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9— 'We are all Portuguese!' Challenging the Political Economy of Assimilation: Lourenco Marques, 1870–1933
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João Albasini and the Challenge to 'Assimilated' Status

In the midst of this still tentative restructuring of the legal arena, legislation creating a new and separate category of assimilado was promulgated. The state may have intended to buttress the tighter social controls by buying off the elite with a special privileged category similar to the former exempt status—a category separate from that of indãgena, but still a racially determined 'middle' category. Initially, the gambit failed.

Assimilado status was presented in terms of equality among all civilized men, and as a laurel to black achievement, but it elicited what was surely an unexpected response.[101] The elite, far from grasping the proffered distinction, rejected it as galling and humiliating. They were still sufficiently confident to challenge the idea


of a legal process through which they should demonstrate their educational, material and cultural merit so that in the end they could be considered the political and social equal of uneducated, poor, uncouth whites: 'Portugal sends us her unclean, illiterate criminals who live off rural African women. Must we assimilate to be their equal?'[102]

The challenge to assimilation mounted through the newspapers O Africano and Brado Africano was spearheaded by João dos Santos Albasini (1876–1922) who, with his brother José Francisco Albasini and Estácio Dias, was the driving force behind the Grêmio press. Albasini was a close personal friend of the Republican High Commissioner, Brito Camacho.[103] A mulatto with still powerful patronage ties to influential Portuguese Republicans, Albasini was clearly in a favourable position to mount a challenge with a minimum of personal risk or cost.[104] If Albasini had restricted the challenge to the question of equality among all so-called civilized men, his would have been a much less interesting story. Albasini was, however, a perceptive, complicated, and ultimately tragic character who took up the struggle at many levels. He perceived the increasing complexity of changing relations of domination, and infused his challenge with his own complex and passionate identities. Even within the limits of his short life, his challenge illustrated the kaleidoscope of issues, interests and factors at play.[105]

For Albasini the questions of non-racialism and of Portuguese national identity were of equal importance. He was as proud of his Mpfumo ancestors who had allied themselves with Portuguese initiatives in Lourenço Marques as he was of his Portuguese grandfather and namesake, Joáo Albasini. He saw no conflict in being both Portuguese and Mpfumo, in part because he felt white Portuguese and black Mpfumo to be peoples and races 'in no way inferior to others'.[106] He did recognize differential status in terms of education, however,' and seized upon equality of opportunity as the crux of any struggle, particularly emphasizing the importance of educational opportunities for African women.[107]

Within Albasini's complex range of identities he recognized and enjoyed different degrees of sharing and exchange. At one level, Portuguese intellectuals were ambivalent toward Albasini's role as a forceful thinker. He was the product of the best Catholic mission education available in Lourenço Marques, and was broadly self-educated. A member of the Conselho do Governó recalled in 1927 that Alabasini was 'a learned person of unquestionable merit'.[108] But, because he was black and not formally educated, his considerable intellectual accomplishments were often discounted and ridiculed by those with whom he felt he shared an intellectual tradition. He was caricatured in a Lourenço Marques almanack as the 'Doctor of Laws graduated from the University Chuabe-Dembe', and Governor Freire de Andrade, who publicly lauded many of Albasini's initiatives, privately dismissed him as 'a mulatto of no real education or credit'.[109]

After years of championing education in Portuguese under the guidance of Portuguese nationals, Albasini criticized aspects of Catholic mission education of African women, and the Catholic missionary editors who had purchased his paper O Africano took the opportunity to deride him saying, 'some Africans in their capulanas [wrapped cloth skirts] are more civilized than João Albasini with his pants and white shirt', suggesting a superficial sheen of Portuguese culture when Albasini was already an accomplished Portuguese writer.[110]

At another level, the city's poorest workers were equally ambivalent toward Albasini's role as champion of black labour. While Albasini basically opposed military or civilian labour conscription, he nonetheless held that able-bodied adult males should contract their labour for so-called public works and capitalist agriculture to build a more prosperous Mozambique for their children. The thrust


Joäo Albasini, 'Doctor of Laws graduated
from the University of Chuabe-Dembé'.
O Africano (Almanach), 1913


of his position was that if workers were treated with respect, properly housed and fed, and if upon completion of their contract they were transported quickly and safely home and fully paid, then conscription would be unnecessary. From 1913 until his death in 1922 Albasini, in his combined capacity as newspaper editor and head of so-called native services at the port and railway complex, drew attention to work conditions for railway labour, decried alcohol abuse among workers which he felt was encouraged by Portuguese cantinas, and advocated higher wages for port and railway casual and salaried personnel—the majority of the black labour force in those areas. Between 1918 and 1921 there were frequent strikes among casual and salaried workers at the port, while chibaro labour was relatively quiet. It remains unclear if Albasini played any role in keeping chibaro workers outside the mainstream of port worker action. Aside from his published support for worker demands, particularly the demands of salaried workers of whom he was one, the extent of Albasini's involvement with strikers is also uncertain.[111]

His paternalistic attitude toward chibaro labour, however, was reflected in their attitudes toward him. Chibaro workers remembered Albasini as the 'important' black man on the white horse telling people what to do and also as the man who earned a percentage by selling his brothers to the Portuguese.[112] The compound which formerly housed railway chibaro workers in Lourenço Marques was popularly known as 'Nwandzengele', Albasini's nickname in the Ronga language. Ironically, it is in some ways fitting, since Albasini supported compound housing. He felt such compounds offered better housing, board and treatment of workers than the contemporary arrangement of rented rooms in cantinas, temporary shelters and sheds, but he minimized the importance of the whole question of a person's choice to labour and live how and where he or she wanted.[113]

Albasini paid for his criticism of the system, despite his identification with it. He suffered ridicule, rejection and material loss. When O Africano was in the midst of a heated challenge to colonial maladministration, focusing on the beating to death of an African police auxiliary and simultaneously printing full coverage of strikes in the Transvaal and sympathetic coverage of the International Commercial Workers Union in South Africa, Albasini was fired from his post as official forwarding agent by the state and suspended from his position at the railway.[114] He subsequently regained both posts, but because he flatly refused to accept assimilado status, he was denied a whole range of salary bonuses reserved for tenured civil servants.[115]

Albasini saw no contradiction in his passion for Portuguese culture and his equally passionate rejection of the assimilation process. His insistence that study of the Portuguese language be central to all educational endeavours in part reflected his genuine conviction that literacy in Portuguese was a prerequisite skill in the quest for unfettered citizenship for blacks or whites. It was also part of an overall effort to convince the government of the Grêmio's potential role as its link with the majority population and as a tactic to gain government support for educational initiatives by playing upon government hostility toward Protestant mission education which relied on instruction in the vernacular. There was indeed an aspect of self-promotion.

As a strategy for acquiring government support for education, however, it was effective. Albasini was able to convince two important government officials, Freire de Andrade and Brito Camacho, to support (respectively) a training course for Portuguese language instruction and a school for literacy and technical training for African women.[116] This strategy also had important drawbacks, however, in that it both alienated the Protestant-educated elite leadership and


helped legitimate the government's harassment of Protestant mission endeavours. Albasini eventually recognized Protestant educational efforts as among the most effective and beneficial in the region.[117]

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