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.
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.
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.
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.
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