Despite being presented from a European perspective, the book Commercial Agriculture, the Slave Trade and Slavery in Atlantic Africa sheds light on the history of political and economic relations between Africa and Europe with a focus on the pursuit of agricultural development for global trade in the context of the movement to abolish slavery, says Katarzyna Kubin.

Three interrelated historical concerns constitute the thematic backbone of the volume Commercial Agriculture, the Slave Trade and Slavery in Atlantic Africa, newly released in paperback: European attempts to develop agricultural production in Africa on a scale commensurate with international trade, the movement for the abolition of slavery in Europe, and African-European relations as they played out in interactions in local contexts in Africa leading into the 20th century colonial period.

Book_CommAgric_and_slaveryThe eleven articles included in the volume were selected from among papers presented at the conference “Commercial Agriculture in Africa as an Alternative to the Slave Trade,” in September 2010 at the German Historical Institute London. In the words of the volume’s editors, distinguished scholars of History, African History and African Studies, the book aims to (in line with the conference) “extend consideration of the history of commercial agriculture in West Africa back beyond the late eighteenth century into the pre-Abolitionist era(p. 8). The contributions to the volume constitute both a broad and a detailed consideration of the extent to which commercial agriculture was “a potential or actual alternative to the slave trade, even at the height of the latter in the eighteenth century, [with attention to the fact that] the degree of involvement in it differed from region to region, and even within regions” (p. 27).

The collection focuses on the geographical area from today’s Angola up to Senegal, and spans the period from the 16th to the 19th century. The volume opens with a valuable introduction by the editors, who set out key terminology, the historical frame and the theoretical context. The focus is on what came to be termed “legitimate commerce,” meaning the trade of legal goods as opposed to the eventually outlawed trade in human chattel. European interests in developing “legitimate commerce” had a range of motivations, while projects in agricultural production for export on African soil were pursued with varied success. The collected articles present case studies that draw attention to different local contexts in Africa, and to the different strategies adopted in European policies and by representatives of European powers working locally, all of which influenced the fate of projects in commercial agriculture.

Among the most intriguing aspects of this collection are descriptions of what David Eltis calls in his opening paper “the unglamorous business of growing staples” (e.g. indigo, sugar). The detailed descriptions of production processes with attention to both the technical details and the relations between the social actors involved are a testament to the quality and the value of the historical work on display in the volume. Importantly, in addition to case studies of agriculture projects, the volume also includes papers that discuss how commercial agriculture came to support arguments for the abolition of slavery (e.g. Christopher Leslie Brown’s paper).

As a whole, the volume portrays a complex and protracted period of transition into the colonial period. The scholarly works compiled here exemplify rigorous historical research, which brings to life the nuances of the period. Readers can gain insight into a range of interrelated factors – social, political and economic – which influenced the course of history, including the global competition in trade and agricultural production, the diverse policies and strategies adopted by Europeans in response to those pressures, the strategies employed by African leaders in relation to Europeans acting locally, who themselves were functioning in a web of personal, local and international interests, as well as the relations between African leaders, slaves, freed slaves, people repatriated from the African Diaspora.

The analyses tend to be heavily laden with historical details, which can make for difficult reading for those less specialised in the relevant fields. The papers also present a European perspective. Although this is not contradictory to the volume’s stated aim, the collection could have been more compelling to a larger audience had it included a more balanced perspective. A poignant recognition of this is articulated in the dedication of the volume to the memory of the late Dr Yaw Bredwa-Mensah, a distinguished archaeologist who had been working on the history of the internal slave trade in today’s Ghana. More detailed maps of the areas concerned and appropriate notes on the dates of the maps included would have been helpful.

This volume is an excellent resource for specialists interested in the history of political and economic relations between Africa and Europe with a focus on the pursuit of agricultural development for global trade, and with attention to the related history of the Abolition movement as well as to the nuances of the dynamic relations between local actors in Africa in the political and economic transformations leading into the colonial era. Topics and concerns that merit further research are thoroughly noted in the texts, thus confirming the volume as a collection of historical works that push the boundaries of the current state of knowledge. This volume will be insightful and stimulating also for readers generally interested the history of Africa and of the Abolition movement, and importantly, for those interested in the intricate process of reconstructing history and constructing historical narrative.

Commercial Agriculture, the Slave Trade and Slavery in Atlantic Africa. Edited by: Robin Law, Suzanne Schwarz and Silke Strickrodt. Published by James Currey, an imprint of Boydell and Brewer Ltd. 2013.

Katarzyna Kubin is a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, based at the Centre for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies (CCLPS). She is also co-founder and current Executive Board member of the Foundation for Social Diversity (FSD), a non-government organisation based in Warsaw, Poland, that deals with issues of migration, equality and social diversity.



The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.