Meet the new researcher: John Kegel

John Kegel has recently started at the ASCL as a postdoc researcher. For three years, he will be doing research into the colonial concessionary companies in sub-Saharan Africa from 1880-1960, a project funded by the Ford Foundation. 

Can you tell us a bit more about your research? 
‘We all know that from around 1880 European colonial powers divided Africa among themselves. The straight lines of African borders today are a direct result of conferences carried out in Europe. While colonial administrations could be quite different depending on the country controlling the colony, economic exploitation was carried out in largely the same way throughout Africa. Concessionary companies were given vast tracts of land by colonial governments, within which they had enormous powers. They were often allowed to raise their own armies or police forces, collect taxes and enact all kinds of economic rules and social mores. In return the colonial state was often given shares in the company or some kind of profit sharing agreement. This history is much less well known.
My research will focus on the history of these companies and the Africans who lived in the concessions. Sadly most of my research will be based on archival research. While I would like to interview people who witnessed the period, I am afraid not many people who worked for these companies will be alive anymore. So to capture the African voice I will have to be creative and will probably have to rely on the accounts of missionaries or company agents. Less than ideal, and something I am still struggling with. What I will find in the archives will also be very different per company and per country. The timeframe of my research ends in 1960, when many countries in Africa became independent.’

How did the companies recruit labourers?  
‘Key here is to understand that most Africans had no interest in working for concessionary companies. Why would they go and work in a mine or on a plantation? They had their own way of life and the working conditions the concessionary companies offered were usually very unappealing. In some cases the companies simply resorted to force. Armed company troops would arrive in a village and give the ultimatum: work or we will kill you. Another method used was tax. Some companies asked the colonial governments to impose a tax on the local people, so that they simply had to earn money and had no other choice than to work for these companies. It often came close to slavery. And this despite the fact that European countries had signed an international prohibition of slave trade throughout their respected spheres of influence at the Berlin Conference. 
All this happened during the period when workers’ and children’s rights were introduced in Europe. Europe also democratised after the First World War. But these laws and rights were not transferred to the colonies. Unions for African workers for example remained almost wholly banned. As a result forced labour remained very common throughout Africa until independence.’  

How far did the power of the companies extend? Did they have political power?  
‘The powers of these concessionary companies was enormous. The British South Africa Company (BSAC) declared wars, signed peace treaties and was politically connected. Cecil Rhodes, the founder of the BSAC, also became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. There are many other examples; in a sense there was a revolving door employment policy where colonial civil servants would go and work for concessionary companies after they left the service and vice-versa. The Firestone Natural Rubber Company also had important influence over the nominally independent Liberian government.’

How will your research be relevant for African societies today? 
‘Many of the companies still exist, many of them are still in foreign hands. That doesn’t necessarily have to be negative: companies often offer health care, access to education and stability. Companies with roots in this history are for example Unilever (historically active in palm oil), Firestone (rubber) and De Beers (diamonds).’   
John asks if we can open a satellite map in Google maps. He zooms in on areas in Congo and Cameroon. ‘Look at this! Miles and miles of plantations. Some are still operated, some are no longer used. They were all planted by concessionary companies. You can’t imagine the scale of the concessionaries back then: the amount of land these companies had was staggering. I think one could state that most of the land in sub-Saharan Africa was owned by European companies. Today, when we talk about colonialism and how it worked, people often look at how European countries have benefited from it. But companies have also benefited tremendously. There is a lot of talk about victims of colonialism these days, and possible reparations by governments. But in the end, that would be taxpayers’ money. If you want to discuss reparations, there is also something to be said for having the successors of those companies pay.’


2022- Postdoc researcher, ASCL 

2019-2022 Research Manager for ERC funded project ‘The Political Economy of African Development’, London Business School 

2015-2020 PhD in History, University of Kent. The Road to Genocide: A History of the Rwandan Struggle for Liberation 1990-1994, funded by an AHRC-CHASE grant

2014-2015 MA in African History, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Thesis on the Dutch trading company in Congo ‘Nieuwe Afrikaansche Handels-Vennootschap’ (NAHV) 

2011-2014 BA in War Studies, University of Kent. Thesis on the Rwandan Civil War (1990-1994) 

Learn more?

Read the interview with Duncan Money on his historical research on the Zambian Copperbelt.

Read the interview with Jan-Bart Gewald on his historical research on the diamond mines in Kimberly, South Africa.

Read the ASCL Working Paper European Memoirs and Colonialism in Equatorial Africa: Reflections on the Reminiscences of Alfons Vermeulen (1877-1965) by Klaas van Walraven.