In the last two posts, we saw that free West Africans visited Europe throughout the centuries of the slave trade. Some were sent as ambassadors by rulers, others went as merchants looking to negotiate trade, some went as students, and yet others just went to see what Europe was like.

An obvious question—or series of questions—arises: if Africans were making such regular trips to Europe, why did they not borrow and adopt methods and practices that could have helped them compete with Europe? Why did African rulers and elites not undertake systematic efforts to study and figure out these people who made these destructive devices that Africans wanted, like muskets and cannon, as well as other desirable consumer items like cloth, basins, kettles, cutlasses, pewter pots, mirrors, writing paper, and alcohol like brandy, gin and rum? What about learning how to build those great ocean-going vessels that brought manufactured goods and took away slaves? Why did African states and kingdoms not send groups of people to study and bring back transforming techniques and organizational skills that may have helped their societies resist the coming shocks of colonial take over?

What these questions bring to mind is Japan’s great effort to transform itself after American and European gunboats opened it up to Western trade in the 1850s. The Tokugawa shoguns, who ruled Japan from the 17th century to the 19th, had deliberately closed Japan to outside influences in the 1630s because they were suspicious of the motives of the Christian missionaries who came to their country. For two hundred years, the Japanese had very little contact with the outside world. But the world inevitably forces itself upon those who bury their heads in the sand, and first the American naval officer Commodore Perry, and later the French and English navy, showed up with superior warships to compel the Japanese to open up their country to American and European trade in the 1850s and 1860s.

The US Navy’s Commodore Mathew Perry and his “Black Ships” forced Japan to open up to American trade.


The deeply worried Japanese sent delegations to Europe and America to systematically study those societies, and especially study the wellsprings of Western technology, with particular emphasis on military technology. They sent large groups of young students to the West to see what they could learn and bring back, so Japan could emulate and duplicate before they were exploited and perhaps colonized.

They clearly understood the danger. The US historian William McNeill explains the danger weak societies face from stronger: “A well-equipped and organized armed force, making contact with a society not equally well organized for war, acts in much the same way as the germs of a disease-experienced society do. The weaker community, in such an encounter, may suffer heavy loss of life in combat….a society unable to protect itself by force from foreign molestation loses its autonomy and may lose its corporate identity as well.”

The percipient actions of the Japanese elite helped inoculate Japan against invasion by the West. In less than twenty years after Commodore Perry’s visit, Japanese intellectuals had translated the classics of modern European thought, and were advocating enlightenment, industrialization and economic liberalism. These efforts led to radical social and economic changes, and Japan rapidly industrialized in a very short space of time, to the point that she was able to defeat another European country in war—Russia, in 1905. The modern Japan that emerged thus became too risky a proposition for colonial adventures by the European powers.

Okubo Toshimichi, one of the young samurai who played a leadership role in Japan’s transformation from a backward feudal state to an industrial powerhouse

Did any African kingdom try any of this, try to transform their societies technologically? The answer is no.  And why not? Walter Rodney and the rest of the blame-Europe brigade never ask this elephant-in-the-room question. They carefully ignore the truth that it is the job of states and rulers of states to find ways to protect their people from invasion and exploitation. Why did African rulers and leaders not do this, or take steps to do it over the four hundred years of contact with Europe? Is four hundred years not a long enough time to figure out a potential threat and find ways to copy useful methods or neutralize the threat?

The historian Ian Morris writes in Why the West Rules Today that the primary reason for Western dominance was “that British factories could turn out explosive shells, well-bored cannon, and oceangoing warships, and British governments could raise, fund, and direct expeditions operating halfway around the world; and the ultimate reason….was their success at extracting energy from the natural environment and using it to achieve their goals.”

HMS Dreadnought, Royal Navy battleship launched in 1906, in the era of colonial wars

This was what the Japanese elite quickly recognized, and the African elite did not. The African elite were not the only ones to make this fatal mistake: the Chinese elite were also slow to recognize the danger of superior Western organization and technology. While the Japanese elite were urgently advocating taking key transformational steps to catch up to the West, the Chinese elite argued that there was nothing wrong with their own traditions, and that the only thing they needed to do was buy some European guns. They ended up being partially colonized by the Europeans and the Japanese. Not surprisingly, the African elite too seemed only interested in buying guns and consumer goods.

To be fair, one or two African rulers made desultory efforts to bring European methods to their lands. For example, the Dahoman king, Agaja Trudo, freed his English slave, Bulfinch Lambe, and sent him to England with a letter for King George I of England and a proposal to set up plantations in Dahomey where African slaves could work the land and produce cotton and tobacco, rather than take the slaves across the seas to America. Nothing came of this plan. Lambe—a slave trader who had been enslaved by Africans because he owed money to one of the kings in the slave trade region—was only too happy to get his freedom, and did not carry out the instructions from the king of Dahomey, disappearing instead to the Caribbean. He eventually turned up in England, but the authorities there were not interested when he produced the letter from King Agaja; the English authorities claimed that Lambe forged the letter.

One of the more astonishing things about the Europe-Africa encounter is that for more than 350 years, African elites rode European ocean-going ships back and forth, and dealt with thousands of these ships in their trade with Europe, yet there is no evidence anywhere that any African kingdom or state sought to reverse engineer any of these ships, or tried to copy European shipbuilding techniques. They were simply content—as many Africans are today—to enjoy the “magic” of such useful technology.

British sail ship of the slave trade era under construction
British ocean-going sailing ship under construction
French sailing ship reconstructed in the 21st century
French sailing ship of the 18th century recreated in the 21st century


The American historian David Northrup tries to explain Africa’s failure to engage in technology transfer by saying that Africans lacked interest in it. But this explanation does not go far enough, and begs the question of why they lacked interest. The explanation could be applied to any group of small, traditional societies around the world. One of the biggest problems facing many pre-colonial African states was their small and fragmentary nature. This blog has tried to explain why it is difficult to achieve change in such traditional cultures .  Northrup does hint at some of the difficulties that faced Africans: “Given the long history of complicated mining, metalworking, and manufacturing changes that lay behind European arms manufacturing, it would have been as challenging for Africans to manufacture early nineteenth-century weapons as to duplicate the complexities of industrial textile production.”

But there were larger, better developed African states that could have undertaken the project of modernization overtime. Unfortunately they lacked a key element: a significant literate elite with an understanding of what was happening in Europe, with a vision for change, and with the necessary determination to force their vision through the roadblocks of resistant tradition. Also while many Africans went to Europe to study, they most likely did not add up to a critical number that could constitute a transforming elite. Added to their small number was their failure to see and understand what they ought to be doing for their societies. This is key: understanding their historic role could have led the small educated elite to press for more students to be sent to Europe in order to create that necessary critical mass of like-minded people.

The slave trader Hugh Crow wrote, quoting an English parliamentary document: “The influence… which European education seems to have upon Africans, after their return to their native country, appears chiefly in their more civilized manner of life. They endeavour to live and dress in the European stile, to erect their houses in a comfortable and convenient manner, and evince a fondness for society. Few of the females return to their native country; such as have, retain the dress and outward behaviour of their sex in Europe.”

In other words, the relatively few African elite educated in Europe were more interested in the superficial trappings of European culture than in figuring out how to transform their societies. We will encounter this problem again when we discuss post-colonial African states. Things have not changed that much today.


Why the West Rules—For Now: The patterns of history and what they reveal about the future, by Ian Morris

Origins of the Modern Japanese State: Selected writings of E. H. Norman

The Pursuit of Power: Technology, armed force and society since AD 1000, by William McNeill

The Miracle: The epic story of Asia’s quest for wealth, by Michael Schuman

The Diligent: A voyage through the worlds of the slave trade, by Robert Harms

Africa’s Discovery of Europe, 1450-1850, by David Northrup.

Memoirs of Captain Crow by Hugh Crow


Add yours

  1. Good article! Thank you.

    By the way, we shouldn’t forgot King Njoya. He tried to modernize his state by creating a literate culture(creating a scripts and a printing press) and experimented with commercial farming of ostriches and new crops, as well as made a mill for grinding maize. He also made multiple legal reforms, as well as maps of his kingdom, and books about the history of his people, the customs, and a short treatise on medicine etc…

    He was a real leader and his kingdom had a lot of potential for modernization. I wonder how things would have happened if more pre-colonial leaders had a personality similar to his.


    1. Thank you Admin africahousehome. I will look for information on King Njoya. I should include him in my next post which will be about African pre-colonial technological and industry potential. Thanks again. OC


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