Joe Trapido: Epochs and continents: Potlatch, articulation, and violence in the Congo

This post is part of the Modes of Production feature moderated and edited by Patrick Neveling and Joe Trapido.

From the sixteenth century onward, European trading networks grew ever more extensive. In some places, they displaced or directly subjugated the indigenous population early on. In others, merchants entered trading relationships with locals. In some parts of Asia, these traders interacted with forms of social organization that had affinities with Europe—dense populations with large merchant classes, and states that extracted tribute over large areas (Wolf 1997: 73–101). In other places, power and resources were distributed according to very different rules: in particular, wealth was more directly related to the person. This is not to say that these places lacked markets or currency;  they often held large markets and had an amazing diversity of objects for mediating transactions, but these objects are better seen as an element of, or adjunct to, the value of the person. I am calling such societies human modes of production.1

Most European merchants were often seeking to acquire various raw materials from the interior of other continents—furs, slaves, ivory, spices, or precious metals. But what did their trading partners want? Sometimes they traded their wares for things like shells or bits of metal that had worked as currency before the new traders arrived. In these cases, European merchants were sometimes able to use their wider reach to source these items more cheaply, as in the importation of shell valuables into West Africa. At other times, the Europeans, or their diseases, had wiped out the coastal peoples who had supplied the valuables before—as in the case of wampum (shell beads) in America.2 Other goods carried by Europeans in trading with human modes of production seem more diverse, though certain themes do recur—firearms, distilled alcohol, textiles, forms of glass and ceramics. Invariably, these European goods displaced or demoted items of local manufacture as objects of prestige and in systems of social currency. Why this should have been the case is beyond the range of this study, but metaphysical aspects were in play, and imported goods were often associated with legitimating supernatural powers (Bernault 2006; MacGaffey 2000). At the same time, the imports were generally manufactured goods from places capable of a quality and scale of production that the local economy could not match.

The introduction of these goods did not alter the fundamental dynamic of these systems; rather, it added momentum to the existing, internal set of relations, which were invariably linked to acquiring rights over people via control of social reproduction. The transatlantic slave trade was but one example of this dynamic. Another is wild rubber harvesting, which occurred in the interregnum between the invention of vulcanized rubber in the late 1840s and the maturation of rubber tree plantations in Malaya and elsewhere in the twentieth century. All of these trades were related externally to an “extended primitive accumulation” for capitalist economies (Blackburn 1997: 509–573), but internally were connected to forms of ritual escalation that I term “potlatch.” I suggest that the two tendencies are different sides of the same world-historical process.

Rubber extraction in central Africa, and the extreme forms of attendant violence it caused, reached their apogee under the Belgians but were well under long before their arrival. Beginning in the gallery forests of northern Angola, the trade pushed up into the Congo Basin, drawing on the same classes of intermediaries who were involved in trades for slaves and ivory. The disruption, increased interconnectivity, and violence of these trades led to huge increases in disease and related forms of sterility, and to very significant falls in the population, persisting well into the twentieth century (Harms 1975; Hochschild 1998, 2005, 2006; Vellut 2004; Vos 2003; White 2011). The difficulty of supplying the exponential growth in capitalist demand from a forest product meant that the trade involved ever more violent pressure on noncapitalist peoples to fill in the gaps, while a fully capitalist system based on plantation arboriculture established itself. This was not a system that allowed for any sustained accumulation of power or wealth within Central Africa.

All of this contradicts our own folk wisdom about trade—Adam Smith’s belief that “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another” ([1776] 1904: 7) leads to a greater and more productive division of labor is still an axiom of modern economics. Could it be, then, that war undermined central Africa in the modern era? Not in any simple way—an increase in war also accompanied increased economic activity in Europe, and indeed European wars of the period were far more destructive of life and property. Rather, it is in the way that political entities financed conflict and authority more generally where differences can be observed that seem to disadvantage human modes of production.

In eighteenth-century Europe, war was a laboratory of the state, where central devices of modern administrative power, like the national debt, were developed (Ferguson 2002; Tilly 1985). In Africa and the Americas, the resources underwriting authority were sought via extraversion and were paid for in ways that undermined the productive powers; such resources included the guns that became increasingly important in war, and also took the form of legitimating ritual, which involved display and dispersal of imported prestige goods. Such problems of authority predated but were also exacerbated by the interaction with Europe. People were clearly the preeminent factor of production in these low-tech, agrarian societies. Populations that were (probably) much sparser than in western Europe to begin with (see Austin 2008) and already severely affected by disease and low fertility caused by European encroachment were also sold on to raise capital, while the other trade goods that capitalism demanded of human modes of production were reliant on the harvesting of natural systems until their collapse.

As we can see, this account does not espouse the view, proposed by the cruder forms of dependency theory, that Africans were cheated of their birthright in exchange for valueless trinkets. At some points in the past four hundred years, above all during the eighteenth century, Africans were able to obtain quite high prices for their commodities (Eltis and Jennings 1998)—one of the reasons slaves had to be worked so hard in the New World was the high price that European merchants had paid their African interlocutors for them. Indeed such high prices are a part of our story. Prices paid for African commodities took the form of huge importations of European manufactured goods. The vast importations of goods into Africa3 produced a singular set of effects that are still felt in the forms of political subjectivity found in Africa. Thus while prestige and “wealth in people” were retained as the fundamental principles of the human mode of production, the price of social status became ever more extreme.

The potlatch
In his account of archaic exchange, Mauss used a ritual common to the Indians of the northwest coast of America, known as the “potlatch,” to represent what he believed to be an entire category of archaic exchange. Many people have come to believe that the term relates to the destruction of property, or “fighting with property.” But Mauss and other sources make it clear that destruction was just one, rather unusual, possibility. Accounts that draw directly on empirical work in the northwest American region acknowledge a competitive and destructive dimension but lay more stress on the potlatch as a form of ceremonial distribution (Boas 1916; Roth 2002) through which individuals could accede to names that also gave ritual/political office within clans.4

Mauss, like most of the anthropologists of his day, saw this in evolutionary terms. To study the potlatch was to take a glimpse into our own deep past, the first stirrings of the impulse that would lead to the modern contract (Parry 1986). But more recent works imply that the potlatch, at least in the form described by Western travelers and anthropologists, cannot be looked at in isolation from the dynamics of European expansion (Wolf 1997: 191–194). While the concepts of prestige and “wealth in people” of course predated contact with Europeans, it seems likely that the fervid pitch and theatrical intensity of potlatching was driven by the dynamics of the trade interface. Many of the items of wealth distributed or destroyed during the potlatch—blankets, strips of copper taken from the side of ships, and so on—were European trade goods, obtained in return for furs (Donald 1997: 32). Several scholars (see Donald 1997: 232, 280; Roth 2002) suggest that for most of its history, the distribution/disposal element of the ritual was about validating or completing access to a quasi-hereditary title. The majority of the population had been commoners or slaves who could not aspire to titles (Donald 1997: 275–95). But epidemics of European diseases meant a great many ritual offices were unoccupied and that a much wider pool of nouveau aspirants tried to fill these through potlatch (Ringel 1979; Wolf 1997).

As we have seen, there is a striking similarity between this and what was happening in central Africa, where both war and wild, expensive rituals seem to proliferate, and there are striking similarities to be discerned everywhere the human mode of production came into contact with the capitalist one (see Graeber 2011: 162–164; Thomas 1991). Like Mauss, I borrow the Kwakiutl word “potlatch” to designate a wider category of exchanges, seen in various societies that found themselves in a similar position. Unlike Mauss, I see the potlatch not as an archaic remnant but rather as a distinctive creation brought about by the volume of trade between noncapitalist societies and an expanding Europe. Contrary to a very widespread line of argument (most famously made by Veblen [1899] 2001), the potlatch neither indicates nor derives from an increase in material surpluses; indeed, it is probably related to a dynamic of stagnant or falling productivity.

As in the societies of northwest America, social control in precolonial central Africa was embedded in a wide nexus of jural, therapeutic, and funerary ritual, all of which involved exchanges of rights in persons for prestige goods. In this context, the blessings (and curses, which are often formally identical) of the elders took on an existential significance for all social juniors5—slaves, women, and cadets. Without the active protection of several elders, four “chiefs” in the case of the lower Congo (MacGaffey 1986: 32), who could intercede with and provide the resources to pay fines incurred by near inevitable ritual infringements, such as stepping on the shadow of the chief’s concubine (36), the vulnerable could easily find themselves reduced to slavery. Meanwhile, title holding “made possible a continuous income” and “organised a flow of wealth upward from poor to rich” (ibid.). It is worth underlining once more the similarity between this form of social organization and that found among the true “potlatch” societies of the northwestern coast of America, as this description of enslavement in the latter makes clear:

The miscellany of causes for enslavement within one’s local group suggests that the very poor might easily find themselves in a position where they could not meet some imposed financial obligation and, lacking the protection of powerful kin (probably the definition of very poor in this culture area) were then subject to enslavement. (Donald 1997: 120)

In these societies, the material conditions of slaves were probably not that different from other people. They were used to fill labor bottlenecks and were assigned arduous tasks, but such was the fate of all social juniors, and, in a situation where land was extensive and escape was always a possibility, there were limits on physical exploitation. The most extreme form of inequality that they suffered within this ritual nexus was their precariousness—the possibility of being sold on, or of being sacrificed.

Historical shell money used in Central Africa, from Index testarum conchyliorum (1742) by Nicolai Gualtieri (PD-1923)

Historical shell money used in Central Africa, from Index testarum conchyliorum (1742) by Nicolai Gualtieri (PD-1923)

As in the societies of northwestern America, funerals were probably the dominant ritual with notions of succession and the assertion of the temporal and supernatural powers of the deceased’s lineage being important in both places. As accounts make clear, the funerals of notables required vast expenditure—grave goods including Toby jugs and china dogs from Stoke on Trent, vast quantities of food and palm wine served to guests and poured out in libations, explosions of gunpowder, and slaves who would be strangled or simply thrown live into the grave6 (Dupré 1985: 184–201; Laman 1957: 85–90). Most strikingly, the corpse itself would be wound in imported red cloth—cloth that was used as a form of money—until the bundle was enhanced to massive proportions, such that the wall of the house needed to be knocked down to remove the body. The relatives of the deceased would dance with this great burden to the grave.

I have suggested that the kinds of potlatch dynamic that took place in central Africa also formed a kind of extended primitive accumulation for other parts of the world. But it is worth noting that the argument is not that this formed a capitalist plot, or that capitalism as a functional entity simply imposed “its” will on other societies. Rather, the dynamic of ritual escalation and productive and social collapse is best viewed as created in the interface between the human modes of production and capitalism. My argument, which follows Rey’s (1971) oft-misunderstood point about “articulating modes of production,” is that the interface was a product of the weakness of early capitalism, which for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth century was unable to do anything other than make alliances with local forms of power in central Africa. Belgian colonialism, when it arrived in the Congo, pushed precolonial violence to a new crescendo, invariably drawing on the same classes of intermediaries that had been used by earlier Arab and European traders. But the economy of pillage that characterizes the early colonial economy, differed from precolonial violence in some important respects. It was not simply pillage but also initiated a period of state-led primitive accumulation, with the resources garnered in the economy of pillage providing the seed capital for a later period of industrial/paternalist development, based on capitalist relations of production, in the Congo itself. Forced labor was still important,7 especially in the rural sector, but there was an important shift from despotic to “mature” (i.e., capital-intensive) forms of exploitation.

Joseph Trapido teaches anthropology at Birkbeck College. He received a PhD in Social Anthropology at University College London and undertook a two-year fellowship at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. He was British Academy postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. His research is about the Democratic Republic of Congo.


1. My terminology draws on Pierre Philippe Rey (1971) and David Graeber (2011: 127–165).

2. In fact, while some form of shell valuable had existed before, “true wampum is a cross-cultural product of European–Indian contact for it could be made only with iron tools” (Richter 1992: 85).

3. For example, for much of the eighteenth-century Africa, along with the West Indies, was the main market for British textile exports (Blackburn 1997: 522).

4. Roth argues that the “skeleton” of the Tsimshian potlatch was in fact concentrated in funerary ritual and that the most aggressive speculative competition over accession to name was an ornamental element in the late contact period.

5. Blessings were often conceived as a transfer of ancestral substances, stored within the person, and, just as the vomit of nobles was sacred in the potlatch cultures of the Americas (Walens 1981), here both the breath and spittle of elders take on a sacred quality.

6. Vansina (1978: 181) notes that for the Kuba, human sacrifice at funerals became more common in the late nineteenth century as a result of Luso-African trade, with one report of “a thousand slaves” killed at the death of a queen mother.

7. Lord Leverhulme’s industrial complex, constructed in the post-free-state period, was heavily dependent on a coercive labour regime on the palm oil plantations of what is now Bandundu, a regime that spanned most of the post-free-state period.


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Cite as: Trapido, Joe. 2016. “Epochs and continents: Potlatch, articulation, and violence in the Congo.” FocaalBlog, 5 January.