The Commercial Transition and the Commodity Price Boom of 1835–1885

This paper uses a new trade dataset showing that sub-Saharan Africa experienced a terms of trade boom in the five decades (1835–1885) preceding the European “scramble for Africa” which was comparable to similar export booms in other parts of the “global periphery”. This study revises the view that the scramble for West Africa occurred when its major export markets were in decline and argues that the comparatively larger weight of West Africa in French imperial trade strengthened the rationale for French instead of British initiative in the conquest of the interior.

The scramble for Africa stands out as a remarkable feat of European imperialism, and its motives and timing have been long debated (Pakenham 1992). In less than two decades (1884–1898), the lion’s share of the vast African continent was partitioned among a handful of European powers. To be sure, the string of coastal settlements that had been established in support of the trade in slaves, gold, ivory, and other tropical products testified to European encroachment for centuries. But the lures of power and profit were far less obvious in the vast sub-Saharan African interior, and the costs of permanent colonization were high.

This article scrutinizes the economic motivations for the scramble of West Africa – the region where trade with Europe was most intensive – by zooming in on trade developments in sub-Saharan Africa in the long 19th century, and by assessing these trade developments in a global comparative perspective. Our overarching argument is that trade developments from the mid-1830s to mid-1880s did more to strengthen the economic rationale for the scramble than most of the historical literature has hitherto assumed…

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AUTHORS: Ewout Frankema, Jeffrey Williamson and Pieter Woltjer