Boer legacies in southern Angola (2): the “Boer-style wagons”

“Carro bóer” (Boer cart), circa 1922. Source: Biblioteca Nacional (Portugal)

A recurrent reference regarding the Boer presence in the province of Huíla refers to the introduction of ox carts or wagons as the preferred means of transport in the region – the famous “Boer-style wagons”. In this post we share some of these historical references.

Although, as José Manuel Azevedo mentions in his thesis on the colonization of southern Angola, the use of oxen to pull carts and wagons already existed for the transport of goods in Moçâmedes in the mid-19th century (2014: 145), this was not the case in Huíla, and it was the Boer settlers of São Januário da Humpata who introduced this medium to local communities and Madeiran settlers for the first time (2014: 231). As WG Clarence-Smith would say in his article on the “Thirstland Trekkers” in Angola, the impact of this introduction was not meaningless:

“The arrival of the Boers in Humpata initiated a minor transport revolution. Hitherto everything had been carried by head-porters. Now, in the whole southern third of Angola suitable for oxen the Boers opened up waggon tracks, built and repaired two major roads inland from Mossamedes and Benguela, set up artisanal workshops to build and repair waggons, and tenaciously defended a transport monopoly which was not seriously breached till about 1910. The real boom in the transport business began in about 1890, when the road inland from Benguela was built and large quantities of root rubber began to be exported from Angola. Although the Boers never managed to wrest more than a part of the rubber carrying business from the Ovimbundu porters, it was nevertheless extremely lucrative, and the 1890s influx from the Transvaal seems to have been closely correlated to the rubber boom.” (Clarence-Smith 1976; 44)

Also, in the second volume of his História das Campanhas de Angola, René Pélissier (1997) tells us how the Boers were instrumental in the installation of the Portuguese colonial infrastructure in Cunene, thanks to their “collaboration” with the colony in the subjugation of the Humbe and the introduction hundreds of horses, oxen and carts, seen as central to the development of trade in the region (1997: 145-7).

It should be remembered that the Boer presence in the region was not limited to Humpata. There is news of settlements in Caluquembe, Matala and Gambos. In his book Boers de Angola (1958), Manuel Viegas Guerreiro added that

“Before trains and trucks, the Boer wagon was the only means of transport and traction used in Angola; the only competition along the uneventful and rugged paths of the sertão were the thousands of black porters. It was for a long time the main livelihood of the Boer population of Caconda, Bié and Moxico: goods were brought from Benguela to the interior and on the way back they carried rubber and wax.” (Guerreiro 1958: 10)

Thus, such wagons quickly entered the regional economic fabric, covering routes from East to West and from North to South. Wagons were often “rented” and were integral to the great development of trade in the Central Plateau, specifically in Bié, where Ovimbundu caravans travelled East/North in search of wax and rubber, much in demand at the time. Profitable trade was interrupted after the arrival of the railways in Luau.

On the other hand, the Boer wagon was not limited to fulfilling economic functions. Gastão Sousa Dias, in his book No Planalto da Huíla (1923), remember the Boer in this fashion:

“They only gather on Sundays in church, where they are transported in huge carts drawn by yoke of oxen, and there they spend the day in monotonous singing.” (Dias 1923: 76)

The Boer wagon also helped to open paths and create roads:

“The Boer cart was the first element of penetration into the hinterland. It didn’t need roads, for it opened them itself; it settled all the ravines and crossed the rivers, because the elasticity of its frame is victorious in the most difficult accidents. Well considered, we owe the Boers only this benefit: transmitting to our settlers the use of their cart.” (Dias 1923: 82)

Some websites and blogs collect old images that reflect the use of carts in the region at the beginning of the 20th century. We reproduce some here. For example, the Angola do Outro Lado do Tempo blog, in a post about the colonization of the highlands of Huíla, collects some visual records of Boer movements through this region and Namibe, which we show below:

On the blog, there are some references to Serpa Pinto’s memoirs in Como Eu Atravessei a África (1881):

 “The South African travel wagon is a heavy wood and iron construction, 6 to 7 meters in length by 1.8 to 2 in width, resting on 4 strong wooden wheels and drawn by 24 to 30 oxen, coupled with Strong yokes, attached to a chain and thick, fixed to the head end of the car.” (Serpa Pinto 1881)

The blog Fotos Namibe also collects some records that show the use of the cart in various economic activities in the city of Mossâmedes (today Moçâmedes), at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Nowadays, despite the almost total motorization of transport, from time to time it is still possible to see ox carts being used as a means of transporting people and crops, bringing products into the markets.

Ox cart, in Humpata (Huíla). Photo © Ruy Llera Blanes, October 2020.

Bibliographical References

Azevedo, José Manuel de. 2014. “A colonizaçâo do Sudoeste Angolano : do deserto do Namibe ao planalto da Huíla 1849-1900.” PhD Thesis in History, Universidad de Salamanca.

Clarence-Smith, W. G. 1976. “The Thirstland Trekkers in Angola – Some Reflections on a Frontier Society.” Collected Seminar Papers. Institute of Commonwealth Studies 20: 42–51.

Dias, Gastão Sousa. 1923. No Planalto Da Huíla: Crónicas de Viagem, Impressões e Aspectos. Porto: Renascença Portuguesa.

Guerreiro, Manuel Viegas. 1958. Boers de Angola. Lisbon: Centro de Estudos Políticos e Sociais.

Pélissier, René. 1997. História das Campanhas de Angola: resistência e revoltas, 1845-1941, Volume 2. Lisbon: Editorial Estampa.

Serpa Pinto, Alexandre Alberto da Rocha de. 1881. Como eu atravessei Africa; do Atlantico ao mar Indico, viagem de Benguella á contra-costa, a-travès regiões desconhecidas; determinações geographicas e estudos ethnographicos. London: S. Low, Marston, Searle, e Rivington.

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