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An Economic Rationale for the African Scramble: The Commercial Transition and the Commodity Price Boom of 1845-1885

Ewout Frankema, Jeffrey Williamson, Pieter Woltjer

NBER Working Paper No. 21213
Issued in May 2015
NBER Program(s):The Program on the Development of the American Economy, The Development Economics Program

This is the first study to present a unified quantitative account of African commodity trade in the long 19th century from the zenith of the Atlantic slave trade (1790s) to the eve of World War II (1939). Drawing evidence from a new dataset on export and import prices, volumes, composition and net barter terms of trade for five African regions, we show that Sub-Saharan Africa experienced a terms of trade boom that was comparable to other parts of the ‘global periphery’ from the late 18th century up to the mid-1880s, with an exceptionally sharp price boom in the four decades before the Berlin conference (1845-1885). We argue that this commodity price boom changed the economic context in favor of a European scramble for Africa. We also show that the accelerated export growth after the establishment of colonial rule deepened Africa’s specialization in primary commodities, even though the terms of trade turned into a prolonged decline after 1885.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w21213

Published: Frankema, E., Williamson, J., & Woltjer, P. (2018). An Economic Rationale for the West African Scramble? The Commercial Transition and the Commodity Price Boom of 1835–1885. The Journal of Economic History, 78(1), 231-267. doi:10.1017/S0022050718000128

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