Commodity Trade, Africa

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Commodity Trade, Africa

The first Portuguese navigators to cruise along the African coast in the fifteenth century were particularly interested in gold, but they also bought slaves, pepper, gum arabic, ivory, hides, beeswax, and dye-woods. Slaves soon became the most important commerce between Europeans and Africans, but in the late seventeenth century, two-fifths of the trade of the British Royal Africa Company was still in commodities. Gold was the most important export from the Gold Coast until the late seventeenth century. Gum dominated exports from the Senegal River. The major limitation to development of trade was the cost of shipping, which limited exchange to commodities that had a high value for their weight. European ships also carried African cloth and food products between different African ports.

By the late eighteenth century, European shipping had become more efficient. The Industrial Revolution was creating new needs. Machinery needed lubrication, which was provided by vegetable oils. Nineteenth-century Europe also saw an increasing concern with personal cleanliness, particularly in Britain. Soap was made from vegetable oil. Palm oil exports to Britain from West Africa began in the 1790s, rose to 1,000 tons a year in 1810 and over 40,000 tons in 1855. French consumers were not interested in the soft yellow soap the British industry produced from palm oil, but French industrialists learned to produce an attractive soap from peanut oil. Starting with a small purchase in Gambia in 1833, peanut exports rose to over 200 tons in 1845 and over 5,500 in 1854.

The growth in vegetable oil production was also stimulated by a dramatic shift in the terms of trade, that is to say, what producers received in exchange for what they produced. The Industrial Revolution meant that cotton cloth, by far the most important African import, was produced at prices as low as 5 percent of earlier prices.

In the years that followed British abolition of the slave trade in 1807, Britain used diplomatic and naval pressure to shut it down. The new commerce is often called "legitimate trade" by comparison to the slave trade. The slave trade was, however, illegitimate only in the eyes of Europeans. The slave trade persisted into the 1860s, but West Africans increasingly found it wiser to focus on producing commodities, often using slave labor to do so. The slave trade within Africa thus continued. Slaves were used not only as agricultural labor, but also for mining gold and in extracting gum from acacia trees, which grew in desert-side areas. The best measure of the demand for slaves is that prices of slaves within Africa dropped slightly after 1807, but by 1830 they were higher than they had ever been.

The emphasis on commodity production in West Africa often contributed to a radical change in social and political structures. Income from the slave trade went primarily to kings, chiefs, and military leaders, that is to say, to those who commanded military forces. Peanuts and palm oil were produced by peasants, and though the traditional state tried to extract revenue from them, peasants received much of the profit and were often able to purchase weapons. During the course of the nineteenth century, much of the West African population was pulled into the market economy as producers of palm oil and peanuts.

The development of steamboats dramatically reduced the cost of shipping. From the middle of the nineteenth century, steamship companies began calling regularly at African ports, making it possible for both European and African merchants with limited capital to buy space and participate in the export economy.

The early growth of a peasantry was more characteristic of West Africa than of other parts of the continent. Palm oil exports were important in parts of Equatorial Africa, but in most of the rest of the continent, the pattern was different. The Cape Colony lived primarily off shipping to Asia. Though Cape entrepreneurs developed a trade in wool, South Africa remained an economic backwater until the discovery of diamonds in 1867 and of gold in 1884 began the transformation of South Africa into a modern industrial state.

In East and Central Africa, people were less numerous and elephants more so. The Industrial Revolution stimulated demand for ivory products by rapidly increasing the size and wealth of the European upper classes. Carvers competed for scarce ivory with industrialists, who used it for piano keys and billiard balls. Well-armed hunters fanned out across the region, often decimating elephant herds in a short period of time. Hunters often also engaged in slaving, and the caravans that moved toward the coast included both slaves and elephant tusks. As elephant herds were reduced, slaves became more important.

The largest market for slaves was the clove plantations of Zanzibar (in present-day Tanzania). From 1818, Sayyid Said (r. 1806–1856), sultan of Oman and Zanzibar, had encouraged his Arab countrymen to develop clove plantations. He also encouraged Indian financiers to settle in the port cites of the coast and provide funding for traders going into the interior. Zanzibar thus became the hub of a vast commercial empire and an important port of call for European and American shipping

Slave exports were largely a byproduct of the demand in Zanzibar. Zanzibari clove production expanded so dramatically that by the mid-1840s, it surpassed demand and the price began to drop. During the second half of the century, slaves flowed increasingly into coastal plantations that produced sesame, copra, and grain directed toward both local and international markets. Concentrations of slaves also produced food crops around the major trade hubs and port cities.

After the middle of the nineteenth century, the terms of trade changed. Prices were no longer improving for the African producer. In spite of this, the demand for new products increased. The European textile industry found a new source of cotton in Egypt, but was less successful south of Sahara, partly because of problems of quality control, partly because local weavers were often willing to pay higher prices than European importers. Coffee, a crop first domesticated and traded from southern Ethiopia, was developed as a plantation crop on the island of São Tomé from about 1850. It was also introduced in Angola, Liberia, and Madagascar. Cocoa was introduced as a plantation crop to São Tomé in 1822 and to the island of Fernando Póo (now Bioko, Equatorial Guinea) in 1836. Cocoa pods were taken to the Gold Coast in 1879, where cocoa spread rapidly as a smallholder crop. By 1911, the Gold Coast was the world's largest cocoa producer, exporting almost 45,000 tons a year.

The development of industrial processes capable of converting latex into rubber and the use of rubber for bicycle and, later, automobile tires created a rapidly increasing demand from about 1870. In the Congo, brutal methods were used to force rural dwellers to work as tappers of latex trees. In areas with a more developed market economy like Guinea, African traders fanned out in forest regions to buy latex. For a number of years, rubber replaced peanuts as the most important export of France's African colonies. Then, in 1908, the same year that a scandal over the methods used to gather rubber forced Belgium's King Leopold II (1835–1909) to yield control of the Congo, plantation rubber from Malaya came onto the market. The price for wild rubber declined rapidly. The only major plantation rubber operation in twentieth-century Africa was the Firestone concession in Liberia.

Colonization stepped up the level of commodity production. Railroads were built into potentially productive areas. Steamboats were placed on navigable rivers and lakes. During the period between the two world wars, roads were built. The imposition of taxation forced Africans to either produce cash crops or, if they lived in areas distant from markets, to sell their labor in areas that were better suited for cash-crop production.

A mineral economy was developed in southern Africa, centered around gold in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia, copper in the Congo and Northern Rhodesia. Uganda became a major producer of cotton and coffee. Tanganyika (German East Africa) produced sisal. In real terms, the value of West Africa's exports multiplied fifteen times over a fifty-year period. In 1951 the Gold Coast was the world's largest cocoa producer with 300,000 tons of exports.

Africans were coerced by the colonial regime in many ways. Forced labor was used to build roads and often to harvest settler crops. High taxes were used to force people into the market economy. In the Congo, peasants were often assigned quotas of certain crops they had to produce. In spite of this, African innovation and enterprise was crucial to much of what happened. Men migrated to seek work without being coerced. In Ghana, peasants devised ways to generate capital, spread risk, and acquire land. Knowledge of how to grow cocoa was spread in Ghana by peasants and by the Swiss Basle mission. In Nigeria, it was spread by African independent churches. In Northern Nigeria, the government wanted peasants to grow cotton, but the price paid for peanuts was higher. In Senegambia, peasants with land devised ways to attract migrant laborers. Truck and taxi transport was developed largely by African entrepreneurs.

see also Sub-Saharan Africa, European Presence in.


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