19th Century Attempts as Economic Modernization in Africa
Abel B.S. Gaiya
About 50 years ago, Crummey (1969) identified a lack of scholarly attention paid to precolonial
African attempts to “transform and modernize their societies” in response to incursions with
European imperialism. The prevailing tendency has been to begin exploring the history of
Africa’s modern development thought and policy from the period of decolonization in the
1960s, or at best from the colonial era of the late 19th century. This is not surprising, given that
most African countries gained political independence from colonial powers during this period,
and the vast majority could only then comprehensively undertake modern economic and
development policy independently. Moreover, it draws from the general tendency to begin the
study of development economics from the 1940s with Harry Truman’s Four Points and the
reconstruction and development thoughts of Eastern European, Latin American and
decolonizing states (Helleiner, 2014). The actual history of development thinking and policy
covers a longer time period (beginning from the 1500s and 1600s) (Perrota, 1993; Reinert,
2005; Reinert, 2011); and even international development can be traced to the late 19th century
Several scholars have charted out precolonial African attempts at modernization in the 19th
century (Ajayi, 1989; Coquery-Vidrovitch, 2009; Austin, Frankema and Jerven, 2017;
Campbell, 2019). However, they tend to focus only upon Egypt, Ethiopia, the Maghreb and the
Merina Empire. This paper intersects these with smaller attempts such as those made by
Zanzibar, Asante, Liberia and others. It provides a broad coverage to include mentions of states
which did not attempt modernization reforms.
Although 15th century Ethiopia made attempts at improving its military technological
capabilities, the first comprehensive modernization attempt made by an African state since the
early modern period occurred in North Africa by Muhammad Ali Pasha of Egypt from 1805
after the French invasion of Egypt in 1798. The Merina Empire, seeking hegemony over
Madagascar, next pursued its modernization programme as part of its measures to address the
economic and fiscal crises associated with the ban on the slave trade, Britain’s enforcement of
the ban, and threats of French incursion given that its Mascarene neighbours had fallen under
French rule. The Liberian state, established by the American Colonization Society in West
Africa in 1822, gained its independence in 1847 and also had modernization aspirations,
although it was unable to do this substantively since it was struggling with basic economic and
political survival. This is in contrast to some, such as Hilary Teague, who envisioned Liberia
as an emergent African power in the likes of the United States, which would unite the continent
in the face of European threats. Ethiopia in East Africa, under Emperor Tewodros II, made
attempts at modernization from 1848 in response to Egyptian incursions, and then more
substantively under Menelik II in the 1880s in response to the Italian security threat.
A commonality is that all these were coastal states – Egypt and the Maghreb on the coast of
the Mediterranean; Ethiopia facing the Indian Ocean; Liberia facing the Atlantic; and
Madagascar an island on the Indian Ocean. This is not unusual, as a similar pattern is observed
in the European case – it was the coastal Mediterranean Italian city-states that dominated the
proto-capitalist era of the mid-Middle Ages (Mielants, 2007; Stark, 2014), before power shifted
to the coastal Atlantic Western European states within which capitalism emerged proper from
the 15th century. Nonetheless, Africa is the continent with the largest number of landlocked
countries and has a low number of navigable rivers (Gallup, Sachs and Mellinger, 1999). As a
result, the first independent modernizers were those on its coast and above the equator which
had encountered European influence substantially. For the rest, which was the majority, their
encounter with the modernization problem only occurred when colonial expansion into the
African interior occurred during the Scramble for Africa in the late 19th century.
Just as Japan, being the first non-Western nation to industrialize, made conquests, imperial
aspirations were also present among these early African attempted modernizers, reflecting the
ubiquity of empire characterizing the era (Ince, 2015). Egypt under Muhammad Ali Pasha (and
subsequently under Khedive Ismail) possessed and pursued imperial ambitions, seeking to
subjugate Sudan to its South (as well as marginal encroachments upon Ethiopia), Syria and
parts of the Arabian Peninsula to the East, and the Eastern Mediterranean, including Greece to
its North (Marsot, 1990). Liberian settlers had a fraught relationship with the native population,
with Akpan (1973) accusing the Liberian state of “black imperialism” and Gershoni (1985)
describing it as “black colonialism” as it sought to colonize the interior in response to
encroachments by European colonial powers within the region; and even from its independence
some desired it to be the progenitor of a “United States of Africa” (Mills, 2014). Ethiopia was
formed as an empire located on the horn of Africa and, from the mid-19th century, pursued
imperial conquest within its region of influence (Jalata and Schaffer, 2010), with Emperor
Tewodros II having visions of conquering “all Arabia” (Venkataram, 1973: 137). The Merina
Empire continuously sought to bring all of Madagascar under its control through imperial
conquest (Campbell, 1987).
The paper is structured as follows: Section 2 outlines the theory of capitalist modernization,
laying out the role of external pressures in forcing ruling elites to undertake reforms on state
formation and political centralization, capitalist transition, and structural transformation in
defence, reaction to economic or fiscal crisis, and/or jealousy of trade. Section 3 examines the
African experience with pre-colonial proto-industrialization, and how progress was disrupted
by the Atlantic slave trade.
2. The Pressures to Modernize
The Neolithic revolution of 12,000 years ago enabled the transformation of human societies
from bands of gatherer-hunters sparsely populating the globe, to agriculturally-dependent ones
with more complex (although not always necessarily better off in terms of quality of life)
political, social and economic organization. Food production enabled the rise of states and
greater political centralization, as well as greater population sizes and densities, social
stratification, division of labour and possibilities for occupational specialization for some
segments of the population (Diamond, 1997). The development and spread of these new crop
and livestock “technologies” differed across regions and time. Some societies domesticated
certain crops and animals independently while importing others from outside. Due to the
distinct climate, societies straddling the Mediterranean region had a greater number of
domesticable plants and animals, which gave them an edge in timing and scale of developing
agriculture (Diamond, 1997). Hence the first states and empires emerged in the region of
Southwest Asia and Northeast Africa.
Africa contributed to, and kept up with, the global technological frontier for a long time. The
continent had gone through the Neolithic agricultural revolution, the period of agricultural
elaboration, the “Third Great Transition” to merchant-managed commerce in the later 2nd
millennium. It proceeded “at similar paces as comparable changes elsewhere in the world”
(Ehret, 2014: 50). In fact, only between 1000 and 1400 CE did Europe north of the Pyrenees
and Alps begin to match the northern three-fifths of Africa, as well as the eastern coast and its
hinterlands in terms of economic integration with other world regions, during much of the first
thousand years CE (Ehret, 2014: 53).
By the 16th century, Africa “occupied a middle position in the global rankings, as measured by
technology, population, or power” (Akyeampong et al., 2014: 14), although Europe’s per capita
income was twice that of Africa (c: 165). Africa also had, on average, more centralized states
than North and South America, Australia and Oceania, although less so than Western Europe
and Asia. Various geographical and ecological factors (Diamond, 1997; Gallup, Sachs, and
Mellinger, 1999) limited population density, urbanization, more centralized state formation
(Herbst, 2000), adoption of agricultural technologies such as the plough (Hopkins, 1973),
proto-industrialization on the continent (Inikori, 2009), and merchants’ political power
(Mielants, 2007). The low population density, prevalence of malaria in tropical regions, and
presence of trypanosomiasis meant that the continent suffered from both labour scarcity –
which continued to trouble the region until the end of the 20th century (Akyüz and Gore, 2001:
283) – and non-land capital (draught animals) scarcity (Austin, 2008). The result was the use
of land-extensive and rain-fed agriculture, limiting its agricultural yield and hence also
population density and political centralization. Although the continent is estimated to have had
a population of 85 million by 1500 (against 69 million in Europe and 100 million in both China
and India) (Johnston, 2015), its population density (people per km2) was low – around 1.9
compared to China’s 13.4, Europe’s 13.7, South Asia’s 15.2 and Japan’s 46.4, although greater
than the Former USSR area (Herbst, 2000: 16). Moreover, West Africa, North Africa and East
Africa had the highest number of major cities on the continent (Hayashi, 2007), and therefore
interaction with Eurasia was most concentrated in these regions, through both the
Mediterranean, Red Sea, Indian Ocean and trans-Saharan trades. However, the North African
centralized states were primarily within the orbit of the Mamluks (1250-1517) and eventually
the Ottomans (1517 until the 19th century), which did not pay close attention to the
developments in Europe’s political economy by the late Middle Ages (Abdul, 2009), for both
political economy, geopolitical and religious reasons (Mielants, 2007; Anievas and
Nişancıoğlu, 2015; Stark, 2014).
With Western Europe and the Italian city-states having passed through turbulent circumstances
(political fragmentation after the fall of Rome, war and disease), the late Middle Ages saw the
emergence of what has come to be called “merchant capitalism”. The Italian cities of the late
Renaissance, given their strategic geographical position and access to along the Mediterranean,
became “centres of prosperous craft activity and of advanced mercantile culture” (Belfanti,
2006: 321). This was a time when European powers began to see the importance of technical
change and innovation in fostering economic growth (Reinert and Reinert, 2011: 14). Venice
is identified to probably be the first society to live by trade alone (Lopez, 1967: 129). It is
therefore in this region that the first modern policies of industrial policy emerge. In 1474
Venice was the first city to approve a specific law designed to issue privileges/patents for
inventions, in order to attract foreign artisans and encourage domestic ones to set up new
manufacture and new production technologies (Belfanti, 2006: 321). In 1485 the English Tudor
Plan began, which “wrested control of the important European woollen-exports from the
Italians in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries” (Reinert, 2005: 273). This early period (15th to
17th century) of jealousy of trade, emulation and commercial rivalry saw England and France
try to catch up with Venice and then the Dutch. The period also saw the decline and
deindustrialization of the Iberian powers despite the existence of some factions within these
polities which favoured emulation rather than dependence on minerals production (Perrota,
For a long time (since at least the late 15th century), the emulation of the emerging advanced
technological systems and mercantile supports was a game conducted among the Western
European great powers and the semi-peripheries (Hont, 2005; Reinert, 2011). The major world
powers, China (Landes, 2006) and the Ottoman Empire (Anievas and Nişancıoğlu, 2015) did
not have the social forces to pursue emulation, similar to Eastern Europe. The Americas was
largely isolated from the Old World given its distance from the other continents. When faced
with Iberian imperialism, there was little time to engage in “defensive modernization” by
emulating European technology until the 19th century, as the continent was subjected to
deliberate and undeliberate forms of depopulation – similarly with Australia and the Polynesian
Islands. The Mughal Empire, which encountered European commercial and political activity
from the 17th century, did not begin to attempt defensive modernization until the 18th century
(Islahi, 2011), which was by then too late as it was colonized by Britain which induced its
deindustrialization. Therefore it was in the 19th century, in the century of England’s industrial
revolution and the accentuation of Western Europe’s “Great Divergence” from the rest of the
world, as well as an intensification of Western Europe’s bourgeois imperialism and unequal
treaty-making, that all other regions and nations felt the full “whip of external necessity”
(Trotsky, 1997: 24) to “emulate or perish” (Reinert, 2011).
The rise of Western Europe through this process not only brought a “Great Divergence”
between the West and the Rest in terms of per capita incomes and technology, but also a “Great
Specialization” of the West in manufacturing and of the Rest in commodity production
(Nayyar, 2013). Therefore, the Eastern European Byzantine economies became dependent
upon Italian manufactures early on (Mielants, 2007). The Iberian powers experienced
deindustrialization in the face of English, French and Italian competition; India experienced
deindustrialization (Anievas and Nişancıoğlu, 2015). The Mamluks and Ottomans faced
deindustrialization; and South America was subjected to commodities specialization. In Africa,
North Africa became increasingly peripheralized by England and France from the 16th century
(Hunter, 1999). West Africa’s increasing proto-industrialization and regional integration was
reversed and its foreign trade replaced by slave exports and European manufactured goods
imports (Inikori, 2009).
Therefore, whereas West European states faced what Trotsky called the “whip of external
necessity” for emulation and commercial rivalry since the early modern period, Africa did not
do so until it was too late to avoid full colonial occupation. Given that the more centralized
Muslim states in North Africa were within the Mamuluk and Ottoman cultural axis, the only
sub-Saharan African state in the early modern period which sought to import European
technological capabilities was Christian Abyssinia in Northeast Africa (Salvadore, 2011). Yet
this faltered by the late 16th century after it expelled European missionaries due to their
attempted religious proto-colonialism following the Catholic counter-reformation (Belcher,
2013). The other was Kongo (in West Central Africa) from 1497 until the 17th century, but this
was limited to emulating Christian culture and religious infrastructure in attempting to
construct a “model Christian city”, rather than building a new economic and technological
structure (Heywood, 2014). Besides, it was increasingly reliant on slave exports, and the
kingdom disintegrated from within and without.
On the other hand, by the 16th century Songhay and Borno politically and economically
dominated much of West Africa, although the Songhay Empire was the largest and most
prosperous in the region at the time. They were both culturally and economically integrated
with North Africa and South West Asia than with Europe, which is not surprising given that
the trans-Saharan overland route was the only corridor of contact with the outside world before
the opening of the Atlantic sea lanes with sub-Saharan Africa (Sanneh, 2016: 47). The Mali
Empire, Songhay’s predecessor, had been “fully engaged with centers of law, religion, and
politics in Egypt, North Africa, and beyond” through intervening trans-Saharan crossing points
(Sanneh, 2016: 5). The earliest diplomatic ‘embassy’ known between distant Muslim states in
Africa was that of Bornu to Tripoli in 1257/1258 (Smith, 1976: 33). Those of Mali’s Mansa
Musa and Songhay’s Askiya Mohammad were more eventful. Askiya Mohammad Ture of
Songhay, like Mansa Musa of Mali before him, undertook a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1495, and
from Arabia and Egypt he returned with Muslim scholars and other professionals. They sparked
a cultural and intellectual revival in Timbuktu, but this was in isolation of European
developments. In general, while the 17th century was a period of scholarship and emulation in
the new field of political economy for Europe, “no work on economics was translated into
Arabic until 1870” (Islahi, 2015: 25), although there were Turkish texts on modern economics
written from the late 18th century. A similar situation prevailed in Japan (which entered
isolation in the 17th century) and China (which turned inward by the 16th century). Therefore
between the 16th century and the 19th century, there was no African or Turko-Arab equivalent
of Giovanni Botero’s (1588) On the Causes of the Greatness of Cities, Antoine de
Montchetien’s (1615) Treatise on Political Economy, or John Cary’s (1695) An Essay on the
State of England.
It is possible that Mansa Musa of the Mali Empire, “reaching the limits of the desert to the
north and the forest and savannah to the south, …envisioned a transregional empire by which
he could project power into North Africa itself” (Gomez, 2018: 4). Yet, “the fundamental
dynamics of transregional commercial relations would not change: financing and routes outside
of West Africa remained under the control of trading partners, and this would only intensify
over the next several centuries, at the end of which West Africa (and the rest of the continent)
would be subject to nations steeped in the knowledge of seafaring.” (Gomez, 2018: 4). His
brother’s voyage into the Atlantic was not successful as a means of establishing pre-European
exploration of the ocean.
Another attempt at a transregional empire was made by Morocco, then under the Sa’did
dynasty independent of the Ottoman Empire. Fuelled with desire to establish a trans-Saharan
empire from Morocco to the Sudan, Sultan Malay Ahmad al-Mansur (ruled 1578-1603) in
1591 invaded the polity armed with firearms (imported from European and Ottoman
sources) not hitherto used in this region of the Sudan (Kaba, 1981: 457). The Sultan sought
to control the gold mines and trans-Saharan trade routes, and to stabilize Morocco’s
economy and finances in light of its “gradual absorption…into the expanding mercantilist
system” centered on Europe (Kaba, 1981: 462). Sultan Al-Mansur, faced domestic
economic and fiscal crisis in the late 16th century, as well as a balance of payments problem
brought about by increasing importation of European-made goods. The sultan sought to
expand the kingdom’s role in the emerging world economy, to control sub-Saharan gold
mines, and to oppose European incursions into the region. He sent letters to the monarchs
of the two most powerful Sub-Saharan empires, Songhay and Bornu, to emphasize his need
“for their support to stem the progress of the unbelieving Europeans”, which would also
challenge Ottoman supremacy in the Muslim world (Cory, 2009: 183-184). This represented
“the last great Arab hope” in the long 16th century to achieve some form of geopolitical and
religious unity to contend with Europe’s emerging modern political economy (Kaba,
1981:475). Similarly, in August of 1820, Hanmer Warrington, British Consul, wrote to the
British Foreign Office with Tripoli’s governor’s explicit proposal of territorial expansion
into Bornu in the Central Sudan (Hhana, 2016: 232-233). The proposition was for a loan of
£25,000, to be repaid in a few years, in order for him to conquer Bornu and Sudan. This
would enable him develop and control gold dust production in these places and therefore
relinquish the slave trade (Hhana, 2016: 233). After this was rejected by Britain, a request
for £50,000 made in 1824 again for the same purpose was also rejected. Yusuf Pasha then
turned to Egypt for the required resources to launch this imperial quest, but Egypt’s terms
of credit were too steep for the Pasha to accept.
The failure to transform the social and economic foundations of the Moroccan economy, while
moderately attempting military modernization, reflected Morocco’s uneven economic
relationship with Europe an “an early form of technological dependence” (Kaba, 1981: 463-
464). Therefore, and in addition to Songhay resistance, dynastic and bureaucratic tussles, and
unfavourable climate and terrain, the Moroccan invasion both failed and destabilized Songhay
and Morocco. This paved the way for more direct links with the European-owned trading posts
on the Atlantic coast established since 1450 (Kaba, 1981). The failure of this economically-
imperative imperial project in the early modern period meant that “as Songhay and Morocco
experienced serious crises in the seventeenth century, Europe's domination of international
trade became uncontested” (Kaba, 1981: 475).
Following the collapse of Songhay, there was a “degeneration of West Africa into warlordism”
and political fragmentation which also reflected in the region’s economy, and which expanded
the mechanisms of slave supply for the trans-Atlantic slave trade (Lovejoy, 2002: 252). The
written intellectual arguments against the slave trade in the early modern period by “the most
prestigious Timbuktu scholar” Ahmad Baba al-Timbukti (1556-1627) (Diagne, 2008: 20), even
up to the times of Usman dan Fodio (1754-1817) (Lofkrantz, 2011) were not arguing for a new
political economy, but against the enslavement of freeborn Muslims and against the
racialization of slavery. Trimingham (1962: 151-154) therefore calls the 17th and 18th centuries
a period of “Islamic stagnation and pagan reaction” in West Africa, in contrast to “the very
strong revival of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” (Curtin, 1971: 23). Likewise, the first
Christian king of Kongo, Afonso, when protesting to the Portuguese against the slave trade,
was arguing for a regulation of the trade and not an end to it. Thus “there were no serious
challenges to the growth of the slave trade” in the 16th and 17th centuries (Newitt, 2010: 23). It
was only in the late 18th century, with the West African ex-slaves in Britain, Ottobah Cugoano
(1787), that the first African to write his own abolitionist narrative in the English language
called for the worldwide “abolition of slavery” (Gunn, 2010: 629). Alimami Sadu of Futa
Jallon, had also told two British envoys from Sierra Leone in 1794 “that if he could get guns
and powder, and everything else he wanted for Ivory, Rice and Cattle, he would soon drive all
the Slave dealers out of the Country” (McGowan, 1990: 6).
Moreover, rather than sustaining the interior savannah’s autonomy from the Atlantic world
through technology or economic reform, it was majorly through the large-scale use of slaves
on plantations in the savannah (Lovejoy, 2002: 258). When economic power in West Africa
moved from the interior savannah connected to the trans-Saharan trade, to the coastal states,
this was based on the strengthening of these coastal states through the Atlantic slave-trading.
These states were highly dependent on slave exports and imported European goods; and they
were not empires which brought an increasingly wider expanse of territories under their
protection and dominion, but rather slave-raiding states with parasitic relationships with
neighbouring peoples. The trade worked to “alter the direction of the economic process in sub-
Saharan Africa away from development and towards underdevelopment and dependence”,
since it disrupted regional markets and tendencies toward expanding preindustrial
manufacturing (Hopkins, 1992:108). Meanwhile North Africa became increasingly
technologically and economically dependent on European powers as well. Therefore, the
political consolidations which occurred in West Africa during the trans-Atlantic slave trade
and during the 19th century “was not based on the major technological changes of the era or
tied to the major world markets” (Lovejoy, 2002: 253). In effect, “by the nineteenth century
West Africa had little possibility of overcoming its relative disadvantages with respect to
Europe” (Lovejoy, 2002: 253).
It was not until after Western Europe had gained a more massive lead, and French forces led
by Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798 that the Afro-Asian world felt the whip of external
necessity to pay close attention to the emergent Western-European political economy. At the
same time, the rise of industrial capitalism in England and its facilitation of victory by the
abolitionists created a new class of Black former slave and freeborn thinkers returning to Africa
in the late 18th century and early 19th century who were also concerned with modern agricultural
and industrial technological methods and political economy. This was in the context of the need
for Africa to transition to “legitimate commerce” as the major source of incomes and foreign
exchange for imports of extra-continental manufactured goods. The 19th century saw a general
consciousness of the modern challenges of development across the rest of the world, following
its gestation in Europe. Such consciousness was manifest in post-independence Latin America
(Rosales and Helleiner, 2017), China (Helleiner and Wang, 2018), Japan (Reinert, 1995:36;
Morris-Suzuki, 1989: 50-53), the Middle East and North Africa (Abdul, 2011; Abdul, 2015),
and Eastern Europe (Berend, 2003).
However, when considering Africa, there is a tendency to go straight from slavery to
colonialism (or first to the commercial transition) and then to postcolonial economic policy.
This neglects the fact that across parts of Africa, the end of the slave trade and European
military incursion precipitated the emergence of modern policies and defensive modernization
(Campbell, 2019: 199-230). In Egypt’s case the trigger was the French occupation of Egypt in
1798 and hence the need to modernize its military and society to meet the demands of the new
military and commercial order. In West Africa it was the freed slaves and freeborn Africans
who received European education and settled in Liberia and Sierra Leone, encouraged by
British and American unwillingness to politically and economically include them into their
societies. In Madagascar it was the “crisis of adaptation” (Hopkins, 1973) precipitated by the
ban on the slave trade and need for legitimate commerce, as well as the threat of French
incursion in the 1820s. In Ethiopia it was the military threat posed by Egypt, and eventually
Italian aggression that sparked modernization reforms by Tewodros II (1855), Yohannes IV
(1872), and Menelik II (1889).
All of these attempts failed, although they may have raised the baseline which postcolonial
economic policy could build upon. The failures of Egypt to industrialize, even relative to
Turkey, have been attributed to a range of factors. One is that “Egypt had a powerful class of
large landowners favouring specialization in cotton” (Karakoç, Pamuk and Panza, 2017: 145).
The Muhammad Ali’s imperial pursuits also crowded out domestic industrial investment which
was predominantly dependent upon public finance given the absence of a large scale or
politically strong private manufacturing sector (Karakoç, Pamuk and Panza, 2017: 144). The
pasha’s needs for more funds and manpower only grew with his involvements in Syria and
Arabia (Abir, 1967: 460).
The imposition of the 1838 free trade treaty limited infant industry trade barriers. British
colonial authorities also favoured agriculture over industry (Owen, 1970) and discouraged
manufacturing that competed with home industry. Therefore, “the subsequent lack of any
industrial strategy, coupled with very low external tariffs, persisted until 1914, discouraging
manufacturing investment” (Karakoç, Pamuk and Panza, 2017: 146). Cotton accounted for
more than 80 per cent of total exports in the 1880s, and over 90 per cent at the turn of the
century (Panza, 2014: 158); and the share of industry (both mechanized and non-mechanized)
did not exceed 2.3 per cent (Radwan, 1974). Nevertheless, a lot of modern infrastructure was
built, a legacy which endures till today.
The rest of North Africa did not fare any better. Hunter (1999) argues that the various treaties
imposed on Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli by England and France in the second half of the 17th
century, using “an early form of gunboat diplomacy” (James, 2009: 40), marked the beginning
of their reorientation toward Europe and the processes of colonization normally described as
phenomena of the 19th century. The Tunisian reforms under Ahmad Bey (1837-1855) were
spurred by “the European military threat and France’s occupation of Algeria in 1830”, but they
were focused on the modernization of the military (El-Mesawi, 2008: 50),
On the island of Madagascar, from the 1790s a dynasty emerged which unified the Imerina of
the central highlands, and which sought to dominate trade with the Mascarenes (Campbell,
2016). It was by virtue of its position as a major slave supplier to the Mascarenes in the late
18th century that as “a landlocked and largely sterile country, Imerina had only become a major
political force within Madagascar” (Campbell, 1987: 398).
With the British occupation of the Mascarenes and the British insistence upon enforcing the
1807 ban on the slave trade, the average price of slaves on the domestic market halved between
1810 and 1817, and there was an “extreme shortage” of foreign currency flowing into Imerina
from 1810 (Campbell, 1987: 398). Britain’s insistence on its abolition in the 1817 Anglo-
Malagasy treaty, renewed in 1820, led to a further substantial loss of slave export earnings and
royal revenue (Campbell, 1991: 531). The treaty abolished the overseas slave trade in return
for an exclusive access to European firearms and training (Berg, 1998: 85-86).
In reaction to this, as well as to British free trade imperialism, the cost of empire, failure of the
British to provide compensation for the ban on slave exports, and failure to develop legitimate
exports, the King Radama I (ruled 1810-1828) undertook an import-substitution programme
from 1825 to attempt industrial and commercial growth (Campbell, 1987: 399; Campbell,
1991). This was an “attempt to eliminate Merina’s only essential imports – muskets, balls and
gunpowder – by creating a domestic armaments industry”, in order to “overturn the long-
standing unfavourable balance of trade” and relieve the currency shortage (Campbell, 1987:
409). Missionaries were also invited not only for the education they provided, but also for
A major source of the failure of this project was the deliberate neglect of transport
improvements “in order that the natural obstacles of the eastern forest and lowlands malaria
would prevent any European invasion to impose their economic and political will upon the
Merina court” (Campbell, 1991: 552). This heightened transportation costs and made the
products expensive. By 1895 when French colonization occurred.
In East Africa, since the 15th century Ethiopia was concerned with forming an alliance with the
European powers against Islamic forces, as well as receiving technical assistance. Therefore,
an early example of “Ethiopia’s penchant for Western technology and art” was Dawit I who
requested skilled artisans from Venice to be dispatched to his kingdom (Salvadore, 2011: 607).
In 1427 Yeshaq also sent a delegation to Valencia for the establishment of relations “and
seeking the assistance of friendly sovereigns in his project to bring skilled artisans to Ethiopia”
(Salvadore, 2011: 611). King Zara Yaqob (1434-1468) also sent a diplomatic mission to Europe
in 1450 to request skilled labour. In fact, Ethiopian sources of the time had “an idea of
Europeans as purveyors of technical knowledge” and “lobbied for technical assistance”
(Salvadore, 2011: 624-625).
However, disunity and civil war within the region, as well as the 17th century expulsion of the
proto-colonial Jesuits which further distanced it from Europe (Belcher, 2013) as it “jealously
guarded its Christian tradition against Western interference” (Sanneh, 2016: 30). Imperial
power was weakened during the period known as the Zamana Masifent (the rule of princes)
(1769-1855) following 1768 when the emperor was deposed by a regional ruler. During this
period, the dispersed regional princes and feudal lords ruled and there was no centralized
power. It was not until Emperor Tewodros II (1855-1871) in the mid-19th century that an
Ethiopian emperor became “the opener of the modern era” for the society (Crummey, 1969),
as Muhammad Ali Pasha was for Egypt – although for Ethiopia this occurred at a smaller scale
and with less success than was the case for Egypt (Crummey, 1969: 462).
It was only in 1861, having achieved some modicum of consolidation of power, that Tewodros
II made “strong moves” towards arranging for technical aid from European sources
(Venkataram, 1973: 137). Nonetheless, in seeking to unify and unity Ethiopia under a strong
central government, Tewodros II sought to modernize the military capabilities of the state by
introducing European technology, in response to the Egypt’s invading army in 1848 directed
by Khedive Ismail Pasha (Ayele, 2016), as well as in response to the difficulties he faced in
consolidating power through negotiating with the regional prices (Coquery-Vidrovitch, 2009:
80). Emperor Tewodros II made multiple requests to Britain for technological assistance, to
send artisans to Ethiopia to aid in its modernization programme, but was ignored and rebuffed.
This is in contrast to Egypt where “by mid-century, the European technical presence had
become firmly rooted” and “Europeans seemed to be everywhere in government” (Hunter,
1983: 286). Likewise, Ethiopia lacked naval power, which could have aided in its quest for
power and security. Unfortunately, the emperor then reacted by detaining a British consul and
other Europeans (Zewde, 1998: 136), in response to which the British sent a military expedition
to Ethiopia which crushed Tewodros’ forces and culminated in his suicide in 1868.
Like Bavaria’s reform-oriented Count Montgelas whose proposed system was defeated by a
reactionary anciens regime, Tewodros’ attempt at modernization was “a solitary dream”
(Ayele, 2016: 28), as he was opposed by the regional princes whose power he never really
destroyed (Crummey, 1969: 463). This is in stark contrast to Muhammad Pasha against the
Mamluk feudal class or the Meiji ruler against the Togugawa Shogunate. He was also opposed
by an apathetic peasantry, and members of the clergy who opposed his attempt to confiscate
church lands to distribute to peasants in order to gain finances to support his military reforms
(Ayele, 2016: 28), again in contrast to Egypt’s Muhammad Pasha who weakened the power of
the religious elite and could confiscate land. In general,
Liberia was established by the American Colonization Society (established in 1816) in 1822
(and becoming independent in 1848) as an outpost on the coast of West Africa where black
manumitted and rescued former slaves or freeborn could be sent to or wilfully repatriate in
order to reduce the black population in the United States. Liberia is included among the case
studies because it’s the settlers were exposed to Western European political economy and
aspired towards material modernization, with some looking to enable Liberia become the
progenitor of a “United States of Africa” (Mills, 2014). Yet it represents a special case, because
it was a quasi-colonial settler state with a small population (from 1822-1900 only 17,000 freed
slaves emigrated or were repatriated to this coastal territory of West Africa). The problems of
state formation, capitalist transition and structural transformation were therefore greater than
was the case for Egypt, Ethiopia, and Imerina.
After gaining independence in 1847, “The two most pressing problems faced by the new
republic were the economy and the need to construct an effective administrative machinery”
(Gershoni, 1985: 14) – in other words, “economic and fiscal survival” (Gardner, 2014: 1092).
Agriculture did not take off tremendously owing to a scarcity of labour resulting from a high
mortality rate and a difficulty in getting indigenous Africans to labour under the Liberian mode
of agricultural production (Allen, 2004). It also failed to “attract and sustain high levels of
Afro-American immigration during the nineteenth century”, and this was at just the time that
“settler societies in Australia, South Africa, and Argentina experienced significant growth and
development” (Shick, 1981: 122), albeit at substantial cost to indigenous peoples.
Therefore, the weakness of the economy, the difficulty in setting up export crops, and the
difficulty in administering custom duties, and the drying up of ACS funding, led to a state
which was in perennial shortage of revenues. This “chronic penury” meant that it was “difficult
to effect development in important areas like education, transport, communication and
defence” (Akpan, 1975: 1). In contrast to the “plan of strict frugality” envisaged by President
J.J. Roberts in 1848 (Dunn, 2011: 33), “less than a third of the revenues collected by custom
officials never found their way to the government treasury” (Gershoni, 1985: 18). The Liberian
economy and administrative capacity were therefore too weak, both to maintain a stable state
bureaucracy and foster tax capacity, and to expand territory and improve agricultural and
industrial activity rapidly. After all the economic, fiscal, political and territorial and social
turbulence, the Republic of Liberia fell to its first military coup in 1871. And without resources
to invest in infrastructure, trade also suffered, even compared to neighbouring colonial Sierra
Leone in the 1880s (Gardner, 2014: 1098). By the time the Scramble for Africa was underway
in the 1880s, it could do very little to contest the colonial overtures made by Britain and France
in West Africa.
In general, it did not help that the Egypt, the most powerful state in Africa in the century was
a viceroyalty of a Eurasian power (the Ottoman Empire) which was not as serious and
comprehensive as Japan in pursuing defensive modernization in the early 19th century. It also
did not help that the next most powerful sub-Saharan state, Abyssinia, was politically
fragmented for most of the century. Lastly, it became a disadvantage that the most powerful
West African empires – Asante and the Sokoto Caliphate – did not face the European threat
until it was too late, during the late 19th century when the scramble for the continent began,
which they fell prey to. Thus, “By the end of the scramble, European powers had merged some
10,000 African polities into just forty colonies” (Meredith, 2014: 12).
3. Africa and the Failure of Proto-Industrialization
Thornton (2014: 457) notes that “The failure of Dahomey, or indeed of any other African state,
to develop into an industrial society is a problem that needs to be addressed”, noting that
Dahomey rulers knew about some European technologies. Similarly, Riello and (2009: 20)
observes that given a “long history of cotton cloth production, it is surprising that the cotton
textile industry did not develop to the point of proto-industrial organization anywhere in West
Africa by the mid-nineteenth century”.
Thornton (2014) points to the slave trade and the focus of the Dahomean state on re-investing
revenues in war-making rather than promoting private industry as part of the explanation for
this failure. The role of the slave trade in stifling the development of both proto-capitalism and
proto-industrialization in Africa (Mielants, 2007) is also corroborated with greater empirical
rigour by Inikori (2009) in the case of West Africa, which had the strongest tradition of cotton
textile production in sub-Saharan Africa. He shows the development of long distance, inter-
regional trade, and cotton cloth manufacturing in West Africa since the Middle Ages; with an
acceleration of commercialization and manufacturing from the mid-15th to mid-17th centuries
following European commercial involvement in the region. Between 1661 and 1681, “The
most important import into the Bight of Biafra (south-eastern Nigeria) in these early decades
was commodity currency, copper rods weighing about one pound each, reflecting the ongoing
expansion of interregional and local trade…” (Inikori, 2009: 101). Additionally, the limited
import of firearms at the time indicates “the prevalence of relatively peaceful conditions
conducive to the growth of long-distance and local trade” (Inikori, 2009: 103).
Akyeampong et al (2014: 11) also ask “Why did African societies not adopt modern
technologies of which they were clearly aware?” It is peculiar that while Africans imported
arms from Europe in exchange for slaves from the 16th century, not much is written about
possible African attempts to emulate European arms by producing locally. Pilossof (2010: 269)
notes that the slave trade “was the principal means of exchange whereby European imports and
technologies entered Africa and firearms constituted a large proportion of these imports”. Yet
while there were local African gunsmiths in some areas who provided mending and
maintenance services to owners of cheaper arms, Africa did not have an armaments industry
of its own (Pilossof, 2010: 270), except perhaps a few societies such as Nkwerre in Igboland
whose blacksmithing tradition enabled the making of flint guns (Osuala, 2012). Macola (2016)
notes how the Yeke state in present-day southern DRC, used imported firearms in the mid-19th
century to engage in the ivory and slave trades. However, while in the short-run their use of
guns for economic and military purposes gave them success, their dependence upon
importation was the result of a failure to develop gunpowder manufacturing (Macola, 2016).
There remains a lack of research on the topic notwithstanding its relative structural paucity.
Even for the “lively small-scale firearm repair and service industry” that emerged in precolonial
Africa, a history “has yet to be written” (Pilossof, 2010: 270). Although “The history of
technology in Africa … is both comparatively undeveloped and still largely steeped in obsolete
paradigms (Macola, 2016: 11). For states which used firearms for military conquest and state
formation, the easy access to the means of exchange – that is, slaves –, which allowed African
states to import as much firearms as they wanted, relieved pressure to produce firearms locally,
just as the easy extraction of bullion relieved Spain and Portugal of the pressure to pursue
industrial development as Britain did. In addition, for the duration of early modern European
commercial and slave-dealing contact with sub-Saharan Africa, Europeans remained in the
subordinate position, only establishing maritime and coastal domination, while depending on
local allies and networks for access to the interior (Sharman, 2019). As a result, African elites
faced relatively little external foreign pressures to adopt the Western ways of war (Sharman,
2019: 37) and seek to reform their military or productively expand the fiscal base through
Nonetheless, it is not difficult to surmise that some intellectual thought or policy attempt went
into considering the need to substitute arms and manufacturing imports for local production in
at least some African societies. It is commensurately plausible that there would have been
opposition by merchants and slave-traders who dominated trade, especially since the trades
empowered elites (Jerven, 2010). For instance, the coup d’etat against King Adandozan (1797-
1818) of Dahomey, by Gezo, financed by the Brazilian slave trader Francisco de Souza and
various ministers, was probably the result of “dissatisfaction amongst the royal family and
merchant traders because of undesirable royal policies initiated during his reign” undertaken
in a period of lowered royal profits from the slave trade (Monroe, 2007: 362-364; see Law,
1997). This hypothesis seems to be confirmed by a few cases. In 1805 Dahomey’s King
Adonazan, facing fiscal problems, asked the Portuguese Regent to send him someone “who
knows how to manufacture pieces [of cannon], guns, powder and other things necessary to
make war” (Adonazan, quoted in Araujo, 2012: 8). Ethiopia’s Emperor Tewodros II, facing
both Turko-Egyptian threats and European imperial threats, was in dire need of large amounts
of firearms and ammunition. Unlike the West African states which generally had had easier
access to (human) exports to exchange for firearms, Ethiopia’s trade was constrained by
Turkey’s dominance at the northern port of Massawa and its embargo on arms exports. He
therefore pursued a policy of self-sufficiency in firearms. It was to this end that he made several
requests from European powers, especially Britain, for technical aid – weapons and makers of
weapons who would manufacture modern weapons in Ethiopia. Likewise, Radama I of the
Merina Empire in Madagascar, sought to establish weapons manufacturing when slave exports,
the major source of revenues for arms imports, declined following British enforcement of
As to why proto-industrialization was limited on the continent, evidence suggests strong
environmental barriers. Land abundance, labour scarcity and low population density were
factor endowments which, in the realm of agriculture, favoured land-extensive production
methods; while trypanosomiasis limited the use of draught animals for agriculture (Austin,
2008). It is estimated that at the beginning of the 19th century Africa’s total population stood at
100 million (Ajayi, 1989: 4), despite Africa being the second largest continent after Asia and
over twice the size of Europe; and only in 1975 did sub-Saharan Africa’s population density
reach that of Europe’s 1500 level (Herbst, 2000: 15-16).
Low population density and high
transport costs due to the African terrain also limited the “extent of the market” – which had
been worsened by the Atlantic slave trade (Inikori, 2009) –, as well as political centralization
(Herbst, 2000) and adoption of more complex agricultural tools and methods given a
comparative advantage in land-extensive production (Austin, Frankema and Jerven, 2017:
347), a problem which affected Africa even until the end of the 20th century (Akyuz and Gore,
2001). In other words,
“as of c.1900 resource endowments—both in terms of aggregate factor ratios (land
abundance, labour scarcity), and on a disaggregated view (powerful environmental
obstacles to the full utilization of the land and labour)—favoured neither a Western-style
capital-intensive route of development, nor an East Asian-style labour-intensive one”
(Austin, Frankema and Jerven, 2017: 369).
To put this in perspective, imagine the present combined populations of Kenya and Tanzania spread out over the
entire African continent. Furthermore, consider that the largest sub-Saharan African empire (by land mass) that ever
existed is not among the top 50 largest empires that ever existed globally. The maximum land area of the largest
European empire (British Empire) was 35.5 million km2 , that of Asia (Mongol Empire) was 24 million km2 , and
that of South America (Inca Empire) was 2 million km2. Yet that of sub-Saharan Africa (Kingdom of Aksum) was
only 1.25 million km2, followed by the Mali Empire at 1.1 million km2 (the largest West African empire), although
above that of North America (Aztec Empire), which was 0.22 million km2 (Taagepera, 1997; Turchin, Adams and
Hall, 2006; Wikipedia, 2020).
For the Kongo Kingdom, the most politically-centralized state in Central Africa from the early
modern period, its capital cities have been characterized as an “agrarian low-density urbanism”
(Fletcher, 2012). The Imerina Empire’s proto-industrialization attempt occurred “in an
overwhelmingly rural society” (Campbell, 1991: 525), and the high opportunity cost of the
attempted industrialization in terms of agricultural output “doomed the industrial experiment
to failure” (Campbell, 1991: 526). In Ethiopia under Tewodros II, “urbanization was practically
unknown (except, perhaps, in a most rudimentary form)” (Crummey, 1969: 465).
These mean that low population density and geographic factors therefore limited precolonial
political centralization (Herbst, 2000), spread markets (Austin, 2008), and proto-
industrialization (Inikori, 2009).
From the late 17th century, the acceleration in the North and South American demand for slaves
reversed the process of proto-industrial development in West Africa (Inikori, 2009). There was
a change in the composition of European imports from raw materials to finished goods –
especially firearms as systematic slave raiding became widespread. There was also a change in
the composition of West African exports to predominantly slaves. By the 1790s textiles and
firearms “comprised about three-quarters of the total value of imports”, and currency imports
“declined drastically indicating the contraction of inter-regional trade” (Inikori, 2009: 103).
Manufacturing for inter-regional exchange also declined over this period. The penetration of
European textile imports (in exchange for slaves), for example, displaced Benin, Allada and
Ivory Coast cotton cloth exports to Gold Coast markets, and “the loss of this important long-
distance market precluded further progress toward full-scale proto-industrial production of
cotton cloths in these areas” (Inikori, 2009: 108). Although this also means that local textiles
were neither competitive against Indian or European imports (Inikori, 2009: 109),
notwithstanding the slave trade’s disruption of the inter-regional markets which disrupted
demand and supply conditions for these West African textiles.
The emergence of an import culture following the Trans-Atlantic slave trade is seen even in
royal administration of power, as among societies on the West African Slave Coast,
“imported trade goods were a closely guarded source of symbolic power for kings. Period
accounts describe public ceremonies, including royal coronations and elaborate rituals
following the death of a king, in which large quantities of luxuries were displayed and
distributed to the general public. Royal power and prestige were intimately tied to the
success of these ceremonies. On the one hand, the public display of wealth accumulated
in trade reinforced the symbolic power of the king. On the other, the distribution of such
goods to loyal followers was a strategy for integrating subjects into a stable political
system. Controlling access to Atlantic wealth became a key component of kings’
strategies to instill political order. Whereas local markets economically integrated town
and countryside, it was luxuries acquired in trade that served as the political glue binding
rural lords to urban royal dynasties.” (Monroe, 2011:400)
Kongo is one of the only two sub-Saharan kingdoms (the other being Abyssinia) which had
regular diplomatic relations with Europe in the late middle ages (although unlike Abyssinia
which interacted with Italian cities, Kongo’s interactions were mostly with Portugal and, to a
lesser extent, Rome). Following the Portuguese arrival in 1487 and the baptism of the Kongo
king and court members in 1491, the Kongolese attempt at emulating European culture by
transforming Mbanza Kongo, its administrative and political capital, into a “model Christian
city” in the likeness of Portugal, was largely on a religious basis (Heywood, 2014). Heywood
(2014: 366) claims that “in no place in Atlantic Africa were the cultural ramifications [of the
slave trade] as pronounced and different as in the kingdom of Kongo”. Unfortunately, the
economic basis of this experiment was a reliance on the slave trade for state revenues and
imported goods, and towards the end of the 17th century the experiment “crumbled under the
weight of civil war and neglect” since it had been dependent on the Kongo state and on
European technical expertise (Heywood, 2014: 367). Therefore, African political economy and
class priorities could have been more similar to Ottoman anti-mercantilism, Medieval
European urban provisionism, Iberian bullionism or Dutch commercialism which all placed
domestic industrial development lower on a scale of importance than did Anglo-American
mercantilism, French Colbertism, German cameralism and Italian renaissance economics.
However, other factors such as low population densities, an inadequate agricultural surplus
could have limited the scale of import-substitution, being a peripheral region in relation to both
the Mediterranean trade and Indian Ocean trade; and the low level of asymmetric threat – that
is, the lack of neighbours which had advanced firearms which could spark pre-emptive policy
of local production –, could also have relieved pressure on Africans states. It is only with the
abolition of the slave trade in the early 19th century and the balance of trade crisis that ensued,
that some attempts at structural transformation and development of a local firearm industry is
seen in Madagascar from the 1820s.
The Sokoto Caliphate, founded 1804-1808, was the largest and most populous state in tropical
Africa in the 19th century (Lovejoy, 2005: 8). It was therefore the largest at the time of the
European partition, having a population of 8 to 10 million inhabitants and being a confederation
of 30 emirates under the amir al-mu’minin (commander of the faithful) based in Sokoto. It
replaced the Hausa system of disparate city-states with a centralized Islamic government,
thereby unifying the Hausa states for the first time and uniting a larger region than any other
independent state in Africa (Lofkrantz, 2011).
In terms of learning about the emerging modern modes of production and technological
advancement, neither the Sokoto Caliphate nor the Zulu Kingdom made the modernization
attempts of Emperor Tewodros II of Abyssinia, or that of Ali Muhammad Pasha of Egypt.
Egypt engaged with the French (facilitated by its coastal-Mediterranean geography) with the
support of Ottoman protection; and Abyssinia engaged with Egypt and Britain with the coarse
support of the Portuguese (facilitated by its coastal-Red Sea geography). But the Zulus and the
Caliphate did not engage substantively with any European power (due to their geographical
location) until the British colonial contact. The Sokoto Caliphate’s earliest diplomatic contact
with the Europeans was in 1824, when Clapperton visited Sultan Muhammad Bello; and in
1853 a formal treaty was entered into between Britain and the caliphate in which European
visitors and/or traders were guaranteed safe conduct of trade (Usman, 1998: 77). Muhammad
Bello’s economic policies, which sought to strengthen the economic base of the caliphate
(1817-1837), involved the creation and expansion of slave-based plantations (Lovejoy, 1978).
There is evidence of technological advances and productivity growth within the export-oriented
cloth-dyeing industry (Shea, 1975). The state also implemented “pro-industry policies” such
as tax exemptions, securing of industry-augmenting slave labour, promotion of plantation
agriculture which provided inputs for industry, and attraction of skilled artisans (Frederick,
2018: 14). Yet the textile industry was largely limited (and important) to the West African
regional economy because of “constraints in transport” and hence was not exposed to European
competition or technological learning from abroad (Lovejoy, 1978: 346) until the colonial
period – although part of it survived due to a long history of existence (Frederick, 2018). This
is despite Kano Emirate being “the largest industrial and commercial center in tropical Africa”
(Candotti, 2015), and whose indigo-dyed cotton cloth in Kano “was the most important craft
industry in sub-Saharan Africa”, clothing “half the central Sudan”, with its products
purchasable “from Alexandria to Lagos and was exported to Brazil” (Iliffe, 1983: 9). Therefore,
although food and commodity production increased, and commercial networks and
monetization expanded, “the Caliphate did not fundamentally alter the structures of pre-jihad
society or establish new social relations of production (Chafe, 1994: 106). Nonetheless, Kano
was the location that “came closest to full-scale protoindustrialization” in the 19th century
because it was located in the interior savannah and hence “Its industry developed behind natural
protection by distance from the chaos of the Atlantic slave trade and the direct adverse impact
of imported textiles” (Inikori, 2009: 113).
The caliphate faced neither North African nor European security threats, and hence did not
seek defensive military modernization, as partly evinced by the lack of a standing army
(Smaldone, 1977: 68). This does not mean that the caliphate’s scholars were unaware of
global events. The founder of the caliphate, Sheikh Usman dan Fodio, prophesied a coming
age, in 100 years, of the zaman'n nasara (hour of the Christians) when European powers would
conquer the caliphate (Shareef, 2005). The solution was not to attempt modernization, but to
undertake hijra (migration) to the east towards Mecca. This was because of the expected coming
of the long-awaited Mahdi at that time, ushering the end of times. However, his son and
successor, Muhammad Bello, was “well aware of the prophecies of his father and directed
government officials under his authority to remain alert for the 'signs' which would precede it”
(Shareef, 2005: 27). It could therefore be that part of Bello’s economic reform was influenced
by this geopolitical prophecy. Nonetheless for the most part across West Africa, while North
African and Middle Eastern reformists of the 19th century were seeking
“to meet the challenge of the West by restating the basic principles of Islam in the
light of the contemporary situation, West African revivalists sought a return to the
same basic principles-but not in order to accommodate or adjust, but rather to
rediscover and revive; not so much to face the challenge of the West, but rather
to confront the incursions of syncretism and polytheism.” (Anwar, 2019: 46).
Moreover, after Sultan Muhammad Bello’s death in 1837, “there was a conspicuous absence
of new policies and programmes” (Chafe, 1994: 105), despite the 1853 treaty negotiated
between the Caliphate and Britain (Usman, 1998: 77). The loss of prestige of the military-
economic ribāt policy in the eyes of the Sokoto rulers and emirs was due to the decline in the
pressures of jihad and its expansionist wars (Zehnle, 2020).
To a worse extent, Dahomey, after undergoing militarization, rather than following the West
European and American (Sanchez, 2007), Japanese and East Asian (Doner et al, 2005) paths
of developing a productive fiscal-military state, “invested little in local and national
development as part of war efforts” (Katagiri, 2012: 72). This is unsurprising, since it was
dependent upon slave raiding and finished goods imports. Even when facing the pressures of
the decline of the slave trade and the need for the commercial transition to “legitimate
commerce”, the political crisis of adaptation involved a strong faction which was opposed to a
shift towards agriculture (Law, 1997).
In East African Buganda, Kabaka Mutesa I invited Christian missionaries into the kingdom
with the hope of securing technical knowledge, strategic information about external threats,
and to balance against the Swahili and Muslim threats from the east and Egyptian threat from
the North (Curtin, 2000: 122). The Bugandese client-chiefs did not want to imitate Europe but
to protect the new alignment of power, with Christianity and a few other borrowings from the
West added...basically designed to protect Ganda society as it emerged shortly after 1900
(Curtin, 2000: 143). The death of Mutesa I and the political factionalization that resulted
prepared it for British annexation in 1893 (Curtin, 2000: 123-124).
The Kingdom of Asante, noted to be “the most powerful state in West Africa” ruling over 3
million people (Edgerton, 1995: 12), had successfully transitioned from the commercial
dominance of the slave trade to exports of goods such as gold and kola (and imports of firearms,
textiles and other finished goods from Europe and textiles from the Sokoto Caliphate) (Austin,
2002). However, there is no evidence that this involved technological advance of the sort that
occurred within the textile industry of the Sokoto Caliphate (Austin, 2002: 104). It was
following the British attack on Kumasi in 1874 that Asante, under Asantehene Mensa Bonsu
(ruled 1874-83) made attempts to modernize the state, despite the existence of conservative
sentiments (Platvoet, 1991). Aside from the European threat, Mensa Bonsu, in contrast to
Egypt’s Muhammad Ali Pasha or Merina’s Radama I, found it difficult to consolidate power
and pursue reforms. He came into power after Mensa Kakari had been deposed due to his
inability to curtail the secessionist forces at play (Platvoet, 1991: 4). Mensa Bonsu was also
“largely ignored by his inner council” (Edgerton, 1995: 192). To an even worse extent than
Ethiopia, Asante found it difficult to attract skilled foreign professionals to staff its civil service
and engender skills transfer, and had to settle for “a collection of shady European expatriates
and adventurers” when it attempted material modernization after 1874 (Edgerton, 1995: 191).
Mensa Bonsu was eventually deposed by a coalition of private entrepreneurs opposed to what
they argued to be excessive state taxation. These elites had been strengthened by the
decentralization of economic activity associated with the abolition of the slave trade and growth
of “legitimate commerce” (Austin, 1996). One major modernization attempt made by Asante
included the building of a railway. This attempt was however blocked by the British, which
“did not want autonomous modernization of African polities” (Chaves, Engerman and
Robinson, 2014), hence the kingdom fell under colonial rule in 1896.
South of Asante was its rival Fante polities which acted as middlemen between coastal trade
and Asante. The rise of the Fante Confederacy (1868-1872) was partly stimulated by the threat
posed by Asante (which had always sought to bypass Fante middlemen to directly control
coastal trade). The confederacy was made up of Fante merchants in alliance with Fante chiefs,
and was “conceived as the bare bones of a Western-type state that would promote English
education, road construction and commerce with a unified legal code, military force and
political representation beneficial to the Anglicised merchants of the coastal towns” (Freund,
1984: 91). In the Fante Confederation’s constitution, one of the “improvements” it sought to
engender was “to promote agricultural and industrial pursuits and to endeavor to introduce such
new plants as may hereafter become sources of profitable commerce to the country”
(Constitution, 1871, Article 7, Sections 3-6). However, internal power struggles and British
opposition weakened the confederation and it disbanded in 1873. Moreover, the confederacy
lacked the finances, and relied on road taxes and court fees to fund its budget, which was spent
majorly to cover defence costs (Limberg, 1970).
Located in Modern day Tanzania in East Africa, Zanzibar became the capital city of the Omani
dynasty in 1832 after it was brought under the formal rule of al-Busa‘īdīs (Ghazal, 2005: 43).
The founder of the dynasty, Sayyid Sa‘īd (r. 1806-1856), had the vision of transforming the
city “into a major economic center and an international seaport opened the gates for a flood of
migrants from Oman as well as Hadramawt and India” (Ghazal, 2005: 43). Although “trade in
the region had not previously focused much on production” (Coquery-Vidrovitch, 2009: 89),
Sa‘īd’s vision was based on trade, finance, and plantation agriculture, with the state serving as
East Africa’s “unrivaled entrepôt” (Prestholdt, 2018: 139). Through these “global trade
initiatives”, Zanzibar reached “its apex of prosperity and regional importance between the
1830s and the seizure of the Tanzanian mainland by Germany in the late 1880s” (Prestholdt,
2014: 208). By 1835, it had “the most powerful non-European navy anywhere in the Indian
Ocean” (Curtin, 2000: 114-115). It was also at this time that Zanzibari and Swahili traders
began to move into the East African interior with their own trade diasporas and introduced
European firearms for the first time (Curtin, 2000: 115).Therefore Sultan Sayyid Sa‘īd
liberalized much of Zanzibar’s trade and hence throughout the 19th century cloth made up the
largest share of imported trade goods at Zanzibar, fueling a “consumer culture” and
conspicuous consumption, notwithstanding the existence of a cloth remanufacturing industry
which tailored imported cloths to local tastes (Prestholdt, 2019). Thus “by the 1880s, the Arab
plantation owners were in reality deeply indebted to the Indian merchant class.” (Bang, 2008:
While the West African Dahomean King made requests to the Portuguese king to “give him a
ship of his own to carry goods” (Thornton, 2014: 456), and the Ethiopian Tewodros II had no
naval power “to overcome the Turks” on the seacoast (Venkataram, 1973: 138), Zanzibar could
afford to buy and commission ships for trade. In 1840, the Sultana, a Zanzibari merchant vessel,
arrived in New York City, making it “the first ship representing either an African or Arabian
state to visit the United States” (Prestholdt, 2019: 317). When, after the death of Sayyid Sa‘īd
in 1856, there emerged a power tussle between his two sons, the British forced a settlement
(the 1861 Canning Award) which separated the Omani Empire into the Muscat Sultanate and
the Zanzibari Sultanate. The latter, being the richer sultanate of the Omani Empire, was to
subsidize the Muscat Sultanate. Sultan Barghash bin Said (r. 1870–88) had previously, in 1860,
attempted a failed coup to gain power and was exiled to Bombay. Having previously harboured
anti-European sentiments, his stay in “India’s burgeoning industrial center” gave him a new
vision for Zanzibar (Ghazal, 2005: 43). He became, in 1875, the first East African head of state
to visit Britain, and while there he entreated British investors to invest in Zanzibar (Ghazal,
2005: 43). Barghash also published appeals for European investors to help build a railroad
linking the east coast of Africa to Lake Tanganyika. Bargash bought steamships, introduced a
modern military force, and undertook infrastructural projects such as roads, streetlights, public
water supply, printing presses. However, the threats of European encroachment made building
a railway, for example, difficult (Chaves, Engerman and Robinson, 2014: 351-353). Zanzibar,
faced with the threat of multiple European powers both from the interior and the coast, fell into
becoming a full British protectorate in 1890. It declined as a regional economic hub with the
development of new ports in Dar es Salaam, German East Africa and Mombasa in Britain’s
East African Protectorate (Prestholdt, 2018: 144).
South Africa, which is the most industrial sub-Saharan African state today, was, up to 1850, “a
colony of poor farmers” (Ajayi, 1989: 7). It did not become independent from British rule until
1910, and pursued import-substitution industrialization from 1924. In fact, it was the settler
colonies which were able to undergo state consolidation, capitalist transition and some
structural change more rapidly than peasant colonies (Austin, Frankema and Jerven, 2017).
This is due to their lower population densities (Khan, 2010) – Southern Africa was less densely
populated in general, than the rest of the continent (Diamond, 1997). This allowed settlers to
more easily conquer territory and build state capacity, dispossess indigenous populations of
land, and repress the living standards and freedoms of black industrial miners and workers,
while coming from Europe with a higher average level of technical knowledge and connections
to European capital.
A lot happened in Africa in the 19th century, and much of what occurred, including the failed
attempts at defensive modernization, was in continuity with pre-existing geographical,
institutional and cultural legacies. It would be interesting to see more African inter-societal
interactions during periods of attempted modernization, and interactions with actors outside of
the great power groups (such as Latin Americans). For example, Sanchez (2015) argues that
Zanzibar and its Southern neighbour Merina, the dominant powers in the Southwest Indian
Ocean World, were often in contact and competition within a “small concert of nations” in the
19th century. In 1833, Sultan Sayyid Sa‘īd of Zanzibar unsuccessfully proposed to the
modernizing Queen Ranavanola I after her husband, Radama I had recently died, in order gain
access to her troops and the Merina Empire’s wealth (Romero, 2012: 380).
The early modernization of Egypt shows how other African countries could have learned from
it had it been successful, but also how intra-African imperial conquests could have occurred.
While returning from Britain in 1875, Bargash journeyed to Zanzibar’s Northern neighbour
Egypt to meet with Khedive Ismail Pasha and, among other things, asked for advice on building
a Western-style military (Ghazal, 2005: 43; Pankhurst, 2014). The Sierra Leone-based James
Horton influenced the formation of the Fante Confederation in the Gold Coast, which was also
influenced by the need to defend against the Asante threat from the north. And several Liberian,
Sierra Leonean and Lagosian elites desired a united West African state and society. On the
other hand, for Tripoli’s Yusuf Pasha, when his requests for loans of £25,000 in 1820 and
£50,000 in 1824 for imperialist expansion into Bornu and Sudan to its south were rejected by
the British, he turned to British merchants and Muhammad Ali in Egypt. The latter offered aid
on exploitative terms (demanding territorial concessions) that the Tripoli pasha rejected,
although this “opened a new age of Egyptian domination in North African affairs” (Hhana,
2016: 237). Ethiopia’s Tewodros II reacted to the Egyptian threat by attempting military
modernization, and the first bank created by Menelik II was chartered in Egypt in 1905. Egypt
conquered the Sudan and under Khedive Ismail sought to conquer the Horn of Africa. This
aspect of modern African inter-societal relations needs further research. Even in the writings
of those early modern African intellectuals, it is important to identify what they said, if they
did mention, about other African societies, and not merely their reactions to Europe or their
thoughts about “Africa” in abstract.
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