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date: 24 July 2024

African Economic History and Historiographyfree

African Economic History and Historiographyfree

  • Alois MlamboAlois MlamboDepartment of Historical and Heritage Studies, University of Pretoria


Africa’s economic history went through various stages, beginning with Stone Age hunter-gatherers, through the Iron Age and the development of agriculture, to sedentary communities with growing and varied economies, bigger and more sophisticated political states, and growing trade activities. Between the 7th and 19th centuries, several large states emerged in the Sahel and in eastern and southern Africa. Key to their rise and prosperity was a growing population and agriculture as well as expanding trade, either through the trans-Saharan trade to the Mediterranean or across the Indian Ocean to Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. Africa’s fortunes dipped with the onset of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which ravaged the continent and led to Africa losing millions of people to the New World. Following the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, Europe partitioned and colonized the continent and presided over varied economic regimes. These were settler colonies, peasant-agricultural colonies, and concession company colonies. Of the three, settler colonies developed most, although at the expense of the African majority. Independence came after the Second World War and Africa entered its postcolonial phase. After a promising start in the decade of the 1960s, African economies went into decline in the 1970s, necessitating governments to borrow from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in order to revamp their economies. The structural adjustment programs they were required to implement as a condition for the loans proved to be deleterious to African economies. African economic history scholars have generally shied away from the continent’s very early periods, preferring to focus on the period after the 15th century which has more documented history. They have used three analytical approaches: classical economics, dependency theory, and Marxist paradigms. Each of the three approaches has some shortcomings. Recently, the New African Economic History approach is using cliometric techniques to study Africa’s economic past. More economics than conventional economic history, it has attracted some from more history-based scholars as ahistorical.


  • Economic History

African economic history is a relatively young discipline dating back only to the mid-20th century. Scholars have mostly focused on the period after the 15th century and not on the earlier periods because of the lack of written sources for much of the continent. However, studies by archaeologists, paleontologists, and other specialists have contributed considerably to knowledge about this early period.


African economic history can be divided into several broad periods, which are used here simply as broad markers and not rigid demarcations. The first period is from the earliest hominids, the ancestors of humankind, through the Stone and Iron Ages, to the domestication of plants and animals and the development of agriculture. This early period witnessed not only advances in technology from stone to iron tools, but also the emergence of organizational and governance systems, social hierarchies, specialization, and the establishment and growth of African states and kingdoms. The period also saw the growth of trade both within and beyond the African continent, as agricultural surplus, minerals (mainly gold), ivory, salt, slaves, and other items were traded on the continent and to Asia, the Mediterranean countries, and the Middle East.

The next period opened with the onset of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 16th century and ended with the abolition of the trade in the 19th century and its replacement with “legitimate commerce.” The colonial period ran from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century. Although a brief episode in the long history of the African continent, the colonial period had a far-reaching impact on the lives of the African people and on the continent’s political, economic, and social systems and structures. The 1960s ushered in Africa’s postcolonial period.

From Hominids to the Rise of African States

Africa was the cradle of humankind. Evidence abounds of Africa as the birthplace for all humans in the form of ancient bones, fossils, stone tools, and other artifacts that attest to the fact that Africa was home to the earliest hominids (human-like creatures with enlarged brains and the ability to walk on two legs) who probably evolved from the great African apes—the gorilla and the chimpanzee—some ten million years ago. In 1924, anthropologist Raymond Dart of the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, discovered in a cave near Taung the skull of a six-year-old creature, ape-like in appearance but with certain human-like characteristics. Dart named this creature Australopithecus africanus (southern ape from Africa). In subsequent years, more Australopithecines were discovered in South Africa, the Odluvai Gorge in northern Tanzania, and throughout the Great Rift Valley from central Kenya to Lake Turkana, and Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia.

The discovery of more evolved versions of hominids in the form of Homo habilis (clever or handy man) in the Odluvai Gorge in the 1960s, Homo erectus (the upright man) in the Lake Turkana area in 1975, and subsequently Homo sapiens showed how human beings evolved over time. Meanwhile, the first stone tools found outside Africa date to about half a million years after those found in Africa, suggesting that Homo erectus, the first to use stone tools, spread to other parts of the world from Africa. The ability to make and use tools, beginning with stone tools in the Stone Age, distinguished the Homo variety from all other species. Starting with the stone hand axe used by Homo erectus about one and half million years ago, in the Early Stone Age stone technology improved over time to produce more sophisticated and varied tools.

By the Late Stone Age, about forty thousand years ago, Homo sapiens sapiens were able to produce microliths (tiny stones) fashioned into spearheads, arrow points, and tools. Further technological advances produced the bow and arrow, needles, and fish hooks, which improved hunting and fishing techniques. These developments were accompanied by growing artistic expression, as evidenced by rock paintings found throughout sub-Saharan Africa. The paintings portray hunting, fishing, and dancing scenes; others are more abstract and perhaps may have been inspired by religion and matters related to the spirit world.

The people of the Late Stone Age lived on hunting for meat and gathering plants, roots, fruits, and other edible items from the land. Hunting was mainly carried out by men, while women did the gathering. They had also mastered the skill of making fire for cooking and other purposes. Other Late Stone Age people lived on fishing, especially in the Sahara, which was then wet and fertile, as evidenced by many artifacts such as bone-tipped harpoons and fish traps that have been found there.

Hunter-gatherer societies were fairly small, simple in organization, egalitarian, and fluid, allowing for free movement between groups. While the division of labor was gendered, there was no labor which was considered to be more valuable than another. Remnants of these early hunter-gatherer societies are the Khoisan-speaking people who are still practicing hunting and gathering in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana.1

Development of Agriculture

Toward the end of the Late Stone Age, African peoples began domesticating crops and animals and became agriculturalists and pastoralists. In sub-Saharan Africa, they domesticated sorghum and millet, among other crops, as well as cattle, sheep, and goats. Dependence on farming meant a more sedentary lifestyle and therefore more permanent settlements. The availability of adequate and nutritious food led to population growth, which in turn necessitated the expansion of agriculture and created the need to develop more effective tools for cultivation and other purposes. Permanent settlements also meant the need for more durable shelter made of poles and mud or stones and other materials.

At the same time, the development of farming and the growth of sedentary populations necessitated political and social changes to ensure the smooth running of these new societies and the governance of societal practices, behaviors, and economic interactions. Governance structures and systems became necessary to ensure social harmony as well as to protect property. Social hierarchies developed, with the more economically successful in society becoming the ruling elites. This development was accompanied by occupational specialization as the societies and their economic activities became increasingly more complex. To maintain non-food-producing members of society, such as the ruling elite and religious leaders, farmers had to produce a surplus, which was also used for trade with other communities. To store their agricultural produce and to carry and store water, farmers made baked clay pottery. It is the remains of such pottery as well as grinding stones used to grind grain that archaeologists find helpful in reconstructing the lives of such early societies.2

While some societies practiced mixed farming, growing crops and rearing animals, others became pastoralists and moved from one place to another in search of good pastures for their animals, according to seasonal changes. Except in the areas infested with the tsetse fly—a parasite-carrying blood-sucking insect which causes sleeping sickness in both animals and humans—pastoralism was practiced in most of the continent, including the Sahara before desertification set in. This is evidenced by rock paintings of large herds of cattle and sheep found across the Sahara Desert, dating between 3500 and 2500 BCE. The presence of grinding stones in the desert also suggests that the Sahara was a grain-producing area at this time.3

The Iron Age

Iron-smelting skills were a huge technological leap which transformed societies and their economic activities radically. Contrary to earlier views that regarded iron technology as having originated outside the African continent and then diffused to African societies, it is likely that Iron Age technology developed independently in Africa.4 As more iron tools became available, Africans were more economically productive and generated greater surpluses for consumption and for trade. In addition, iron weapons enabled some groups to expand their territories by subjugating their less-technologically advanced neighbors. The combination of wealth produced from trade and greater military capacity in some groups gradually led to the development of a number of African states and kingdoms which became part of extensive trade networks on the continent and beyond. Examples are the trans-Saharan trade network which linked the kingdoms of Ghana, Ife, Benin, Mali, Songhai, and others in West Africa to the Mediterranean coast and the network linking the kingdoms of Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe, Munhumutapa, and Rozvi in southern Africa to the Indian Ocean coast and India and China.

Southern Africa entered the Iron Age with the arrival of the Bantu-speaking peoples migrating from Central West Africa some two thousand years ago. The migration took a very long time and occurred in a series of numerous short and spasmodic movements from area to area. Such migration involved intermarriages between the Bantu and indigenous hunter-gatherer communities, resulting in the absorption of these communities rather than a migration based on a massive stream of people consistently and relentlessly moving into eastern and southern Africa. On the basis of the pottery traditions identified by archaeologists, it is suggested that there were two migration streams: one eastward to the Great Lakes regions (northern Tanzania and southern Kenya) between the 2nd and 5th centuries CE; and the other southward, reaching Botswana in the 1st to 7th century CE.5 The Bantu migration transformed eastern and southern Africa’s societies and economies, as the incoming migrants introduced pastoralism, crop farming, and iron-based technology to the hunter-gatherer societies of the region. The Bantu-speaking people gradually absorbed the local Khoisan hunter-gatherers through intermarriage, although some Bantu groups also adopted aspects of Khoisan culture and language. A small group of Khoisan-speaking people, however, continue to exist in Botswana in the Kalahari Desert.

Precolonial African Kingdoms

In addition to agriculture and mining, trade played an important role in the rise of many precolonial kingdoms across Africa, including the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Aksum and the latter kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, Songhai, Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe, Munhumutapa, and Rozvi. In Egypt, the domestication of plants and animals led to the establishment of a number of settlements along the Nile River as early as 4000 BCE. These settlements became states which subsequently amalgamated into the two kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt. The two kingdoms then became one in 3100 BCE under the rule of the Pharaohs, whose reign was to last for the next three thousand years, during which Egypt developed into one of the world’s most remarkable civilizations. Egypt’s economy was driven mainly by agriculture and trade. Egyptian peasants produced wheat, barley, flax, vegetables, and fruits both for domestic consumption and for commercial purposes. They also kept goats and cattle and enriched their diets with fish from the Nile River. Agricultural surpluses were stored in state warehouses for use by the ruling elite and civil servants, among others, and for purposes of trade, which was tightly controlled by state officials. Exports were mostly grain, while imports consisted of ebony, ivory, and ostrich feathers from the African interior and timber from Byblos, which later became Lebanon. Also imported were spices, incense, and precious stones from Asia.6

Another major kingdom in northeastern Africa was Aksum, located in modern-day northern Ethiopia and Eritrea. Aksum became a major naval and trade center between the 1st and 7th centuries CE and traded agricultural products, ivory, skins, crystal glass, copper, and brass to several countries and regions, including Egypt, Arabia, Europe, Greece, and Asia. It had its own coinage and was regarded at its height as one of the four powers in the world, the others being Persia, Rome, and China.7

In the Sahel or Sudanic Africa, a number of states developed in succession, partly because they were strategically located along the trans-Saharan trade network, which made them thriving trade centers, facilitating commercial exchanges between West African traders and traders from the Mediterranean and Muslim countries to the north. Trans-Saharan trade became feasible after the introduction of the camel, an animal suitable for desert conditions, around 300 CE. The combination of the camel and the coming of Islam into the Sahel in the 9th century speeded up the economic, cultural, and political transformation of the region, as it became part of the Islamic world. Because of growing trade across the desert, the states of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, among others, took root and thrived for varying periods of time.

The Soninke people of West Africa established Ghana in the 7th century CE. With its capital on the edge of the Sahara Desert at Kumbi-Saleh, it became a thriving trading state and controlled the trans-Saharan trade routes. Among the commodities traded in Ghana’s capital were salt, ivory, gold, copper, kola, ostrich feathers, grains, and slaves. Ghana’s rulers grew considerably wealthy from taxing the trade that passed through their land, particularly the trade in gold.8 Ghana collapsed in the 13th century and was replaced by the Mali Empire, founded by the Malinke leader Sundiata (Sundjata) in 1230. The Empire also sat astride trans-Saharan trade routes and thus benefited from trade in gold and other commodities. It lasted until the 16th century. At its height in the 14th century, it stretched from the Atlantic Ocean south to beyond the Niger River and north to the salt and copper mines of the Sahara. Mali prospered most under the able leadership of Mansa Musa (1312–1337). A convert to Islam, Mansa Musa promoted the religion and it thrived in the commercial centers of Djene (Jenne) and Timbuktu. He established libraries and Islamic universities, including the Sankore Madrasah (University of Sankore), which attracted Islamic scholars from all over the Muslim world.9

Mali became well known in Europe and throughout the Muslim world after Mansa Musa’s now famous religious pilgrimage to Mecca, the Muslim Holy City, in 1324–1325 when he traveled there with a huge caravan, including a hundred camel-loads of gold. Egyptian chroniclers reported that he distributed so much gold in Cairo on his way to Mecca that he caused considerable inflation in the Egyptian economy. News of his wealth spread to Europe and led, thereafter, to West Africa being regarded as a land of fabulous riches. His pilgrimage placed Mali on the world map, as evidenced by the fact that several maps of the world produced by various European cartographers from 1339 onward showed Mali and referenced Mansa Musa. In addition, trade between Mali and the Mediterranean world increased substantially as a result.

After the decline of Mali, the new power in the region became Songhai, which rose to prominence in the late 15th century under King Sonni Ali (1464–1492). It grew from the small state of Gao, founded between 500 and 700 CE, to become the largest empire in the history of western Sudan. Like Ghana and Mali, its economy thrived from Songhai’s control of the trans-Saharan trade. The ruler’s innovative leadership, evidenced in the development of standardized weights and measures and a common currency throughout the empire, established an effective homogenized economic system. Under the rule of Askia Muhammad Toure (1493–1528), Songhai became a strong and prosperous Islamic state to which Islamic scholars from as far afield as Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, and Muslim Spain traveled to attend the Sankore University in Timbuktu. Songhai collapsed in 1591 when it was invaded by the Moroccans.10

Several thriving kingdoms also emerged in eastern and southern Africa. In East Africa, early Iron Age farmers had engaged in international trade as early as the period of the Greek City States when they exported ivory, rhino horn, and coconut oil in exchange for iron goods and weapons. The region became part of the Muslim world when Islam arrived in the 7th and 8th centuries. This was followed by increasing trade with the Persian Gulf and India. The region took advantage of the trade winds of the Indian Ocean, known as monsoon winds, which blow toward Africa from November to March and toward India and the Persian Gulf from April to October. East Africa also traded with China. The region’s international trade was conducted through a number of coastal trading towns, which included Kilwa, Zanzibar, Comoro Islands and Lamu Islands, Pemba, and Malindi. At this time, the region exported mainly ivory, gold, and slaves and imported manufactured goods and luxuries such as glassware, Indian silks and cottons, and oriental Chinese pottery.11 In addition to trade, communities of the East African coast also practiced mixed farming.

The southern part of the East African coast was commercially linked to the inland kingdoms of Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe, Munhumutapa, and Rozvi states, which rose and declined in succession and traded mainly gold and ivory for goods from China, the Persian Gulf, and other parts of Asia. Most of this trade went through the ports of Sofala and Kilwa. In addition to trade, the inland southern African kingdoms also practiced agriculture and mining, among other economic activities.12

As evident from this section, African societies prior to the onset of the trans-Atlantic slave trade engaged in a variety of economic activities ranging from crop agriculture, pastoralism, mining for gold, salt, copper, and iron to fishing and trade. Interestingly, until the 14th century, there is not much evidence to suggest that Africa’s development was lagging behind that of other parts of the world, although developments in Europe associated with the Renaissance and with scientific discoveries were quickening Europe’s development. The gap between Africa and Europe in terms of development was undoubtedly widened by the Atlantic slave trade, which depleted the African continent of its population for over four hundred years.

Africa’s Slave Trade

While the trans-Atlantic slave trade dwarfed all former African slave trades, for over a thousand years slaves had been exported to Mediterranean countries through the trans-Sahara trade route and to the Arabian Peninsula and Asia across the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Slave trading to these regions continued after the onset of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This meant that Africa’s human capital was hemorrhaging through the Atlantic slave trade, trans-Saharan slave trade, Red Sea slave trade, and the Indian Ocean slave trade.13

Slave labor had also long been used on the African continent. A heated debate occurred between J. D. Fage and Walter Rodney on whether slavery did indeed exist on the African continent before the trans-Atlantic slave trade and, if so, what its nature was.14 Fage maintained that the onset of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was possible because both slavery and trading in slaves were already deeply rooted in West African society. Rodney maintained that what obtained on the continent then was not slavery per se but simply various forms of “unfreedom” which allowed those who started off as “unfree” to be integrated into mainstream society. He argued that the trans-Atlantic slave trade corrupted what had hitherto been a fairly benign African institution.

The slave trades to the north and east of Africa, however, paled in the face of the intense and massive new slave trade which forcibly repatriated millions of Africans to the New World. Starting with the Portuguese, but soon joined by other European nations, the slave trade fed an insatiable demand for cheap labor, mostly in the sugar cane and cotton plantations of the New World. The link between slave labor and sugar cane plantations had long been established in the Mediterranean where Slav and African labor had been employed on plantations. The sugar cane crop and its slave labor system were then transported to Portugal’s island possessions of Principe and Sao Thome in the Atlantic Ocean. The Portuguese subsequently took the sugar cane crop and slavery across the Atlantic Ocean to their colony, Brazil, from where the crop and slavery spread to the Caribbean and surrounding lands.

The demographic collapse of the Native American population due to diseases transported across the Atlantic Ocean as part of the Columbian exchange, to which that population had no immunity, precipitated a labor shortage crisis for European colonizers, who needed cheap labor on their plantations.15 To find the requisite labor, they turned to Africa.

The Numbers Game and Impact

Scholars do not agree on how many Africans were taken from Africa over the four centuries of the slave trade. Philip Curtin estimated the total number at 10 million, while other scholars have placed the number at much higher levels.16 Scholars have criticized Curtin’s figure as too conservative and misleading, since it is based only on slave landings in the New World and not on the total number of people lost to the African continent due to slave raids and wars, the slaves’ march to the coast and lives lost in the Middle Passage, in addition to people who died from starvation due to the disruption of farming activities.17 The quest to quantify the volume of the slave trade has continued, with some scholars employing econometric methods to estimate the volume and nature of Africa’s trades. Among these are Eltis, Manning, Lovejoy, and Nunn.18

Rodney and Uzoigwe, as well as Inikori, not only rejected Curtin’s figure as too low, but also criticized Curtin’s argument that the loss of 10 million people over a 400-year period could not have had that much of a lasting negative impact on Africa.19 They argued that the slave trade had long-term deleterious effects on the African continent and hampered its development. Their position is that even if one were to accept Curtin’s low figure, what matters in the end is not so much the total number of slaves taken from Africa, but the quality of the human power extracted from the continent by the slave trade. Slavers took only physically fit young people who could do backbreaking work on the plantations and who were likely to command high prices in the slave markets of the New World.

This practice meant that Africa lost its most productive population cohorts with the strongest potential to contribute to African development through their labor power, innovativeness, entrepreneurship, and procreativity. Thus, people who should have contributed to Africa’s development were used to contribute to the benefit of the Western world instead. It is for this reason that scholars have argued that the European Industrial Revolution was fueled by the slave trade.20 Thus, Africa’s loss was clearly Europe’s gain.

Inikori and Eltis concur that the trade had negative effects on Africa’s development by diverting African economies from production to exchange, by siphoning off its human capacity, and by undercutting and thus undermining local manufacturers through imports of goods. In his innovative study seeking to identify the ethnic origins of slaves taken to their various destinations, Nunn finds that there is a co-relationship between the countries that lost the highest number of people to slave trades and their poor economic performance today.21 Other writers who emphasized the negative effects of the trade on African political institutions and its destabilization of normal economic activities include Manning, Alpers, and Lovejoy.22 Evidence of the disruptive nature of the trade on African economic activities and institutions is apparent in King Afonso of Kongo’s letter to the King of Portugal complaining that there were many traders bringing ruin to his country by enslaving and kidnapping “even nobles, even members of the King’s own family.”23 It can therefore be confidently asserted that the slave trade retarded Africa’s growth and development and made it less able to withstand later European partition and colonization.

From the Slave Trade to Partition

Britain abolished the slave trade and slavery in its territories in 1807 and 1833–1834, respectively. Thereafter, it pressured other European slave-trading nations to end the trade until slavery was abolished. Brazil was the last country to abolish slavery in 1888. Scholars differ in their explanations of why Britain abolished its slave trade and drove the campaign to end the trade altogether. Debates on the motives for British abolition of the slave trade and slavery have revolved around the paradigms pioneered by three scholars: Reginald Coupland, Eric Williams, and Roger Anstey. For Reginald Coupland, the basic cause of abolition was humanitarian pressure exerted by abolitionists who were driven by disinterested philanthropy.24 Eric Williams, in Capitalism and Slavery, rejected Coupland’s argument and insisted that economic interests rather than humanitarian concerns led Britain to abolish both the slave trade and slavery in the 19th century.25 He argued that Britain would not have abolished slavery were it not for the fact that the West Indian islands had lost their economic importance in the British Empire. Lastly, Roger Anstey, in The Atlantic Slave Trade and Its Abolition, sought to present a compromise by arguing that the two motives were not mutually exclusive so that, while there were economic forces at work in pushing Britain toward abolition, humanitarian forces were nevertheless very influential.26 Of the three paradigms, the Eric Williams thesis has proved to be the most enduring and the most controversial.27

To replace the slave trade, Britain promoted “legitimate commerce,” namely, trade in commodities, such as palm oil, cocoa, groundnuts, and minerals, among others, instead of the selling and buying of human beings. At this time also, Britain and other European nations embarked on a campaign to end slavery and the slave trade in Africa, opening the door for later European justifications of imperialism as necessary to end slavery and civilize Africa.28 Debates on the introduction of legitimate commerce have focused on whether the change from slavery to trade in vegetable oils and other commodities led to a “crisis of adaptation” for African rulers who had been long dependent on the slave trade, as postulated by Hopkins in Economic History of West Africa, or whether the change had little or no political, economic, or social impact.29 Some scholars have argued that their crisis has been overstated, as the transition was not as traumatic as alleged.30

This period thus marks the transition from the slave trade, where European nations took Africans from the continent to work for their benefit in the Americas, to the next stage in which European governments carved up the continent and shared it among themselves. They became directly involved in the running of African territories and in exploiting its resources. In the former stage, Europeans did not directly interfere in African politics and were content to deal with African rulers in matters of trade, but in the latter stage, they subordinated African leaders and imposed their own rule on them, deciding what economic activities African societies were allowed to pursue. The next stage was the colonial period.

The Colonial Period

Western Europe partitioned and colonized Africa at the end of the 19th century and then proceeded to establish three types of colonies. Scholars have identified the following: (1) settler colonies or, in Samir Amin’s view, Africa of the labor reserves, comprising most of southern Africa, Kenya, and Algeria; (2) peasant-agricultural colonies or the Africa of trade, including West Africa and Uganda; and (3) the Africa of concession companies (e.g., Portuguese colonies and Central and Equatorial Africa).31 Settler colonies had a large resident white settler community that all but ran its own political and economic systems, with Africans marginalized and expected to provide cheap labor. Peasant agriculture colonies did not have a significant resident white settler population and were largely left to pursue peasant agricultural activities but were forced to grow cash crops for the benefit of the colonizing countries. King Leopold II’s Congo is a typical example of the concession-type of colony. Owned by King Leopold as his personal property, it was brutally exploited by private companies operating on the basis of concessions, which granted them permission to administer and economically exploit the colony. The brutality of Leopold’s regime in the Congo caused a widespread outcry, resulting in 1908 in the Belgian government taking over the colony, which had hitherto been Leopold’s personal possession.32

Settler colonies experienced the most rapid and extensive infrastructural developments and considerable economic growth and diversity. Commercial agriculture, mining, and subsequently industrialization were the hallmarks of these colonies. However, this impressive economic growth was mainly for the benefit of the white settler minority population and at the expense of the African majority. African peasants had responded positively to the incentives offered by the new markets created under colonialism at the beginning but were systematically marginalized and impoverished by the settler colonial state through policies designed for that purpose. In both Southern Rhodesia and Rhodesia as well as South Africa, the colonial state actively pursued a deliberate policy to undermine African agricultural self-sufficiency. The state enacted laws that put in place a systematic land alienation policy meant to reduce the amount of land available to the African population in order to limit their output so as to prevent Africans competing with white agriculture, as well as to force them into the labor market. Thus, the white-owned mines, farms, and factories were able to secure African labor on the cheap.

In South Africa, land alienation is epitomized by the 1913 Native Land Act, which divided the country’s land mass into white and African areas and prohibited Africans from living in white areas, except as temporary sojourners working for the white economy. Although the Africans were the majority, the state allocated only a tiny fraction of South Africa’s land mass to them. Later, under the National Party administration from 1948 onward, the apartheid state confined Africans to African reserves known as Bantustans and ruled that they could only reside temporarily in white areas, including towns, cities, mines, and farms, if they were employed. When they lost their jobs or became old and infirm, they had to return to the Bantustans.

In Southern Rhodesia, the defining law on land was the 1930 Land Apportionment Act (LAA) which also divided land according to racial categories, giving the minority white population the lion’s share of the land.33 In the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique, although not technically settler colonies, sizable white settler populations lived there. The colonies differed from the settler colonies of Southern Rhodesia and South Africa because they were administered directly from Lisbon. The negative impact on the African population of having a large permanent white settler population in the colonies was, however, similar to that in the settler colonies.

African agriculture and mining in the settler colonies gave birth at this time to a regional migrant labor system which saw workers from the neighboring colonies of Mozambique, Nyasaland (Malawi), Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), and Bechuanaland (Botswana) migrate to work on the mines in white-ruled southern Africa, especially in the Rand gold mines. Southern Rhodesia was both a sender and a receiver of migrant labor.34 The negative impact of the migrant labor system and the compound system, which it gave rise to, is well documented by Charles van Onselen and others.35 African workers on the mines and in the factories organized trade unions and developed a vibrant labor movement that was to contribute to the struggle for freedom in both countries. Import substitution industrialization strategies in both Rhodesia and South Africa also led to rapid industrialization, which provided the third pillar of these countries’ economies in addition to agriculture and mining.

In the peasant agricultural colonies of West, Central, and East Africa, generally Africans did not lose their land, as there were comparatively few white settlers. African agricultural producers continued to work their land but were “persuaded” to produce cash crops for the European markets instead. Groundnuts, palm oil, and cocoa were among the main exports from most West African countries, which were stimulated by growing European market demands, improved transportation infrastructure, and taxation, among other factors. African peasant producers took advantage of the new economic opportunities as can be seen in the case of Ghana and Nigeria, which witnessed “more than 20-fold increases in the real value of foreign trade between 1897 and 1920.”36

In East Africa, Uganda became a major cotton producer for the British market, while its neighbor, Kenya, developed a mixed economy, with settler agriculture predominating in the so-called White Highlands, where indigenous Kikuyu people had been dispossesed of land by incoming white settlers, and peasant agriculture was practiced in other parts of the country. While marketing arrangements and prices were controlled by the colonizing powers and therefore limited the benefits that peasants could accrue from their economic activities, peasant agricultural colonial populations were comparatively better off than their counterparts in the settler colonies of southern Africa. Thus, of the three colonial typologies, the peasant agricultural colonies of West, Central, and East Africa provided local Africans with the best option to become independent economic players, as Gareth Austin’s work has shown.37

Postcolonial Economies

African countries gained independence soon after the Second World War, with Ghana being the first sub-Saharan country to attain independence in 1957, followed by several others in the 1960s. Inheriting mostly skewed economies that were oriented to producing raw materials for export to the colonizing powers and that had little economic diversification, incoming African leaders faced a daunting task of promoting economic development in their countries. Other worrying characteristics of these economies included a lack of adequate domestic investment capital, given the fact that in most colonies, Africans were economically marginalized and refused the opportunities to own mines, farms, or major factories; in addition, there existed an overconcentration of production of a narrow range of raw commodities for export. Africa also had an unhealthy high import dependence on production inputs and skills and an inadequate transport infrastructure, except in the settler territories. Despite these inherited shortcomings, at independence, the continent was pervaded with a sense of optimism that development would materialize and Africans would be able to replicate the economic development of the now developed countries, as was being suggested by Walt Whitman Rostow through his modernization theory at the time.38

Independent African countries followed different models of development, with some opting for socialism or its variants (African socialism in Tanzania and humanism in Zambia) and others choosing to follow the capitalist path. In the end, neither path led to meaningful development. In the first few years of independence, however, Africa experienced an economic boom, which did not last. It was eventually undermined by declining commodity prices and the oil crisis of the 1970s and the recession it created. By the 1980s, most African economies were in an economic slump and burdened by high foreign debt, trade deficits, and fiscal crises. Most were struggling to provide basic social services to their people and to maintain infrastructure inherited from colonialism. They were thus compelled to turn for assistance to the Bretton Woods institutions in the form of the International monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

Blaming the African economic crisis on ambitious and inappropriate development projects as well as poor planning and implementation in its 1981 Berg Report, the World Bank, together with its sister Bretton Woods institution, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), began to provide conditional loans to African countries. These conditions were central to the International Finance Agencies’ Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) which imposed a neoliberal economic regime on the borrowing countries and sought, among other things, to roll back the state in order to allow for free market forces to play an unfettered role. By 1989, thirty-six African states were implementing SAPs. With the exception of Ghana, which recorded a degree of economic growth in the first years of its three SAPs implemented between 1983 and 1993 and which saw some success in declining food shortages, increased cocoa production, and recovery in the mining and industrial sectors, SAPs proved to be deleterious for the countries that implemented them, leaving economies worse than they had been before the programs were adopted. Even in Ghana, which was paraded as the “model” of the efficacy of SAPs, economic growth was slowing down in the 1990s; expanded cocoa production was hit by declining world cocoa prices, while trade liberalization recommended by the program led to a decline in the manufacturing sector, as it became cheaper to import goods. Thus, Ghana’s total debt increased from $1.398 billion in 1980 to $5.874 billion in 1995. Its external debt as a percentage of GDP rose from 31.6 percent to 95 percent over the same period.39

In more recent years, Africa has witnessed an increasing economic participation of China as it became one of the leading players in the global economy. Hundreds of Chinese companies operate across the continent, while Chinese investment in monetary terms in the early 21st century runs into many billions of dollars. China is now Africa’s third largest trading partner after the United States and France. Africa, however, continues to export raw materials to China in order to import manufactured products.

Discussion of the Literature

African economic history is relatively young, having emerged as a discipline only as African countries were gaining their independence in the late 1950s. It was born as a response to the colonial denigration of the African past and claims by colonialists that they had brought civilization to the continent, which, hitherto, had neither history nor any achievements. The idea of Africa as uncivilized has a long pedigree. As early 1830–1831, G. W. F. Hegel had asserted that Africa was an “unhistorical continent with no movement or development to exhibit” and that it was “the land of childhood . . . enveloped in the dark mantle of night.” He characterized Africa as an “unhistorical, undeveloped spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature . . . (and only) on the threshold of world history.”40 Even as late as the 1960s, Hugh Trevor Roper was proclaiming that there was no African history, but only the history of the white man in Africa, and that before then, all had been darkness.41

In 1962, Africanist historians J. D. Fage and Roland Oliver were still propagating the Hamitic myth which claimed that a mythical fair-skinned race from the Middle East and Asia was responsible for introducing agriculture, iron technology, state formation, and cultural development in the sub-Sahara, implying that Africans lacked the capacity to introduce these themselves.42 In colonial accounts of the imposing stone structures at Great Zimbabwe at the time, the structures were said to have been built by the Phoenicians, the Hamites, or some earlier white civilization; anyone but the indigenous African population who, it was claimed, did not have the capacity to build such magnificent structures.43 Contributing to this image of Africa was a mixture of Western racial arrogance and the belief that because there were limited documents of the African past, everything that occurred then could not be regarded as history.

The immediate trigger of the 1950s and 1960s rebuttal of the pervasive negative presentation of Africa was Karl Polanyi’s “substantivist” school, which argued that economic rationality in Africa was introduced by the Europeans and that, before then, prices had been set by “reciprocity” and “administration,” as Africans had no conception of markets before contact with the West.44 As African and Africanist economic historians began to challenge this Eurocentric view by seeking to demonstrate that markets had long existed in Africa, African political historians were equally counteracting colonial historiography by rediscovering precolonial African history, unearthing old African kingdoms, civilizations, and cultural heroes, and revalidating African culture and art.45 In the absence of written records of the past, nationalist historians used a range of other sources, including oral tradition, anthropology, linguistics, archaeology, and paleontology to reconstruct the past. Since the 1950s, both African economic history and African history have grown significantly as academic disciplines.

African economic history writings thus far fall into three categories: neoclassical economics, dependency theory and its variants, and Marxist approaches. No one theory has dominated the field and, as Hopkins has pointed out, because of the paucity of written documents, African economic history has developed as an interdisciplinary field, as scholars have had to gather information using all pertinent disciplines and sources, such as anthropology, archaeology, political history, economics, and oral sources.46

An early pioneer of the neoclassical approach was K. O. Dike in Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta, 1830–1885: An Introduction to the Economic and Political History of Nigeria, followed by a number of studies, including A. G. Hopkins’ well-known 1973 study of West Africa.47 Neoclassical economic history placed a great deal of emphasis on trade and exchange systems in African economies in a bid to demonstrate that markets had played a more important role in Africa than has been acknowledged. Hopkins’ study maintained that African smallholders had responded effectively to markets and emphasized that the African people’s economic behavior was explainable on the basis of their market responsiveness. This view is in line with rational choice theory, which dictates that individuals always make prudent and logical decisions based on what they perceive to be in their best interests and in order to maximize benefits and minimize costs.48

An important aspect of the neoclassical historiographical approach was the “vent-for-surplus theory” used by Hopkins to argue that colonialism provided a stimulus for African peasant production in the early years of colonization.49 Originally used by Adam Smith and adopted by Hyla Myint in the late 1950s, the theory was that the rapid growth of African export agriculture in the early colonial period in West Africa was the result of African farmers harnessing hitherto idle land and labor in order to take advantage of the “vent” [opening] provided by colonial governments. The vent was in the form of cheap transport as well as other enabling measures and growing overseas demand.50 The neoclassical economic history paradigm has been criticized for focusing only on exchange and ignoring production in African economies, thus providing a partial and distorted picture of the African economic experience.51

In the 1970s, dependency theorists emerged to provide an alternative approach to the study of African economic history. The dependency approach to African economic history and its variants—underdevelopment theory or the development of underdevelopment, unequal exchange, and world systems theory—emerged out of dissatisfaction with the neoclassical paradigm and disappointment at the collapse of Africa’s hopes to attain meaningful and rapid development. The optimism across the continent that the 1960s would turn out to be the “decade of development” was dashed when the expected development did not materialize. Instead, the continent was faced with political instability, military coups, growing authoritarianism, and poor performing economies. To explain Africa’s continuing woes, scholars adopted the theory developed by Andre Gunder Frank, which explained Latin America’s condition of lack of development after a century of independence, and applied it to Africa.52

Introduced to African studies by Walter Rodney in his How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972), the theory divided the world under capitalism into the center and the periphery and maintained that Africa, Asia, and Latin America had been incorporated into the evolving global capitalist system since the 16th century in a subservient role as producers of raw materials and consumers of finished products.53 This subordinate role ensured that they would not develop but would suffer underdevelopment because of the center’s appropriations of their surplus. Consequently, the center (the global north) became richer, while the periphery (Africa, Asia, and Latin America) became underdeveloped. Thus, where neoclassical approaches hailed markets as beneficial to all, dependency theorists argued that they were actually deleterious to the periphery. Emmanuel Wallerstein, Samir Amin, G. Arrighi, and E. Alpers are some of the leading scholars of the dependency paradigm.54

Dependency theory has been criticized for denying Africans agency and for portraying them as hapless victims of an inexorable global capitalist system; its inability to provide any insights into the internal dynamics of African societies and economies has also been criticized. Indeed, as Tiyambe Zeleza points out, according to dependency theorists, from the time of their “incorporation” in the 16th century, Africans were helplessly stuck on a one-way street of continuous and unrelenting underdevelopment. Dependency theory also had little to say about African societies and economies before their “incorporation.”55

Dissatisfied with the neoclassical and dependency approaches and their concentration on markets, albeit coming out with different conclusions about their role, Marxists stepped into the fray in order to ground analyses of Africa’s economic history in Marxism’s “modes of production.” Among leading Marxist scholars working on Africa were Jean Suret-Canale and Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch.56 The Marxist scholars advanced the mode of production argument that separate modes of production could coexist in one society. In colonial Africa, the capitalist mode coexisted with but dominated the precapitalist modes of production, ensuring that the latter were left to meet all the workers’ subsistence needs (e.g., through subsistence agriculture) in order to enable the capitalist sector to pay workers minimum wages and reap superprofits. This approach spawned several neo-Marxist studies seeking to demonstrate how the colonial state sought to drive Africans into the labor market by destroying peasant self-sufficiency.57

Noticeable is the fact that all three paradigms have their intellectual origins in the global north. As both Zeleza and Austin have correctly observed, the theoretical framework employed by scholars of Africa have all been based on Western historical experiences and intellectual frameworks associated with European thinkers such as Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Adam Smith.58 This may account for some of the “misleading analyses of the process and content of economic change and development in Africa in the precolonial era.”59

In tracing the discipline of African economic history, some scholars have argued that after a period of boom in the 1970s, scholarship went into a depression in the late 1980s and has only just recovered. Evidence of this, it is argued, is in the decline in the number of articles published in specialist economic history journals located in the global north.60 This evidence has been refuted by Green and Nyambara, who have argued that not publishing in northern-based “prestige journals” does not mean that “little economic history research is taking place” on the continent. In fact, “economic history research at African universities is not only strong, but remained vibrant even when African economic history was on the decline” elsewhere. They concluded that the lack of visibility of African scholars in northern-based top-ranking economic history journals was “an effect of the increased methodological specialization of economic history in the Western world,” namely, the use of econometric approaches.61

New Economic History

Cliometrics, also known as new economic history, or econometric history, developed in the United States in the late 1950s and became associated with the work of Douglass North, Herbert Fogel, and Stanley Engerman, among others. New economic history is a quantitative approach which applies econometric techniques and economic theory to the study of economic history. The approach was facilitated by advances in computer technology, the availability of large amounts of quantitative data, and the desire by some scholars, mostly economists, to use mathematical and statistical models to measure economic development. The fusion of economics and economic history led to the relocation of economic history from history to economics departments at universities. Over time, cliometrics also impacted African economic history studies. Interesting quantitative studies in African economic history, focusing on anthropometry, include Moradi’s “Towards an Objective Account of Nutrition and Health in Kenya: A Study of Stature in African Army Recruits and Civilians, 1880–1980” (2009), David Eltis’ “Nutritional Trends in Africa and the Americas: Heights of Africans, 1819–1939” (1982), and Gareth Austin’s work on “The Biological Standard of Living in Early Nineteenth-Century West Africa: New Anthropometric Evidence in Northern Ghana and Burkina Faso” (2011), as well as Nunn’s work, among others.62

More recently, a new scholarly thrust, labeled by Hopkins as “New African Economic History,” has emerged and is best represented by the work of Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson.63 These scholars have advanced a “reversal of fortune” theory, arguing that areas which were relatively rich and densely populated in 1500 had become poor by 1995, while those which were poor and sparsely populated had become rich because colonists tended to establish “extractive” institutions in the former, while the latter attracted settler communities that proceeded to recreate European societies, with strong private property rights and checks and balances in the governance system. They maintain that Africa was subjected to extractive institutions, including the slave trade, and is now poor because it was relatively rich and densely populated in 1500.64 This new econometric history approach has been criticized for not being sensitive to historical changes over long periods and compressing history by drawing conclusions about the present on the basis of developments that occurred centuries ago, as well as for basing conclusions on flawed data.65

Primary Sources

Given the size and diversity of the African continent and the various areas of research interest covering trade, slavery and the slave trade, peasants, agriculture, manufacturing, labor, migration, international financial institutions and their impact on African economies, and land, among many other topics, it is impossible to identify one repository or archive to consult. What a prospective researcher consults will depend on the topic, country, or region being studied. While northern-based scholars are increasingly using cliometrics to analyze statistical databases in studying African economic history, Africa-based scholars continue to use archival materials, oral sources, and ethnographic techniques and depend on a wide variety of disciplines such as economics, anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics in their research. Potential researchers in African economic history would be advised to get into contact with leading scholars in their field of interest for guidance regarding existing and useful repositories.

Further Reading

  • Acemoglu, Daron, Simon Johnson, and James A. Robinson. “Reversal of Fortune: Geography and Institutions in the Making of the Modern World Income Distribution.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 118 (2002): 1231–1294.
  • Alpers, Edward A. “Re-Thinking African Economic History.” Kenya Historical Review 2 (1973): 163–188.
  • Austin, Gareth, and Stephen Broadberry. “Introduction: The Renaissance of African Economic History.” Economic History Review 67, no. 4 (2014): 893–906.
  • Cooper, Frederick. “Africa and the World Economy.” African Studies Review 24, no. 2–3 (1981): 1–86.
  • Fenske, James. “The Causal History of Africa: Replies to Jerven and Hopkins.” Economic History of Developing Regions 26, no. 2 (2011): 125–212.
  • Fourie, Johan. “The Data Revolution in African Economic History.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 47, no. 2 (2016): 193–212.
  • Hopkins, Anthony G. “The New Economic History of Africa.” Journal of African History 50 (2009): 155–177.
  • Hopkins, Anthony G. “Causes and Confusions in African History.” Economic History of Developing Regions 26, no. 2 (2011): 107–110.
  • Inikori, Joseph E.The Atlantic World Slave Economy and the Development Process in England, 1650–1850.” Paper presented at the Urhobo Historical Society conference on “The Legacy of Slavery: Unequaled Exchange,” University of California, Santa Barbara, May 2002.
  • Jerven, Morten. “A Clash of Disciplines? Economists and Historians Approaching the African Past.” Economic History of Developing Regions 26, no. 2 (2011): 111–124.
  • Jerven, Morten, Gareth Austin, Erik Green, Chibuike Uche, Joseph Inikori, Alexander Moradi, Ellen Hillbom. Moving Forward in African Economic History: Bridging the Gaps between Methods and Sources.” African Economic History Working Paper Series no. 1 (2012). African Economic History Network.
  • Manning, Patrick. “The Prospects for African Economic History: Is Today Included in the Long Run?” African Studies Review 30, no. 2 (1987): 49–62.
  • Zeleza, Paul Tiyambe. A Modern Economic History of Africa. Vol. 1, The Nineteenth Century. Dakar: CODESRIA, 1993.


  • 1. The discussion on the origins of humankind is based on Christopher Stringer and Robin McKie, African Exodus: The Origins of Modern Humanity (London: Jonathan Cape, 1996); and H. J. Deacon and J. Deacon, Human Beginnings in South Africa: Uncovering the Secrets of the Stone Age (Cape Town: David Philip, 1999).

  • 2. Barbara E. P. Barich, Water and Grain: The Beginnings of Domestication in the Sahara and Nile Valley (Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 1998); and Fiona Marshall and Elisabeth Hildebrand, “Cattle Before Crops: The Beginnings of Food Production in Africa,” Journal of World Prehistory 16, no. 2 (2002): 99–143.

  • 3. Barich, Water and Grain; Roger M. Blench and Kevin C. MacDonald, eds., The Origins and Development of African Livestock: Archaeology, Genetics, Linguistics and Ethnography (London: UCL Press, 2000); and John E. G. Sutton, ed., The Growth of Farming Communities in Africa from the Equator Southwards (Nairobi: British Institute of Eastern Africa, 1995).

  • 4. Roland Oliver and J. D. Fage, A Short History of Africa (London: Blackstone, 1962).

  • 5. Sutton, The Growth of Farming Communities; and Jan Vansina, “New Linguistic Evidence and ‘The Bantu Expansion,’” Journal of African History 36, no. 2 (1995): 173.

  • 6. Biatrix Midant-Reynes, The Prehistory of Egypt: From the First Egyptians to the First Pharaohs (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999); and Bill Manley, The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Egypt (London: Penguin Books, 1996).

  • 7. David Phillipson, Ancient Ethiopia. Aksum: Its Antecedents and Successors (London: British Museum, 1998); and Stuart Munro-Hay, Aksum: An African Civilization of Late Antiquity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991).

  • 8. Nehemia Levtzion, Ancient Ghana and Mali (London: Methuen, 1973).

  • 9. Ralph Austen, ed., In Search of Sundiata: The Mande Epic as History, Literature and Performance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999).

  • 10. Levtzion, Ancient Ghana and Mali; Austen, In Search of Sundiata; and Paul A. Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

  • 11. Chapurukah M. Kusimba, The Rise and Fall of Swahili States (Walnut Creek: Altamira, 1999); M. Horton and J. Middleton, The Swahili (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001); and P. R. Schmidt, Iron Technology in East Africa (Oxford: James Currey, 1997).

  • 12. Innocent Pikirayi, The Zimbabwe Culture: Origins and Decline of Southern Zambezia States (Oxford: Altimara, 2001); Alois Mlambo, A History of Zimbabwe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Martin Hall, The Changing Past: Farmers, Kings and Traders in Southern Africa, 200–1800 (Cape Town: David Philip, 1987); and Peter Garlake, Great Zimbabwe Described and Explained (London: Thames and Hudson, 1973).

  • 13. Nathan Nunn, “The Long-Term Effects of Africa’s Slave Trades,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 123, no. 1 (2008): 139–176.

  • 14. John D. Fage, “Slavery and the Slave Trade in the Context of West African History,” Journal of African History 10, no. 3 (1969): 393–404; and Walter Rodney, “African Slavery and Other Forms of Social Oppression on the Upper Guinea Coast in the Context of the Atlantic Slave Trade,” Journal of African History 7 (1966): 431–443.

  • 15. The following diseases were unknown in the Americas before the Columbian exchange: smallpox, measles, chickenpox, influenza, typhus, typhoid or parathyroid fever, diphtheria, cholera, bubonic plague, scarlet fever, whooping cough, and malaria.

  • 16. Philip Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969).

  • 17. J. E. Inikori, “Measuring the Atlantic Slave Trade: An Assessment of Curtin and Anstey,” Journal of African History 17, no. 2 (1976): 197–223; and G. N. Uzoigwe, “The Slave Trade and African Societies,” Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana 14, no. 2 (1973): 187–212.

  • 18. David Eltis, The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery; Patrick Manning, Slavery and African Life: Occidental, Oriental and African Slave Trades (London: Cambridge University Press, 1990); and Nunn, “Long-Term Effects of Africa’s Slave Trades.”

  • 19. Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (London: Bogle-L’Ouverture, 1972); Uzoigwe, “The Slave Trade and African Societies”; and Inikori, “Measuring the Atlantic Slave Trade.”

  • 20. Joseph E. Inikori, Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England: A Study in International Trade and Economic Development (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002); and Eric Willams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944).

  • 21. Joseph E. Inikori, Forced Migration: The Impact of the Export Slave Trade on African Societies (London: Hutchinson University Library, 1982); Joseph E. Inikori, “Africa and the Globalisation Process: Western Africa, 1450–1850,” Journal of Global History 2, no.1 (2007): 63–86; D. Eltis, Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); and Nunn, “Long-Term Effects of Africa’s Slave Trades.”

  • 22. Patrick Manning, “Contours of Slavery and Social Change in Africa.” The American Historical Review 88, no. 4 (1983): 835–857; Edward A. Alpers, Ivory and Slaves: The Changing Pattern of International Trade in East Central Africa to the Later Nineteenth Century (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1975); and Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery, front cover.

  • 23. Jan Vansina, Kingdoms of the Savanna (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966), 52.

  • 24. Reginald Coupland, The British Anti-Slavery Movement, 2nd ed. (London: F. Cass, 1964).

  • 25. Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944).

  • 26. Roger Anstey, The Atlantic Slave Trade and Its Abolition, 1760–1810 (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1975).

  • 27. Select commentaries on the Williams thesis include Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (Boston: Little, Brown, 1974); Roderick A. McDonald, “The Williams Thesis: A Comment on the State of Scholarship,” Caribbean Quarterly 25, no. 3 (September 1979): 63–68; Stanley Engerman, “The Slave Trade and British Capital Formation in the Eighteenth Century: A Comment on the Williams Thesis,” Business History Review 46 (1972): 430–443; and Roger Anstey, “Capitalism and Slavery: A Critique,” Economic History Review 2, no. 21 (1968): 307–320.

  • 28. One of the aims of the Berlin Conference (1884–1885), which marked the beginning of the scramble for Africa, was to end the slave trade in Africa.

  • 29. Anthony G. Hopkins, An Economic History of West Africa (New York: Columbia University Press, 1973).

  • 30. Robin Law, ed., From Slave Trade to “Legitimate” Commerce: The Commercial Transition in Nineteenth-Century West Africa (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

  • 31. Samir Amin, “Underdevelopment and Dependence in Black Africa: Historical Origins,” Journal of Modern African Studies 10, no. 4 (1972): 503–524.

  • 32. Adam Hoschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (New York: Mariner Books, 1998).

  • 33. Mlambo, History of Zimbabwe.

  • 34. Alois S. Mlambo, “A History of Zimbabwe Migration to 1990,” in Zimbabwe’s Exodus: Crisis, Migration, Survival, ed. Jonathan Crush and Daniel Tevera (Cape Town: SAMP, 2010), 52–78.

  • 35. Charles van Onselen, Chibaro: African Mine Labour in Southern Rhodesia, 1900–33 (London: Pluto, 1976); and Jonathan Crush, Alan Jeeves, and David Yudelman, South Africa’s Labour Empire: A History of Black Migrancy to the Gold Mines (Oxford: Westview Press, 1991).

  • 36. Gareth Austin, “Resources, Techniques and Strategies South of the Sahara: Revising the Factor Endowments Perspective on African Economic Development, 1500–2000,” Economic History Review 61, no. 3 (2008): 587–624.

  • 37. Gareth Austin, “African Economic Development and Colonial Legacies,” International Development Policy.

  • 38. Walt W. Rostow, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1960).

  • 39. World Bank, World Development Report (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), cited in Kwadwo Konadu-Agyemang, “The Best of Times and the Worst of Times: Structural Adjustment Programmes and Uneven Development in Africa: The Case of Ghana,” Professional Geographer 52, no. 3 (2000): 474.

  • 40. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree (New York: Dover, 1956), 91–99.

  • 41. Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Rise of Christian Europe (London: Thames & Hudson, 1965).

  • 42. Oliver and Fage, A Short History of Africa.

  • 43. Mlambo, History of Zimbabwe.

  • 44. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1944); and Gareth Austin and Stephen Broadberry, “Introduction: The Renaissance of African Economic History,” Economic History Review 67, no. 4 (2014): 893–906.

  • 45. Bethwell A. Ogot, “African Historiography: From Colonial Historiography to UNESCO’s General History of Africa.”

  • 46. Hopkins, “New Economic History of Africa.”

  • 47. K. O. Dike, in Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta, 1830–1885: An Introduction to the Economic and Political History of Nigeria (London: Clarendon Press, 1956); and Hopkins, An Economic History of West Africa.

  • 48. Frederick Cooper, “Africa and the World Economy,” African Studies Review 24, no. 2–3 (1981): 3.

  • 49. Gareth Austin, “Vent for Surplus or Productivity Breakthrough? The Ghanaian Cocoa Take-off, c. 1890–1936,” Economic History Review 67, no. 4 (2014): 1034–1064.

  • 50. Hyla Myint, “The ‘Classical Theory’ of International Trade and the Underdeveloped Countries,” Economic Journal 68 (1958).

  • 51. Zeleza, A Modern Economic History of Africa, 3.

  • 52. Andre Gunder Frank, Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America: Historical Studies and Chile and Brazil (New York: NYU Press, 1967).

  • 53. Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (London: Bogle-L’Ouverture, 1972).

  • 54. Samir Amin, “Underdevelopment and Dependence in Black Africa: Historical Origins,” Journal of Modern African Studies 10, no. 4 (1972): 503–524; I. Wallerstein, The Modern World System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World Economy in the Sixteenth Century (New York: Academic Press, 1974); “Labor Supplies in Historical Perspective: A Study of the Proletarianisation of the African Peasantry in Rhodesia,” Journal of Development Studies 3 (1970): 197–234; and Edward Alpers, Ivory and Slaves in East Central Africa. Changing Patterns in Internal Trade to the Late Nineteenth Century (London: Heinemann, 1975).

  • 55. Zeleza, A Modern Economic History of Africa, 4; and Ogot, “African Historiography: From Colonial Historiography to UNESCO’s General History of Africa.”

  • 56. Coquery-Vidrovitch, “Recherches sur un mode de production africain,” La Pensée 144 (1969): 61–78; Coquery-Vidrovitch, “The Political Economy of the African Peasantry and Modes of Production,” in The Political Economy of Contemporary Africa, ed. P. Gutkind and I. Wallerstein (London: SAGE, 1976); Jean Suret-Canale, Afrique noire: occidentale et centrale: L’ère coloniale (1900–1945), vol. 2 (Editions Sociales, 1964); and Jean Suret-Canale, “Traditional Societies in Tropical Africa and the Concept of the ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’: Marxism and the Study of African Societies,” in Essays on African History: From the Slave Trade to Neo-Colonialism, ed. Jean Suret-Canale (London: C. Hurst 1988).

  • 57. Giovanni Arrighi, “Labour Supplies in Historical Perspective: A Study of the Proletarianisation of the African Peasantry in Rhodesia,” Journal of Development Studies 3 (1970): 197–234; Colin Bundy, The Rise and Fall of the South African Peasantry (London: Heinemann, 1979); Martin Legassick, “Perspectives on African ‘Underdevelopment,’” Journal of African History 17 (1976): 435–440); Robin Palmer, Land and Racial and Racial Domination in Rhodesia (London: Heinemann, 1977); Robin Palmer and N. Parsons, eds., The Roots of Rural Poverty in Central and Southern Africa (London: Heinemann, 1977); and Ian Phimister, “Peasant Production and Underdevelopment, Southern Rhodesia, 1890–1914,” African Affairs 73 (1974): 217–228.

  • 58. Zeleza, A Modern Economic History of Africa, 8; and Gareth Austin, “Reciprocal Comparison and African History: Tackling Conceptual Eurocentricism in the Study of Africa’s Economic Past,” African Studies Review 50, no. 3 (2007): 1–28.

  • 59. Zeleza, A Modern Economic History of Africa, 3.

  • 60. Gareth Austin, “African Economic History in Africa,” Economic History in Developing Regions 10, no. 1 (2015): 79–94; Hopkins, “New Economic History of Africa”; and Johan Fourie, “The Renaissance in Understanding Africa’s Economic Past,” The Conversations, June 4, 2015.

  • 61. Erik Green and Pius Nyambara, “The Internationalization of Economic History: Perspectives from the African Frontier,” Economic History of Developing Regions 30, no. 1 (2015): 68–78.

  • 62. Alexander Moradi, “Towards an Objective Account of Nutrition and Health in Colonial Kenya: A Study of Stature in African Army Recruits and Civilians, 1880–1980,” in Journal of Economic History 69, no. 3 (September 2009), 719–754; David Eltis, “Nutritional Trends in Africa and the Americas: Heights of Africans, 1819–1839,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 12, no. 3 (1982): 453-475”; Gareth Austin, “The Biological Standard of Living in Early Nineteenth-Century West Africa: New Anthropometric Evidence of Northern Ghana and Burkina Faso,” Economic History Review 63, no. 4 (2011): 1280–1302; and Nunn, “Long-Term Effects of Africa’s Slave Trades.”

  • 63. Anthony G. Hopkins, “The New Economic History of Africa,” Journal of African History, 50, 2 (2009), 155–177.

  • 64. Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson, and James A. Robinson, “Reversal of Fortune: Geography and Institutions in the Making of the Modern World Income Distribution,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 118 (2002): 1231–1294.

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