Revisiting major debates on the impact of colonialism on Africa’s economy is a big task. So big, that History Compass allowed African historian Dr. Moses Ochonu of Vanderbilt University the space of two articles to re-open the conversation.
As we’re all aware, issues of poverty and economic marginality on the African continent have assumed more urgency in the world. Now, more than ever, people are asking: how did it come to this?
Historians are in the unique position of returning to historical questions in order to answer the economic questions of the present. The future of Africa’s economy will be determined by the forces of globalization, the international market, as well as domestic innovation, investments in infrastructure, and trade. In light of this future, which is becoming increasingly clear and urgent, Ochonu wanted to revisit the debates over the history of African economies.
In his History Compass articles (available here and here), Ochonu wanted to provide a one-stop overview of colonialism’s economic impacts on Africans as well as Africans’ own impacts on colonial economic events and outcomes. He points out that Africa’s colonial economies give us a window into the contemporary debates about Africa’s economies. Already during colonial times, African economic outcomes were determined by the actions, devices, and the maneuvering spaces Africans created themselves. This often occurred in spite, or in defiance, of exploitative colonial policies.
Current debates about African economies, whether about colonial times or the postcolonial
period, present Africans in a perpetual state of reaction. Africans are shown to experience colonial economic structures and globalization, act on them, and negotiate them, but are never able to shape their outcomes.
But it isn’t that simple. “They also found their niche in the colonial economy, took advantage of it, and created maneuvering space in it.” Ochonu found it crucial to write African economic agency back into discussions of colonialism and poverty. Africans were and remain proactive actors in their economic affairs. Their actions should be essential to the story.
And despite drafting two full articles to guide historians wishing to revisit the story of African economic agency in light of colonialism, poverty, and globalization, there were a lot of stories and examples that didn’t make the cut. A section on gender was too large to be included, and may become the centerpiece of another project.
Colonialism put power into the hands of men in Africa. For many African males, this was the first time, and women reacted by becoming autonomous economic entities operating within emerging urban spaces. Victorian understandings of male and female roles created a host of what Ochonu calls unintended consequences.
“Colonial authorities in Africa all had particular views of African female economic actors. This created unique challenges as well as opportunities for women in Africa, in ways men did not have to contend with.” Ochonu speculates that this gave rise to female innovation: they rose to meet the challenges and overcome colonial prejudice. In the process, they invented new vocations, reconfigured the household economy, and reemerged as major players in agriculture, commerce, and artisanal guilds.
“Colonial authorities in Africa all had particular views of African female economic actors. This created unique challenges as well as opportunities for women in Africa, in ways men did not have to contend with.”
This is important because historians often overlook the unintended consequences. We write about cause and effect, but the unplanned and unintended, and the seemingly implausible or illogical is just as interesting, if more challenging to trace. But African historians must do so, because it projects a less rigid and deterministic picture of colonial planning and decision-making. In many respects, pragmatism took precedence over the metropole’s grandiose intent, and Africans, particularly women, took advantage of this pragmatic atmosphere of on-ground colonization.
African women disrupted the colonial economy in profound ways that affected the economic realities of today: Informal economies today are dominated by women whom scholars rarely fold into studies on poverty and globalization in the developing world. A multiplicity of voices changes the narrative of Africa’s economy from a reactive one of endemic weakness and unchallenged exploitation, to one in which Africans had, have, and will continue to have opportunities to determine their economic futures in our world.
A special thanks to Moses Ochonu for the interview. For more on this topic, check out his latest book, Colonial Meltdown: Northern Nigeria in the Great Depression.
Tags: Africa, African history, Black History, Colonialism, Development, domestic trade, economic development, economic history, gender, globalization, international trade, post-colonialism, Poverty, trade, women