sehepunkte 24 (2024), Nr. 5

Andreas Greiner: Human Porterage and Colonial State Formation in German East Africa, 1880s-1914

Historians of Empire explore colonial transport regimes and mobility networks not only within the history of global infrastructure and technology, but also to address a wide range of social questions, such as labour dynamics, non-European worker cultures, or the simultaneous transformation of physical and social landscapes. As Andrew Denning recently noted, "[t]ransport infrastructures shape the way individuals and societies interact with, and perceive, the world, while also transforming the world into abstract space." [1] The book by Andreas Greiner, Research Fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington D.C., is an outstanding example of how these perspectives can be further developed through a focus on mostly hidden non-European agency and local idiosyncrasies.

Greiner explores how porterage and caravan transport were used by German officials with the aim of establishing statehood in German East Africa (GEA) while shedding light on the enduring longevity of "vernacular" (meaning non-Western) (11) practices that empower transport workers with an unforeseen degree of agency. To capture the relationship between empire-building and the persisting impact of traditional mobility, the author delves into the so-called porter question, a topic that has captivated German imperialists in East Africa since the 1880s. Initially, the porter question revolved around how transport labour could serve German colonial ambitions of colonial state-building. As the transition into the twentieth century unfolded, the focus of the porter question was increasingly aimed at overcoming reliance on caravan transport, particularly in light of labour shortages in other sectors, notably the plantation industry. Greiner captures this dual reception of the caravan system in GEA as the "tensions of transport", or in other words, "the ambition to eliminate this purportedly 'archaic' transport mode, on the one hand, and the reality of depending on it, on the other." (9).

The author also connects recent research on African agency and local conditions in the creation of infrastructure that challenges prevailing notions that the transformation of GEA resulted primarily from the actions of an 'omnipotent' colonial state. Greiner's specific dual-pronged argument engages with these strands of literature on two fronts. Firstly, he asserts that colonial practices of long-distance transport in GEA were entwined with a pre-existing system. Rather than simply importing and applying European technologies, German colonialists built upon well-developed African ideas of mobility and adapted them in ways that kept the German Empire running. Secondly, Greiner posits that colonized actors (African, South Asian, Sansibari, and Omani) were not simply "passive victims of political and economic transformation" (12) but actively responded to, defined, and reshaped the German process of state formation with their own agency. On a conceptual level, Greiner therefore applies George Steinmetz's notion of the state as a social field to the East African context, which allows him to include a wide array of actors and negotiations into the network of colonial state-building.

In his introduction, Greiner addresses the significant reliance on human porterage in GEA. Despite the expansion of railways and road networks across the colonial world in the latter half of the nineteenth century, a melange of challenging climatic conditions, impassable terrain, and contagious animal diseases rendered any alternative form of long-distance mobility between the coast of present-day Tanzania and its interior regions unfeasible. Consequently, the Germans found themselves contending with an institutionalized, decades-old porter system characterized by specific local dynamics, which in turn gave rise to a multitude of tensions.

In the following six chapters, Greiner navigates these tensions in a mostly chronological order. Chapter 2 describes the dilemma faced by Europeans caught between their ambition to govern caravan movements under colonial rule and the inherent precolonial legacies of colonial mobility. Striking a balance between violent exploitation of the labour force and the need for the workers' health was a hallmark of this early history of state formation in GEA. While the Germans achieved notable success in harnessing porters for military campaigns, scientific expeditions, and the movement of goods, certain structures of precolonial porterage, such as the average load borne by each porter or specific worker cultures, persisted.

The following two chapters (chap. 3 and 4) are devoted to the practices and inner workings of the caravan economy. Going through a wide range of historical sources (the endnotes contain references to colonial office records, periodicals, correspondences, reports and export statistics, household budgets, diary entries, and - most importantly - ordinances and regulations), the author vividly portrays the transition from the precolonial to the colonial caravan industry. Greiner is particularly masterful in teasing out small-scale changes in colonial narratives and regulations. Porters, for instance, skilfully adapted established strategies into the colonial era while leveraging the colonial state and its institutions to their advantage. As demonstrated by court cases, porters were capable of accusing their European employers of contractual breaches (137-38). Furthermore, variations in legal terminology indicate policy changes before and after the Maji Maji War in 1905, and show the complexity in comprehensively regulating porterage as a type of colonial labour well into the 1910s. At the macro level, Greiner synthesizes these cases into overarching themes, such as the evolution of governance and the discernment that German colonial rule deliberately refrained from interfering with the everyday operations of caravans (quite in contrast to the plantation industry).

Inspired by Valeska Huber's analysis of the Suez Canal, Greiner focuses in Chapter 5 on how German officials sought to determine the pace, rhythm, and pathways of caravan mobility in GEA. He does so by paying equal attention to governmental mechanisms for regulating mobility, policymaking of movements to and from neighboring colonies, and state intervention due to health issues. Infrastructural transition is also at the core of Greiner's last chapter (chap. 6), albeit with a broader scope encompassing structural technological changes such as advancements in road and rail engineering. While spatial interventions by rail and road did not replace porterage, they instead complemented it and evolved in tandem to vernacular concepts. As a result, even into the 1910s, porterage was indispensable as a means for transporting goods to trade centres and local markets, rendering multiple mobilities a structuring feature in the transport network of GEA. In his epilogue, the author anticipates the onset of the First World War to show that unlike in Europe, the movement of combatants was predicated upon long-established patterns, which made porterage once again essential for the German Empire.

Greiner's approach to examining the fluid transition from precolonial to colonial order is compelling. His analytical lens on caravan mobility offers a portrayal of empire-building that aligns the history of German imperialism in Africa with numerous current historiographical debates. The exploration of transimperial entanglements, "non-European autonomy and agency" (12), and the intricate interplay between logistics and trade underscores the pivotal role of locality in shaping global phenomena such as European imperialism. Moreover, Greiner's engaging study stimulates further inquiry in subdisciplines like the history of technology and the environment. For instance, his assertion that "nature, a historical actor in its own right, was not easy to defeat" (189), prompts further questions. Recent scholarship on the infrastructural evolution of German South-West Africa yields similar insights on the close intertwining of nature and culture in matters of accessing the colonial hinterland. [2] It is the merit of Greiner's study that further questions of this nature can now benefit from a highly sophisticated examination of mobility structures in German East Africa.


[1] Andrew Denning: "Infrastructural Propaganda: The Visual Culture of Colonial Roads and the Domestication of Nature in Italian East Africa", in: Environmental History 24 (2019), 352-369: 365.

[2] Martin Kalb: Environing Empire. Nature, Infrastructure, and the Making of German Southwest Africa, New York / Oxford 2021.

Rezension über:

Andreas Greiner: Human Porterage and Colonial State Formation in German East Africa, 1880s-1914. Tensions of Transport (= Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies), Cham: Palgrave Macmillan 2022, XVIII + 271 S., eBook, 13 b/w ill., ISBN 978-3-030-89470-2, EUR 96,29

Rezension von:
Lars von Felten-Kury
Europainstitut der Universit├Ąt Basel
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Lars von Felten-Kury: Rezension von: Andreas Greiner: Human Porterage and Colonial State Formation in German East Africa, 1880s-1914. Tensions of Transport , Cham: Palgrave Macmillan 2022, in: sehepunkte 24 (2024), Nr. 5 [15.05.2024], URL:

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