Would Africa have industrialized if the colonialists did not show up?

Were African kingdoms and polities on the road to industrialization before the Europeans came by to disrupt their progress? Were the colonial powers stifling all attempts at industrialization by Africans under their control? These are questions that far too many people imagine have straightforward unimpeachable answers.

The countries that colonized Africa were industrialized nation states. The countries they partially or wholly colonized around the world were not. The economically and militarily dominant powers on the planet today are industrialized nation states. It goes without saying that if African polities were industrialized in 1885, colonizing them would have been a far more dangerous and difficult—even impossible—proposition for Europeans than it was. As we have seen, it was terribly easy for the industrialized European nations to defeat and colonize the agrarian African kingdoms and village confederacies they encountered.

French colonial troops attack Africans in Dahomey

Many African and Africanist historians appear to believe that some African countries would be industrialized today if the Europeans had not come by to disrupt things. For example, the late Guyanese historian Walter Rodney seems to think that Africans were “developing” before Europe came by to “underdevelop” them ( See How Europe Underdeveloped Africa).

There are others such as Nigeria’s Joseph Inikori, slavery scholar and professor of history at the University of Rochester, who argues that  “…the reversal of fortune established earlier, and the lowly position occupied by West Africa in the nineteenth-century Atlantic economy, resulted from the adverse effects of the transatlantic slave trade and African slavery in the Americas on the competitiveness of West Africa in commodity production for Atlantic commerce… “ Inikori is guilty here of speculation, and his arguments sound good, but prove nothing about what woulda, coulda, shoulda happened. The industrialization process that led to modern wealth creation does not emerge automatically if there is no slavery.

Professor Joseph Inikori of Rochester University

Also the late Ghanaian historian Adu Boahen wrote that, “…the colonial system led to the delay of industrial and technological developments in Africa…one of the typical features of the colonial political economy was the total neglect of industrialization….It should not be forgotten that before the colonial period, Africans were producing their own building materials, their pottery and crockery, their soap, beds, iron tools, and especially cloth…..”

Boahen mistakes cottage industry, artisanry and handicraft production—things that have existed in many parts of the world for millennia—for the industrialization that happened in Europe and North America, and is now happening in some parts of Asia. These are very different processes, and one does not automatically lead to the other.

Industrialization in very simple terms is the transformation from agrarian and small-scale, often family and home-based cottage workshops, to large-scale factory-based manufacturing and high-yield mechanized agriculture. In societies around the world before the mid-18th century, human and animal power were the primary sources of the energy used to produce things, and this kind of production in good years generally produced just enough to feed, clothe and house the populace. But anytime there was an increase in food production, the gains were wiped out by growing populations. Before the 20th century food production in much of the world was subject to the vagaries of nature, and famines were common with the overwhelming majority of people living in grinding poverty by today’s standards.  

But after the Industrial Revolutions that began in 18th century England, spread to other parts of Europe, and really took-off in the mid-19th century, human and animal power were gradually replaced by machines powered mainly by fossil fuels.

Children working in an American factory during US industrialization
The mechanization of agriculture, an important part of industrialization

This great change brought about a quantum leap in human productive capabilities, making possible spectacular levels of goods and services and sparking seemingly endless technological innovations. It is a process that does not just happen for a brief period: it creates self-sustaining economic growth. This vast and stupendous leap in the sheer volume of goods, tools, gadgets, war machines, food, services and comforts—in far excess of what is needed—is what constitutes the wealth and power of those nations that have achieved industrialization. This kind of production is new in human history and is barely 250 years old.

Industrialization is an epochal transformation of human societies, as momentous as the Neolithic (or New Stone Age) Revolution of 10,000 years ago when humans went from hunting and gathering to settling down to grow their own food and domesticate animals.

It is often imagined that this new transformation is a simple matter, something you can do once you decide to go for it, or something that just comes naturally if you are not enslaved or colonized. It is not.

Consider this: China, the most technologically advanced part of the world in the 16th century, made 3 failed attempts to industrialize in the 19th and 20th centuries. They did not just fail, they failed spectacularly: in the third attempt under the communists and Chairman Mao, 45 million people died in the worst famine in human history (1958-1962), ironically happening as Mao sought to increase food production, a necessary precondition for industrial take-off.  China only successfully industrialized in the last 40 years when their leaders after Mao finally figured out how it is done.

Shenzhen China in the 1970s, when it was a sleepy fishing village
Fustian district in the industrial megacity Shenzhen in 2017

Industrialization is a very difficult thing to accomplish. Many nations around the world from Europe to Africa to the Middle-East, to Asia (Albania, Greece, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Cambodia to name a few) have attempted to industrialize, and they have either stalled or failed. The failure to industrialize, and thus generate modern forms of wealth, is therefore not prima facie proof that an external power is acting as a barrier, as some Africans and blacks in the diaspora assume.

The evidence is that these types of arduous world-changing transformations are sometimes drawn out and take shape in an uneven manner around the world.  For example, Trevor L. Williams writes in A History of Invention that, “….[The Neolithic Revolution]…was not a rapid change but a gradual one spread over millennia rather than centuries. Even in the most progressive communities it began on a very modest scale: the archaeological evidence is clear that hunter-gathering activities continued side by side with the first tentative moves towards domestication. In many parts of the world, domestication was never achieved at all.” 

In other words, it is entirely possible—if the Neolithic revolution is taken as an example—that some societies may go hundreds if not thousands of years without achieving an industrial revolution. It is difficult to argue that such situations are the result of one society oppressing the other or one group of societies hindering another group. The most economical explanation for failure to industrialize is that industrialization is hard to do.

To be continued.


How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, by Walter Rodney

Africa’s Development in Historical Perspective, edited by Emmanuel Akyeampong, et al.

African Perspectives on Colonialism, by A. Adu Boahen.

A History of Invention, by Trevor L. Williams

The Industrial Revolution: Smithsonian/ Great Courses lectures by Patrick N. Allitt.

The Industrial Revolution in World History, by Peter Stearns

The Unbound Prometheus by David S. Landes

The Making of an Economic Superpower: Unlocking China’s secret of rapid industrialization, by Yi Wen

7 thoughts on “Would Africa have industrialized if the colonialists did not show up?

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  1. I think that industrialization was not quite a fluke, but the result of a very complex interplay of factors that were unlikely to arise in Africa. But the trans Atlantic slave trade massively underdeveloped Africa and stagnated Sub-saharan Africa’s population growth for 100 years, even after the introduction of New World crops, at a time where Europe’s and Asia’s populations were doubling. Africa’s main issue was a very low population density that made forming long-lasting polities very hard. Take away the Atlantic (and Arab) slave trade and you have more stable states that could’ve met European colonization on better footing.


    1. Thank you Dave for your thoughtful comments. I completely agree with your first sentence. The industrial revolution in Britain was the result of a complex interplay of factors which scholars are still debating. There is little agreement though as to why it happened in Britain first, and while its technological antecedents go as far back as the Middle Ages, it does not appear to have been a consciously directed process, at least in the beginning. The industrial revolution on the European continent was definitely not a fluke as other European countries sought with varying degrees of success to copy the British achievement.

      Indeed the conditions that led to the industrial revolution in Europe did not exist in West Africa, and were very unlikely to arise in the period of European industrialization even without the Atlantic Slave Trade. I intend to discuss these conditions in my next few posts.

      I disagree with your point that slavery “massively underdeveloped” Africa. Western Africans were enslaved primarily because they were already massively underdeveloped; it would have been much harder to enslave them in such numbers if they were not.

      Population growth provides no likelihood or guarantee of long-lasting polities. It is much less likely for industrialization, or India and China would have industrialized much earlier than they did. And Nigeria with its exploding population would be industrialized or on the verge of industrializing today.

      By the way, we have no real idea of the population densities of pre-colonization Africa. All we have are guesstimates. There are opposing arguments that it is the high population densities of the West African forest belt that made it possible for the region to supply so many slaves to the New World.

      Your position assumes that all of Africa was ravaged by slavery. Not all of Sub-Saharan or even West Africa was affected by it. Moreover, the instability of the West African forest belt predates the Atlantic Slave Trade. It is the instability found around the world in regions where highly fragmented and warring tribal societies live in uneasy coexistence.


  2. My sources on the overall impact of the slave trade come from books like “Africa A Biography of the Continent” , “The Fortunes of Africa”, and “Africans: The History of a Continent”, and while they all emphasize different aspects of African history (economic vs demographic, etc.), they agree that the trans-Atlantic slave trade was a disaster for the continent. Instead of slaves merely circulating within a local economy, they were extracted from Africa in exchange for goods that Africans could’ve mostly manufactured in-house, with the exception of guns and horses. The trade also induced more warfare to capture slaves and also made the kingdoms that benefited from the trade like the Asante and Dahomey more dependent on slavery and militarism while making the region more chaotic.

    In terms of African demography, the estimated population of Africa in 1500 was 47 million people, with Egypt and West Africa having a decent chunk of that. I agree that it’s very hard to estimate African populations, but large portions of Africa have the tsetse fly which make cattle and horse keeping impossible in about 50% of Sub-Saharan Africa and its soils are fairly infertile and iron-laden compared to Europe’s. Even now Africa has only 1 billion people whereas India and China both have that same amount and Europe has 750 million.

    Isn’t Nigeria industrializing fairly well? Lagos seems pretty built up and has an oil industry as well.


    1. Hi Dave. Thanks for your quick response. The purpose of my blog is to challenge conventional wisdoms such as the claim that the slave trade caused Africa’s underdevelopment. Perhaps the slave trade was a disaster for Africa. My own reading suggests that this is a controversial claim challenged by some scholars.

      But surely you must know that the coastal Africans who dealt directly with Europeans were not forced to participate in the slave trade at gunpoint? The trade was negotiated and the participants had to be in full agreement for trade to go on. If the Africans thought they were getting a poor deal, they could have refused to trade, and in some cases, they did. I have dealt with these issues in my slavery posts, and I do not wish to rehash them. If you have time, maybe you should read them for a different viewpoint.

      Your statement that Africans could have manufactured trade goods in-house begs the question: Why didn’t they? Why did they prefer to exchange people for European manufactures if they could make these things themselves? Coastal Africans reorganized their economies to serve the slave trade. Why do that for goods you can make yourself?

      We cannot know if the slave trade induced “more warfare” if we do not know the frequency of wars before the trade. We can infer that there were many wars that had nothing to do with the slave trade because we know that tribute empires like Mali and Songhai were created by making war on weaker polities and tribes. We also know that regular warfare is a part of tribal existence all over the world. As one African king is reported to have said, “In the old days, we made war and killed off our captives as sacrifices to the gods. Now we sell them to the Europeans.”

      No, Nigeria is not industrializing anytime soon. Oil is a raw material resource. I’m sure you have heard of the resource curse? Nigeria has suffered from it for decades.


  3. Your arguments start on a dodgy notion – that Africa was on the road to industrialisation prior to European contact. I don’t think either Rodney nor Inikori made those points. I suspect you have misread what they wrote in order to support the dodgy notion you started on.

    What they said was that there was some development in Africa before European contact. Not they were on the road to industrialisation. The development going on may have not gone far. No one can say for certain. What European contact did was re-engineer African societies for the benefit of Europe, from the theft of human beings to the theft of resources. Such plunder was not conducive for development or any future industrialisation. It is not an argument that industrialisation would have happened anyway. More like European contact guaranteed it wasn’t going to happen.


    1. Thanks KC for your comments. I think you too have missed my point. Industrialization is the foundation of modern wealth. It is the reason Africa is thought of as “underdeveloped.” Industrialism is COMPLETELY different from anything that went on before on planet Earth. It is not a zero sum game in which one country benefits at the expense of another that cannot acquire the same form of prosperity and wealth. Now, if industrialization is the basis on which modern wealth and development rests–and all the evidence shows that it is–and it is a new phenomenon, then there is no reason to claim that Europe “underdeveloped” Africa.

      That Africa was involved in “some development” is a hand waving claim, and is neither here nor there. Everybody was involved in “some development”, whatever that means. Yet there are countries, most of whom have never suffered Atlantic slavery or European colonization, that are underdeveloped, that is, they have been unable to create the industrialized societies that produce modern prosperity. So Atlantic slavery and colonization, which very poor countries like Ethiopia never suffered, cannot be a good enough reason for Africa’s underdevelopment. The reasons for failure to industrialize must be sought elsewhere.

      Furthermore, if you have read my posts, you will see that Atlantic slavery went on for near four hundred years in which the African polities directly involved–and not all of them were, most were not–could have stopped it if they felt it was “underdeveloping” them. Unfortunately, many of them had to be forced to stop Atlantic slavery at gun point. They did not want to.

      Moreover, it is not clear why Atlantic slavery would forestall industrialization given that most African polities were in control of their affairs until the late 19th century. That they suffered “theft of people” and “theft of resources”–both dubious claims–does not explain why they failed to industrialize, given that industrialization is not a zero sum game. Many industrialized countries have low populations and no resources. Rodney’s arguments are ridiculously zero sum, in which some societies gain at the expense of others. That may have been so in the days of tribute imperialism. But everything we know about modern industrial-technological-capitalist societies shows conclusively that this is not the case.

      As for colonialism, it is no guarantee that industrialization will not happen. After all, South Korea industrialized after a far more brutal and oppressive Japanese colonialism than suffered by the British and French African colonies. The Korean example shows that both colonizer and colonized, even in a situation which some may see as exploitative, can result in a win-win outcome. I will tackle such situations in future posts.


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