AFRICAN STUDIES QUARTERLY

Volume 10, Issue 4
Spring 2009

Alvin O. Thompson. Economic Parasitism: European Rule in West Africa, 1880-1960. Barbados, West Indies: University of West Indies. 2006. 544p.


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“Economic Parasitism: European Rule in West Africa, 1880-1960” is a rather massive critique of European rule in West Africa. The author disputes the theory of “trusteeship” or the “dual mandate”—the claim of apologists of European rule that colonialism was meant to benefit both Europeans and Africans, and that it actually did so. He insists that “the main reason for the European occupation of Africa was to make money” (p.139). In the quest for money, he adds, colonial powers not only neglected African interests; they seriously threatened them. He concedes that some effort was made to “revamp” the economy of West Africa, but argues that this was meant “to suit the imperatives of the occupying powers, to the detriment of the vast majority of local peoples.” He endorses the thesis of Walter Rodney and other scholars that had laboured to prove that Europe “underdeveloped” Africa. He adds however that his objective is “to show in greater breath and depth [than Rodney and others] how colonialism led to the breakdown of economic and related structures in West Africa” (p.xix).

Economic Parasitism is based on a very extensive use of secondary sources—books, chapters and journal articles on different countries of West Africa. On the whole there are 677 entries in the bibliography. The sources cover all regions and countries of West Africa Generally, the sources are more than adequate for the purpose of the author. Between the book’s Introduction and conclusion (“Reflections”), there are twelve chapters. Apart from the first two chapters and the last, which cover the early stages and last stages of the colonial era, the others are based strictly on themes—land, labour, monetary and fiscal reform, agriculture, etc. This approach enabled the author to exhaustively analyze each of the colonial policies he treated. But, as the author himself admitted (p.xv), it led to numerous repetitions. The book is written with everyday language and uses commonsense explanations. However, because it is big and largely argumentative, it is so complex that it will find audience only among mature readers—research students and scholars.

In almost every page of “Economic Parasitism,” Thompson demonstrates from the words and deeds of European government officials and business interests that the quest for profit was the primary motive of the European powers that colonized Africa. He also demonstrates how they accomplished this and how Africans suffered in the process. Among other things, he discusses forced production of cash crops, mining concessions to European companies that did not pay tax on their profits, repatriation of profit, discriminatory banking policies, oppressive labour policies, low wages and reluctance to develop industry (“industrial retardation”). He also writes briefly about how African resistance helped to moderate some of the policies of the colonial powers.

Before making a general comment on Thompson’s effort, it would be well to make a few remarks on a few specific points. He asserts that, basically because it led to the depletion of manpower in Africa, the slave trade retarded industrialization in pre-colonial Africa. This is not convincing: the industrial revolution is yet to take place in places like North Africa which did not export slaves in the 15th-19th century; the revolution started in Europe from where millions migrated or were forced to the Americas during this period.  Like many other critics of colonial rule, Thompson sees no merit at all in Hyla Mint’s “vent for surplus theory” and reaffirms the view that the drive to increase cash crops production adversely affected food crops production in colonial Africa. There is need to qualify this widely held view. The view is valid in relation to some colonies e.g. Senegal and the Portuguese colonies. In many others, like Nigeria and Cameroon, there was adequate labour for both cash crops and food crops production. Indeed, partly through the policies of the colonial government, there was a boost in food production. Thompson splits much hair trying to refute Poly Hill’s thesis that migrant farmers in the Gold Coast were not capitalists. His reasons were that their holdings were small in size and that much of the land they acquired was not cultivated.  Hill’s view on the matter, which emphasized the profit making and risk-taking orientation of the farmers, is more convincing.

Now we have to sum up. Given the large size of “Economic Parasitism,” its focus on the colonial era, and the large volume of sources used by the author, it is, to a much greater extent than Rodney and others before him, a profound and detailed exposé of the evils of colonial rule. However, Thompson overstates his case. Many colonial policies that he considers progressive, like the abolition of slavery, introduction of new crops, infrastructural development, and immunization, are not credited at all to the goodwill of the colonial rulers. In his view such measures were either inadequate, or were meant to ultimately advance the economic interests of Europe, or they were concessions made to African resistance. This is not a balanced view. While it is true that trusteeship was subordinated to profit by the colonial rulers, much was done in the area of trusteeship, with the result that Africa was modernized during the colonial era. Thompson’s verdict on colonial rule would have less harsh and more balanced if he had, as Amilcar Cabral did, viewed colonialism as “a historical necessity.” According to Cabral, colonialism brought much-needed modernization to Africa. In the course of doing that, however, inequality and other forms of injustice could not be avoided. Thus the goal of the independence struggle was not to stop the process of modernization but to minimize the injustices associated with modernization. This is a more balanced view of European rule in Africa.

Okechukwu Edward Okeke
Abia State University, Uturu, Nigeria