the history of the Portuguese colonies.

José Pedro Monteiro’s Portugal e a questão do trabalho forçado: Um império sob escrutínio (1944-1962) provides a valuable corrective to this historiographical lacuna. Challenging portrayals that implicitly or explicitly present the late colonial history of the Portuguese Empire as an uncomplicated story of static intransigence, Monteiro’s book demonstrates how early attempts at reforming Portuguese labor policy were fundamentally shaped through Portugal’s engagement with international ideas and international institutions, particularly focusing on interactions between the Portuguese government and the International Labour Organization (ILO). It presents a clearly articulated and richly detailed analysis of the changes to Portuguese labor policy as they were formulated and debated at the imperial level, as well as how these debates both reflected and propelled Portuguese interactions with the emerging postwar global order.

Following a lucid and concise foreword contributed by Miguel Bandeira Jerónimo, the first section of the book provides the background to Monteiro’s history. The first chapter discusses the rapid emergence of a global consensus against the use of forced labor after World War II, and the attempt by the Portuguese Empire to stand against this consensus; it also provides a wide-ranging overview of recent historical studies investigating the postwar connections between international institutions and European empires. The second chapter investigates the well-known history of forced labor in the Portuguese colony of São Tomé, in order to show the importance of new international norms against forced labor in shaping debates within the Portuguese Empire over labor policy in the late 1940s and early 1950s, even though these debates did not change either the official policy supporting forced labor or the actual practices through which forced labor was imposed upon colonial subjects.

The third and fourth chapters examine the interactions between the Portuguese imperial bureaucracy and international institutions. While Portugal was not a member of the United Nations until 1955 and had not signed the major ILO conventions regulating colonial labor practices, the emerging international order brought forth by these institutions nonetheless did a great deal to sculpt the contours of Portuguese imperial debates and policies concerning labor—what Monteiro calls the “internationalization” of labor policy within the Portuguese Empire. Monteiro is also careful to show the limited scope of these debates; while reformist officials envisioned alterations to the “native labor” regime that would curb or eliminate forced labor, they did not question the fundamental division between “natives” and citizens that underlay the pervasive use of coercive practices. The fourth chapter maintains the focus on delineating the boundaries of Portuguese imperial debates over the “labor question” in relation to Portugal’s accession to ILO Convention 29 and Convention 50, both of which sought to outlaw the use of forced labor. While signing these conventions represented a substantial challenge to existing Portuguese labor practices, imperial officials nonetheless sought to limit their possible impact, and foreclosed the possibility of undertaking the kind of fundamental and universalizing labor reform being pursued by French and British officials.

The fifth chapter studies Portugal’s decision to ratify the ILO Forced Labor Convention (Convention 29) in 1956, a decision largely attributable to the impact of international critiques of Portuguese labor practices, particularly from the British journalist Basil Davidson, as well as pressure from the ILO itself. It offers a detailed history of the process by which reformers within the Portuguese imperial bureaucracy succeeded in shifting Portuguese labor policy against extensive internal opposition to reform, including from Salazar himself. Chapter 6 shows how the influence of the ILO over Portuguese policy was, in part, a reflection of Portuguese officials’ attempts to use the ILO as a means of legitimizing the empire, reflecting their perception of the ILO as a more amenable forum for international engagement than the United Nations, which they viewed as implacably hostile to Portuguese imperial interests. Chapter 7 returns to examine the influence of international organizations on Portuguese labor policy, showing how the burgeoning Portuguese rhetoric of the empire as a unified political space was employed in justifying continued Portuguese rule before the ILO and the UN. It also discusses how this rhetoric started to bring changes to Portuguese imperial policy—although only in limited ways, as Monteiro uses two engaging case studies from Angola and Mozambique to show that even reformist administrators in the colonies remained deeply wedded to long-standing paternalist conceptions of African workers that underlay the indigenato, the “native legal code” which provided Portuguese administrators with vast powers (including that of labor coercion) over African subjects. As a result, the methods of labor “recruitment” employed in the colonies remained largely unchanged, even as the official discourse of Portuguese unity grew more pronounced.

The final two chapters present a detailed examination of the Ghanaian government’s complaint against Portugal to the ILO for violating the forced labor conventions. Chapter 8 explains why the Portuguese government agreed to allow an ILO investigation into matters that it regarded as its domestic responsibility, demonstrating Portugal’s ever-deeper involvement with international institutions, as well as the changing international context brought about by the onset of decolonization in Africa. Chapter 9 dismantles the argument, made in various memoirs authored by Portuguese imperial officials, that the ILO’s ultimate rejection of Ghana’s complaint presented an unmitigated diplomatic triumph for Portugal, by highlighting the fact that Portugal’s involvement with the ILO and its exposure to Ghana’s accusations had consistently put the Portuguese Empire on the defensive and exposed its growing international isolation, and subsequently forced significant changes to Portuguese colonial policy through processes that were not entirely under Portuguese control.

The book is very thoroughly researched, drawing upon extensive use of archival materials from Portuguese archives, correspondence between the Portuguese government and the ILO, and contemporaneous published writings from key political figures within the regime. This archival diversity allows Monteiro to evince a compelling analysis of the increasing engagement between the Portuguese government and the ILO from multiple points of view, offering a more holistic and more detailed understanding of the process by which Portugal’s labor policies became an international concern. Monteiro deftly maneuvers the book between these different viewpoints, and the different registers through which Portuguese labor policy was debated; the multiplicity of actors involved might have made it difficult to trace these debates within a single analytical framework, but Monteiro’s well-organized approach, and lucid prose, make the argument clear and convincing.

Part of the book’s success in pursuing its argument derives from its tight, sustained focus on a particular set of actors, mostly diplomats and high-ranking officials, so as to more clearly chart their discussions and debates. As a result, the book foregoes an extensive discussion of labor practices in the colonies, which are primarily included to illustrate specific debates within the Portuguese imperial bureaucracy rather than to demonstrate how the processes of “internationalization” reshaped practices on the ground. Indeed, it is mildly surprising that officials who were debating reforms to Portuguese labor policies vis-à-vis the ILO appeared to take little interest in how these reforms would affect colonial realities—or, for that matter, whether the possible policy changes under consideration would even be implemented at all by lower-level administrators who were, throughout the 1940s and 1950s, brazenly ignoring existing laws restricting compulsory labor. The question of how imperial reforms were perceived by local administrators and colonial subjects, and the related question of what changes these reforms actually effected, remain (as Monteiro notes) to be answered by future research. A similar question that remains to be answered is how the “internationalization” of Portuguese imperial policy coexisted with the concomitant “regionalization” of Portuguese colonial rule. Examining Portugal’s increasing proximity to Rhodesia and South Africa, and how this proximity intersected with its approach toward the UN, ILO, and other international organizations, could provide an important complement to Monteiro’s work.

Scholars researching the final stages of Portuguese imperial history will find Monteiro’s book to be a useful addition to the existing historiography. In demonstrating the importance of previously overlooked Portuguese engagement with international institutions and charting the resulting reforms to official labor policy, Monteiro has advanced a compelling argument and provided an important contribution to the history of the Portuguese Empire—and, by extension, the history of late colonial Africa from which it has so often been excluded.

Citation: Zachary Guthrie. Review of Monteiro, José Pedro, Portugal e a questão do trabalho forçado: um império sob escrutínio (1944-1962). H-Luso-Africa, H-Net Reviews. August, 2019.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.