Published by EH.Net (January 2014)

Robin Law, Suzanne Schwarz and Silke Strickrodt, editors, Commercial Agriculture, the Slave Trade and Slavery in Atlantic Africa. Woodbridge, Suffolk: James Currey, 2013. xv + 272 pp. $90 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-84701-075-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Stanley L. Engerman, Departments of Economics and History, University of Rochester.

This collection of eleven papers plus a long introduction by the editors was derived from a 2010 conference held at the German Historical Institute London entitled “Commercial Agriculture in Africa as an Alternative to the Slave Trade.”  The papers deal with different centuries, as well as different parts of Africa, but almost all are concerned with what is called “legitimate commerce,” basically the promotion of commercial agriculture as contrasted with “trade in slaves” as well as trade in “non-agricultural commodities such as gold and ivory” (p. 2).

The development of legitimate commerce has been a long-time study of Robin Law (Emeritus Professor of African History at the University of Stirling), who has made many important contributions to the examination of this issue.  The additional co-editors are Susan Schwarz (Professor of History at the University of Worcester) and Silke Strickrodt (Research Fellow in Colonial History at the German Historical Institute London), both of whom have written on African and Atlantic history.  The introduction does an excellent job in laying out the arguments and describing the articles, and also provides an interesting running dialogue with another leading scholar of African economic history, Tony Hopkins.

There are two major issues discussed under the rubric of legitimate commerce.  One is the production of provisions and foodstuffs in Africa during the period of the slave trade and afterwards.  Second is the long-standing attempts by the various European powers to increase the labor supply involved in producing other agricultural commodities, reducing the labor supply involved with the slave trade, and thus providing an economically-induced ending to the slave trade and generating high incomes for African natives.  One paper that differs in topic from the others is Gerhard Seibert’s examination of the early history of the Portuguese settlement of São Tomé and Príncipe, “the first plantation economy in the tropics.”  The rapid rise and fall of these islands is described, with some attention given to a major slave revolt in São Tomé in 1595.  Toby Green discusses the production and export of rice and millet from Upper Guinea.  He points to the early importance of rice production, but does not enter into the debate about the origins of rice production in the Americas.

These studies provide several important messages for those concerned with African and American history.  As David Eltis estimates, there was considerable African production and trade in foodstuffs before, during, and after the slave trade.  Much of this production involved the use of slave labor, an institution generally accepted by African societies.  According to Robin Law the attempts by colonial powers to implement or encourage plantation agriculture in Africa using native labor, legally freed or enslaved, often were failures due to issues related to poor soil, high transport costs, and an inability to control labor.  Attempts to introduce, for export, the staples of American plantation agriculture – sugar, cotton, tobacco, indigo – were not successful, and when African cash crop agriculture expanded, the principal crops were cocoa, coffee, palm-oil, and groundnuts.  When cotton production took place in West Africa, it was inland, not in coastal areas (pp. 135-37).

It has become part of today’s conventional wisdom that the desire for “legitimate commerce” derived from the Abolitionists’ attempt to find a peaceful means of ending the slave trade, by encouragement of agricultural production on farms for sale in export markets.  This would provide a peaceful, market-motivated solution to the problem of ending the slave trade that need not interfere with the political and social order in African society.  In practice, however, legitimate commerce had some unexpected, perverse effects, since it made for an increased internal demand for slaves.  This increased internal demand offset, or at times even caused, the decline in the overseas slave trade (Gareth Austin, Bronwen Everill).

While the previous paragraphs suggest some general patterns in West Africa, the authors note differences among areas and over time.  Similarly the different colonial powers discussed – Portugal (by Roquinaldo Ferreira), England (by Law, Colleen E. Kriger, and Kehinde Olabimtan), the Netherlands (by Law), Denmark (by Per Hernaes) and Liberia (by Everill) – did not attain success, but the reasons for failure differed, as did the nature of the groups attempting these projects.  And while it is often claimed that the introduction of an argument for legitimate commerce was due to the emergence of a movement for abolition, the article by Christopher Leslie Brown traces its origins to an earlier period, primarily with the writings of the pamphleteer Malachy Postlethwayt after 1751, who argued that African commerce would be greater in the absence of the trade in slaves. These ideas were then picked up, in France by Abbè Pierre-Joseph-Andrè Roubard and in Denmark by Paul Isert.  Brown argues, further, that “the idea of legitimate commerce not only preceded the Abolitionist movement, but also was an important precondition for it” (p. 155), as it provided both important information about Africa and Africans as well as a possible alternative source of revenue instead of the slave trade.

These papers are all written by historians, and draw very heavily on primary research and a full knowledge of secondary sources.  They add much information about the African economies from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, as well as provide new insights into the Atlantic Economy in these years.  This is an important collection of first-rate essays.

Stanley L. Engerman is the John H. Munro Professor of Economics and Professor of History at the University of Rochester.  He is the coauthor, with Kenneth L. Sokoloff, of Economic Development of the Americas since 1500: Institutions and Endowments (2012).

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