An Economic Rationale for the West African Scramble? The Commercial Transition and the Commodity Price Boom of 1835-1885


This study presents a new dataset of African trade over the long nineteenth century (1808-1939) We show that sub-Saharan Africa experienced a terms of trade boom comparable to other parts of the ‘global periphery’ up to the mid-1880s; with an exceptionally sharp rise in the five decades before the Berlin conference (1835-1885) followed by a prolonged decline. Using disaggregated trade and price data, we show that West Africa was far more important for French imperial trade than for British imperial trade, and that the terms of trade for West African commodities exported to France peaked in the 1880s. This revises the view that the West African scramble occurred when its main export markets were in decline, and is consistent with French initiative in the scramble for West Africa.