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Factor markets in Nieboer conditions: pre-colonial West Africa, c.1500–c.1900


This article reviews the history of factor markets in pre-colonial West Africa, both during and after the Atlantic slave trade. The forms and volume of these markets strongly reflected the natural and technological environment, and a horizontally and vertically uneven distribution of coercive and purchasing power. The general abundance of land and absence of economies of scale in production militated against contracting for land and free labour. Hence the most widespread and large-scale factor market was in slaves. Capital and credit were transacted mostly within networks of trust and/or on the security of human pawns. With considerable social costs, variously reinforced and restricted by states, pawning and (especially) the intra-West-African slave trade channelled labour into the production of commodities for sale, contributing to the nineteenth-century growth of certain coastal and interior economies. It was only in the latter era that land rights began to be commercialized. This was not a response to a general shift in factor ratios, but rather to demand for specific kinds of land in specific places, stimulated by the growth of export markets for agricultural commodities.

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1 Oxford, 1956; a new edition (with a preface by G. Austin) was due for publication in Ibadan, 2008.

2 A. G. Hopkins, An economic history of West Africa (London, 1973), 23–7, 37–9, 70–1.

3 For economic historians the most striking of these documents is perhaps the early colonial-period poem ‘Poverty’ (Talauci) by al-Hājj ‘Umar of Salaga in northern Ghana. A translation by I. A. Tahir appears in Jack Goody, Cooking, cuisine and class: a study in comparative sociology (Cambridge, 1982), 194–203.

4 Beatrix Heintze and Adam Jones eds., European sources for Sub-Saharan Africa before 1900: use and abuse, special issue of Paideuma: Mitteilungen zur Kulturkunde, 33 (Stuttgart, 1987).

5 Mungo Park, Travels into the interior districts of Africa (London, 1954; 1st publ. 1799).

6 The literature on pre-colonial West Africa frequently uses ‘Sudan’ in the old sense of the great swathe of savanna between the desert and, where applicable, the forest.

7 For a succinct discussion of oral sources by a West Africa specialist see David Henige, Oral historiography (Harlow, UK, 1982).

8 Hopkins, Economic history, 23–7; H. J. Nieboer, Slavery as an industrial system (The Hague, 1900; revised edn 1910).

9 Domar, Evsey D., ‘The causes of slavery or serfdom: a hypothesis’, Journal of Economic History 30:1 (1970), 1832. In this respect the present article suggests a generalization of an analysis developed in more quantitative and qualitative detail for the case of the kingdom of Asante, in Gareth Austin, Labour, land and capital in Ghana: from slavery to free labour in Asante, 1807–1956 (Rochester NY, 2005), 155–70.

10 Eltis, David and Jennings, Lawrance C., ‘Trade between Western Africa and the Atlantic world in the pre-colonial era’, American Historical Review 93 (1988), 944–5.

11 Hopkins, Economic history, 124.

12 Ibid., 124–9.

13 Robin Law ed., From slave trade to ‘legitimate’ commerce: the commercial transition in nineteenth-century West Africa (Cambridge, 1995); Martin Lynn, Commerce and economic change in West Africa: the palm oil trade in the nineteenth century (Cambridge, 1997).

14 For an overview of the economic consequences of the jihads, see John E. Flint and E. Anne McDougall, ‘Economic change in West Africa in the nineteenth century’, in J. F. A. Ajayi and M. Crowder eds., History of West Africa, vol. II (2nd edn; Harlow, UK, 1987), 386–93.

15 Lovejoy, Paul E., ‘Plantations in the economy of the Sokoto Caliphate’, Journal of African History 19:3 (1978), 341–68.

16 There is now a substantial literature on this, of which the starting-points were Lovejoy, Paul E. and Baier, Stephen, ‘The desert-side economy of the central Sudan’, International Journal of African Historical Studies 8:4 (1975), 551–81; Stephen Baier, An economic history of Central Niger (Oxford, 1980); and Paul E. Lovejoy, Caravans of kola: the Hausa kola trade, 1700–1900 (Zaria, 1980).

17 For a fairly recent examination of the economics of the Saharan trade, and references to earlier studies, see Ralph A. Austen and Dennis F. Cordell, ‘Trade, transportation, and expanding economic networks: Saharan caravan commerce in the era of European expansion, 1500–1900’, in Alusine Jalloh and Toyin Falola eds., Black business and economic power (Rochester NY, 2002), 80–113.

18 For a recent overview see Austin, Gareth, ‘Resources, techniques and strategies south of the Sahara: revising the factor endowments perspective on African economic development, 1500–2000’, Economic History Review 61:3 (2008), 587624.

19 In Senegambia the Islamic movements were fuelled by peasant anger at the warrior elites who thrived on the slave trade. The later, nineteenth-century, revolutions owed part of their military strength to the ability of peasants, now producing peanuts for export, to buy guns. See Martin A. Klein, ‘Social and economic factors in the Muslim revolution in Senegambia’, Journal of African History 13:3 (1972), 419–41; Boubacar Barry, Senegambia and the Atlantic slave trade (Cambridge, 1998; 1st publ. in French, 1988).

20 James L. A. Webb, Jr., Desert frontier: ecological and economic change along the Western Sahel, 1600–1850 (Madison, 1995).

21 The points in this and the next paragraph are explored in much greater depth, in a broader African context, in Austin, ‘Resources, techniques and strategies’.

22 Hopkins, Economic History, 15, 224.

23 The best introduction to the problems of early censuses remains R. R. Kuczynski, Demographic survey of the British colonial empire, vol. I: West Africa (London, 1948).

24 Durand, John D., ‘The modern expansion of world population’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 111:3 (1967), 137–8, 152–3; Patrick Manning, Slavery and African life (Cambridge, 1990), Fig. 4.21. I am grateful to Professor Manning for supplying me with the figures underlying the graph cited here.

25 Hopkins, Economic history, 15, 224.

26 H. W. Singer, ‘Demographic factors in Subsaharan economic development’, in Melville J. Herskovits and Mitchell Harwitz eds., Economic transition in Africa (London, 1964), Table 11.1.

27 Marion Johnson, ‘Elephants for want of towns’, in Christopher Fyfe and David MacMaster eds., African Historical Demography, vol. II (Edinburgh, 1981), 317–18, 329–30; see further Austin, Labour, land and capital in Ghana (Rochester NY, 2005), 60–4.

28 E.g. Hawthorne, Walter, ‘Nourishing a stateless society during the slave trade: the rise of Balanta paddy-rice production in Guinea-Bissau’, Journal of African History 42:1 (2001), 124.

29 For an eyewitness observation see Park, Travels, 215.

30 Curtin, Philip D., ‘The lure of Bambuk gold’, Journal of African History 14:4 (1973), 623–31; Austin, Labour, land and capital in Ghana, 73–7; Austin, ‘Resources, techniques and strategies’.

31 Austin, ‘Resources, techniques and strategies’.

32 Gareth Austin, ‘Indigenous credit institutions in West Africa, c.1750–1960’, in Gareth Austin and Kaoru Sugihara eds., Local suppliers of credit in the Third World, 1750–1960 (Basingstoke, 1993), 93–159.

33 See Hopkins, Economic history, ch. 2; Paul E. Lovejoy, ‘The internal trade of West Africa to 1800’, in J. F. A. Ajayi and Michael Crowder eds., History of West Africa, vol. I (3rd edn; Harlow UK, 1985), 648–90. I explore the significance of recent research on the matter in a book manuscript currently in preparation, ‘Markets, slaves and states in West African history’.

34 Philip D. Curtin, Economic change in pre-colonial Africa: Senegambia in the era of the slave trade (Madison, 1975), 197; Webb, Desert frontier, 37–9, 52–4; Baier, Economic history of Central Niger.

35 Lovejoy, ‘Internal trade’, 667–8, for the Songhay Empire (to the late sixteenth century). A detailed description pertinent to the late nineteenth century is provided by a French colonial study: Archives National du Sénégal, Q.54: ‘Étude commerciale sur le riz de la vallée du Niger 1911’, by H. Giviêu, Dakar, 25 March 1911.

36 Curtin, Economic change, 197. See further James F. Searing, West African slavery and Atlantic commerce: the Senegal river valley, 1700–1860 (Cambridge, 1993).

37 The obvious example is Kano, but there were others. See, e.g., Ray A. Kea, Settlements, trade, and polities in the seventeenth-century Gold Coast (Baltimore, 1982), 43–7.

38 This is based on work in progress (see note 33 above), from sources in the national archives of Ghana and The Gambia.

39 Lovejoy, Caravans of kola; Edmund Abaka, Kola is God's gift: agricultural production, export initiatives and the kola industry of Asante and the Gold Coast c.1820–1950 (Oxford, 2005).

40 Roberts, Richard, ‘Linkages and multiplier effects in the ecologically specialized trade of pre-colonial West Africa’, Cahiers d'Études Africaines 20 (1980–1981), 135–48; Paul E. Lovejoy, Salt of the desert sun: a history of salt production and trade in the Central Sudan (Cambridge, 1986).

41 Austin, Gareth, ‘“No elders were present”: commoners and private ownership in Asante, 1807–96’, Journal of African History 37:1 (1996), 810.

42 The general point is well exemplified in Emmanuel Terray, ‘Commerce pré-colonial et organisation sociale chez les Dida de Côte d'Ivoire’, in Claude Meillassoux ed., The development of indigenous trade and markets in West Africa (London, 1971), 145–52.

43 Curtin, Economic change, 211–12. See further Coleen E. Kriger, Cloth in West African history (Lanham MD, 2006).

44 Heinrich Barth, Travels and discoveries in North and Central Africa, vol. I (London, 1965 1st publ. 1857), 511.

45 François Manchuelle, Willing migrants: Soninke labor diasporas, 1848–1960 (Athens OH, 1997), 25–9.

46 Lovejoy, Paul E., ‘Interregional money flows in the pre-colonial trade of Nigeria’, Journal of African History 15:4 (1974), 563–85; Philip D. Curtin, ‘Africa and the wider monetary world, 1350–1850’, in John F. Richards ed., Precious metals in the late medieval and early modern worlds (Durham NC, 1983); Jan S. Hogendorn and Marion Johnson, The shell money of the slave trade (Cambridge, 1986).

47 Inikori, Joseph E., ‘Africa and the globalization process: western Africa, 1450–1850’, Journal of Global History 2:1 (2007), 84.

48 See, e.g., Lovejoy, Salt of the desert sun, 282.

49 For the emergence of this new tendency in Ghana see Austin, Labour, land and capital in Ghana, and Stefano Boni, Clearing the Ghanaian forest (Legon, 2005). In Ivory Coast, President Houphoet-Boigny promised ‘land to the tiller’ in order to encourage labour migration into the forest zone to boost cocoa and coffee production. The immigrants came from the savanna: northern Ivory Coast and neighbouring Burkina Faso and Mali. But his offer seems to have lacked legal foundation, and was effectively repudiated after his death, a major source of the subsequent civil war. See Jean-Pierre Chauveau and Eric Léonard, ‘Côte d'Ivoire's pioneer fronts’, in William Gervase Clarence-Smith ed., Cocoa pioneer fronts since 1800 (London, 1996), 176–94.

50 Gareth Austin, ‘Sub-Saharan Africa: land rights and ethno-national consciousness in historically land-abundant economies’, in Stanley L. Engerman and Jacob Metzer eds., Land rights, ethno-nationality, and sovereignty in history (London, 2004), 276–93.

51 Johnson, Marion, ‘Migrant's progress’, Part I, Bulletin of the Ghana Geographical Association 9 (1964), 427; Louis Wilson, The Krobo people of Ghana to 1892 (Athens OH, 1991); Veit Arlt, ‘Christianity, imperialism and culture: the expansion of the two Krobo states, c.1830–1930’ (unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Basel, 2005). For a different perspective see Robert Addo-Fening, ‘Akyem Abuakwa: a study of the impact of missionary activity and colonial rule on a traditional state’ (unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Ghana, 1980).

52 See McCaskie, T. C., ‘Ahiamu: “a place of meeting”: an essay on process and event in the history of the Asante state’, Journal of African History 25:2 (1984), 175–6.

53 Austin, Labour, land and capital in Ghana, 100–2.

54 The later expansion of markets in land rights in southern Ghana is considered in Austin, Gareth, ‘Labour and land in Ghana, 1874–1939: a shifting ratio and an institutional revolution’, Australian Economic History Review 47:1 (2007), 95120.

55 E.g. Austin, Labour, land and capital in Ghana, 99–105. The actual outcomes were, not surprisingly, varied. See the introduction and West Africa chapters in Claude-Hélene Perrot ed., Lignages et territoire en Afrique aux XVIIIe et XIXe siècles: stratégies, compétition, intégration (Paris, 2000).

56 Osborn, Emily Lynn, ‘“Rubber fever”, commerce and French colonial rule in Upper Guinée, 1890–1913’, Journal of African History 45:3 (2004), 445–65.

57 Johnson, Marion, ‘The economic foundations of an Islamic theocracy – the case of Masina’, Journal of African History 17:4 (1976), 486.

58 Kenneth Swindell, and Alieu Jeng, Migrants, credit and climate: the Gambian groundnut trade, 1834–1934 (Leiden, 2006), 40–67.

59 J. G. Christaller, A dictionary of the Asante and Fante language called Tishi (Basel, 1881), 105, also 618. For further discussion see Austin, Labour, land and capital in Ghana, 135, 184.

60 Austin, Labour, land and capital in Ghana, 137.

61 In this general sense, see e.g. Manchuelle, Willing migrants, and Wariboko, Nimi, ‘A theory of the canoe house corporation’, African Economic History 26 (1998), 141–72.

62 R. S. Rattray ed. and transl., Ashanti proverbs (Oxford, 1916), 162.

63 E.g. Lars Sundstrom, The trade of Guinea (Lund, 1965), 34.

64 E.g. Sundstrom, Trade of Guinea, 254; Curtin, Economic change, 303.

65 See Geoffrey M. Hodgson, Economics and institutions (Cambridge, 1988), 173.

66 Gareth Austin, ‘African business in nineteenth-century West Africa’, in Alusine Jalloh and Toyin Falola eds., Black business and economic power (Rochester NY, 2002), 121.

67 Thomas E. Bowdich, A mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee (London, 1819; repr. 1966), 257. See further Austin, Labour, land and capital in Ghana, 138.

68 Joseph Raymond LaTorre, ‘Wealth surpasses everything: an economic history of Asante, 1750–1874’ (unpublished PhD dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1978), 194. This is consistent with evidence of general accumulation of wealth in Asante during that period.

69 Austin, Labour, land and capital, 138.

70 Abner Cohen, ‘Cultural strategies in the organization of trading diasporas’, in Meillassoux ed., The development of indigenous trade, 266–81. For a historical introduction see Philip D. Curtin, ‘Africa: traders and trade communities’, in his Cross-cultural trade in world history (Cambridge, 1984). There are interesting parallels with ethnic-religious trading diasporas in the Mediterranean world, studied by Avner Greif; see his Institutions and the path to the modern economy: lessons from medieval trade (New York, 2006).

71 Austin, Labour, land and capital, 142–3.

72 Hopkins, A. G., ‘Property rights and empire-building: Britain's annexation of Lagos, 1861’, Journal of Economic History 40:4 (1980), 777–98.

73 Paul E. Lovejoy and Toyin Falola eds., Pawnship, slavery, and colonialism in Africa (Trenton NJ, 2003).

74 Austin, Labour, land and capital in Ghana, 144–5.

75 Ibid., 142–4, 190, 200.

76 E.g., ibid., 36, 195; Austin, ‘Indigenous credit’, 109.

77 Austin, ‘Indigenous credit’; Lovejoy and Falola, Pawnship.

78 John Iliffe, The African poor: a history (Cambridge, 1987), 87.

79 Austin, ‘Indigenous credit institutions’, 102–3.

80 For a discussion of the available observations for loans on human pawns in nineteenth-century Asante, see Austin, Labour, land and capital in Ghana, 144–6.

81 Austin, ‘Indigenous credit’.

82 Robin Law, ‘Finance and credit in pre-colonial Dahomey’, in Endre Stiansen and Jane I. Guyer eds., Credit, currencies and culture: African financial institutions in historical perspective (Uppsala, 1999), 21–3, 31–2.

83 Philip T. Hoffman, Gilles Postel-Vinay and Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, ‘Information and economic history: how the credit market in old regime Paris forces us to rethink the transition to capitalism’, American Historical Review 104 (1999), 69–94.

84 Austin, ‘Indigenous credit institutions’, 104–5; Law, ‘Finance and credit’, 28–9.

85 Mungo Park, Travels, 219.

86 Austin, Labour, land and capital in Ghana, 112–14.

87 Rodney, Walter, ‘Slavery and other forms of social oppression on the Upper Guinea coast in the context of the Atlantic slave trade’, Journal of African History 7:4 (1966), 431–43; Igor Kopytoff and Suzanne Miers, ‘African “slavery” as an institution of marginality’, in Suzanne Miers and Igor Kopytoff eds., Slavery in Africa: historical and anthropological perspectives (Madison, 1977).

88 Emmanuel Terray, ‘La captivité dans le royaume Abron du Gyaman’, in Claude Meillassoux ed., L'Esclavage en Afrique précoloniale (Paris, 1975), 389–453.

89 Lovejoy, Paul E. and Richardson, David, ‘Competing markets for male and female slaves: prices in the interior of West Africa, 1780–1850’, International Journal of African Historical Studies 28:2 (1995), 261–94.

90 Austin, Labour, land and capital in Ghana, 174–80.

91 For overviews see Paul E. Lovejoy, Transformations in slavery: a history of slavery in Africa (2nd edn; Cambridge, 2000); Manning, Slavery and African life; also Law ed., From slave trade to ‘legitimate’ commerce.

92 Lovejoy, Transformations, 68–70, 80–95, 98–127, 138–9.

93 Manning, Slavery and African life; David Eltis, The rise of African slavery in the Americas (Cambridge, 2000); Lovejoy and Richardson, ‘Competing markets for male and female slaves’; Lovejoy, Paul E. and Richardson, David, ‘British abolition and its impact on slave prices along the Atlantic coast of Africa, 1783–1850’, Journal of Economic History 55:1 (1995), 98119; Gareth Austin, ‘Between abolition and jihad, from abolition to civil war and colonisation: the response of the Asante state and economy to the ending of the Atlantic slave trade, 1807–1896’, in Law ed., From slave trade to ‘legitimate’ commerce, 93–118.

94 Which in turn was one of the sources of the labour which created the agrarian system of the Akan societies; see Ivor Wilks, ‘Land, labor, gold, and the forest kingdom of Asante: a model of early change’, in his Forests of gold: essays on the Akan and the Kingdom of Asante (Athens OH, 1993), 41–90; Kea, Settlements, trade, and politics, 85–94, 197–201.

95 See Law ed., From slave trade to ‘legitimate’ commerce. In this volume Susan Martin's study of the Ngwa Igbo records an exception, where slavery did not apparently rise (Martin, ‘Slaves, Igbo women and palm oil in the nineteenth century’, in Law ed., From slave trade to ‘legitimate’ commerce, 172–94). Martin's picture contrasts with the importance of slavery to the Igbo economy generally by the end of the nineteenth century, described in Don Ohadike, ‘“When the slaves left, the owners wept”: entrepreneurs and emancipation among the Igbo people’, in Suzanne Miers and Martin A. Klein eds., Slavery and colonial rule in Africa (London, 1999). These apparent inconsistencies may be explicable by local variations in population density and participation in commodity markets, to judge from Northrup, David, ‘Nineteenth-century patterns of slavery and economic growth in southeastern Nigeria’, International Journal of African Historical Studies 12:1 (1979), 116.

96 Paul E. Lovejoy provides a synthesis in ‘The internal trade of West Africa to 1800’, in J. F. A. Ajayi and Michael Crowder eds., History of West Africa, vol. I (3rd edn; Harlow UK, 1985), 667ff.

97 As Basel missionaries reported (Austin, Labour, land and capital in Ghana, 115; on the size of the slave labour force in Asante, see ibid., 125–6).

98 Martin A. Klein, Slavery and colonial rule in French West Africa (Cambridge, 1998), esp. Appendix 1, 252–6.

99 The latter issue is discussed for Asante in Austin, Labour, land and capital in Ghana, 88–91.

100 Searing, James, ‘“No kings, no lords, no slaves”: ethnicity and religion among the Sereer-Safèn of Western Bawol, 1700–1914’, Journal of African History 43:3 (2002), 407–30.

101 Hopkins, Economic history of West Africa, 23–7.

102 Austin, Labour, land and capital in Ghana, 155–70.

103 Park, Travels, 232.

104 Swindell and Jeng, Migrants, credit and climate, 10.

105 Claude Meillassoux, ‘Le commerce pré-colonial et l'esclavage à Gūbu’, in Meillassoux ed., The development of indigenous trade, 193.

106 Claude Meillassoux, The anthropology of slavery (Chicago, 1991; 1st publ. in French, 1986), 308. I examine the available quantitative evidence on the profitability of slavery more fully in my forthcoming ‘Markets, slaves and states in West African history’ (see note 33 above).

107 Lovejoy and Richardson, ‘Competing markets for male and female slaves’.

108 Gareth Austin, ‘The political economy of the natural environment in West African history: Asante and its savanna neighbors in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’, in Richard Kuba and Carola Lentz eds., Land and the politics of belonging in West Africa (Leiden, 2006), 187–212.

109 E.g. Jeffrey Herbst, States and power in Africa: comparative lessons in authority and control (Princeton, 2000).

110 Austin, Labour, land and capital in Ghana, 158–60.

111 Cohen, ‘Cultural strategies in the organization of trading diasporas’; Curtin, ‘Africa: traders and trade communities’.

112 Austin, ‘African business in nineteenth-century West Africa’, 125.

113 Lovejoy, Paul E. and Richardson, David, ‘Trust, pawnship, and Atlantic history: the institutional foundations of the Old Calabar slave trade’, American Historical Review 104:2 (1999), 3355.

114 Lovejoy, Paul E. and Richardson, David, ‘“This horrid hole”: royal authority, commerce and credit at Bonny 1690–1840’, Journal of African History 44:3 (2004), 363–92.

115 Austin, Labour, land and capital in Ghana, 141–2.

116 Law, ‘Finance and credit’, 34; Austin, Labour, land and capital in Ghana, 138.

117 Dike, Trade and politics, 39–41 (see note 1 above). Compare David Northrup, Trade without rulers: pre-colonial economic development in South-Eastern Nigeria (Oxford, 1978), 114–45.

118 Terray, ‘La captivité’.

119 Lovejoy, ‘Internal trade’.

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