Food Production and Family Labour in Southern Malawi: the Shire Highlands and Upper Shire Valley in the Early Colonial Period

Megan Vaughan
1982 The Journal of African History  
A N I C S of food production by peasant cultivators have probably received insufficient attention from historians of colonial Africa. Some writers have seen the ability of small farmers to feed themselves simply as part of the system whereby wages in the capitalist sector of the colonial economy were kept artificially low. 1 Whilst there is much force in this argument, it is also the case that the ability of potential wage-workers to feed themselves and their families could also be a factor
more » ... ing for their economic autonomy, sometimes enabling them to spurn wage-labour altogether. 2 In the case of Southern Malawi in the early colonial period, the ability or inability of various groups to remain self-sufficient in foodstuffs was a major factor contributing to an economic stratification within the peasantry. An understanding of this is thus fundamental to any analysis of the period and of subsequent historical developments. The history of the efforts of cultivating families to remain self-sufficient in food is in part the story of their ability to initiate and sustain purely agricultural changes in the face of new demands on their land and labour. In general, the main constraint on achieving food self-sufficiency was labour availability, though in places this interacted with, and was compounded by, land shortage and a decline in soil fertility. The history of food production in this period thus entails a study of how peasant families calculated the gains or losses of adopting higher-yielding but more labour-intensive crops, and how they calculated the relative costs of the various cash-raising strategies open to them. As John Tosh has pointed out, 3 an understanding of these calculations and of the 'labour profiles' of different food-producing communities is essential to any analysis of why new cash-crops were readily • This paper was presented to the History Seminar, Chancellor College, University of Malawi, in December 1981. I wish to thank John McCracken, Kings Phiri and Andrew Roberts for their comments on an earlier draft.
doi:10.1017/s002185370002096x fatcat:bxprbby45nhujnrui45mlgsn34