Islam, Agrarian Culture, and Politics in Early Modern Guinea-Bissau (c.1780-c.1890)

Thiago H. Mota

This research project debates the control and use of land in African societies in the period between c.1780 and 1890, across the region of present-day Guinea-Bissau. The chronology concerns the period between the creation of the Islamic village of Bijini and the European efforts for the effective occupation of West African territories, especially former Portuguese Guinea. The geographic focus in Guinea-Bissau is justified by the huge lack of studies on Islam in this country and the absence of a comprehensive narrative about local African land ownership regimes. The connection between these fields may reveal a deep engagement from local perspectives, long neglected by Western scholars interested in Agrarian studies in Africa and beyond.

The research problem is: how did the formation of Muslim States, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, impact agricultural production, the ways of land use, and the local African political cultures? It is based on the hypothesis that the attraction exercised by Koranic schools, given the appreciation of Islamic culture in opposition to the expansion of the Atlantic trade in enslaved people, made it possible to increase agricultural production associated with Islamic preachers, who conquered new lands previously attached to local spirits and thus applied their disciples’ workforce over the new open fields. Hence, this project aims to understand the relationships between Islamization and land access, land ownership, and control over agricultural productivity in a transitional timeframe: from the twilight of the Atlantic trade in enslaved people and the dawn of European colonialism in Africa.

The sources applied will be gathered in archives in Cape Verde, France, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and Portugal. The complementarity and concomitance of transformations in fields like economy, politics, society, and culture, in the conjuncture of the 18th and 19th centuries, will be considered from local and global perspectives. It is hoped that this research will bring new contributions to the historiography of land ownership in Africa, through the approach of a theme, region, and period little attended by scholars concerned with Guinea-Bissau.

Image: Temple des Talbes ou Marabouts in René Claude Geoffroy de Villeneuve – L’Afrique, ou histoire, moeurs, usages et coutumes des africains: le Sénégal (Paris, 1814).

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