Accepted paper:

On the Road. Life, Networks, and Diasporas of Caravan Porters in Nineteenth Century East Africa


Andreas Greiner (ETH Zurich)

Paper short abstract:

Using the example of caravan porters, this paper examines the role ‘ordinary’ actors played for the organization of the East African long-distance trade. As the analysis of payrolls from the 1870s reveals they recruited one another among their friends. This led to hidden networks on the road and in cities.

Paper long abstract:

In the second half of the 19th century, East Africa was covered by a dense network of caravan tracks. Domestic trade caravans brought ivory to the Indian Ocean while at the same time European expeditions penetrated the hinterland. The burden of all these ventures rested on the shoulders of human porters. A professional labor force developed around 1850. Tens of thousands of professional porters were soon to be found in caravans all over East Africa. This paper seeks to explore the organization of porterage in the East African long-distance trade. At first, it distinguishes between the different forms of recruitment at the coast and in the interior and the varying motivations porters from different regions had. However, as the paper will highlight, beyond these rather formal recruiting methods existed hidden networks among the porters. The paper examines payrolls from expeditions in the 1870s. They show that porters recruited one another autonomously, based on the same regional background or shared travel experiences. These recruitment patterns led to ties and networks on the road: acquainted porters formed small kitchen units and shared their food. In cities they lived together in communities and helped each other. The paper emphasizes the role, 'ordinary' actors such as the porters played for the organization of the East African long-distance trade. Apart from recruiting offices, porters called their friends to join the caravans. These preexisting networks and working bonds shaped the everyday life on the road and affected the life in port cities and caravan hubs.

panel P142
Migration and "in-between" Logistics: Recruiters, Agencies, Brokers and Transport Workers