The colonization counterfactual

One of the questions I’m often asked by friends who haven’t studied African history is what might have happened to the continent if it hadn’t been colonized.  It’s interesting to look at the following map of African politico-tribal units circa 1844 by Swedish artist Nikolaj Cyon in the light of this question:

Alkebu-lan[click for full size – it’s worth it!]

I haven’t been able to find any firm documentation on the origin of the name Alkebu-lan, although a variety of questionably sourced websites suggest that it’s an Arabic phrase meaning “land of the blacks” – supposedly an original name for Africa.  Cyon notes in a presentation that the map represents the culmination of an alternate history where the Black Plague killed significantly more Europeans than was actually the case, presumably reducing the amount of early colonization which would have occurred.  Thus, while many of these territorial groupings appear feasible to me, it’s unclear if they represent the real extent of various ethnic groups in 1844.

What might have happened from 1845 onwards in this non-colonial world?  The most densely populated areas in west and central Africa might have grown into something approaching Westphalian sovereignty, controlling clearly defined territories (as per Jeffrey Herbst’s thesis on state formation in States and Power in Africa).  Coastal and riverine areas may have done well off of trade, encouraging the development of stronger local authorities.  Places rich in natural resources would have had to fend off various external claimants to their territories, if not from Europe (or India) then perhaps from neighboring kingdoms, and might have developed into stronger states if successful or faced the imposition of external institutions if not.  But what of places like the land alloted to the Herero in this map (modern Namibia), which is largely desert?  Or the semi-arid plains of the Sahel?  Perhaps they would have continued with smaller or more mobile sociopolitical groups, without a central state.  Whether they would have been vulnerable to expansionary neighbors is unclear.  And all of this doesn’t even touch on whether European economic development would have followed the same path, and whether colonization might have eventually occurred anyway, at least to the weaker or less populous states.  A fascinating thought experiment, though.

33 Comments

  1. It’s interesting to think about. I would like to imagine even further back had Northern Africa not been colonized by Arabs and all of Africa were able to resist all colonization by the biblical/muslim groups, keep their traditions and define their role, if any, in the current globalization. Yet, conquest of Africa would not had been plausible had it not been successful in the West. What would the entire globe be like had Europeans/Arabs stayed at home or were willing to peaceably aspire to harmonious exchange of lifestyles?

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    1. Such a good question! And I think the follow-up is also interesting: if (say) coastal African states had been able to push away their would-be colonizers, what would that have meant for other states in the interior? Would these stronger African states eventually have colonized (after a form) their weaker neighbors? Or just let them be?

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      1. …. begging us to imagine a world without colonization or that doesn’t capitulate to the standards designed by imperialism. One can imagine and embody a new movement.

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    1. The problem with some arguments regarding colonialism is the complete refusal to admit that many of these ‘political bodies’ were already in place. There were democracies, monarchies, theocracies, federations and loose associations all over the continent as was the case in Europe.
      Any by the way, colonialism did not seek to create political bodies. It sought to supply and strengthen states in Europe that were otherwise vulnerable to attack and domination by each other.

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  2. Nice post!
    One thing – I can’t remember if it was W McNeil or Philip Curtin, but they distinguished between
    1) early “trading-post” expansion (think early French fur trappers in North America, the Russians moving East, and some of East Asia by Europeans),
    2) colonization (settling an area with your own population, like Europeans in the Americas) and
    3) Imperialism – as in much of Africa and parts of Asia.

    Seems like overall Africa experienced imperialism, as Curtin points out, largely because the disease impact was opposite there than many other places – rather than European diseases killing locals and making colonization possible, African diseases killed the Europeans, making political and economic control (but not settlement) more common.

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    1. Hi Clint – great points! Especially about how disease burdens facilitated European settlement – I just read 1491 (http://www.amazon.com/1491-Revelations-Americas-Before-Columbus/dp/1400032059) and was shocked at the total mortality of native Americans after Columbus landed. My US history courses glossed over the fact that nearly 90% of the native population was likely killed by disease before large-scale European settlement began.

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      1. That is on my reading list! Just haven’t had time yet. Looks interesting.
        Yes, the impact of disease during colonization and imperialism was so important to modern sociopolitical patterns. Definitely check out Alfred Crosby, William McNeil, and Curtin, as well as the econ papers by Daron Acemoglu and colleagues, and some of the responses to them by other economists. Those are listed in my bibliographies, and I have written on some of these issues here <a href="http://philosophyofscience.webstarts.com/working_papers.html
        Cheers,
        Clint

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  3. I retract my comment. Apparently that African languages lack scripts is a misconception based on the importance of oral tradition and the dominance of Latin script. Still, it’s interesting to think about what languages would have looked like otherwise!

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    1. Great point! I bet they would have adopted some neighboring script after a while – perhaps Amharic, perhaps Latin if Europe were up and coming, perhaps even Arabic coming down from north Africa and across from east Africa… At some point it must be easier to adopt an existing script than to create one’s own.

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  4. Interesting question. I also wonder about the role of written language in facilitating trade and development. Of languages native to the continent, Amharric seems to be one of the few (the only?) with an actual script. Would states (or alternative forms of organization) have adopted some sort of script in the absence of written French, English, Italian, Arabic, etc or found some way to facilitate trade without it?

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  5. Had the Europeans controlled continental trade with the East (for instance, if they had retained their foothold after the crusades), they likely wouldn’t have explored the African coast for a while, leaving the locals to develop on their own. It’s likely the expanding wealth of the north would eventually trickle down. But I can’t see anything but low tech tribal nations exchanging lands south of the Sahara. Maybe some culturally rich iron age civilizations would have developed, similar to the Olmec in their complexity. One can only imagine!

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  6. Reblogged this on [I don't want to close my eyes.] and commented:
    My first-ever reblog is of a map — and is anybody surprised? :P You certainly shouldn’t be. This is fascinating, and well worth the hours you’ll spend poring over its political and geographic boundaries. In particular, let me draw your attention to the Al-Magreb region… and the Iberian Peninsula!

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  7. An interesting proposition no doubt – Kongo is one option a lot of people ignore, as for a while, it looked like they were going to pull off the African version of the Meji era back in the 1500s and 1600s… then stagnation and slavery wrecked the kingdom, and it got absorbed by Portugal.

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  8. Fascinating map. The closest example to your counterfactual is to look at modern Ethiopia, Mangista Ityyop’pa plus some neighbors on this map, where there was only a brief Italian occupation prior to WWII and there is a long history of monarchical “states”. Ethiopia also was not a significant exporter of slaves, except small numbers via Muslim traders to the Middle East. And while Ethiopia’s large population (~90 million) is a likely result of this, it is certainly less developed than areas longest colonized by Europeans, whether you’re measuring development by economic or human measures. Not that European colonization was the only path to human advancement, but the feudal systems in place in Ethiopia until the 1970s and common elsewhere on the continent prior to colonization were certainly not improving the lives of most Africans.

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    1. Depends on your definition of “improving.” Many Africans today have successfully learned to live according to European standards and norms. Many more, I would argue and worse off than their grandparents and their grandparents’ grandparents.

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  9. Very interesting exercise.

    Two quibbles:

    Africa would never have developed states very quickly because such did not happen in other areas with tropical climates. The jungle and the deserts prevent the efficiency of state centralisation – and this is even more true if we attend the fact that the continent is divided in half by tropical forest and deserts which cumulatively would prevent much of the potential trade between west Africa, east Africa and southern Africa.

    The other problem is the absence of the influence of the Arabs, Berbers and Bedouins in this map: if the Europeans had not destroyed Muslim control of the Mediterranean and colonised north Africa, the northern Arab kingdoms would have been able to expand their power – enhanced by technological innovations which their commerce with Europe, Asia and India brought – southwards and colonise the more isolated and parochial (state structures rarely existed south of the Sahara) African polities.

    This factor is all the more pertinent given the premise of the exercise, the absence of slavery which the Arabs pioneered, and given enough technology and interest (say if the Arabs had discovered and colonised the western hemisphere) would have been just as likely as the Europeans to industrialise en masse for their own purposes.

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    1. Africa did have states before colonialism even slavery. The succession of west African ’empires’ Ghana->Mali->Songhai were states. There were states further south as well. The swahili city states, Monomotapa,Zimbabwe, Kongo, Buganda etc etc. There was no shortage of African precolonial states.
      Without colonialism and slavery it is logical to assume many of these states would have continued and new ones developed and survived.

      Africa is not cut in two by forest. In any case neither forest nor desert hindered trans African trade in precolonial times. The Sahara was simply an ocean which facilitated trade between the forest peoples of the south and the Arabs (and on to Europeans) of the north. South and central Africa also saw the phenomenon of long distance trade routes crisscrossing the continent. It is logical to assume that absent the twin catastrophes of slavery and colonialism, these trade routes would have merged into a massive continental trading network.

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      1. By ‘state’ I meant the modern Westphalian kind but yes, there were important polities in Africa before colonization. Sure some might have continued to expand and develop.

        Africa is cut in two and I find it absurd that you would compare the Sahara to an ocean. Communication might have evolved along the African coasts but I have never heard of a desert being a convenient means of communication, ever in the history of mankind.

        The silk route also ran along deserts but it existed in spite of the deserts rather than because of them. The enormous economic development of the Trans-Oxian peoples would attest to that……………………..

        It is not logical at all to assume such a thing. Australia’s landmass peripheries are not made any more prosperous by its central desert nor is South America by the Amazon forest (except for local natural resources of course), Namibia by the Calahari, central Asia and Mongolia by the great Asian deserts or the US southwest by the deserts and the Rockies.

        Natural obstacles are still natural obstacles and they hinder economic development.

        Finally, as I have previously said, slavery and colonialism are not a monopoly of the West. They were already in existence in Africa long before the Westerners arrived. The only assumption to be made is that if there had been anything akin to an industrial revolution in the Arab world, the massification of the slave trade would have been done by them.

        To imagine Africa without slavery and colonialism is equivalent to imagining the world without politics.

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      2. M.Silva you doth protest too much. Africa is not cut in two by forest thats a fact. Trans saharan trade was a fact. We don’t have to speculate. It was real and in fact still occurs to a very limited extent. How is it logical to assume that it would just have ended? Long distance trade in Africa, north and south, was destroyed by colonialism and the borders it created. In any case you choose to make a mountain out of a peripheral mole hill. Whether or not the sahara hindered or facilitated the trade is a side issue. The point is the trade existed and would have continued expanding, absent colonialism. Also forget what happened elsewhere in the world. Look at what actually happened in Africa!

        I’m glad I introduced you to the sahara/ocean metaphor. But if, as you say, you had never heard it before, you really need to take up the google. I did not invent that metaphor.

        On the question of states, you may want to ditch the eurocentrism, we are in Africa now not Europe. There was no requirement that Africans develop states in line with the westphalia model. These were not just polities, they were states. Then you say this in reference to these states:

        “Sure some might have continued to expand and develop.”

        Thats quite a heap of arrogance. Some “might” have continued to expand and develop? “might”!

        On the issue of colonialism and slavery being a monopoly of the west, thats a red herring. I did not suggest that they were. In any case that argument is irrelevant to what is at issue here. But just for the record. the west’s practice of slavery and colonialism in Africa and the African diaspora was qualitatively and quantitatively different from what had gone before in Africa. But that’s not the issue at hand.

        The issue is that the west’s slavery and colonialism in Africa had a particularly catastrophic impact on Africa. Regardless of whether these practices were a western monopoly or not. The everybody did it excuse just doesn’t cut it here.

        Finally you may not be able to imagine Africa without colonialism and slavery, but given that you seem to find it difficult imagining that African states or polities would have continued to develop absent colonialism and slavery, the fault is likely with your imagination.

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      3. 1 – “Africa is not cut in two by forest thats a fact”

        Verified by……….

        What is a fact is the extraordinary under-development of the regions close to geographical and topographical obstacles.

        2 – “Trans saharan trade was a fact. We don’t have to speculate.”

        I never denied such trade existed, what is profoundly ridiculous is to claim that trade existed BECAUSE of the Sahara rather than IN SPITE OF IT.

        2.1 – “How is it logical to assume that it would just have ended?”

        I never said it would end……..

        3 – “Whether or not the sahara hindered or facilitated the trade is a side issue. The point is the trade existed and would have continued expanding, absent colonialism.”

        3.1 – It is not a side issue when one decides to speculate about geoeconomics.

        3.2 – Colonialism’s only contribution was putting the emphasis of development on the coastline. But while inland trade might have continued, it would never have proportionately meant what the introduction of European demographically and technologically superior markets meant, for Africa.
        Thus, continued development? Yes.
        Meaningful continued development? I’d say no.

        4 – “I’m glad I introduced you to the sahara/ocean metaphor. But if, as you say, you had never heard it before, you really need to take up the google. I did not invent that metaphor.”

        It is a stupid metaphor!! No desert EVER facilitated trade in the History of the world……………………………………………….

        5 – There was no requirement that Africans develop states in line with the westphalia model. These were not just polities, they were states. Then you say this in reference to these states:

        5.1 – If you want to use the word STATES, the you yourself are using the WESTPHALIA MODEL…………………………

        5.2 – ““Sure some might have continued to expand and develop.”
        Thats quite a heap of arrogance. Some “might” have continued to expand and develop? “might”!”

        Indeed. Nothing to do with arrogance but rather with objectivity. Take Europe: few of the states there present 500 years ago exist today…………….

        Don’t be childish.

        6 – “The issue is that the west’s slavery and colonialism in Africa had a particularly catastrophic impact on Africa. Regardless of whether these practices were a western monopoly or not. The everybody did it excuse just doesn’t cut it here.”

        Not an excuse; a FACT.

        And a particularly relevant one if we try to analyse Africa outside of European influence!!!

        It looks like a hit a nerve…………

        7 – “Finally you may not be able to imagine Africa without colonialism and slavery, but given that you seem to find it difficult imagining that African states or polities would have continued to develop absent colonialism and slavery, the fault is likely with your imagination.”

        You, my friend, are an Africanist, and therefore your ideology blinds you to objective science.
        Slavery existed everywhere in the world and there was a time when Europeans too were enslaved by Africans.

        To claim that Africa could have developed without colonialism, barring European conquest is simply historically ignorant and in bad faith.

        I NEVER said Africa could not have developed, I said SOME POLITIES might have developed while others would not – AS IT HAPPENS IN EVERY CIVILISATION!!!……………

        But for a certain someone, blind idealism prevents objective vision.

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    2. 1. Africa is not cut in two by forests. Verified by looking at an atlas. Try it!
      Whatever underdevelopment you are talking about was never the point. You’re just hand waving.

      2. I never said trans saharan trade existed because of the sahara. Ditch the strawmen I said the sahara facilitated it. Whether you agree or disagree, don’t misrepresent me. The sahara permitted rapid horse and camel travel, the forest regions to the south did not.

      3. Fine if long distance trade would not have ended it may well have linked up across the continent forming a continent wide trading network. This is what Is said and this was prevented by slavery and colonialism.

      3.1. Whether or not the desert facilitated the trade IS a side issue. The trade existed. THerefore facilitated or not it may well have continued to exist. This is a red herring. Its not germane to either the question in the OP or the points I was making.
      P.S. The whole post and thread is speculation.

      3.2. You must be joking! Colonialism had deep and destructive effects on African societies through out Africa. Where is the coast in Zimbabwe and Zambia or Uganda.
      Don’t assume that Africa would not have accessed better markets than Europe’s absent colonialism. The African trade with Asia across the Indian ocean was far more beneficial to Africa. Colonialism killed that trade. Look up what Vasco da Gama and his companions wrote about the trade and peoples they found in East Africa.
      Colonialism was destructive not constructive. Africa would have traded with Europe anyway, without slavery and colonialism.

      And the development would have been meaningful.

      4. You may think its a stupid metaphor, but its still a metaphor. Don’t hide behind abuse. Its actually a very good metaphor. The Sahara is very much like an ocean. Look at the third definition of the word ocean here http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/ocean?s=t perhaps you are the one who is just ignorant on this point?

      5. Actually Westphalia refers to nation-states. States existed before westphalia. Again check your facts.

      5.2 Europe is not the standard for Africa. Get that out of your head. But in any case the current states in Europe developed out of the states that existed there 500 years ago. So you are still wrong. Africa would have seen a process of state development that would have produced states today that were products of an indigenous process of African state development. Not the foreign imposed colonial entities that exist today.

      I’m not being childish. You need to take off your Euroblinkers.

      6. Fact or not its still an excuse. The topic of the OP was Africa and European colonialism. Its irrelevant to this discussion whether colonialism existed elsewhere in other times etc. The discussion is about something quite specific. Its still and EXCUSE.
      Now you are being childish!

      7. Whether I’m an idealist or not, does not change the fact that your imagination is quite limited.

      Africa would have developed differently without slavery and colonialism. I say it would have been a better and more meaningful development for Africa.

      You just can’t imagine anything else. Thats a limited imagination.Period

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  10. About what might have happened absent colonialism (and the slave trade). The interior of West Africa (from the nile to the atlantic) would likely have reverted to a few large political entities or empires ala Ghana/Mali/Songhai/Kanem-Bornu. South central Africa a revival of entities like Monomotapa. Further south the Zulu would likely have succeeded in establishing, after the mfecane, a large kingdom covering most of south east Africa and perhaps more. On the east coast the Swahili would likely have developed a very strong, cosmopolitan and interlinked trading federation, perhaps the wealthiest on the continent.

    Throughout, the long distance trade of Africa south of the equator would likely have merged with the long distance trans saharan trade of Africa north of the equator. Knitting the entire continent together in rich tapestry of trading relations in Gold, iron, ivory,copper, salt, Arabian/African books, Chinese porcelain and persian and arabian goods.

    I think the prospects for Africa would have been bright indeed.

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