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Africa’s hurt revisited

GEORGE ALLEYNE Wednesday, August 1 2012

What has been suppressed by British and European reactionaries with a vested interest in justifying slavery was that long before the slave trade Africans were well advanced in mining and metal-working, agriculture, food production, cotton weaving and garment manufacture.

But there were other Britishers and Europeans, who not unlike Caribbean persons such as Walter Rodney, CLR James and Max Ifill, were concerned with the truth. Indeed, Helge Kjekshus in his work “Ecology Control and Economic Development in East African History: The Case of Tanganyika 1850-1950”, Page 17, published in 1996, has pointed out that Mogadishu had been already identified as a major cotton weaving centre when the Portuguese first went there in 1498.

In turn, Richard Burton, on Page 278 of The Lake Regions of Central Africa, published by Longmans in 1859, had spoken of a plentiful supply of cotton in Tanganyika which at the time had cotton looms in every village. Burton would add that he found the cotton to “rival in fineness, firmness and weight the medium staple cotton of the New World”. AG Hopkins, on pages 58-59 of his celebrated work, An Economic History of West Africa, published by Longmans in 1973, would note that long distance African trade was a feature even after the arrival of Europeans in Africa.

Among the exports from Sierra Leone were camwood, ivory and beeswax, while gum was the chief export from the Senegal Valley and the Mauritanian coast in the 17th and 18th centuries. Meanwhile, the metals being mined in large quantities in West Africa at the time of the arrival of Europeans were gold and iron, and to a lesser extent copper and tin. Significant manufacturing industries were ceramics, clothing, construction and food processing and the most important of all — garment manufacture. The famed city of Timbuctu is said to have had no fewer than 26 master tailors at the end of the 16th century!

Early into European contacts with West Africa, several centuries ago, Europeans would buy cloth from the Ivory Coast, Benin, Mauritania, Senegambia and Yorubaland for export. The Kongo, formerly Zaire, has been described by the writer, John Thornton, in his Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800, published in 1992, as “among the major textile producing centres in the world”.

The famous Guyanese author, Walter Rodney, on Page 121 of his monumental work How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, published by Heineman Kenya in 1989, revealed that as early as the 15th century the Portuguese had interrupted trade along the coast of Upper Guinea.

Employing far superior weaponry, including cannons and rifles, to that known and possessed by West Africans at the time, the callous Portuguese blocked the peaceful trading in raw cotton and indigo dye, among others engaged in by various areas. Rodney would write that the Portuguese interrupted an active canoe trade between what is known today as Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, by constructing a fort at Axim

Over the years, European traders, generally, would halt the expansion of cloth manufacture by Africans — Rodney. This would be extended to iron smelting and the manufacture of iron tools which had dated back, in sub Saharan Africa, to 1000 BC. Copper smelting in West African Sahara and Sahel had been around at least since 2000 BC. For the record, in 1859, iron produced in Usangi, in then Central Tanganyika, was described “as famed as Swedish steel”.

Metropolitan nations established colonies in Africa in which they discouraged established industries. Instead, the emphasis was on the provision of raw materials which would then be shipped to the European countries in control, at low prices, to be refined there and then re-shipped to the colonies at far higher prices. Later, many African countries although they had achieved political Independence, but with economies underdeveloped and restrained by a lack of revenue and deliberate deindustrialisation by former colonisers were and are literally trapped.

One of the worst examples of this was the 1975 ACP-EEC Convention of Lome, later the Convention of Cotonou, which ended a handful of years ago. Meanwhile the prices of goods emanating from developing countries were often, as Alvin Toffler would note on pages 88-89 of his book, The Third Wave, published by Bantam in 1980, depressed yet further by “The Law of the First Price”. The early price structure set for crude oil was the best or worst known example. It would remain at a low level until effectively challenged in 1973 by the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

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