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An Economic Rationale for the West African Scramble? The Commercial Transition and the Commodity Price Boom of 1835–1885

  • Ewout Frankema (a1), Jeffrey Williamson (a2) and Pieter Woltjer (a3)
Abstract

We use a new trade dataset showing that nineteenth century sub-Saharan Africa experienced a terms of trade boom comparable to other parts of the “global periphery.” A sharp rise in export prices in the five decades before the scramble (1835–1885) was followed by an equally impressive decline during the colonial era. This study revises the view that the scramble for West Africa occurred when its major export markets were in decline and argues that the larger weight of West Africa in French imperial trade strengthened the rationale for French instead of British initiative in the conquest of the interior.

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Dr. Woltjer is the corresponding author. E-mail: p.j.woltjer@gmail.com.
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We are indebted to Paul Rhode and Ann Carlos, whose help has guided us to substantially improve the article. Furthermore, we are grateful to Gareth Austin, Luis Bértola, James Fenske, Leigh Gardner, Jens Andersson, three anonymous referees, and the participants of the African Economic History Workshop, the RIDGE Workshop on Comparative studies of the Southern Hemisphere in global economic history and development, the Workshop on Colonialism, Growth and Development in the Southern Hemisphere, 1800–2000, and seminar participants at Oxford University, Warwick University, and Wageningen University for their comments on earlier drafts. We are responsible for all errors. We acknowledge financial support from the European Research Council (ERC Grant Agreement no. 313114) and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO VIDI Grant no. 016.124.307). We thank Loes Oudenhuijzen, Jasmijn Appels, Rolinde de Haan, and Rens van Baren for excellent research assistance.

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