Studies in the World History of Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation, I, 1 (1996).



Robin Law

(University of Stirling, Scotland)

Abstract: This study reconsiders several controversies resulting from the historical debate over 'legitimate' trade--nineteenth-century exports of African commodities other than slaves--in West Africa. The controversies reviewed include the incidence of enslavement in West African warfare; whether slave prices fell as slave exports declined; whether slave trade and 'legitimate' trade were compatible or incompatible; the debate over A. G. Hopkins' thesis of a 'crisis of adaptation' among political leaders; the commercial transition and gender relations; and the relation between the commercial transition and European imperial conquest. Disaggregation, noting the variations in the transition among regions and over time, Law believes, will resolve some of these controversies. Promotion of 'legitimate' trade, linked to the suppression of the slave trade, became a way in which Europeans both opposed slavery and intervened more and more forcefully in Africa throughout the ninteenth century.

The legal abolition of the slave trade by the European and American nations involved in it occurred over a period of over thirty years, from the banning of the trade by Denmark, effective in 1803, to the eventual acceptance of abolition by Portugal in 1836; the critical step being the outlawing of the trade by Britain, the principal slave-trading nation, in 1807. Legal abolition was, of course, by no means the same as effective suppression, and the trade continued illegally well into the nineteenth century, as long as there remained a market for slaves in the Americas (principally in Brazil and Cuba). The trans-Atlantic slave trade did not come to a total end, therefore, until the 1860s.

While the slave trade was in decline, other forms of trade between western Africa and Europe were developing. Although various alternative commodities were exported, the new trade was principally in agricultural produce, especially palm oil and groundnuts, both used in Europe mainly as a raw material in the manufacture of soap (and later in the nineteenth century also palm kernels, used in the manufacture of margarine). The new trade thus reflected shifting patterns of demand in Europe, arising from the "Industrial Revolution." The modern economic relationship between western Africa and Europe, based on the exchange of African raw materials for European manufactured goods, thus had its origins in the era of the abolition of the slave trade, in the first half of the nineteenth century.

In the nineteenth century, the slave trade being now illegal, trade in any other commodities, including palm oil and other agricultural produce, became known by contrast as "legitimate [or lawful] commerce." For modern historians, use of this term is clearly open to objection, especially to those studying these processes from the perspective of Africa rather than of Europe, because it is evidently Eurocentric--since the slave trade initially remained "legitimate" for the African societies involved in it, although now illegal for Europeans. Its use also tends to obscure the fact that trade in commodities other than slaves, including agricultural produce such as palm oil, existed even before the legal abolition of the slave trade. It remains, however, so firmly embedded in the historical literature that it is difficult to avoid, and is adopted in this paper on grounds of its familiarity.

The transition from the slave trade to "legitimate" commerce has been a topic of major interest in the historiography of western Africa. The very first substantial academic monograph, based on detailed original research, on any aspect of African history, the late K. O. Dike's study of the Niger Delta in the nineteenth century, dealt centrally with this commercial transition, and more especially with its implications for the indigenous African societies involved in the Atlantic trade [Dike 1956]. Subsequently, the subject has continued to attract considerable attention from historians, with not only the accumulation of detailed case-studies, but also significant attempts at general synthesis. The best known and most influential among the latter has certainly been that by Tony Hopkins, in his pioneering survey of the economic history of West Africa [Hopkins 1973]; but other substantial contributions have been made by Ralph Austen [1970] and Patrick Manning [1986]. It would be out of place in this context to offer any sort of detailed survey of the development of the historical debate on the commercial transition, in part because I have made this attempt elsewhere [Law 1993]; but some of the general issues and controversies which have emerged in the course of the historical debate will be identified, and briefly discussed, in order to provide an orientation for future research in the field.


There are a number of difficulties in coming to terms with the historiography of the transition from the slave trade to "legitimate" commerce. One is, that any judgement on the significance of this commercial transition must necessarily imply also a parallel judgement of the significance of the impact of the slave trade, which is itself an enormous and hotly contested issue. Some historians have argued that the Atlantic trade was simply not great enough in volume or value to have had a major effect on the development of West African societies, with the implication that the transformation of the nature of this trade in the nineteenth century can likewise have had only marginal significance for them: this case has been most systematically argued, in recent times, by David Eltis [1987], while the counter-case for attributing a major impact to the Atlantic slave trade has been re-stated by Paul Lovejoy [1989].

In part, the resolution to this controversy may lay through disaggregation. The experience of all regions of western Africa was evidently not the same. First, the Atlantic trade (and therefore, presumably, the nineteenth-century transformation of its nature) was not equally important for all West African societies--it was clearly of critical importance for coastal communities which lived, essentially, by trading, such as Bonny and other Niger Delta communities; of less but still considerable importance for societies immediately behind the coast, such as Asante and Dahomey; and presumably of diminishing importance for societies situated further inland, and perhaps of none at all for some very remote or isolated societies, which may have been wholly unaffected by the Atlantic trade.

The need for disaggregation extends further than this, since the experience of the nineteenth century was also significantly different from area to area within western Africa. The precise chronology of the decline of the slave trade varied considerably. Whereas on the Gold Coast, for example, owing to the existence of a substantial European military presence at the coast, abolition was relatively easy to police and the export of slaves declined quickly after 1807, elsewhere attempts to enforce the abolition of the slave trade took much longer to be effective: in Dahomey, for example, the critical decade in the decline of the slave trade was as late as the 1850s. Equally, there were local variations in the chronology of the development of "legitimate" trade: the palm oil trade, for example, developed first in the Niger Delta, from the late eighteenth century onwards, but took off from the Gold Coast only in the 1830s and from Dahomey only in the 1840s.

Even beyond this, the process of commercial change in the nineteenth century was rather more complex than the concept of a "transition" from the slave trade to "legitimate" commerce implies. The areas which supplied agricultural produce for the Atlantic trade were not always the same as those which had supplied slaves. In particular, whereas slaves had been taken from almost the whole area of West Africa, produce such as palm oil and groundnuts were supplied from a relatively restricted area near to the coast. The reason for this contrast was the high cost of transport in pre-colonial West African conditions. Slaves presented relatively few problems of transport, because they were self-transporting: they could walk, and were often made to walk, hundreds of miles, to their points of sale on the coast. Produce, however, required to be transported, either by water or (if suitable navigable waterways were unavailable) by human porterage, carried on people's heads. The quantities of produce which required to be moved in the new trade, moreover, were very considerable: in the mid-nineteenth century, the coastal price of a single slave was roughly equivalent to that of a ton of palm oil, which would require about 60 porters to carry. In these circumstances, it was simply not profitable to produce palm oil (or groundnuts) for export, unless the producing area was close to the coast, or at least to a navigable river affording relatively cheap transport to it. Societies in the interior, therefore, were simply unable to participate directly in the new trade in agricultural produce; for them, there was not so much a "transition" from the slave trade to "legitimate" trade as a decline in their involvement in overseas commerce.

The incidence of enslavement

One critical area of interest (and controversy) in relation to the commercial transition of the nineteenth century is the question of its effects on the incidence of warfare (and of violence/disorder more generally) in West Africa. In the most general terms, it seems clear that there was a critical link between the slave trade and violence/warfare, since most of the slaves exported were originally enslaved through violence--mainly by capture in warfare, but also ln smaller-scale and less licit kidnappings. But the nature of the link can be contested: was the slave trade a cause of warfare in West Africa, as European and American abolitionists in the eighteenth century argued [e.g. Benezet 1789]? Or did African wars have an independent, autonomous (and cultural/political rather than economic) origin, so that the slave trade fed off wars, rather than causing them, as was argued by anti-abolitionists, including Archibald Dalzel in his pioneering historical study of Dahomey [Dalzel 1793]? In short, was African involvement in the Atlantic slave trade supply-driven or demand-driven? This issue is a matter of controversy, not only in general, but also in relation to specific historical episodes. The collapse of Yorubaland into internecine warfare in the early nineteenth century, for example, certainly generated many captives who were sold into the Atlantic trade: but it is debated whether the origins of these wars should be understood in purely political terms [as e.g. Ajayi and Smith 1964], or whether the pressure of demand for captives for the Atlantic trade may have played at least a contributory role in stimulating local warfare [cf. Law 1977a].

Assessment of the implications of the ending of trans-Atlantic slave exports will, evidently, depend to some degree upon the view taken on this prior question. The issue is further complicated by the fact that slaves were also exported from West Africa across the Sahara to the Muslim world, and indeed extensively used within West Africa itself. The quantitative importance of the trans-Atlantic market, relative to the trans-Saharan and internal West African markets, would evidently materially affect the significance of the closing of the former, but can be a matter of no more than (more or less) informed speculation. Moreover, the growth of "legitimate" trade increased the demand for slaves within West Africa, since export commodities such as palm oil were often produced and transported by slave labor, to some degree offsetting the decline of overseas demand [Lovejoy 1983].

The common assumption has been that trans-Atlantic demand was sufficiently significant that the ending of the Atlantic slave trade would have caused a glut of slaves in West Africa (though this effect would presumably have been felt in different areas at different times), and a fall in the price they commanded in local markets. Analysis of the price of slaves (and indeed, of any other commodities) in West Africa during the nineteenth century, however, presents very considerable methodological, as well as empirical, problems. Slave prices are normally cited in European or American currencies, but this may be misleading, since the prices in Europe of many of the goods imported into Africa (such as textiles) were falling in the early decades of the century, in consequence of the cost-reducing innovations associated with the "Industrial Revolution" (in other words, the terms of trade at this period were moving in favour of African suppliers); a fall in nominal price may therefore mask a rise in the real price, in terms of quantities of imported manufactured goods. The obvious alternative which suggests itself, of citing prices in African currencies, such as cowry shells, may be equally misleading, since these were subject to massive inflation during the nineteenth century [Hogendorn and Johnson 1986]. (This quite apart from the difficulties caused by price differentials from one part of the coast to another, and between the interior and the coast.) The evidence on slave prices is therefore ambiguous, and the question is one of those which urgently requires further detailed research.

Assuming that there was indeed a fall in the price of slaves (even if only temporarily, and to a limited degree), the implications of this for the incidence of warfare and enslavement may be considered. If it is held that war was conducted for solely non-economic reasons, presumably there would be no effect: the level of warfare would remain the same, generating the same number of captives, though fewer of the latter could be sold (leading perhaps to a higher proportion being killed, or perhaps ransomed back to their home communities). If, on the other hand, expectations of profit from the sale of slaves are assumed to have played some role in the origins of wars, what would have been the consequences? On a commonsense view, lower slave prices, by making war less profitable, would have diminished the incidence of war: this is indeed argued, in the case of Asante, by Ivor Wilks, who suggests that the diminishing economic attractiveness of war strengthened the "peace party" against the "war party" in the national councils of that state [Wilks 1975]. Against this, however, for Sudanic West Africa, Claude Meillassoux has suggested quite the reverse, that falling slave prices stimulated increased warfare, as military leaders sought to compensate by increased output of slaves. On Meillassoux's view, this commercial factor played a role in causing the Western Sudanic jihads of the nineteenth century [Meillassoux 1991]. It may be that these alternative hypotheses are not, strictly, contradictory, but may each be applicable to different cases, depending upon the degree to which viable alternatives to slaving were available. Withdrawal from the slave trade would have been a rational option for those who could transfer their energies into other forms of exports, while an increase in output to compensate for failing prices would have made sense for those for whom no such alternative was on offer.


A second general question relating to the decline of the slave trade and the rise of "legitimate" trade is that of the nature of the relationship between these two processes. British abolitionists in the nineteenth century tended to believe that the slave trade and "legitimate" trade were mutually contradictory and incompatible with each other--that the persistence of the slave trade would prevent alternative forms of trade from developing and, conversely, the growth of legitimate trade would effectively drive out the slave trade. The growth of "legitimate" trade might thus be either a cause of a consequence of the decline of the slave trade, but on either hypothesis the two processes were presumed to be closely interlinked. Recent research, in contrast, has stressed the compatibility of the two trades. A study of the Bight of Biafra by David Northrup, for example, showed that, far from "legitimate" trade expanding at the expense of the slave trade, the two trades in this region down to the 1830s both expanded simultaneously [Northrup 1976].

One possible implication of this "compatibility" of the slave and palm oil trades (espoused by Northrup himself) might be that they were, at least in the main, produced and marketed by distinct groups and by different trading networks, prior to their delivery to the coastal ports. From the perspective of the coast itself, however, it seems clear that the compatibility of the slave and palm oil trades reflected the fact that they were not so much distinct as complementary. To some degree, coastal merchants engaged in the slave trade took up the palm oil trade as a hedge against fluctuations in the former. But in some cases at least, it was rather a question of multilateral patterns of exchange, in which the slave and palm oil trades reinforced each other. In the Bight of Benin by the 1840s, for example, locally resident Brazilian slavetraders began selling palm oil, not as a substitute for the slave trade, but as a support for it: they sold palm oil for European goods, which were in turn exchanged for slaves. An example is Domingo Martinez, who "frequently stated that he considered the two trades complementary" [Ross 1965]. This phenomenon was, indeed, a major problem for European abolitionists, who recognised that "legitimate" trade conducted with slave traders amounted, in effect, to indirect participation in the slave trade, but were unable to find a clear legal basis for prohibiting it [e.g. Jennings 1976].

If we extend the concept of the "slave trade" to include the supply of slaves for the internal as well as the export market, of course, the growth of "legitimate" trade depended upon continued slaving, since (as was noted earlier) considerable use was made of slave labour in the production of agricultural produce for export. At another level (and, perhaps, in the longer run), however, it may be that fundamental contradictions can nevertheless be discerned. In the case of Dahomey, for example, both an ideological and a material contradiction have been suggested. One of the problems faced by the king and chiefs of Dahomey in moving into the production of palm oil in the mid-nineteenth century, was that the Dahomian ruling elite was an essentially warrior class, whose martial values involved a disdain for agriculture. The shift to commercial agriculture was seen as incompatible with this traditional warrior ethos, and threatened to undermine the legitimacy and authority of the Dahomian state. It has been suggested that these tensions were reflected in debates within Dahomey over the reduction or abolition of "human sacrifice" (which in Dahomey involved mainly the killing of war captives in celebration of military victories, and was closely bound up with the state's military values) under King Gezo in the 1850s [Law 1985]. Once Dahomey had committed itself to large-scale participation in the palm produce trade, moreover, a further contradiction became evident, in that mobilization of the population for warfare (in Dahomey, on an annual seasonal basis) withdrew labour from the agricultural sector; this tension became critical when Gezo's successor Glele attempted to revive Dahomian militarism and the slave trade after 1858, consequently undermining the production of palm oil for export [Reid 1986].

The "crisis of adaptation" for African rulers

A long-established tradition has held that the transition from the slave trade to "legitimate" trade had destabilizing effects on African political and social structures, undermining the position of existing rulers and creating political disorder. The idea was already propounded by Dike in his pioneering study of 1956, which argued that in Bonny and other states of the Niger Delta the fortunes of existing rulers declined with the slave trade, while the rise of trade palm oil enabled men of slave origin to acquire wealth and bid for political power, creating tensions which were reflected in recurrent civil wars between the free and slave classes--a process personified above all by the famous ex-slave chief Jaja, who eventually seceded from Bonny to establish his own kingdom at Opobo [Dike 1956].

The idea of a "crisis of adaptation" was subsequently applied by Tony Hopkins to the case of Yorubaland (southwestern Nigeria), explaining the endemic warfare in that area in the late nineteenth century as reflecting the undermining of the incomes of local warrior elites by the decline of the slave trade, and their inability to make a comparable revenue from trade in palm produce, which led them to bolster their incomes by increasing the scale of their exaction of tribute and plunder [Hopkins 1968]. A similar analysis was applied by Martin Klein to the case of Senegambia, where the shift to "legitimate" trade (here in groundnuts rather than palm oil) was held to have contributed to the overthrow of the existing warrior elite by the Islamic jihads of the 1860s [Klein 1972].

More clearly than Dike, both Hopkins and Klein explained that the military chiefs who had dominated the slave trade were less able to control the new trade in agricultural produce, because the latter was readily open to participation by small-scale farmers and traders: in a memorable epigram of Klein, "whereas the slave trade strengthened the elite, the peanut trade put money, and thus guns, in the hands of peasants." Hopkins also stressed the significance of the collapse of West African produce prices in the "Great Depression" of 1873-96 (when, in contrast to the initial period of "legitimate" commerce, the terms of trade moved against African suppliers), which compounded the problems facing local rulers by further reducing their incomes from exports.

The classic formulation of the hypothesis of a "crisis of adaptation" was given by Hopkins in his Economic History of 1973, which generalized the argument to the whole of West Africa. Hopkins here identified various ways in which West African rulers might respond to the commercial transition (singly, or in combination). They might, of course, seek to enter the new trade, employing slave labour on large estates to produce agricultural commodities for export, but this was unlikely to yield revenues comparable to those from the slave trade, first, because the new trade was less profitable than the old (production and transport costs being higher, relative to selling prices at the coast), and second (critically), because in any case, rulers no longer had a natural monopoly of supply, as they had in the slave trade, but faced competition from the mass of ordinary farmers who could produce for export on a small scale. They might also try to bolster their incomes by taxing the activities of the independent small-scale producers and traders, or (as in Yorubaland) simply use their military power to appropriate wealth through increased raiding and plunder; but the former was difficult to make effective, and the latter in the long run counter-productive, since the resulting disorder disrupted the export trade (as well as threatening to provoke European intervention) [Hopkins 1973].

This view has not, of course, commanded universal support among historians. An alternative view, propounded perhaps most influentially by Ralph Austen, holds that, in fact, existing ruling elites were able to dominate the new trade, as they had the old, so that West African economic and political structures remained substantially intact until they were destroyed by the European colonial conquest at the end of the nineteenth century [Austen 1970]. Patrick Manning, in his general survey of 1986, takes an intermediate view, though one closer to Hopkins than to Austen. Although supporting Hopkins's idea that the new "legitimate" trade favoured the entry of small producers and traders, he stresses also the need to periodize the development of the trade: the early nineteenth century, when the slave trade was in decline and the palm oil trade, although expanding, remained limited to "favoured powerful monarchs and wealthy slave merchants"; the middle decades, when the volume and price of palm oil exports soared, marked by "free-swinging competition and unusual upward social mobility"; and the later nineteenth century, when the trade was stagnant (because of the collapse of oil prices), again marked by "consolidation" of political and economic power [Manning 1986].

Although many points remain contested, a degree of consensus may be said to have been reached with regard to certain key questions. First, it is generally agreed (and acknowledged by Hopkins) that a distinction needs to be made between conditions in coastal middleman states (such as Bonny) and hinterland producing states (such as Yorubaland). Even if Hopkins is correct in holding that palm oil was originally produced by small-scale producers, it was normally bulked up by the coastal traders before being transported to the coast, where large-scale enterprise remained dominant. Historiographically, the critical contribution in this area was John Latham's study of Old Calabar, which showed that the ruling elite there retained their dominance of the new trade in palm oil, and the role of petty traders remained marginal. Although some ex-slaves in Old Calabar (as in Bonny) were able to become substantial merchants, they rose through the patronage of their masters rather than in competition with them, effectively from within the existing commercial and political structure rather than through its overthrow [Latham 1973]. Other research showed that this was basically true of the rise of ex-slaves such as Jaja in Bonny itself [Hargreaves 1987]. Dike's argument linking the rise of such ex-slaves, and political disorder in the coastal states more generally, to the shift from slaves to palm oil, is now generally held to be unsustainable, at least in the form in which he expounded it.

Second, in the hinterland producing states, although there were certainly many cases where existing rulers appear to have had difficulty in maintaining the degree of control over "legitimate" trade that they had in the slave trade, the process was rather more complex than Hopkins's original formulation allowed. While Hopkins had stressed only the entry of small-scale farmers and traders, analyses of several case-studies suggested that the principal threat to chiefs' control of "legitimate" trade came less from small-scale enterprise than from wealthy merchants, operating on a large scale. This was argued, for example, for Asante by Ivor Wilks [1975] and for Dahomey by Robin Law [1977b]. Whereas the slave trade depended on warfare, and therefore favoured the domination of the chiefs who controlled the military forces, the new trade in agricultural produce offered no special advantages to warrior elites, and enabled private individuals of wealth to strengthen their position by moving into large-scale production for export.

Third, the destabilizing potential of the commercial transition might not in practice be realized because existing rulers could use their political power to enforce monopolies of trade. Latham's study of Old Calabar, for example, showed that the established merchant chiefs of Old Calabar, through the ruling Ekpe society, legislated against petty trade, in 1862 prohibiting trading in smaller quantities than the puncheon (240 gallons, or 3/4 of a ton) [Latham 1973]. The king of Dahomey also proclaimed a temporary monopoly of palm oil exports in 1852 [Law 1977b]. The possibility of such administrative intervention in the market was not, of course, denied by Hopkins, though he was sceptical about its effectiveness in the long run; given the more dispersed nature of the oil trade (involving a multiplicity of small producers) it must have been more difficult to monitor and control than the slave trade. Moreover, attempts to enforce monopolies of trade, or to increase the level of taxation on the private sector, were likely to provoke resistance, and create political problems of their own--as Ivor Wilks, in fact, argued in the case of Asante, where the grievances of wealthy merchant entrepreneurs against state regulation and taxation of trade allegedly played a role in the civil wars which occurred there in 1883-8 [Wilks 1975].

It also seems by now clear that the outcome of these tensions and difficulties varied from case to case, with ruling groups in different societies more or less successful in defending the political status quo in the face of economic change. Such differing outcomes presumably reflected, in part, the differing character of the societies involved, with stronger and more centralized states (such as Dahomey and Asante) likely to be better able to contain the strains of the transition than those which were weaker or more decentralized. The precise outcome was presumably also affected by other factors (such as Islam in Senegambia, or European imperialist intervention in many coastal societies), which interacted with and modified the impact of the commercial transition. Future research might perhaps profitably be directed to elucidating the reasons for these differing responses to and experiences of the transition, a project here again of disaggregation, rather than seeking to construct further general syntheses which may obscure these particularities.


A further aspect of the impact of the commercial transition on the African societies involved in it should be noted here, though as a an area generally neglected rather than seriously addressed in historical research hitherto: namely, its implications for gender relations. The starting point for this question is that whereas the capture and trading of slaves were always overwhelmingly male activities, the manufacture and trading of palm oil were (at least in many coastal societies) traditionally done predominantly by women. The shift from slaves to palm oil as the principal export must be presumed, therefore, to have had significant implications for relations between the sexes. The only published account which deals centrally with this issue (though with primary reference to the twentieth century rather than the pre-colonial period) is an article by Susan Martin on the palm produce trade in the Ngwa area of Iboland (south-eastern Nigeria), which argues that with the rise of an export trade in palm oil, men moved into oil production in order to appropriate the proceeds for themselves, thus largely depriving women of potential benefit (though the trade in palm kernels, which developed later, remained in female hands, and gave women some opportunities for independent accumulation) [Martin 1984]. It is possible, however, hypothetically at least, to envisage alternative outcomes in other cases: if women were able to retain control of the palm oil trade, its growth would presumably have tended to enrich and empower women, and to increase their effective autonomy vis-a-vis their menfolk. The whole question should be a major priority for future research on the nineteenth-century commercial transition.

Abolition and Imperialism: Towards the partition of Africa

A further and final area of interest in relation to the commercial transition of the nineteenth century is its relationship to the growth of European imperialism and the ultimate Partition of Africa among the European colonial powers at the end of the century. This relationship can be conceived as having three distinct aspects, which also represent (roughly) three successive chronological phases.

First, as was stressed in a neglected article by Austen and Smith [1969], the debate about the abolition of the slave trade was, among other things, a debate about the nature of African societies, and about the relationship of that nature to the impact of the slave trade. Abolitionists and anti-abolitionists normally agreed in a negative valuation of African societies, regarded as savage and brutal; but whereas anti-abolitionists tended to regard African societies as essentially backward, explaining their supposed barbarism as reflecting the low stage of their social evolution (and making the inference that those Africans who were taken as slaves were being rescued from even worse conditions within their own societies), abolitionists tended to regard them as the victims of distorted or corrupted development, their alleged brutalization being not a pristine state but the consequence of the impact of the slave trade. The logical consequence of the Abolitionist view was that Europeans were, in the final analysis, responsible for the current state of Africa; and therefore, had the responsibility to take action to remedy it. The abolition of the slave trade was therefore a means of transforming Africa, as well as a means of ameliorating the conditions suffered by African slaves in the Americas.

One aspect of this abolitionist ideology, therefore, was its implicit assumption that it was the right, as well as the obligation, of Europeans to determine the future course of African development--an "imperialism" of intent, if not necessarily implying "imperialist" methods of execution. The idea is nicely captured by Tony Hopkins, in his recent study (with Peter Cain) of British imperialism, describing the campaign against the slave trade in the early nineteenth century as "Britain's first development plan for Africa" [Cain and Hopkins 1993].

The second aspect of the question is that, in practice, the campaign against the slave trade drew European governments, especially the British, into interference in the affairs of African societies on a scale unparalleled during the history of the slave trade itself. The initial assumption was that the slave trade could be suppressed by action on the demand side--negotiating treaties for the legal abolition of the trade with European and American states whose citizens were engaged in the trade, and maintaining naval patrols in the Atlantic to police this legal abolition by intercepting ships involved in illicit slaving voyages. The evident failure of this policy in bringing the trade to an end, however, led from the late 1830s to a shift towards a supply-side approach, seeking to cut off the supply of slaves from within Africa itself. The best-known symbol of this new policy was the disastrous British expedition up the River Niger, to establish a model farm to promote export agriculture, in 1841-2, recently re-studied by Howard Temperley [1991]. More generally, the British government sought to negotiate treaties banning the slave trade with African societies, as with Bonny (beginning in 1839). Although this policy was initially conceived as one of merely diplomatic intervention, it quickly led on to more. Where African rulers proved reluctant to accept anti-slave trade treaties, there was the temptation to apply pressure upon them to do so, by the threat or if necessary the actuality of military intervention. The classic (but by no means the only instance) was the intervention at Lagos in 1851, to depose the existing ruler who refused to accept an abolition treaty, in favour of a rival claimant to the throne, who was willing to cooperate with British policy [Smith 1978]. This was even more obviously a policy of "imperialism," although not in the sense that it necessarily involved annexation of African territory: the policy still assumed that, in general, the desired transformation could be achieved within a framework of continuing African sovereignty. Although in particular cases (as in Lagos itself in 1861), the ultimate consequence of intervention might be annexation, this occurred, when it occurred, in response to specific local circumstances rather than as part of a systematic policy of colonial expansion. The policy was nevertheless "imperialist", in the looser sense of the use of state power to promote overseas commercial interests--what it has become conventional among historians to term "informal imperialism."

The third aspect of the question relates to the shift from this sort of "informal imperialism" to formal imperialism, i.e. the partition of Africa among rival colonial powers in the late nineteenth century. Although the reasons for the Partition of Africa have been a matter of great historical controversy, it may safely be asserted that, at very least, a significant role was played by European commercial interests, which sought annexation as a solution to what were perceived as problems of Africa's commercial development. The nature of these perceived problems, it may be suggested, is usefully illustrated by the two great international congresses of this period which discussed and (to some extent) regulated aspects of the process--at Berlin in 1884-5 and Brussels in 1890. Of these, the first congress, at Berlin, was mainly concerned with intra-European commercial rivalries. But the second, at Brussels in 1890, was mainly concerned with the reconstruction of African societies, and more specifically with the suppression of the slave trade [Miers 1975]. By the late nineteenth century, it was clear that the attack on the slave trade from outside Africa had been only partially successful--while the export trade in slaves had been largely suppressed (though less effectively in the east than in the west), slave-raiding and trading within Africa persisted; more decisive intervention was therefore needed, in the interior as well as at the coast of Africa.

Although this concern for the suppression of the slave trade has often been seen as an excuse or rationalization, rather than a real motive, for European intervention in Africa, it might more illuminatingly be thought as a symbol--the issue of slavery and its suppression symbolizing Europe's desire (and, in its own eyes, obligation) to effect the "modernization" of African societies, and more specifically the diffusion to them of the capitalist mode of production. The move to formal annexation reflected a growing conviction that the more limited forms of intervention adopted earlier were inadequate to effect the desired transformation of African socio-economic structures.

In this context, attention should also be addressed to the argument of Hopkins [1973], that the strains of the original transition from the slave trade to "legitimate" commerce earlier in the nineteenth century themselves contributed to this European pressure for annexation of African territory. In some cases, as Hopkins argued in that of Yorubaland, the problem was that the commercial transition had undermined and weakened the position of African ruling elites, leading to warfare and disorder which Europeans condemned as injurious to trade. But even in those cases where African rulers had succeeded in maintaining effective control, the policies which they adopted to manage the commercial transition were regularly condemned by Europeans, as inimical to free trade, and to modern economic development more generally. Insofar as African ruling elites had coped with the transition to "legitimate" trade by asserting monopolies of trade, increasing taxes, and by the more extensive and intensive use of slave labour for export production, they were reinforcing the very practices whose abolition, in the longer run, European capitalism would demand. The ways in which African rulers responded to the "crisis of adaptation", therefore, even if successful in the short run, brought down upon them in the end the greater crisis of colonial conquest.


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