Universiteit Leiden

nl en

Research project

Gradients of Europeanness in Colonial Africa: the case of the Portuguese in the Congo Free State (c. 1885-1908) (GRADIENTS)

The project GRADIENTS investigates what it meant to be European in colonial Africa where identification as European often did not depend on skin colour and was understood on a spectrum with many gradients.

2022 - 2025
Márcia Gonçalves
Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions – European Commission

Questions and Objectives

Historians of colonialism and post-colonial scholars have long argued that what we identify as ‘European’ was formed during and because of the overseas expansion and the encounters with the ‘others’ in colonial settings. But what did it mean to be ‘European’ in colonial Africa?

From the sixteenth century, Africans at the Congo Basin witnessed the arrival of Europeans of different origins who established permanent trading posts in coastal areas. Due to their high mortality, Europeans depended on Africans and mixed with them, giving rise to colonial societies where forms of self-identification and identification by others as European were not in black and white. Ideas of Europeanness were understood as on a spectrum with many gradients. By the late nineteenth century, Europeans were able to penetrate the interior of the continent and new prophylactics allowed the significant increase in the number of Europeans attracted by new opportunities to exploit natural resources and Africans’ labour. Meanwhile, the ‘science’ of race had reinforced existing ideas of natural inequality associated with phenotype features and of the superiority of the ‘white’ race, with its own internal hierarchies. How did these transformations affect processes of identity formation as European in the age of high imperialism, and what made them different from earlier local configurations? Answering this question will contribute to a better understanding of the (dis)continuities of imperialism in Africa as a collective European project, and the roles of evolving social structures and power relations in shaping it locally.

Moving away from approaches centred in nation-based empires (by itself or compared) and arguing for a transnational approach centred in interactions and connections between actors in the colonies, this project takes the Portuguese in the Congo Free State, which remained a cosmopolitan hub for Europeans after the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, as a point of departure. It aims to bring nuance into discussions of colonial European identities that usually focus on Northern Europe as the only cradle and norm of ‘Europeanness’.

This website uses cookies.  More information.