How Europe underdeveloped Africa

Gordon Brown claimed that the European countries should stop apologising for their role as colonial powers in past. Colin Foster explains why to “forgiving and forgetting” the past stop us from understanding the problems African and other "Third World" countries face in a post-colonial present.

When Africa was not “backward”

In the Middle Ages, Ethiopia was not underdeveloped. Walter Rodney — a black Marxist historian assassinated in 1980 as he tried to build a working-class party in his native Guyana — wrote: “The kings distinguished themselves by building several churches cut out of solid rock. The architectural achievements attest to the level of skill reached by Ethiopians as well as the capacity of the state to mobilise labour on a huge scale.

“Fine illuminated books and manuscripts became a prominent element of Amharic culture. Equally fine garments and jewellery were produced for the ruling class and for the church... Craft skills were developed in a number of spheres.”

Other countries which are today stricken by poverty — Egypt, for example — were once the world’s greatest centres of civilisation.

When Portugal first established itself as a colonial power in what is now famine-stricken Mozambique, the local Arab-African city states there, with their “fine stone houses and the air of elegance in the local courts and markets” were “a world comparable, if not superior, in material culture to Portugal”.

The European powers had certain advantages over the peoples of Africa and Asia — a more dynamic economic system, more centralised state power, and better military technology — that enabled them to make their conquests. But overall there was no great superiority.

Francis Quesnay, a Frenchman, wrote of China in 1767: “No one can deny that this state is the most beautiful in the world, the most densely populated, and the most flourishing kingdom known.” Scientific discoveries in China reached a remarkable level.

In Zimbabwe, when the 19th century white colonists found the ruined buildings after which the country is now named, they assumed that they must have been built by previous white invaders. They could not believe that black Africans were capable of such achievements.

When Britain first took control of India, in the 18th century, the country was thought of not as a sea of poverty, but as a fabulous treasure house in the Orient. The ordinary people were somewhat poorer than in Britain, but by a factor of perhaps 2:3 rather than the l:10 or 1:20 of today. The luxury of the ruling class was probably greater than that of Europe’s ruling classes.

The economics of colonialism were responsible for today’s economic gap between the average living standard in Britain and in India. At independence in 1947, the conditions of the Indian peasantry were roughly the same as they had been 200 years earlier — maybe a little better, maybe a little worse.

The colonial era which had enriched thousands of British investors and administrators left the Indian peasants stuck in absolute poverty.

Underdevelopment is nothing to do with a lack of talent or energy by the people of the country. Like modern industrial development, it is the product of an economic system, capitalism.

Before the 18th century or thereabouts, economic differences between parts of the world were much smaller than today. Or, to be more accurate, they were differences of a different sort.

Some societies — ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, ancient China — reached a much higher level of culture than others. But this was a difference that mostly concerned the ruling classes.

The ruling classes might have literature, baths, roads, great temples and palaces, a varied and delicate diet, beautiful clothes and jewels — or not.

Whatever happened in the wealthier spheres of society, the mass of the people did nothing more than scratch a bare living from the land.

Today we have the inverse situation. The wealthy have much the same technology, culture and luxury at their disposal in every country. But the standard of living of the working people ranges from the Western worker’s material comfort and relatively easy access to culture to the African peasant’s age-old poverty and illiteracy. A luxury hotel in Ethiopia provides the same service as a luxury hotel in New York. Even in Ethiopia — one of the world’s half-dozen most underdeveloped countries — such industry as there is can use recognisably similar technologies to those in the advanced countries.

Capitalism has created — for the first time in history — the productive potential to free humanity from want.

It has created freely-moving international technology and wealth. In the richer capitalist countries, strong trade unions have won seriously improved living standards for many workers. Yet even in the US many people are destitute. And the average worker’s wage in Indonesia, for example, has, on a generous estimate, one-tenth the buying power of a US wage. For millions of people in Africa, in India, and even in Latin America, life is as harsh and as precarious as it was 500 or 1,000 years ago, if not more so.

The story of development and underdevelopment is the story of how capitalism’s drive to expand production has worked its way through unevenly, creating huge material advances in some areas while simultaneously it creates ruin elsewhere.

The white man as cannibal

The decisive turning point in creating the present pattern of the world came in the 16th century. A new economic system — capitalism, the system of wage labour and of continuous accumulation and reinvestment of profits — emerged decisively from the neo-feudal societies of Western Europe. As yet, it was not industrial capitalism. The Industrial Revolution and large-scale factory production were still in the future. But this earlier capitalism — commercial capitalism — had its own technological revolution, with printing, more developed firearms, and ocean navigation.

For centuries until then the central networks of trade had been the coastal shipping routes of the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. But now the cities of the Arab world — until then the greatest on earth after China — and of Italy were eclipsed. As ships began sailing the open seas regularly and relatively easily the new centres of trade were the seafaring powers of the Atlantic — Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, England. They also established themselves in the Indian Ocean. Karl Marx summed this up as follows:

“The discovery of gold and silver in the Americas, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of black skins, are all things which characterise the dawn of the era of capitalist production [in the 16th century]... The colonies provided a market for the budding manufactures, and a vast increase in accumulation which was guaranteed by the mother country’s monopoly of the market. The treasures captured outside Europe by undisguised looting, enslavement and murder flowed back to the mother country and were turned into capital there.”

The rise of capitalist civilisation in Western Europe thus went together with the destruction of previous civilisations in other parts of the world. Black Africa’s particular blight was the slave trade. “To discuss trade between Africans and Europeans in the four centuries before colonial rule [i.e., from the late 15th to the late 19th century] is virtually to discuss slave trade,” as Walter Rodney puts it. Millions of Africans were forced into the status of human cattle and shipped overseas. Probably more than 10 million arrived alive in the Americas or Europe; maybe as many again died en route. The population of Africa stagnated from 1650 to 1850, while Europe’s nearly tripled and Asia’s more than doubled.

Africa had handicraft industries, and trade based on them. But the handicrafts could not compete. They were displaced by the new trade of human beings against European manufactured goods.

The African peoples were split up into small warring groups and statelets as rival chiefs would make war on each other in order to capture prisoners for the slave trade. With the European traders, from their coastal forts and bases, also encouraging these wars and divisions, the African peoples had no chance of establishing relatively strong, large states such as had arisen in Europe.

The slave trade was also the underpinning of modern anti-black racism. Suspicion and fear of strangers dates back long before the 16th century, and anti-Jewish discrimination was already well established in Europe. Systematic, widespread prejudice and discrimination based on skin colour started with the slave trade (though it did not reach full pitch until the late 19th century).

The white slave-traders and slave-owners, adjusting the ideology of the “rights of man” to fit in with their economic activity, declared that black people were naturally primitive and inferior. Even worse, some black people were bludgeoned into accepting this, or half-accepting it. Racism itself, in turn, became something of an economic factor in the underdevelopment of black Africa.

The slave trade declined in the first half of the nineteenth century. A new chapter opened in Africa: in a sudden “scramble” at the end of the 19th century, practically the whole continent was divided up as colonies for the European powers.

The economic system established under colonial rule had three main features: limited capitalist enterprise, cash-crop farming linked to European trading companies, and forced labour. Mines — gold and diamond in South Africa, copper in Zambia, etc. — and capitalist farms or estates (especially in the areas where many whites settled, like South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya) employed wage-labour.

Railways and ports were also built. Rail networks were started in the 1880s and 1890s, and mostly completed by the early 1930s. Capital investment in black Africa was, however, much lower than elsewhere in the Third World. Up to 1930, for example, only 2% of British capitalism’s overseas investment was in Africa, while 14% was in India, 43% in the rest of the Empire, and 22% in South America.

The wage labour was often casual labour, and the methods primitive. The great majority of the African population were still formally independent peasants. But they were driven increasingly from traditional subsistence farming (i.e. producing mainly for their own consumption) towards cash crops. “The African peasant”, as Walter Rodney records, “went in for cash-crop farming for many reasons. A minority eagerly took up the opportunity to continue to acquire European goods... Many others... took to earning cash because they had to pay various taxes in money or because they were forced to work... Examples of Africans literally being forced to grow cash-crops by gun and whip were to be found in Tanganyika under German rule, in Portuguese colonies, and in French Equatorial Africa and the French Sudan in the 1930s... The laws and by-laws by which peasants in British East Africa were required to maintain minimum acreages of cash-crops like cotton and groundnuts were in effect forms of coercion by the colonial state, although they are not normally considered under the heading of ‘forced labour’.” Forced labour was also used to build railways, roads, and ports.

These elements were combined in different ways and in different proportions in different parts of the continent. But they meshed together in a single system — and one which had very little impetus towards raising productivity.

Force was required to tear Africans away from their traditional livelihoods and create a labour force for capitalist exploitation. But the forcible methods of the colonial regimes did not completely destroy the traditional structures of the African economy, nor were they intended to.

Collaboration with tribal chiefs provided the Europeans with a cheap method of administration. And the continuation of some subsistence farming allowed them to pay extremely low wages and prices for cash-crops. Subsistence farming would keep the African workers alive, while wages or cash-crop sales enabled them to pay their taxes and debts and buy a few European goods. The companies which controlled trade in the cash crops, like Unilever, brought huge profits back to Europe. Capitalist profiteers geared themselves into pre-capitalist forms of exploitation; they grabbed the proceeds of the peasants’ surplus labour, done under pre-capitalist conditions, and, by selling the goods in Europe, transformed them into capital.

The Africans suffered the evils both of capitalism and of the pre-capitalist forms. They suffered the ruthless pressures and insecurity of the capitalist market economy, transmitted through the trading companies; and the isolation, primitive conditions, static technology and traditional hierarchies of pre-capitalist societies.

The Europeans certainly did not bring capitalist civilisation to Africa. Hardly any schools or hospitals were built for the black population until after the Second World War. In Nigeria in the 1930s, for example, there were 12 hospitals for 4,000 Europeans, and 52 hospitals for at least 40 million Africans. Literacy was higher in Nigeria than in other colonies, yet only 12% in 1952.

There was a flurry of “development” spending after World War Two. Partly the colonial powers were responding to the fact that the old colonial economy was breaking down (under the impact of the drastic decline in primary-product prices in the 1930s) and something of a permanent wage-worker class had emerged. Also, they became convinced that independence was inevitable, and made efforts to create a reliable African middle class to which power could be transferred. But it was too little, too late, and not very useful anyway. After winning independence the new African states had a terrible heritage to overcome.

How Britain ruined India

When black Africa was put under colonial rule in the late 19th century it had already been shattered and devastated by four centuries of the slave trade. But the India conquered by the British from the mid-18th century was a great and splendid empire. European trading bases had existed in India since the early 16th century, but they had exported manufactured goods from India — for India “had an industrial sector producing luxury goods which Europe could not match.”

The Mughal Empire — the regime before the British conquest — had not been a progressive system. A tiny elite, mostly alien in origin (Persian or Afghan) and in religion (Muslim), lived in luxury through extremely heavy taxation of the peasants. But the British continued many of the evils of the old regime and added some new ones.

Under Mughal rule, all land had been owned by the Emperor. The peasants were guaranteed the hereditary use of their plots, but could not sell, buy or sub-let land. Members of the ruling class would be allocated districts where they held sway as tax-collectors for the Emperor: these positions were not hereditary.

The British half-transformed this set-up. In Bengal and some other areas, the Mughal tax-collectors were given a status which was half landlord. half tax-collector. This landlord/tax-collector class rapidly expanded under British rule, generating a sub-class of middlemen. In southern India, where Mughal rule had decayed well before the British conquest, the British worked differently. There, the higher caste peasants were given quasi-smallholder status, but with the colonial government as overlord.

Karl Marx commented: “In Bengal we have a combination of English landlordism, of the Irish middlemen system, of the Austrian system, transforming the landlord into the tax-gatherer, and of the Asiatic system making the State the real landlord. In Madras and Bombay we have a French peasant proprietor who is at the same time a serf and a metayer [share-cropper] of the State. The drawbacks of all these various systems accumulate upon him [the peasant] without him enjoying any of their redeeming features.” The peasants had no access to resources to improve their agriculture. And if by chance they should get access, the benefit of any improvement would immediately be confiscated by the landlord or middleman, who was a parasite interested only in luxury consumption rather than capitalist-type investment for expansion.

According to all modern research, Marx was mistaken in his belief that the British had also allowed the decay of irrigation works established under the Mughals. The Mughals’ irrigation works were slight, and were in fact expanded in certain districts by the British. Overall, however, agricultural productivity increased barely at all, or maybe even decreased, during two centuries of British rule.

Above the relentless peasant poverty, the British replaced the Mughals as a ruling class. The British administrators retained the same vast luxury, display, and armies of servants. By the 1930s, about one-tenth of India’s whole national income was flowing to Britain, and another slice was being consumed by the British administration in India itself. The maintenance, in modified form, of the old social structures in the countryside enabled cheaper and easier rule.

Britain’s land reform, wrote the Governor-General in 1829, “though a failure in many other respects, and in most important essentials, has this great advantage at least, of having created a vast body of rich landed proprietors deeply interested in the continuance of the British dominion and having complete command over the mass of the people”. But there was after all a difference between Britain and the Mughals. The Mughals wealth was used for luxury and display alone. The wealth of the British was capital. Sizeable amounts of capital were invested in India. A big railway-building programme was undertaken in the 1850s. In 1870, 21% of all Britain’s overseas capital stock was in India.

Karl Marx wrote: “I know that the English millocracy intend to endow India with railways with the exclusive view of extracting at diminished expense the cotton and other raw materials for their manufactures. But... you cannot maintain a net of railways over an immense country without introducing all those industrial processes necessary to meet the immediate and current wants of railway locomotion... The railway system will therefore become, in India, truly the forerunner of modern industry.”

Marx qualified this prediction: “All the English bourgeoisie may be forced to do will neither emancipate nor materially mend the social condition of the mass of the people, depending not only on the development of the productive powers, but on their appropriation by the people.

“But what they will not fail to do is lay down the material premises for both. Has the bourgeoisie ever done more? Has it ever effected a progress without dragging individuals and peoples through blood and dirt, through misery and degradation? The Indians will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie, till in Great Britain itself the new ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Hindus themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether.”

In any case, the growth of factory production in India was very slow. There was a spurt of industrialisation around the First World War, and steel production was started then, much earlier than in most Third World countries. The Indian capitalist class by the time of independence in 1947 was far stronger than any capitalist class in black Africa. But from the 1920s to independence the industrial percentage of India’s workforce actually declined.

The stark poverty of the peasantry limited the home market. The British in India, and the Indian elite, preferred imported goods. And, perhaps crucially, Indian industry lacked the state protection and sponsorship which has been crucial to every infant industrial capitalism.

Every industrial capitalist power since Britain has developed with tariffs guarding its infant industries and a large measure of state intervention. Even in Britain, state contracts during the Napoleonic Wars were a big factor in the Industrial Revolution. But the Indian capitalists did not have a state of their own. They were ruled by a British state, which would always help British capitalists first. For a short period after World War One, the British did adopt a policy of helping Indian industry. But it was quickly ditched, especially when the great world slump after 1929 left British industry clamouring for the Empire to be made its protected market.

The French writer Claude Levi-Strauss aptly describes India as the British left it: it was “as if history and economics had managed to establish, indeed superimpose, their most tragic phases of development on these wretched victims: the shortages and epidemics of medieval times, frenzied exploitation as in the early years of the industrial revolution, and the unemployment and speculation of modern capitalism”.


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A dated view

This article is some years old, and it's worth pointing out that Walter Rodney's analysis is now questioned by many historians of Africa, who argue for much greater emphasis on the role of the African ruling class in the slave system.

For example, the article says: 'Black Africa’s particular blight was the slave trade. “To discuss trade between Africans and Europeans in the four centuries before colonial rule [i.e., from the late 15th to the late 19th century] is virtually to discuss slave trade,” as Walter Rodney puts it. Millions of Africans were forced into the status of human cattle and shipped overseas.' This could be read to suggest that Europeans forced Africans into slavery - and to some extent they did. But slave trading was established in Africa well before Europeans got involved. The African property system depended on ownership of people - unlike Europe, where ownership of land was key. We need to think about the role of African rulers in the process.

And when the article refers to a 'new trade of human beings against European manufactured goods' the novelty is not the trade in human beings, but the way it became part of a changing European economy. For sure, soaring European demand for slaves had an enormous impact on Africans and Africa. But Europeans did not invent slavery and impose it on Africa from the outside.