USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Colonialism and Economic Impact in Africa after the First World War

Before I turn my attention to African resistance, l would like to mention a few things about the economic consequences of European colonial rule in Africa. In many parts of the continent, and especially where white settlers were in control, exploitation of labor and commodities was the rule. Miners in South Africa, for example, benefited little from the diamonds extracted from the land. In other areas of the continent, like the Gold Coast, products like palm oil encouraged the growth of the small farmer, and yet even here, under the most favorable conditions, the European merchant reaped the lion’s share of the economic benefit.

In general, economic activity increased in Africa during the colonial years. Many Africans, primarily because of colonial taxation, were forced into the wage labor market. Labor was still one of the primary assets colonial powers could extract from their subjects, and they adopted one form of labor abuse after another to benefit corporate interests back home. Despite these economic shifts, however, the vast majority of Africans remained small farmers, and these farmers more or less continued to hover around subsistence level. Strategies of rotating cash crops in response to market conditions kept many communities economically viable.

One particularly important example of the infiltration of European demand and global capitalist market conditions into West Africa was the rise of market-oriented cocoa farming in areas of the Gold Coast and Ivory Coast. While cocoa farming was nonexistent even in the late nineteenth century, by the first decades of the twentieth century it had established itself as an important cash-crop. By the 1930s, cocoa production in the Gold Coast (Ghana) and Ivory Coast was significant. The rise of export-oriented cash-crop production in West Africa also gave rise to networks of newly created capitalist relationships, including those between land-owner and wage laborers, those between large-scale landowners and renters, those between producers and dealers or buyers, and those between the buyers and foreign clients like the British. In addition to these direct relationships, a host of others covered aspects of advancing money, speculative land purchases or rentals, the power of local chiefs (empowered through British "indirect rule" strategies) and so on.

Though most cocoa farmers also grew for personal consumption, the dramatic growth of the cocoa industry in the region testifies to the farmers' increasing connectivity to and dependence on global commodities markets. Ultimately, then, the cocoa farmers depended on the prices per kilo offered by European buyers like the British company Cadbury and Fry. If prices were too low, as was often the case in the 1930s after the Great Depression drove down global commodities prices, the whole economic chain in a producing region was impacted. This led to numerous "hold-ups" or cocoa farmers refusing to sell their product until prices rose again. As with many sectors during this period, capitalistic globalization mixed with non-capitalistic relationships, creating new pressures, conflicts, social reorganization and destabilization. The complex story of West African cocoa production, and its role in the global marketplace, is still very much ongoing, now linked to issues of environmental degradation and abusive labor practices.         

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