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Harvard Radcliffe Fellow Discusses Theory of ‘Abolition Forgery’ in Webinar

The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study hosted a webinar with fellow Ndubueze L. Mbah, an associate professor of history and global gender studies at the University of Buffalo.
The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study hosted a webinar with fellow Ndubueze L. Mbah, an associate professor of history and global gender studies at the University of Buffalo. By Soumyaa Mazumder
By Nicole Y. Lu and Emily R. Willrich, Contributing Writers

Radcliffe fellow Ndubueze L. Mbah, an associate professor of history and global gender studies at the University at Buffalo, discussed the theory and implications of “abolition forgery” in a seminar hosted by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Wednesday.

In the lecture, Mbah — a West African Atlantic historian — defined his core concept of “abolition forgery” as a combination of two interwoven processes. He first discussed the usage of abolition forgery as “the use of free labor discourse to disguise forced labor” in European imperialism in Africa throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Later in the lecture, Mbah provided a counterpoint to this definition of abolition forgery, using the term to describe the ways Africans trapped in a system of forced labor faked documents to promote their mobility across the continent.

According to Mbah, his concept of abolition forgery represents a novel historical approach.

“Because historians have situated forced labor, typically, within narratives of imperialism, really a meta narrative of imperialism, they have not paid attention to abolition forgeries, the ideologies that underpin the whole thing,” Mbah said.

Mbah began the webinar by discussing the story of Jampawo, an African British subject who petitioned the British colonial governor in 1900. In his appeal, Jampawo cited the physical punishment he and nine African men endured when they refused to sign a Spanish labor contract that differed significantly from the English language contract they signed at recruitment and constituted terms they deemed to be akin to slavery.

Because of the men’s consent in the initial English language contract, however, the governor determined that “they were not victims of forced labor, but willful beneficiaries of free labor,” Mbah said.

Mbah transitioned from this anecdote describing an instance of coerced contract labor to a discussion of different modes of resistance employed by Africans who experienced similar conditions under British imperialism.

“Africans like Jampawo resisted by voting with their feet, walking away or running away, or by calling out abolition as a hoax,” Mbah said.

Mbah introduced the concept of African hypermobility, through which “coerced migrants challenged the capacity of colonial borders and contracts to keep them within sites of exploitation,” he said.

In contextualizing the need for these exploitative labor contracts, Mbah explained that European imperial officials’ perceptions of African laborers as “too uncivilized for free labor” contributed to the presumed need for what was intended to be transitional forced labor.

Mbah also discussed how the stipulations of forced labor contracts imposed constricting gender hierarchies within these societies. Mbah described how the select granting of freedom papers to men mandated that women and children “belong to a man to then benefit from the protection.”

“It enabled men to claim rights to the labor of women and children,” Mbah said.

According to Mbah, women had to be registered as wives to migrant men in order to leave the country.

Mbah said his current project explores retaliations to these restrictions, namely “the forgery of wifehood and the forgery of motherhood as countersurveillance strategies that women were using to respond to this vitriol.”

To conclude, Mbah gestured toward how the system of forced labor persists in Africa today, yet it “continues to be masked by neoliberal discourses of democracy and of development.”

“For example, African children are forced into labor to produce materials used by Tesla, Apple, Google, Microsoft,” Mbah said. “The so-called greening of Africa, or production of materials for electric energy or clean energy, continues to rely on forced labor that remains invisible.”

Mbah’s talk is a part of Radcliffe’s series of fellows’ presentations. Next Wednesday, Radcliffe Fellow Omer Aziz will present a talk called “Facism in America.”

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