Neergaard, Paul

At a Glance:

Labor recruiter, field assistant



Species names: 1

Region: Southern Africa

Neergaard’s Sunbird, Henrik Gronvold [link]

Content Note: This profile contains discussion of forced labor.

The Birds:

Neergaard’s Sunbird (Cinnyris neergaardi)

The Name:

We know very little about Paul Neergaard. We don’t know when he was born, or where. His life seems to have been one of many in history that has left only traces on the historic record. His only legacy in ornithology is that, when CHB Grant went on a collecting trip in southern Mozambique in 1907, he somehow lent him assistance in the field. Likely he was another collector, bringing back intriguing finds to the expedition leader. It’s possible that he may have lent some advice on where to go or how to navigate the area, since Grant was just a visitor. We just don’t know.

What we do know, though, is why Neergaard was in Mozambique to begin with. One of the few recorded details about him is that his primary job was as a labor recruiter for an agency known as Wenela. Properly– euphemistically– called the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association, the stated purpose of Wenela was to recruit migrant workers from across southern Africa to come work in gold mines in South Africa.

Mining has always been an incredibly labor-intensive activity. When large mineral resources– particularly gold and diamonds– were found by colonizers in South Africa, their desire to take advantage of these resources led to the development of a system to recruit workers from across southern Africa. These workers– who were usually subsistence farmers trying to find extra means to support their families– were engaged in contracts that would not pay them their wages until their 6-24 month period of work was up. This prevented them from changing jobs, and locked them into work that was often incredibly dangerous and conditions that were miserable. Their families were not permitted to join them, and they could not settle in South Africa. The migrant workers were often treated poorly by the local community, and as the system further developed, it became a key means of reinforcing apartheid.

Wenela miners, ca 1946. [link]
Miners in De Kaap Gold Fields, South Africa, 1888 [link]

There is a train that comes from Namibia and Malawi, there is a train that comes from Zambia and Zimbabwe. There is a train that comes from Angola and Mozambique, from Lesotho, from Botswana, from Swaziland, from all the hinterland of Southern and Central Africa. This train carries young and old, African men who are conscripted to come and work on contract. In the golden mineral mines of Johannesburg and its surrounding metropolis, 16 hours or more a day for almost no pay. Deep, deep, deep down in the belly of the earth. When they are digging and drilling for that shiny mighty evasive stone

South African musician Hugh Masekela, “Isitimela”

Today, we could call the migrant labor system that conscripted an untold number of people across southern Africa to work themselves to death by a different name: human trafficking. Whatever the exact details of Paul Neergaard’s career were, we know this: he spent some twenty years in Mozambique, along with additional journeys to Malawi, getting people entangled in a brutal system of forced labor. The echoes of this persist to this day, as the survivors of Wenela and their families continue to fight for compensation and recognition.

J.F. McLaughlin


Banda, Chidoba. 2017. Perspectives of labor migration from Mzimba district, Malawi to South Africa. Langaa Research and Publications, Mankon, Cameroon. ISBN : 9789956763337

Jeeves, Alan H. 1987. William Gemmill and South African expansion, 1920-1950. University of Witwatersrand History Workshop, “The Makings of Class”. [link]

Plugg, C. 2020. “Neergaard, Paul”. Biographical Database of South African Science. [link]

Prothero, Mansell Prothero. 1974. Forced migrant labour for South Africa. International Migration Review, 8(3). pp 383-395. [link]

Tsiko, Sifelani. 2019. “Compensating ex-Wenela workers: more than just money”. The Herald, Harare, Zimbabwe. 29 January 2019. [link]