Book talk: Population Politics in the Tropics. Demography, Health and Transimperialism in Colonial Angola (Cambridge: CUP, 2022)
‘Population Change in Africa: Interdisciplinary Conversations’, a webinar series organised by the African Population History Network (APHiN) and hosted by the LSHTM Population Studies Group and the LSHTM Centre for History in Public Health
This webinar series is organised by the APHiN in bringing together demographers, historians, anthropologists and archaeologists to discuss and discover critical and historical perspectives on population change in Africa.
From the 1890s, a devastating epidemic of sleeping sickness in Angola and shifting views on the population triggered mounting anxieties of depopulation among colonial officials. Population Politics in the Tropics traces this depopulation discourse through the first half of the twentieth century, showing how it was constantly reiterated by alarming reports about other deadly diseases, low fertility, high infant mortality, endemic labour scarcity and rampant emigration. Only after the Second World War did it gradually fade away, yet, just like many other colonies and/or states in Central Africa, Angola did not become part of the discourse of overpopulation that was increasingly gripping the emerging ‘developing world’.
Situated at the crossroads of the history of demography, medicine and colonial rule in Africa, this book weaves together various lines of research. First, it explores the ambiguous role of demographic knowledge in the making and unmaking of the depopulation discourse. It argues that assessments about the size and evolution of the African population in Angola were partly based on demographic data that were incomplete, flawed and often also contested, but that colonial actors did not hesitate to instrumentalise for their purposes. Second, the book shows that colonial actors tried to influence demographic outcomes, but that the implementation of their policies was often hampered by weak state structures and resisted by multiple forms of African agency. Going beyond the ‘medical focus’ in many colonial population histories, the book not only attends to the emergence and vicissitudes of colonial healthcare programmes aimed at tackling epidemic and endemic diseases and improving maternal and infant healthcare. It also showcases the importance of colonial attempts to curb cross-border emigration. Third, the book also examines the transimperial dimensions of Portuguese population policies. Revealing the manifold and often unexpected exchanges, connections and parallel developments with the policies of other colonial powers, Population Politics makes a broader argument against reductionist views of Portuguese colonial exceptionalism still common in historiography.
Samuël Coghe is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Global History Department of the Free University of Berlin. After studying the abolition of the Transatlantic slave trade, his work has explored the history of Portuguese colonialism in Africa, with a particular focus on the history of medicine, demography and anthropology in Angola. He is currently writing a second book that deals with the transformation of cattle economies and veterinary knowledge regimes in colonial Africa.
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