Colonial Africa in official statistics, 1821-1953

African Blue Books, 1821-1953

I am working on a labor-intensive project entitled, Transatlantic Slaving and Socioeconomic Development in the Atlantic World: Western Africa, 1450-1900. The main focus of the project is an examination of how the transatlantic slave trade affected the long-run process of socioeconomic development in Western Africa. There is a good amount of literature on this controversial subject, some of which I contributed, Forced Migration (1982), in particular. Much of this is overly deductive and lacks a firm empirical foundation. More recently, economists have fruitfully employed econometric analysis to demonstrate the consequences (for Africa’s long-run development) of the forceful procurement of millions of captives transported to the Americas and employed as coerced workers to produce commodities that competed with their production in Africa. Because the econometric literature fails to deploy empirical details to identify the main factors in the causal analysis and show how they operated over long time periods, readers have remained highly skeptical. My ongoing project aims to change the way the subject has been studied.

The project places the long-run development process of the economies of Western Africa within the broader context of the evolution of what global economic historians call the Atlantic economy — the economic system that integrated the major economies of the Atlantic basin by 1850, through the operation of a well-developed Atlantic market. To define the central issues addressed, the study begins with a comparison of the relative levels of socioeconomic development in the Americas and western Africa in two “long years,” 1450 and 18501. The comparison enables us to place the long-run development process in western Africa within the context of the interconnected long-run development processes in the Atlantic world during the formative centuries, 1450-1850. The task for historical investigation and analysis is to explain the differing levels of development in the Americas and Western Africa by 1850.

The study deals with the problem of limited time depth and lack of period-specific analysis in the existing literature by breaking the narrative into four broad periods: pre-European, early European (1450-1650), Atlantic slave trade era (1650-1850), and early post-slave trade decades (1850-1900). The objective is to deploy quantitative data, with period-specific analysis, that allows us to view the domestic economies of Western Africa as they went through their process of development in the longue durée, particularly the pattern of change and the factors that mattered most. One major innovation in this study, among others, is the deployment of a large amount of data showing long-run changes in the commodity composition of imports, together with a large body of domestic and export price data, which enable us to place the analysis of the impact of the transatlantic slave trade within the overall context of the developing domestic economies in the region, especially market development and the geographical spread of the market economy. Ultimately, we hope, this study will demonstrate that African economic historiography is amenable to the kind of data and method of analysis that have become commonplace in the study of the economic history of the rest of the world.

The most difficult part of the study has been the collection of export and domestic price data and import data for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The African Blue Books (for Gambia, Sierra Leone, Gold Coast, Lagos, Niger Coast Protectorate) made things considerably easier for the greater part of the nineteenth century. The export and domestic price data in the Blue Books, though not without weaknesses, are very easy to access and interpret. So, too, is the commodity composition of exports and imports. Because the exports and imports data were collected by the customs houses in the British colonies, they include the import and export trade and shipping of each colony with all countries and regions of the world. From the point of view of West African economic history, this makes the Blue Books data superior to the British Customs Ledgers which show only the trade and shipping of each colony with the United Kingdom. Also included in the African Blue Books for some years (mostly in the 1890s) are colonial annual reports. I have found these reports very helpful. They provide, among other things, details concerning the prevailing social, political, and economic conditions essential for understanding and interpreting the economic data. In addition, they detail the actions and policies of the colonial administration concerning the development process in each colony. Connecting these actions and policies back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has been very enlightening.


1The concept of “long years” as used here refers not to specific years but to several decades before and after the years mentioned. Thus, 1450 should be understood to cover years as far back as 1400 and as far forward as 1500; 1850 should be similarly understood.