Plunder of Africa by colonial domination

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series How Africa Developed Europe

Part – 2 of “How Africa developed Europe” published in Frontline dated March 17, 2017 (Part 1)

Colonial forms of violence

The Industrial Revolution shifted the focus of Western capitalism from agriculture to industries, and this made a strong case for abolishing the slave trade. The end of slave labour needed some other system that could perpetuate the extraction of profit for the capitalist system to accumulate and grow. The primitive accumulation from slavery and international trade laid the foundation for the economic boom from the 1840s to the 1870s, which industrialised the pan-European countries and strengthened the capitalist political economy. International trade increased by 260 per cent between 1850 and 1870. But, the economic boom crashed by the beginning of the 1870s, which made European countries look for new places for raw materials and markets to regain the lost profits (Roper, 2013, page 199). This led the European countries to embark on colonialism to control the African states politically and exploit them economically for the continued growth of European capitalism. Between 1870 and 1900, the entire African continent was colonised except for a few countries in it.

Colonialism encompasses various forms of violence, the dominant one being forceful imposition of the capitalist political economy over primitive forms of political economy. Colonialism was an outcome of the contradictions of capitalism, where the falling rate of profit at a particular stage of capitalism forced countries to look for new environments or countries for the capitalist mode of production to continue exploitation and increase profits (Ake, 1981, page 19). What was needed for the full integration of Africa within the capitalist political economy was a common monetary medium for exchange and other trade activities. Local currencies such as the gold dinar, gold dust, cloth, copper, iron and cowries were used for transactions in Africa. The precolonial currencies were annihilated, the land was appropriated from local people and wage labourers were paid in European currency, the taxes imposed were to be paid in European currency, and the banking system started to transact in colonialist currency (Ake, 1981, page 32). Such measures deprived the local population of its land and subsistence agriculture, and remaining production had to be oriented towards colonial markets to pay taxes.

The proletarisation of the peasant class led to larger scale migrations towards wage labour, which in turn generated huge profits for the colonialist. The economic interest of the metropole was satisfied, and the colony was made into a monocrop, raw material supplier to the metropole without any diversification or industrialisation. Even the colonial investment in infrastructure and other administrative systems was made mainly to ease the transport of goods and to extract maximum profit, and not with the intention of developing or providing welfare for the colonies. All the investments were made with the aim of recovering the maximum profit within the shortest time and were not written off as necessary costs for running the colonies (Ake, 1981, page 38). The annual report of the colonial advisory committee indicated that by 1939 the British had allocated around £8 million for the colonies, of which £1,51,000 was for industrialisation. But, they spent only £23,000 for industrialisation (Brett, 1973). This was a deliberate act of ignoring the industrial development in the colonies to sustain their dependency on colonial manufactured goods.

African labour was used to exploit African resources, and finally the profits were transferred for European development. Using their political and military dominance along with a concocted idea of “racial superiority”, the colonial powers were able to exploit workers to the maximum. The lower wages and poor working conditions of African workers compared with white workers showed the intensified exploitation of the former. The shift towards cash crops for the market economy forced the majority of Africans to give up subsistence agriculture, which in turn led to hunger and famine in the continent. The Brazilian scientist Josue de Castro’s study revealed how diversified and varied agriculture production and consumption was in the precolonial period, which in turn maintained food security in African societies (Rodney, 1982, page 236).

The Italian colonisation of Eritrea, initially as an agriculture colony, to overcome agricultural failure in Italy had a great impact as the colonialist appropriated the major cultivable land and deprived the local population of land and livelihood. Between 1893 and 1895, Italians appropriated around 4,12,892 hectares of land in Eritrea, which was over one-fifth of its total arable land (Mesghenna, 1988, page 101). Further, the wage difference between Italians and the indigenous people showed the nature and extent of Italian colonialist exploitation (Table 2). Industrial development was discouraged to make Eritrea dependent on Italian goods (Houtart, 1980, page 85). Thus, colonial policies that allowed the appropriating of fertile land and the proletarisation of labour made Eritrea dependent on Italian goods, and it functioned as a mere supplier of raw materials and (almost) free labour for Italy’s overall development.

When cocoa cultivation was started in Ghana in 1885, other agricultural cultivation was discouraged. In 1901, Ghana became the biggest cocoa producer in the world, whereas by 1931, cocoa constituted around 80 per cent of its exports. This affected traditional food crops, the land use pattern, and farming methods (stagnation of new farming techniques) and led to uneven development of regions and a dependence on a few export crops (Ake, 1981, page 45). Further, colonial banks utilised African savings to generate capital to be loaned to European businessmen, and all earnings in Africa were spent on importing finished goods, which deprived the continent of any accumulation and created dependency on foreign capital. The trade dependency was strengthened as colonial trade was monopolised by colonisers, where they consciously blocked development and strengthening of the indigenous bourgeoisie class in Africa. For example, Eritreans paid 63 per cent more for Italian cotton yarn, 20 per cent more for the textile, 37 per cent more for gasoline and 31 per cent more for residual fuel. In a similar manner, Italy purchased Eritrean products at a much lower price (Mesghenna, 1988, page 207). Technological innovation and inventions were not shared and implemented fully in the colony, which created technological dependence on Europeans (Ake, 1981, page 55). But, this extracted profit formed the base capital for the overall scientific and technological development in Europe, which to date perpetuates the structures of dependency.

Part 2 of “How Africa developed Europe” published in Frontline dated March 17, 2017

Part 1 – Precolonial Period

Part 3 – Post colonial period


S.V. Narayanan did his PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He was earlier teaching political science and international relations in Eritrea. At present he teaches political science in Andaman Law College, Port Blair.

The article is a modified version of the paper titled “Capitalism as ‘Profit Chameleon’: The Political Economy of African Outmigration and Refugee Crisis” that the author presented at the International Conference on Eritrean Studies on July 20-22, 2016, in Asmara, Eritrea.

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