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It is today believed that humanity originated in Africa and as soon as human societies formed so did economic activity. Earliest humans were hunter gatherers living in small family groupings. Even then there was considerable trade, that could cover long distances. Archaeologists have found that trade in luxury items like precious metals and shells crossed the entirety of the continent.


Origins of agriculture

The first examples of agriculture in Africa are believed to have begun in the heart of the Sahara Desert, but which in 5200 BC was far more moist and densely populated. Several native species were domesticated, most importantly pearl millet, sorghum and cowpeas which spread through West Africa and the Sahel. The Sahara at this time was like the Sahel today. Its wide open fields made cultivation easy, but the poor soil and limited rain made intensive farming impossible. The local crops were also not ideal and produced fewer calories than those of other regions. These factors limited surpluses and kept populations sparse and unurbanized.

North Africa thus took a very different route from the southern regions. Climatically it is closely linked to the Middle East and the Fertile Crescent and the agricultural techniques of that region were adopted wholesale. This included a very different sets of crops, such as wheat, barley, and grapes. North Africa was also blessed by one of the richest agricultural regions in the world in the form of the Nile River valley. With the arrival of agriculture the Nile region quickly became one of the most densely populated in the world, and the Egyptians home to one of the first civilizations.

The drying of the Sahara created a formidable barrier between the northern and southern portions of the continent. Two important exceptions were Nubia that was linked to Egypt by the Nile and Ethiopia that could trade with the northern regions over the Red Sea. Powerful states grew up in these regions such as Kush in Nubia and Axum in Ethiopia. From these regions ideas and technologies from the Middle East and Europe could travel to Sub-Saharan Africa.

One of these was iron working that arrived, presumably from Sudan around 1200 BC and quickly spread to West Africa and reached South Africa by the fifth century AD. Some historians believe that iron working may have been developed independently in Africa. Unlike other continents Africa did not have a period of copper and bronze working before the Iron Age. Copper is quite rare in Africa while iron is quite common. In Nubia and Ethiopia iron, trade, and agricultural surpluses lead to the establishment of cities and civilizations.

In the still more sparsely settled rest of the continent this same period sees the expansion of the Bantu speaking peoples. The Bantu expansion almost certainly began in Southern Cameroon around 4000 years ago. Bantu languages are spoken there today and there is archaeological evidence for incoming Neolithic farmers in Northern Gabon ca. 3800 BP. It is known that their expansion was extremely rapid and massive, but its exact engine remains controversial. This is too early for iron, which appears in the archaeological record by 2500 BP. One of the early expansions of Bantu was the migration of the Bubi to Fernando Po (Bioko) and they were still using stone technology at first European contact. The difficulties of cutting down the equatorial forest for farming have led to the suggestion that the primary expansion was along river valleys, a hypothesis supported by studies of fish names. Another factor may have been the arrival of SE Asian food crops, notably the AAB plantain, the cocoyam and the water-yam. Linguistic reconstructions suggest that the only livestock possessed by the proto-Bantu was the goat. Over the centuries the entire southern half of Africa was covered, excluding only the Kalahari desert. This expansion only ended relatively recently. In the year 1000 Arab traders show that the Bantu had not reached as far as Mozambique, and European settlers observed the Bantu expansion into South Africa under the Zulu and others.

The importation Bantu pastoralism reshaped the continent's economy. Sometime in the first millennium and equally important change began as crops began to arrive from Southeast Asia. The Indian Ocean has always been far more open to trade than the turbulent Atlantic and Pacific. Traders could ride the monsoon winds west early in the year and return east on them later. It is guessed that these crops first arrived in Madagascar, which also adopted Southeast Asian languages, sometime between AD 300 and 800. From the island the crops crossed to East Africa. They included many crops, the most important being the banana.

The banana and other crops allowed for more intensive cultivation in the tropical regions of Africa, this was most notable in the Great Lakes region, and area with excellent soil, that saw many cities and states form, their populations being fed largely by bananas.


While some trade had always occurred, the rise of cities and empires made trade far more central to the African economy. North Africa was central to the trade of the entire Mediterranean region. Other than Egypt this trade was mostly controlled by the Phoenicians who came to dominate North Africa, with Carthage becoming their most important city. The Greeks controlled much of the eastern trade, including that along the Red Sea with Ethiopia. In this region a number of Greek trading cities were established that acted as a conduit for their civilization and learning.

The Egyptian (and later, Roman) city of Alexandria (founded by Alexander the Great in 334 BC) was one of the hubs for Mediterranean trade for many centuries. Well into the nineteenth century Egypt remained one of the most developed parts of the world outside Europe.

For most of the first millennium AD, the Axumite Kingdom in Ethiopia and Eritrea had a powerful navy and trading links reaching as far as the Byzantine Empire and India. Between the 14th and 17th centuries, the Ajuuraan State centered in modern-day Somalia practiced hydraulic engineering and developed new systems for agriculture and taxation, which continued to be used in parts of the Horn of Africa as late as the 19th century.

In Southeast Africa, Swahili Kingdoms had created a prosperous trade empire, where today we can find the states of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Swahili cities were important trading ports for trade with the Middle East and Far East.[1]

For the interior of Africa, trade was far more limited. Low population densities made profitable commerce difficult. The massive barrier of the Congo rainforests were more imposing than the Sahara blocking trade through the center of the continent.

It was the arrival of the Islamic armies that transformed the economies of much of Africa. Islam had comparatively little impact on North Africa where large cities, literacy, and centralized states had been the norm. The Arabs were far more effective a penetrating the Sahara than the Christians ever were, largely due to the camel, which had carried the Arab expansion and would soon carry large amounts of trade across the desert.

Thus a series of states developed in the Sahel on the southern edge of the Sahara that made immense profits from trading across the desert. The first of these was the Kingdom of Ghana, reaching it peak in the twelfth century. Soon others such as the Mali Empire and Kanem-Bornu also arose in this region. The main trade of these states was gold that was plentiful in Guinea. Also important was the trans-Saharan slave trade that shipped large numbers of slaves to North Africa.

An equally important trade was developing on the east coast of the continent as Swahili traders linked the region into an Indian Ocean trading network that brought imports of Chinese pottery and Indian fabrics in exchange for gold, ivory, and slaves.

European influence

The Atlantic Ocean had long been all but impenetrable to the galleys that plied the Mediterranean. That any ship needed to pass thousands of kilometers of waterless desert before reaching any populated regions also made trade impossible. These barriers were overcome by the development of the caravel in Europe. Previously trade with Sub-Saharan Africa could only be conducted through North African middlemen. Now Europeans could trade directly with the Africans themselves.

The first to arrive were the Portuguese who began significant trading with West Africa in the fifteenth century. This trade was primarily for the same commodities the Arabs had bought, gold ivory and slaves. The Portuguese sold the Africans Indian cloth and European manufactured goods, but refused to sell them guns. Soon, however, other European powers such as France, Denmark, the Netherlands and Britain were developing their own trade with Africa, and they had fewer worries.

This valuable trade lead to rapid change in West Africa. The region had long been agriculturally productive and, especially in western Nigeria densely populated. The massive profits from trade and the arrival of guns lead to significant centralization and a number of states formed in the region such as the Ashanti Confederacy and Kingdom of Benin. These states became some of the wealthiest and most advanced in Africa. The wealthy merchants began to send their children to European universities and their well armed standing armies could challenge European forces.

Many West-African natives, such as Seedies and Kroomen, served on European ships, and received regular pay, which greatly enhanced their status back home.

Clearly, the slave trade enriched the segments of African society that traded in slaves. However, the modern historiography of slavery has swung between two poles on the question of its demographic and economic effects on Africa as a whole. Early historical accounts of the Atlantic slave trade for a popular audience were largely written by abolitionists and, indeed, former slaves like Olaudah Equiano, who emphasized its profoundly negative effects on African peoples. As the 19th century wore on, accounts of the negative impact of slavery were increasingly used to argue for European colonization of the continent. Conversely, those who argued for the marginal (or even positive) effects of slavery, were often outright pro-slavery and contemptuous of African peoples. The British explorer and geographer William Winwood Reade, for example, drew on the accounts of slave traders to argue that the effects of slavery were positive.[2]

By the early 20th century, the view of slavery as a negative influence on Africa was the common one among professional academic historians in Europe and the United States. During the decolonization period following World War II, an influential group of scholars, led by J.D. Fage, argued that the negative effects of slavery had been exagerrated, and that the export of slaves had been offset by population growth. Walter Rodney, a specialist on the Upper Guinea Coast, countered that European demand for slaves had vastly increased the economic importance of the slave trade in West Africa, with catastrophic effects. Rodney, who was active in Pan-African independence movements, accused Fage of whitewashing the role of Europeans in Africa; Fage responded by accusing Rodney of nationalist romanticism. [3]

Debates on the economic impacts of the Atlantic trade were further stimulated by the publication of Philip Curtin's The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (1969), which argued that 9.566 million slaves were exported from Africa through the Atlantic trade. In the 1970s, the debate on the economic impacts of the Atlantic trade increasingly turned on demographic estimates of slave exports in relation to continental birth rates. Most scholars now believe that Curtin was too conservative in his calculation, with most estimates ranging between 11.5 million to 15.4 million.[4] More recently, John K. Thornton has presented an argument closer to that of Fage, while Joseph Inikori, Patrick Manning and Nathan Nunn have argued that the slave trade had a long-term debilitating impact on African economic development.[5] Manning, for example, arrived at the following conclusion, after accounting for regional variations in slave exports and assuming an annual African population growth rate of 0.5.%: the population of Africa would have been 100 million rather than 50 million in 1850, if not for the combined effects of the external and internal slave trades.[6] Nunn, in a recent econometric analysis of slave-exporting regions in all parts of Africa, found "a robust negative relationship between the number of slaves taken from a country and its subsequent economic development."[7] Nunn argues, moreover, that this cannot be explained by poverty prior to the slave trade, because more densely populated and economically developed parts of Africa regressed behind previously less developed, non-slave exporting areas during the course of the Atlantic, trans-Saharan, Red Sea and Indian Ocean slave trades.


Under colonial rule, the plantation system of farming was widely introduced in order to grow large quantities of cash crops, employing cheap (often slave) African labor for export to European countries with little or no compensation. Mining for gems and precious metals such as gold was developed in a similar way by wealthy European entrepreneurs such as Cecil Rhodes. The implementation and effects of these colonial policies were, arguably, genocidal in a number of cases. Belgian government commissions in the 1920s, for example, found that the population of Belgian Congo had fallen by as much as 50%, or from roughly 20 million to 10 million people, under Belgian rule as a result of forced labor (largely for the purposes of rubber cultivation), massacre by colonial troops, famine and disease.[8]. In white settler colonies like Algeria, Kenya, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), South Africa and Southwest Africa (now Namibia), the most fertile lands were forcibly expropriated from the indigenous populations for use by white settlers. African farmers were pushed onto "native reserves," usually located on arid, marginal lands. In German Southwest Africa, somewhere between 25,000 and 100,000 Hereros were killed either resisting land expropriation by white settlers, or by starvation in the desert where they were exiled. The legacy of these land expropriations remains in Africa today, as over 80% of the arable land in both South Africa and Namibia remains white-owned.[9]

Today, many African economies suffer from the legacy of colonialism. The utilitarian attitude of European countries toward their colonial possessions stopped them from building adequate infrastructure in Africa. In agriculture, the plantation systems that they introduced are highly unsustainable and cause severe environmental degradation. For example, cotton severely lowers soil fertility wherever it is grown, and areas of West Africa that are dominated by cotton plantations are now unable to switch to more profitable crops or even to produce food because or the depleted soil. Recently, more countries have initiated programs to revert to traditional, sustainable forms of agriculture such as shifting cultivation and bush fallow in order to grow enough food to support the population while maintaining soil fertility to allow agriculture to continue in future generations. (Gyasi)

See also


  1. ^ Wonders of the African World: The Swahili People
  2. ^ See Reade 1864.
  3. ^ For a summary of the Fage-Rodney debate, see Inikori 1982, pp. 74-99.
  4. ^ See Curtin 1972, Lovejoy 1983, Inikori and Engerman 1992
  5. ^ See Thornton 1998, Inikori 1982, Inikori 1992, Manning 1990, Nunn 2008.
  6. ^ Manning 1990, p. 85
  7. ^ Nunn, 2008, p. 168
  8. ^ See Hochschild 1998
  9. ^ See Daniels 2006, Nduru 2006


  • Curtin, Philip. The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.
  • Daniels, Rudolph. "The Nature of the Agrarian Land Question in the Republic of South Africa." The American Journal of Economics, July 2006, pp. 1-16
  • Fage, J.D. A History of Africa (Routledge, 4th edition, 2001 ISBN 0-415-25247-4) (Hutchinson, 1978, ISBN 0-09-132851-9) (Knopf 1st American edition, 1978, ISBN 0-394-32277-0)
  • Hochschild, Adam (1998). King Leopold's Ghost. Pan Macmillan. ISBN ISBN 0-330-49233-0.
  • Inikori, Joseph E. (ed.) Forced Migration: The Impact of the Export Slave Trade on African Societies (London and New York, 1982)
  • -The Chaining of a Continent: Export Demand for Captives and the History of Africa South of the Sahara, 1450-1870 Mona, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 1992.
  • Inikori, Joseph E. and Engerman, Stanley (Eds.) The Atlantic Slave Trade Effects on Economies, Societies, and Peoples in Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Durham: Duke University Press, 1992
  • Lovejoy, Paul. Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa. London: Cambridge University Press, 1983
  • Manning, Patrick. Slavery and African Life: Occidential, Oriental and African Slave Trades. London: Cambridge University Press, 1990
  • Nduru, Noyiga. "Walking the Tightrope of Land Reform." Inter Press Service News Agency, September 30th, 2006
  • Nunn, Nathan. "The Long Term Effects of Africa's Slave Trades." The Quarterly Journal of Economics, February 2008, pp. 139-176
  • Reade, William Winwood. Savage Africa. New York: Harper Brothers Publishers, 1864
  • Rodney, Walter. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. (Washington: Howard UP, 1982, ISBN 0-88258-096-5)
  • Thornton, John K. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998

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