Colonialism and Customary Land Tenure in Africa: Portuguese Representations and Policies During the 19th and 20th Centuries

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Colonial representations concerning ‘indigenous uses and customs’ have been the target of postcolonial critique. However, in the Portuguese case, the impacts of the colonial encounter with African customary land tenure has still to be analysed and correspondingly inquiring into the historical relationship between colonialism and the commons. This article focuses on the debates surrounding the ‘indigenous’ common property regime among the political and academic elites and its historical evolution. This, therefore, frames land policies and their legitimising discourse in their production contexts, revealing how customary laws were misrepresented both to deny local populations access to property and as an instrument of social control. Furthermore, this illustrates how the colonial academic and political elites portrayed community management and the transhumance of African agriculture and relate the discourse on the ‘indigenous’ customary law with the evolution of land policies; from the legal initiatives regulating the ‘appropriation of wasteland’ in the mid-nineteenth century through to decolonisation in 1974. This focus on the colonial legacies of land policies is particularly essential to environmental sustainability in Africa. Furthermore, this case study of Portuguese colonialism provides new insights into the production of imperial knowledge for defining and managing colonised populations by approaching the key issue of land tenure.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)332-347
Number of pages16
JournalAfrican Studies
Issue number3-4
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2024


  • Colonial knowledge
  • Common land
  • Customary law
  • Land policies
  • Land tenure
  • Portuguese colonialism


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