An Economic History of West Africa

Hopkins, A.G.
Publisher:  Routledge
First Published:  1973
Pages:  352pp  
Resource Type:  Book
Cx Number:  CX11682

An examination of the economy of West Africa from the fifteenth to the twentieth century.

Abstract:  Written in the early 1970s, A.G Hopkin's An Economic History of West Africa attempts to dispel myths and popular conceptions dominating West African economic history. The commonly held view of West Africa as a primitive society based on a system of economic backwardness fails to explain the intricate association between the region's domestic and external trade. Hopkins studies the relationships between merchants, farmers and local villages to reveal how they relied on a vast network incorporating elaborate systems of debt, capital and forms of currency. Throughout his analysis, Hopkins covers a wide timeframe, from the fifteenth to the twentieth century, in order to present the continuities and changes within West African economic history. Outlining the impact of the slave trade, colonization and imperialism, Hopkins explains how the West African economy experienced major historical changes, adapted quickly to internal and external influences and was organized by a complex set of arrangements.

The first two chapters present Hopkin's approach to West Africa's economic past and are "designed first to fill a gap in African studies, and second to contribute to the economic history of the underdeveloped world." Beginning by outlining the structure and functions of the West African economy prior to the colonial period, Hopkins dismisses popular conceptions about pre-colonial Africa, believing they provide an incorrect and misleading perspective. Offering an in-depth view of agriculture, labour, trade, currency, transportation and local as well as regional customs, Hopkins demonstrates that there was an intricate economy based on a variety of interconnected factors. He states that West Africa's history was "far from static, that their organization was efficient, and that African[s] were receptive to new ideas, where these were suitable and profitable." Their agricultural and economic arrangements were systematically designed to coexist with the demands of the markets and their environments of habitation. The use of fallow land, farming techniques and production strategies were influenced by market principles much in the same way as pre-industrial European states. Hopkins believes that "Age and repetition have combined to entrench both myths and truths to such an extent that it is hard now to tell one from the other." Seeking to eliminate false beliefs, Hopkins presents the West African pre-colonial economy as a flexible, resilient and efficient system, far from backwards and primitive.

Throughout An Economic History of West Africa, Hopkin's analysis of the domestic and external trade reveals West Africa's ability to constantly adapt to foreign influences. Beginning with an examination of the pre-colonial period, Hopkins dispels myths about a primitive and backward economy, providing a firm understanding of the indigenous structures of trade and production. The author represents pre-colonial West Africa as a society based on an intricate and flexible system of supply and demand. His interpretation of the slave trade, shift to legitimate commerce and the colonization of interior regions emphasizes the role of the indigenous population amongst the commercial enterprises and colonial administrations. Humorously, he dismisses the idea that colonial rulers started with a static, subsistence economy, and "brought about a transformation which was almost as impressive as that once achieved with the loaves and the fishes." His work successfully directs attention away from the adventurers and triumphs of great leaders but also fails to present the history through the perspective of the majority of Africans. While Hopkin's economic history of West Africa is provocative and places emphasis and greater attention on the indigenous role, his work relies heavily on imperial sources. Hopkins acknowledges the need for further research and constantly makes references to areas in need of investigation. Hopkin's believes his book "may have beneficial academic consequences if it encourages researchers to leave the air-conditioned corridors of power and venture into the farms and markets." An Economic History of West Africa is thorough and presents a positive starting point for researchers embarking on studies in West African history.

[Abstract by William Stevenson]

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