The partitioning of Africa by European imperial powers in the late 19th century irreversibly transformed the long-term development trajectories of African economies. Yet, the motives for, and timing of, the scramble remain poorly understood. This column argues that the changes in African international trade over the course of the 19th century created an economic rationale for the African scramble. This episode offers insights that are relevant for current African economic development.

The supply of African slaves to American plantations reached an all-time high in the late 18th century. After anti-slave trade legislation finally shut down the Atlantic slave exports, commodity exports filled the gap. This so-called ‘commercial transition’ was completed in West Africa before it hit East Africa. It was a game-changer, since it put a halt to the continuous drain of scarce labour and paved the way for the expansion of land-intensive forms of tropical agriculture, engaging smallholders, communal farms, and estates.

The establishment of colonial rule over the African interior (c. 1880-1900) reinforced Africa’s commodity export growth. Colonial control facilitated the construction of railways, induced large inflows of European investment, and forced profound changes in the operation of labour and land markets. That is, colonial regimes abolished slavery, but they replaced it with other forced labour schemes. The scramble pushed African exports to new heights, but without the preceding era of commercialisation the African scramble probably would never have taken place…

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AUTHORS: Ewout Frankema, Jeffrey Williamson and Pieter Woltjer