The importance of centralization: A comparison and analysis of the Balanta and Khoisan peoples of Africa

Written by Amanda Loch on . Posted in Writing

The African continent spans the globe, housing a large variety of climates and ecological zones, from deserts and savannas to jungles and forests.  Native people settling in any African eco-zone were forced to find ways to live off of the land’s resources to survive, and the tactics they employed to do so often had larger impacts on their lives and the lives of their ancestors.  Where they lived, what they ate, their political system and how (if at all) they traded helped groups like the Balanta and hindered the Khoisan when it came to survival and finding resilience as European settlers threatened their existence or imposed on their way of life.  The ability to adapt to change and environmental variation was pivotal to the survival of these cultures.

The Balanta people of the Upper Guinea-Bissau Coast survived primarily on rice, although there is evidence that they subsisted on yams and other vegetables before the 17th century.  Their shift to rice agriculture is a prime example of the importance of adaptability.  Faced with poor success trading common goods with the Europeans, the Balanta had to find another, more desired crop.  “In sum, the yams, cattle, salt and other coastal products…brought very low prices because they could be and were produced efficiently by countless other households.” 1 Rice was in higher demand, “[being actively sought] to feed ships crews and human captives.” 2  Still, the Balanta had little knowledge of rice agriculture at this time, with no real need to pursue a crop that was unnecessary to their survival and uncommon in their area.

Concurrently, the rising demand for slaves outside of Africa pitted decentralized nations near the coast against each other in a race to enslave and sell their fellow natives as captives to the Europeans.  They received iron as payment, which they then fashioned into weapons used to protect themselves from other raiders, and to continue to hunt for more prisoners.

The Balanta moved closer to the rivers to gain a strategic foothold and better defend themselves from these native raids, and there discovered difficulty harvesting the yams and other crops they were accustomed to.  They took to paddy rice as a new form of agriculture, because “…they had access to increasing amounts of iron, the coast was experiencing a general rise in violence and paddy rice provided superior yields.”3  Eventually it dominated their lifestyle: “…rice is the principal staple food, a store of wealth, a trade good in bartering arrangements, and a treasure offered to local gods.”4  But early on, the Balanta struggled to harvest rice in great volume with stone and wooden tools.  Initially lacking the high trade profits necessary to acquire iron, they resorted to slave raids.

Participating in this trade allowed them to exchange humans for iron, which not only aided in their rice production, but also increased their defense by permitting better weaponry.  Later, the Balanta also began to capitalize on the internal slave trade for more frivolous things; (“…cloth, rum, beads…”5) and began to ransom some prisoners: “enslavement lasted until relatives paid for the freedom of kin.  Cattle…were often demanded as payment.”6  Still, one can argue that if the Balanta had not started to hunt others, they themselves could have been wiped out by their neighbors in larger numbers and sold to slavery.

Even with the clever advantage of location, iron trade and a new, successful crop system, the Balanta still found themselves with a common flaw in their defense.  Like many in the area, the Balanta were stateless and leaderless.  They survived on a system of relative equality, with no king or chief.  According to Walter Hawthorne, “Politically, they were decentralized…everyone worked in the fields, with no ruling class or families managing to exclude themselves from daily labor.”7  Although this system appeared to work well for the Balanta society in general, decentralization in the Guinea-Bissau region played a large role in the internal slave raids.  “In other words, the lack of a coastalwide institutional framework made many of those residing in the region strangers who posed potential threats or who could be captured and traded to merchants for valuable imports.”8

Even as the slave trade disintegrated in the 19th century, the Balanta held strong.  They used their extensive knowledge of paddy rice agriculture to be able to rise above others as a top exporter.  Even without a centralized government or hierarchy, they organized construction efforts that aided in rice production: “…the Balanta cleared new lands, built new dikes, and harvested increasing amounts of rice…”9

The Balanta people constantly adapted to their environment to survive.  Their migration away from the coast for safety also resulted in profitable rice crops.  Their offensive and defensive forces during the internal slave raids helped them to prevent large population loss to slavery while allowing them to gain trading power necessary to acquire iron tools.  Although their lack of tribal hierarchy put them at a disadvantage, it did not severely hinder them, and might even be responsible for their longevity thus far without a wayward leader to cause internal conflict.  The Balanta utilized all the resources they had available to them, and conformed to any means necessary to survive and thrive.

Another decentralized African culture that faced and overcame obstacles were the Khoisan people of Northern Cape of Africa.  Essentially two groups; the KhoiKhoi pastoralists and the San hunter/gatherers, the Khoisan struggled against Dutch colonization and were ultimately forced into submission, and eventually, extinction.  The fight they posed, however, should not be disregarded because of this.

The KhoiKhoi herded cattle and other livestock.  According to Nigel Penn in his book The Forgotten Frontier, “The advantage pastoralism offers to its practitioners is that sheep and cattle usually reproduce themselves at a greater rate than humans…[a farmer can] derive meat, milk, and clothing from his animals…without decreasing the numbers in his breeding stock”10  In contrast, the San people hunted wild animals, or occasionally stole cattle from the KhoiKhoi or others in the area, and gathered what they could find in the way of vegetation.

Although their methods of survival were different, the KhoiKhoi and San often found themselves parallel to each other.  Living in the same area, both groups were subjected to the strange weather and varying ecological areas of the cape: “The boiling sand…the Cape Fold Mountains…the parched plains…ridges of the Roggeveld escarpment;…flower strewn deserts…empty Bushmanland…and the strong waters of the Orange River.”11

Adapting to these vastly different areas and understanding their weather patterns was a knowledge that pervaded the San and KhoiKhoi peoples: “San hunter-gatherers also relied on the seasonal exploitation of natural resources, and the game they hunted frequently followed the same seasonal movements as the flocks and herds for the pastoralists…”12  If flocks and herds had no water to drink from little rainfall,  the Khoikhoi would struggle.  Likewise, the San’s natural game would also dwindle off, and vegetation would be scarce.  Being able to move through these eco-zones was an important adjustment these groups had to make.

The Khoikhoi and the San co-existed without huge conflict before Dutch settlers (trekboers) began to move and settle inland, pushing them from their normal migratory routes.  Both peoples were decentralized like the Balanta, with no recognized leader and smaller village groups spread out over the area.  This made a united mobilization against the trekboers difficult and ultimately unsuccessful.

As Dutch colonists occupied more and more Khoisan land, the people tried to retaliate.  Many Khoisan retreated farther inland, but eventually found themselves at an impasse.  In order to survive, as mentioned previously, the Khoisan needed access to a fair amount of water for their herds and game.  “…only the retention of the escarpment could have preserved them.  The escarpment coincided, roughly, with the division between the summer and winter rainfall areas, so that it was possible…for the mobile to enjoy access to year-round grazing and water.”13

When the Dutch began to corner the Khoisan against the uninhabitable Hantam, Roggeveld and Nieuweveld mountains, the Khoisan increased their resistance attacks.  In response, the Commando system was organized, “ostensibly a military institution, designed for the defense of the trekboer society and for the destruction of its foes….”14

As much as the Khoisan and other native peoples were angered by the takeover of their land, the Dutch were there to stay.  They brought smallpox to the area, wiping out unknown amounts of natives.  They drained the land quickly, leaving neither the colonists or the Khoisan with essential resources, causing more conflict:  “…it is almost impossible to separate violence committed outside the boundaries of the colony from the violence which, increasingly, came to permeate relationships between colonists, ‘Bastaard-Hottentots’ and Khoisan within the colony.”15

Without much choice, many Khoikhoi people went to work for the trekboers, often doing what they had done before, herding animals (many of which they used to own) and keeping parts of the profits or livestock as payment.  Some Khoisan were not so lucky as to go to work for the Dutch, and were instead enslaved and shipped to other parts of Africa, or off of the continent altogether.

The San people did not submit as easily as the Khoikhoi.  Their continuing attempts to fight back were foiled by the Dutch, who finally pushed their settlement boundary over the Orange River, to the only inhabitable area the Khoisan had left.  The Khoikhoi, working for the Dutch, were of no help to the San, who continued to fight with everything they had.  Penn writes of the trekboer’s cunning; “San resistance had to be undermined by the infiltration of seemingly peaceful colonists into their territory…[then] the San were unable to prevent the destruction of their societies.”16  Fleeing into Bushmanland, the San were hunted down by the Dutch.  Those who survived “were forced to steal livestock to stay alive.  If caught they were either murdered by the local farmers or sent to Cape Town as convicts…there was no place left for them on earth.”17

Because they adapted and accepted the Dutch, the Khoikhoi were much luckier.  When the Dutch annexed the Orange River area, the Khoikhoi were included in legislation that turned the area into common grazing territory.  Still, the Khoikhoi faced unfair discrimination and persecution in the colonies.

The Khoisan have been virtually wiped out at this point in history.  Unlike the Balanta, who were able to work with the European colonists and use trade to ensure their survival, the Khoisan were unable to form a united front against the Dutch.  Together, perhaps a successful defense system could have been built, but the division of the two groups eventually led to their demise.  Arguably, the Khoikhoi’s ability to adapt allowed them to survive for longer and with less struggle, but both cultures cease to exist now, nonetheless.

The contrasting situations of these cultures can’t be ignored.  It is obvious that the Khoisan faced a much stronger offensive force than the Balanta did.  Still, the Balanta people’s ability to adapt allowed them to not only survive the threat of the internal slave trade, but eventually allowed them to grow and become a successful rice producer and a respected trading partner among the Europeans.  It is obvious from their example that adaptation was a complete necessity across Africa as European colonization and trade increased.  Those peoples who were unable to unite and understand this factor paid the ultimate price.


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Amanda Loch

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