Accepted Paper:

A Mbundu Attempt to Create their Own Archives: Village Writings in Angola during 18-20th Centuries  


Eva Sebestyen (University of Porto)

Paper long abstract:

Between 1986 and 1988 the present author, the Hungarian anthropologist Eva Sebestyen, came upon collections of manuscripts in the possession of territorial and village chiefs close to Dembos and Samba Cajú, located in today’s Bengo and Kwanza Norte provinces in Angola.

The village chiefs used a generic term for their collections, calling them ‘cartórios’ (archives). In Dembos district each village has one cartório, but in Samba Cajú a distinction is made between ‘cartório do trono’ (village chief’s archive) and cartório de muiji (lineage archive), the latter referring to the manuscript collection of the first, conquering lineage. These two types of ‘archives’ were once preserved separately, but in the course of 20th century political turmoil, colonial and civil wars, many lineage archives were burnt and the rest absorbed within chiefly archives. Following the submission of original manuscripts, the Portuguese administration returned some, but not all, and mainly copies rather than originals. These returned documents were then not separated into chiefly and lineage archives.

The entire corpus of 234 writings is divided in three parts. Firstly there is the handwritten legacy of the two villages, Caculo Cangola and Quimbamba within Dembos district. Secondly it contains a collection of typed copies of historical documents from the 18th to 20th centuries made by the Portuguese colonial administration. Thirdly are the handwritten copies of their own historical writings from villages of Samba Cajú district. The written recording of land boundaries, legacies, debts and trade transactions emerged at much the same time as the statistical survey of the Portuguese administration during the second half of the 18th century. The vastly more numerous colonial documents written about Angola present the Portuguese point of view. The significance of the corpus presented here lies in the fact that it reflects the Mbundu view of their own world. The chiefs made their declarations in their own, Kimbundu language; these were then translated by local scribes into Portuguese, and written down. Therefore each of these documents represents a village chief’s views, needs and preoccupations at a given moment.

This paper accompanying the systematic thematic presentation of the documents, deals with the phenomenon of cultural interchange manifested within the corpus itself. The interaction that developed between the representatives of Portuguese and Mbundu administrations was characterised by the use of writing by illiterate communities, the double face of land ownership (collective, lineage-based, and, from the 18th century, individual) and the to and fro of cultural influences between the Mbundu power system and the colonial administration. Portuguese cultural influence reached the Mbundu aristocracy directly through these officers, who clearly saw the advantages of keeping records in writing, especially when these could be used to elicit support from the colonial administration. These writings manage to preserve the essential form and contents of oral tradition, while adopting formal structures borrowed from the Portuguese administration. In view of their mnemonic and legitimising character these collections can be considered embryonic archives.

Panel F3
Literacy, writing and education