Enrique Martino – Imperial Constructions of Hard Labour: Vagrancy, Prisons and Public Works in Twentieth Century Fernando Po


Event Dates: 13 – 16 September 2015
College Court Conference Centre
Knighton Road,
Leicester LE2 3UF

The Carceral Archipelago: Transnational Circulations in Global Perspective, 1415-1960

Enrique Martino (Humboldt University) – Imperial Constructions of Hard Labour: Vagrancy, Prisons and Public Works in Twentieth Century Fernando Po

In the course of its formation, the Spanish empire set its sight on impressing to hard labour not those seen as inactive or ‘lazy,’ but those deemed too mobile: the Roma, the runaway slaves, the impoverished pilgrims, the conscripted and untrained military recruits who quickly deserted, the semi-nomadic colonized peoples of the world, those abandoning the plantations en masse, and those circulating in the urban underground. The last remnant of the Spanish Empire, a plantation island in the Gulf of Guinea, started its sordid life as a convict colony for Spanish Anarchists in the 1850s. The island was soon turned into a patchwork of cacao plantations, initially worked on by Cuban political prisoners and eventually by indentured contract labourers from all over West Africa.

In the 20th century, many Nigerian contract labourers leveraged the perpetual labour scarcity by deserting from plantations only to rehire themselves elsewhere on the island to receive underhand wage bonus. Thousands were imprisoned every year for sentences of one to twelve months. To many Nigerian labourers, journalists and activists there was little difference between the two-year contract and the image of an enslaved prisoner.

The punishing of the lively population of deserters and ‘vagrants’ in Fernando Po is related to a constant feature of the formation of the Spanish empire—the turning of rocks into gravel for public works. I follow up on the set of visions, repertoires and precedents that the Spanish colonial state engendered and brought with it to Guinea—consciously summoning and practically implementing the grandeur of the quarries of the Roman Empire, the managerialism of seventeenth century Flemish work-houses, the monstrous load-bearing workloads required for the rowing of galleys or the construction of forts by convicts in Havana and the militarised prison-plantation complex in post-emancipation Cuba.


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