West Africa during the Nineteenth Century

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The Atlantic slave trade was abolished by the British parliament in 1807. This caused great problems for West African slave traders who had witnessed a period of vast growth in the industry towards the end of the eighteenth century. They now had to focus on more lawful, legitimate means of trading. The types of industry that often replaced the slave trade were produce based, agricultural goods such as palm oil. The potential problems faced by traders were ‘exacerbated by the fact that it coincided with other problems for West Africa’s external trade.’ This refers to the Anglo-French wars which made the demand for West African exports very unreliable. The rise of the palm oil industry however, softened the blow for West Africa. Prior to the nineteenth century, palm oil was primarily used either in soap or as a cooking oil but due to the British Industrial Revolution, the demand for palm oil rose dramatically as it was needed as a lubricant for machinery. The transition period in nineteenth century West Africa, between Britain’s abolition of the slave trade and the move towards more legitimate trade has been controversially coined by A. G. Hopkins as a ‘crisis of adaptation’. He argue that West African states struggled to make the shift and that evidence for this can be seen in economic factors as well as in the outbreak of the Yoruba wars. However this viewpoint has been widely contested as many other historians (such as Ann McDougall and Martin Lynn) believe that the transition period was smooth due to other, more legitimate forms of trade taking over the West African economy. Slavery itself still existed in Africa at this time and so after the abolition, vast numbers of slaves were able to work on the fields, increasing the prod...

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...s export market for the first time. The key industry in West Africa changed from being a heavily monopolised one which saw very few people receiving the profits to a much more competitive market with a significantly higher number of Africans becoming active. This hardly seems like a crisis. As has been argued by Lynn and McDougall, the rise in palm oil exports (partly caused by the increase in the number of slaves available to work domestically) more than compensated the decline of the slave trade. Although there may have been a palm oil price crisis in the second half of the century, this cannot be used as evidence for a ‘crisis of adaptation’ as West Africa had already adapted to its new legitimate economy. Ultimately, the transition period from the slave trade to legitimate commerce was smoother than Hopkins argues: it was more evolutionary than revolutionary.
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