ca. 1870-1889 ‘Serviçais’

José Augusto da Cunha Moraes, Two Angolese men carrying a European man in a hammock, ca. 1870-1889, Collection Nederlands Fotomuseum. Rotterdam, WMR-902002.

A studio portrait by José Augusto da Cunha Moraes in the collection of the Nederlands Fotomuseum (Dutch Photomuseum) shows two Angolese men carrying a European man in a hammock, locally known as a maxilla. Pictured in Angola at the end of the nineteenth century, the two men were in all probability unfree labourers, or so-called ‘servants’ (serviçais).

Drawing on an extensive range of sources, social historian Roquinaldo Ferreira showed that in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Luanda, the economy was entirely dependent on the enslaved population. They performed a wide array of activities, ranging from menial labour to specialized tasks as carpenter, sailor, blacksmith, and brickmaker. In Luanda, enslaved women and men could be rented out by their owners, or temporarily perform paid jobs. On the streets of Luanda, it was a common sight to see European settles being carried around in a hammock by a myriad of enslaved men.1

José Augusto da Cunha Moraes, European man in Luanda, Angola, ca. 1970-1915, Collection Rijkmuseum, RP-F-W-1975.

Throughout the nineteenth century, consecutive legislative measures led to the Portuguese prohibition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1836 and culminated, in 1869, in the abolition of slavery in the Portuguese African territories. In the words of Angolan historian Maria da Conceição Neto, abolition in Angola was belated and ‘neither immediate nor complete’.2
The decree of 1869 determined that those with the legal status of ‘slaves’ (escravos) were to gain their freedom and become ‘libertos’ before April 1878. However, in 1875 Portuguese legislators annulled the status of libertos and supplanted this with the legal category of ‘servants’ (serviçais).3

Clarence-Smith explained the economic foundations of slavery remained unaltered in Angola until the second decade of the twentieth century. Firstly, every ‘servant’ (serviçal) had to sign a five-year contract with the slaveholder who ‘freed’ him. Although cash wage payments to serviçais were mandatory, the salaries were continuously reduced. Furthermore, it was not uncommon for slaveholders to solely pay in paper bonds, which could only be used in the stores they owned.
A second mechanism was formally illegal. At the end of the initial five-year contract, it was prolonged for another five years, mostly by means of intimidation and corruption. The colonial administration was heavily involved in the third mechanism: the ‘subcontracting’ of serviçais for financial compensation. This led to a continuation of the buying and selling of human beings as if they were commodities.4

Clarence-Smith insists slavery continued in an economic sense, whereas in a legal sense the status of ‘serviçal’ ensured fundamental rights to life and property.5 In the same vein, Conceição Neto acknowledges the effects of the era slave trade were prolonged through colonial policies, yet she insists historians should carefully distinguish between the different types of unfree labour.6

  1. Roquinaldo Amaral Ferreira. Cross-Cultural Exchange in the Atlantic World : Angola and Brazil During the Era of the Slave Trade ( Cambridge 2012) 129-131.
  2. Maria da Conceição Neto, ‘De Escravos a “Serviçais”, de “Serviçais” a “Contratados”: Omissões, perceções e equívocos na história do trabalho africano na Angola colonial’, Cadernos de Estudos Africanos 33 (2017) 107-129, 111. DOI:
  3. Conceição Neto, ‘De Escravos a “Serviçais” ’, 112.
  4. W.G. Clarence-Smith, ‘Slavery in Coastal Southern Angola, 1875-1913, Journal of Southern African Studies 2 (1976) 214-223, 216-217.
  5. Clarence-Smith, ‘Slavery in Coastal Southern Angola’, 222.
  6. Conceição Neto, ‘De Escravos a “Serviçais” ’, 120.