Wallace G. Mills Hist. 316 5 Tradein Africa

Trade and PoliticalSystems in Africa

Fortes & Evans-Pritchard, African Political Systems.

- over the next number of classes, we shall examine the rangeof political and social systems in pre-conquest Africa. In doingso, we should avoid being too judgmental and arrogant. Too often,people, including scholars, have made simplistic assessments,often taking their own society as the standard. Thus, those thatwere rated highly were those closest to their own and vice versa.

- this was simplistic because large bureaucratic states are (1)impossible & (2) inappropriate for societies which are basedupon a subsistence economy (it’s about as wise as sayinga sheep is not much good because it’s not a cow). This isone reason why many people were for a long time so preoccupiedwith the large kingdoms of the interlacustrine area.

- instead of such a simple-minded, judgmental attitude, we shouldapproach this study as a means for learning the very interestingways by which Africans had solved their needs for social and politicalorganisation.

- as social animals, we humans require means to organise and regulateour relations and interactions with each other. In this context,Africans devised a rather broad spectrum of systems ranging fromfairly complex kingdoms to stateless societies without authorities(or anarchies—anarchy does not mean chaos; there is ordereven if it is more turbulent than most of us would be comfortablewith).

- a significant point here is that this diversity of political/socialorganisations is mostly within the context of subsistence economies(i.e., that most people are engaged in producing/making thingswhich they and their families consume; people have to depend primarilyupon themselves [and any help from kin and neighbours] for themeans to subsist and survive).

-the creation of large states/empires very often in human historyhas depended upon trade, especially long distance trade. Tradeprovides profits (taking products from markets where they areplentiful and therefore cheap to markets where they are scarceand therefore expensive); it also provides economic stimuli (productionfor an export market, jobs for people in trade and transportingof goods, ship builders, etc.).

- the need to protect the trade often gives rise to navies and/orarmies the manning and supplying of which creates additional markets.

- the profits and surpluses provide the resources to create largerstates and bureaucracy, etc. etc.

- long distance trade as a cause of or as a result of state buildinghas been significant in Africa only to a limited extent and mostlyin West Africa.

Different kinds of trade:

  1. Local barter: I have extra of this and you have extra of that; we exchange a bit of this for a bit of that; we both are better off by increasing our variety, but there is no chance for someone else to make a profit.

  2. Local or regional markets: Suppose I take what I got from you and go to a third party to exchange something which they have; if I’m a smart trader, I may end up with more goods as a result (I make a profit as a middleman). However, it is not very efficient to run all over the place looking for potential sellers and buyers. Thus, markets are organised at a specific time and place as a location where buyers and sellers can come together in order to make their trades. Trading can be barter (i.e., goods for other goods) or using some sort of currency. Such markets often have people who specialise in trading. [Our local farmers’ market has some producers (farmers and others—cooks, tradesmen, etc) but there are also some who are middlemen (some of the sellers are offering imported fruits, vegetables and other goods)].

    - such systems existed in a number of places, and especially in West Africa, they were often highly organised.

    - sometimes, political authorities can get economic benefit by charging or taxing those who participate in the markets.

  3. Long distance trade : the movement of goods for this trade can be over water (always the cheapest means, especially for heavy goods) or overland using some sort of caravan system. Caravans have high costs; as a result this trade is limited to high value (and low weight) goods because the margins need to be high.

    - usually, the trade is organised from an entrepôt (a centre where the trade goods are collected and from which the shipments can be made). Because of the high value of goods and the need for protection, there is need for strong authorities and state structures. In Africa, this kind of situation occurred for hundreds of years in west Africa and emerged in other areas only as a result of the modern slave trade.

    1. Trans Saharan Trade

      - this trade involved mostly gold and slaves going north (slaves could help to carry the gold); salt was the most important product going south.

      - there were a number of caravan routes across the desert and the importance of each fluctuated because of a number of factors (see Saharan trade routes map). Problems or disturbances at either end or in the middle of a caravan route could close a route or at least make it dangerous and uncertain.

      - the gold of west Africa, which for many hundreds of years was the major source of gold and thus liquidity of the Mediterranean world and western Europe, was derived from large numbers of very small operations scattered farther south even into the forest areas like modern Ghana. Thus, it was by means of large trade networks that the gold was collected over wide areas and accumulated for the caravan trade. Slaves too were collected over wide areas. Various kinds of servitude were endemic (we’ll discuss this in more detail later), but selling people into a distant slave trade usually was restricted to war captives. Domestic slaves usually merged over time into the very large, extended families of their owners.

      - over the centuries, a number of empires rose and subsequently declined in the sudan region of west Africa (see the attached map). Each functioned as both the southern end of a Saharan caravan route as well as an entrepôt for an extensive west African trade network. Their fates were affected by the health and security of a particular caravan route, by internal problems and by problems of religion, especially as a result of Islam. In the later periods, there are periodic outbursts of jihads for purification of Islam and of conquest.

      - the Portuguese in the 16th C were greatly interested in and eager to try to get control of what was almost the only source of gold for the Mediterranean and western Europe. They collected as much information as they could from Islamic sources. A Portuguese army made its way across the Sahara in an attempt to conquer the contemporary empire which controlled the flow of gold in the caravan trade. The army was able to disrupt the empire, but it simply disintegrated. It was a case of killing the goose as it was only a lynch pin in a long chain stretching both ways. A new chain would be developed from a different centre. As outsiders with an alien religion (not that religion was a priority of the Portuguese mercenaries), they were unable to take over the lynch pin in an existing chain let alone build a new one.

      - after this experience and having gained the knowledge that the sources of the gold were farther south than the sudanic empires anyway, the Portuguese then concentrated their efforts on finding a route to get around the middlemen and get direct access to the actual producers. Thus, aside from Henry the Navigator (with his curiosity as an incentive), probably the major incentive fueling Portuguese exploration south along the Atlantic coast of Africa was the attempt to get to the sources of the gold trade across the Sahara. Eventually (although there was a good deal of disappointment for a long time), some of the gold did begin to go southward to the European traders who established there, especially along what came to be known as the Gold Coast. However, substantial quantities (along with slaves) still continued to finance the caravan trade into the early 20th C.

      - early in the 19th C, Fulani pastoralists, fired by Islam, had conquered many of the existing sudanic states of west Africa as part of a jihad or holy war; they established their own sultanates, which were there when Europeans began to push into the interior late in the 19th C. In these sultanates, trade and commerce were subordinate, but because of the economic benefits did continue with the caravan trade being an important element in the economic system. However, the caravan trade was diminishing. In fact, late in the 19th and early 20th Cs as the antislavery crusade reduced, then eliminated, water borne slave trades from Africa, slaves became relatively more important than gold in the Saharan caravan trade.

    2. West African Slave Trade

      - exploration of west Africa was initially disappointing for the Portuguese in the late 15th C. On the coast, they were now too far south for the sources of the gold. Nor did they find too much else to interest them or to provide significant trade; with the tiny ships, only high-value, non-bulky goods provided sufficient profits to be economically worthwhile. Also, some of their early contacts resulted in hostilities. However, when the Cape of Good Hope was rounded, the Portuguese found their real bonanza—the Indian Ocean and trade with Asia. During the 16th C, the Portuguese concentrated on East Africa, India and the East.

      - although a few Africans were captured and carried home to slavery in Portugal, it was not until the demands for labour to exploit opportunities (mines, plantations, etc.) in the western hemisphere increased in the 17th & 18th that African slaves became a lucrative export product from Africa. We shall not be spending a great deal of time on the slave trades in Africa because most of the great heyday of the Atlantic slave trade was before the 19th C, but we shall return to talk a bit about the trades in the 19th C and the abolition movements.

      - although a few Europeans had attempted to use force in acquiring slaves, it soon became clear that this did not work on any scale. Also, the mortality to Europeans who went ashore made penetration by whites impossible. Thus, the only way to acquire slaves was via trade with Africans. Africans controlled all trade into the interior and Europeans were restricted to forts or posts (usually called ‘factories’) along the coast.

      - the profits of trade based on slaves for export (some other products were also exported—gold, especially from the area which became known as the Gold Coast [modern Ghana] and palm oil from the area known as the Oil Rivers [really the mouths of the Niger River in Nigeria]— but African slaves was the overwhelming mainstay of the trade) and the import European goods enabled a number of coastal peoples to build up states and kingdoms. We shall examine one of these, the Kingdom of Dahomey. While state-building is usually regarded as a good thing, there were negative features in many of these coastal states. Most tended to be very militaristic because they needed to be strong to defend their trade, but in some cases, these societies used warfare as a means to acquire captives to be sold as slaves.

      - however, the slave trade could have disintegrative effects also; in the early 19th C, the great Yoruba confederation of states began to break down. In the conflicts and civil wars that broke out, the slave trade added greatly to the vicious circle; participants sold slaves to acquire European weapons which were then used in warfare to acquire more slaves to acquire more weapons, etc.

      - there are many issues about the slave trade which are hotly debated: How many were shipped as slaves? Because so many slaves died from disease or harsh treatment, what were the population losses and what effects did these losses have on the peoples that remained? Some of these issues are discussed in Collins, Problems in African History, pp. 339-374.

    3. East Africa

      - there was a certain amount of trade from the coast into the interior; the Arabic towns along the coast carried on trade down to Mozambique along the coast and some of that trade extended into the interior. There was a certain amount of gold mined in what is now Zimbabwe although it was worked out before the 19th C. However, during the Portuguese period and later in the 17 and 18th Cs when the Portuguese were largely displaced by the Dutch and English, the amounts of trade were not large. There was a certain amount of trade in slaves but not on a really large scale until the 19th C.

      - however, in the 19th C, large plantation cultivation began in the Indian Ocean and on Zanzibar—sugar and cloves especially. This created a large demand for slave labour. Thus, the slave trade began in earnest. Most of this trade was organised by the Arabs in the Swahili towns; they started going farther and farther into the interior eventually reaching as far as the interlacustrine area and by the 1870s even into the eastern areas of Zaire. Ivory was another very desirable product; in this area because of diseases to animals, animal transport could not be used. However, the slaves could be used as porters to carry out the ivory. This trade was carried on by means of expeditions organised at the coast. Most of the slaves were acquired by conquest and capture; thus, the expeditions were heavily armed raiding parties which often left large numbers of dead and much devastation in their wake.

      - the Sultans of Oman had long had connections and claims in this area; they operated as clients of the British who provided protection. In the 19th C, the Sultans transferred their main area of operations from Oman to Zanzibar.

    4. West Central Africa

      - when the Portuguese arrived along the coast of Angola in the 15th C, they found the Kingdom of the Kongo. Initially, the Portuguese tried to build good relations and some young Kongolese were sent to Portugal to be educated into Christianity. One of these, a younger brother of the King, became a bishop. However, later, the demand for slaves by the Portuguese began to put stresses on the Kingdom. Unscrupulous Portuguese traders began to provoke internal problems and rebellion; eventually, the Kingdom broke down into civil war and disintegrated.

      - ships could sail a couple of hundred miles up the Congo River almost to Stanley Falls and the Portuguese, Dutch and British did carry on trade in the area. However, it was never on a large scale and it did not stimulate any significant state building or long distance trade

      - dispersal of goods over wide areas does not necessarily indicate long distance trade. Local and regional markets can, over time, bring about such a dispersal. Thus, trade goods can move and be distributed over wide areas as a result of a series of short distance trades. This does not produce the high profits that can help to build and support large state structures. This seems to have been how the trade in the Congo mouth area was carried on.

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