A Modern Economic History of Africa: Volume 1 (19th Century)

Tiyambe Zeleza produced an incredibly comprehensive piece of scholarship — a meticulous 427-pages of analysis and review of historical work. That each paragraph has around ten or more different citations attests to the breadth and depth of his research. He has approximately 800 references, spanning 30-pages, at the end of the book.

Zeleza’s main argument is that the economic history of Africa should not be overly simplified as he argues, dependency and Marxist theorists often do. He rails against any scholar who does not demonstrate the diversity of social relations, production, environment and forms of colonization. At the heart of his contention is the concern with the representation of Africans, in particular, peasants, who because they did not conform to the European model in which peasants had landlords receiving rent payments, portrayed them as “traditional” and “primitive” cultivators impervious to change. He argues:

“It is important to be careful when discussing capitalist penetration in africa. Often the term is used as a synonym for European colonization. All characteristics of capitalism, from private ownership of means of production, production for market, sale of labor, power as commodity, class struggle, pursuit of profit, company formation, and possession of that enigmatic of capitalist qualities, entrepreneurial spirit, already existed in various forms and combinations in the continent’s leading economies. These economies may not have been in Marxian sense capitalist social formations but they were not ‘pre-capitalist’ either.”

Zeleza also criticizes essentialist treatment of gender relations, stating that such generalizations fly in the face of evidence demonstrating the wide range of family structures, kinship, and descent. His problem with dependency theorists such as Walter Rodney is that by pointing to the insidious effects of the Atlantic slave trade incurred by the West, they invariably give them too much weight. Implicit in dependency theories, argues Zeleza, is the assumption that African mining and manufacturing technologies were “backward,” thus giving too much weight to European role in its development. Rather, he argues, “internal developments constituted the motor that pushed African history forward,” and cautions against an overemphasis of the role of external forces. He illustrates this point by examining the diversity of the continent, from a wide range of gender relations to political economies to methods of cultivation, animal husbandry and use of crops and tools. In the case of South and southern Africa, he argues, one can generalize that the demand and extraction of minerals by the BSA Company enabled smooth grafting of colonialism onto existing corporate forces in Zimbabwe, Zambia and to a lesser degree Malawi.

Zeleza makes convincing arguments and supports them with detailed, yet uniquely interpreted historical accounts; however, the same arguments seem to contradict his conclusion in attempting to draw patterns from modes of European colonization and its effects. Thus, while it was internal developments that fueled the motor of African history, he argues, it was the Europeans who enslaved and colonized Africans and it was they who “controlled and benefited most from the trade in human cargo and seizure of other people’s lands.” Zeleza describes this experience as “baptism of blood and fire” which the continent continues to resolve to this day. In my view, it seems quite problematic that Zeleza wants it both ways; he wants to hold European powers accountable, yet critiques theorists with the same intentions, but perhaps falls short of his expectations to show the internal development within Africa, and heavily counters arguments that generalize to any degree, yet he generalizes when it suits him. Of course, in 427 pages, one can afford to be extremely detailed and refrain from generalizing. Ultimately, it seems Zeleza makes too many arguments — some of which I believe to be paradoxical — and simply has too much axe to grind. However, this does not diminish the relevance and impressive caliber of his book.

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