Published by EH.Net (October 2017)

Klas Rönnbäck, Labour and Living Standards in Pre-Colonial West Africa: The Case of the Gold Coast. New York: Routledge, 2016. xvii + 209 pp. $163 (cloth), ISBN: 978-1-84893-578-5.


Reviewed for EH.Net by Rebecca Shumway, Department of History, College of Charleston.
Taking as a case study the southern part of modern-day Ghana in West Africa, Labour and Living Standards in Pre-Colonial West Africa seeks to address the near absence of global comparative economic history dealing with living conditions in Africa. The aim of the book is to uncover the nature of living standards in pre-colonial Africa and to address the question of how the transatlantic slave trade affected those living standards. The focus is on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the time when the transatlantic slave trade expanded in the part of West Africa known in that period as the Gold Coast.

Rönnbäck situates the study within a thorough review of economic theories in the introductory chapter. He describes the benefits and drawbacks of previous studies of neo-institutionalist theory, dependency theory and underdevelopment theory (and its critics). He also describes the relevant trends in African labor history, particularly those related to definitions of a “working class” and theories related to land abundance versus land scarcity in economic historiography.

The body of the book is seven chapters, followed by a brief conclusion. Chapter 2 reviews the existing economic history of the Gold Coast. Chapter 3 explains the sources used in the study and the methodology. Rönnbäck has done extensive research among the written records created by Europeans who lived on or visited the Gold Coast in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He discounts the use of any other type of sources, shunning oral tradition in particular. His research hinges to a large extent on two databases he compiled from the European sources. The first, “The Gold Coast Pre-Colonial Price Database,” brings together data relating to what goods were purchased by the English Royal Africa Company, the prices at which they were purchased, and the goods sold on the coast during the period 1699-1760. The other, called “The Gold Coast Pre-Colonial Labour Database,” compiles the records of the Royal Africa Company’s payment of wages to its staff, including Europeans, free African laborers and slaves. These data sets undoubtedly represent a small fraction of the total number of commercial transactions and wage payments taking place in coastal Ghana during this period, but they provide a reasonable set of statistics for the type of analysis Rönnbäck makes in subsequent chapters. In compiling the Labor database, Rönnbäck appears to have made some questionable assumptions about the racial and ethnic identities of individuals. As he notes, some individuals are listed by full name in the account books, while many Africans are listed only by first name or without any name at all. His assumption that people listed with full names are Europeans, however, should be scrutinized. People of mixed European and African heritage frequently had European-sounding names but may not have been listed with a qualifying note as to their “mulatto” or “black” identity.

Chapter 4 explores the well-known phenomenon of Europeans’ racist attitudes toward Africans and their tendency to describe Africans as lazy or lacking a work ethic. Chapter 5 describes the nature of labor within Cape Coast Castle (headquarters of the English slave trade in Africa) and provides useful comparisons of wages for people of various occupations and comparison of wages for men versus women. Chapter 6 examines the domestic markets in the Gold Coast, with an emphasis on the Cape Coast daily market. Rönnbäck makes the very interesting observation that the demand for provisions (foodstuffs) from slave ships does not seem to have affected prices in Cape Coast. Local demand for provisions among inhabitants of towns and cities on the Gold Coast, he argues, was simply too great to be offset by the relatively minor demand from the slave trade. Chapter 7 makes a brief assessment of material culture on the Gold Coast, including houses, furnishings, clothing and other imported goods.

Chapter 8 provides an estimate of living standards on the Gold Coast using a method called welfare ratios, pioneered by Robert Allen, which allows comparison of historical material relating to living standards from various places around the globe. Here Rönnbäck charts the mean subsistence ratios for linguists, carpenters and canoemen between the 1660s and 1750, drawing on the work of Ray Kea and his own databases. He shows that subsistence ratios for one group, the canoemen, appear to have declined quite a bit between the 1660s and 1730s, suggesting that living standards for canoemen deteriorated over this span of time. Based on his calculations, Rönnbäck makes the intriguing suggestion that living standards on the Gold Coast may have deteriorated as a result of the influx of people into the coastal towns during the decades when the transatlantic slave trade was causing increased violence in the hinterland. As more unskilled labour became available, wage levels may have decreased. The influx of refugees may also have driven up the prices of staple goods, thereby reducing the living standards of waged workers. While Rönnbäck makes what seems an incorrect assumption that canoemen are among the “unskilled” workers on the coast, his overall conclusions are nevertheless provocative. His calculations ultimately suggest that the subsistence ratios for unskilled labour on the Gold Coast were comparable to those of unskilled workers elsewhere in the world — particularly India, Mexico and Austria — challenging the widespread assumption that Africans have historically been relatively impoverished.

This innovative work will be a helpful guide to historians of Africa in the era of the slave trade and to economic historians in search of a precolonial African case study with which to compare other cases. It brings together the English-language documentary sources and several other key European documentary sources in a thorough analysis of various aspects of the precolonial Gold Coast economy.

Rebecca Shumway is Assistant Professor of African History at the College of Charleston. Her main interests are West African history and the history of the Atlantic World and African Diaspora. Her most recent book is Slavery and its Legacy in Ghana and the Diaspora (with Trevor R. Getz), Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2017.

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