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'The colonies have been created for the metropole by the metropole': by Dr Walter Rodney--this extract from his seminal work published in 1972, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, shows how the "golden years" of the colonial era intensified the development of Europe and America by Africa.

In 1791, the French National Assembly debated the issue of ending the slave trade and giving freedom to the slave colonies. Bishop Maury's contribution to the debate in the House was very instructive. "If you were to lose each year more than 200 million livres that you now get from your colonies," he said, "if you had not the exclusive trade with your colonies to feed your manufactures, to maintain your navy, to keep your agriculture going, to repay your imports, to provide for your luxury needs, to advantageously balance your trade with Europe and Asia, then I say it clearly, the kingdom would be irretrievably lost."


At the time, the French used to say: "The colonies have been created for the metropole by the metropole. "Colonial Africa fell within that part of the international capitalist economy from which surplus was drawn to feed the metropolitan sector. Exploitation of land and labour is essential for human social advance, but only on the assumption that the product is made available within the area where the exploitation takes place.

Colonialism was not merely a system of exploitation, but one whose essential purpose was to repatriate the profits to the so-called "mother country". From an African viewpoint, that amounted to consistent expatriation of surplus produced by African labour out of African resources. It meant the development of Europe as part of the same dialectical process in which Africa was underdeveloped.

For example, agricultural plantations were widespread in North, East and South Africa; and they also appeared in West Africa to a lesser extent. Their profits depended on the incredibly low wages and harsh working conditions imposed on African labourers and on the fact that they invested very little capital in obtaining the land, which was robbed wholesale from Africans by colonial powers and then sold to whites at nominal prices.

For instance, after the Kenya highlands had been declared "Crown Land", the British handed over to Lord Delamere 100,000 acres of the best land at a cost of a penny per acre. Lord Francis Scott purchased 350,000 acres, the East African Estates Ltd got another 350,000 acres, and the East African Syndicate took 100,000 acres adjoining Lord Delamere's estate--all at giveaway prices. And such plantations made huge profits.

During the colonial era, Liberia was supposedly independent; but to all intents and purposes, it was a colony of the US. In 1926, the Firestone Rubber Company of the US was able to acquire one million acres of forest land in Liberia at a cost of six cents per acre and one per cent of the value of the exported rubber.

Because of the demand for and the strategic importance of rubber, Firestone's profits from Liberia's land and labour carried them to 25th position among the giant companies of the US.

When colonial governments seized African lands, they achieved two things simultaneously. They satisfied their own citizens (who wanted mining concessions or farming land) and they created the conditions whereby landless Africans had to work not just to pay taxes but also to survive. In settler areas such as Kenya and Rhodesia, the colonial government also prevented Africans from growing cashcrops so that their labour would be available directly for the whites.

One of the white settlers in Kenya, Colonel Grogan, put it bluntly when he said of the Kikuyu: "We have stolen his land. Now we must steal his limbs. Compulsory labour is the corollary of our occupation of the country."

An interesting example of what colonialism was all about was provided in French Equatorial Africa, where French officials banned the Mandja people (now in Congo Brazzaville) from hunting, so that they would engage solely in cotton cultivation. The French enforced the ban although there was little livestock in the area and hunting was the main source of meat in the people's diet.

In addition to private companies, the colonial state also engaged directly in the economic exploitation and impoverishment of Africa. The equivalent of the colonial office in each colonising country worked hand in hand with their governors in Africa to carry out a number of functions; the principal ones being as follows:

* To protect national interests against competition from other capitalists.

* To arbitrate the conflicts between their own capitalists.

* To guarantee optimum conditions under which private companies could exploit Africans.

The last mentioned objective was the most crucial. That is why colonial governments were repeatedly speaking about "the maintenance of law and order", by which they meant the maintenance of conditions most favourable to the expansion of capitalism and the plunder of Africa. This led the colonial governments to impose taxes.

One of the main purposes of the colonial taxation system was to provide requisite funds for administering the colony as a field of exploitation. All expenses were met by exploiting the labour and natural resources of the continent. The French colonies were especially victimised in this respect. Particularly since 1921, the local revenue raised from taxation had to meet all expenses as well as to build up a reserve.

The French government had a cunning way of getting free labour by first demanding that African males should enlist as French soldiers and then using them as unpaid labourers. This and other forced labour legislation known as "prestation" was extensively applied in vast areas of French Sudan and French Equatorial Africa.

For most of the colonial period, the French government performed the same kind of service for the big timber companies who had great concessions of territory in Gabon and Cote d'Ivoire.

The Portuguese and Belgian colonial regimes were the most brazen in directly rounding up Africans to go and work for private capitalists under conditions equivalent to slavery. In Congo, brutal and extensive forced labour started under King Leopold I in the last century. So many Congolese were killed and maimed by Leopold's officials and police that this earned European disapproval even in the midst of the general pattern of colonial outrages.

When Leopold handed over Congo to the Belgian government in 1908, he had already made a huge fortune; and the Belgian government hardly relaxed the intensity of exploitation in Congo.

The Portuguese have the worst record of engaging in slavery-like practices, and they too have been repeatedly condemned by international public opinion.

One peculiar characteristic of Portuguese colonialism was the provision of forced labour not only for its own citizens but also for capitalists outside the boundaries of the colonies. Angolans and Mozambicans were exported to the South African mines to work for subsistence, while the capitalists in South Africa paid the Portuguese government a certain sum for each labourer supplied.

Africans suffered most from exclusive trade with the "mother country". Britain, the biggest of the colonialists in Africa, was faced with competition from the more vigorous capitalists of Germany, the USA and Japan. Thus, British merchants and industrialists lobbied their government to erect barriers against competition. This meant that Africans had to pay higher prices for their imports.

If one accepts that the government is always the servant of a particular class, it is perfectly understandable that the colonial governments should have been in collusion with capitalists to siphon off surplus from Africa to Europe. Colonial administrators worked as committees on behalf of the big capitalists.

The governors in the colonies had to listen to the local representatives of the companies and to their principals. Company shareholders in Europe not only lobbied Parliament but actually controlled the administration itself.

Of course, the metropolitan governments also ensured that a certain proportion of the colonial surplus went directly into the coffers of the state. They all had some forms of direct investment in capitalist enterprises.

The Belgian government was an investor in mining, and so too was the Portuguese government through its part-ownership of the Angolan Diamond Company. The French government was always willing to associate itself with the financial sector. When colonial banks were in trouble, they could count on rescue from the French government, and, indeed, a proportion of their shares passed into the hands of the French government.

From 1943, Britain and the USA engaged in what was known as "reverse lend lease". This meant that wartime US loans to Britain were repaid partly by raw materials shipped from British colonies to the US. Tin and rubber from Malaya were very important in that context, while Africa supplied a wide range of products, both mineral and agricultural.

Cocoa was third as a dollar earner after tin and rubber. In 1947, West African cocoa brought over $100m to the British dollar balance. Besides having a virtual monopoly of the production of diamonds, South Africa was also able to sell to the US and earn dollars for Britain. It was on this very issue of currency that the colonial government did the most manipulations to ensure that Africa's wealth was stashed away in the coffers of the metropolitan states. In the British colonial sphere, coins and notes were first issued through private banks. Then this function was taken over by the West African Currency Board and the East African Currency Board established in 1912 and 1919 respectively. The currency issued by those Boards in the colonies had to be backed by "sterling reserves", which was money earned by Africa.


The manner in which the system worked was as follows: When a colony earned foreign exchange (mainly) through exports, these earnings were held in Britain in pounds sterling. An equivalent amount of local East or West African currency was issued for circulation in the respective colonies, while the sterling was invested in British government stock thereby earning even more profit for Britain.

The commercial banks worked hand in hand with the metropolitan government and the Currency Boards to make the system work. Together they established an intricate financial network which served the common end of enriching Europe at Africa's expense.

The contribution to sterling reserves by any colony was a gift to the British Treasury, for which the colony received little interest. By the end of the 1950s, the sterling reserves of a small colony like Sierra Leone had reached [pounds sterling]60m; while in 1955 the British government was holding [pounds sterling]210m derived from the sale of cocoa and minerals from Ghana.

Egypt and the Sudan were also heavy contributors to Britain. Africa's total contribution to Britain's sterling balances in 1945 was [pounds sterling]446m, which went up to [pounds sterling]1.446bn by 1955--more than half of the total gold and dollar reserves of Britain and the Commonwealth, which then stood at [pounds sterling]2.120bn.

Men like Arthur Creech-Jones and Oliver Lyttleton, major figures in British colonial policy-making, admitted that in the early 1950s Britain was living on the dollar earnings of the colonies.

The British government was outdone by its Belgian counterpart in exacting tribute from its colonies, especially during and after the last War. After Belgium was overrun by the Germans, a government-in-exile was set up in London. The colonial secretary of that exiled regime, Mr Godding, admitted that:

"During the war, the Congo was able to finance all the expenditure of the Belgian government in London, including the diplomatic service as well as the cost of our armed forces in Europe and Africa, a total of some [pounds sterling]40 million. In fact, thanks to the resources of the Congo, the Belgian government in London had not to borrow a shilling or a dollar, and the Belgian gold reserve could be left intact."

After the War, surplus of earnings by the Congo in currencies other than the Belgian franc all accrued to the National Bank of Belgium. Therefore, quite apart from all that the private capitalists looted from Congo, the Belgian government was also a direct beneficiary to the tune of millions of francs per annum.

To discuss French colonialism in this context would be largely to repeat remarks made with reference to the British and Belgians. Guinea (Conakry) was supposedly a "poor" colony, but in 1952 it earned France one billion (old) francs in foreign exchange, based on the sale of bauxite, coffee and bananas. France also squeezed more out of Africans by imposing levies for military purposes.

Here, special mention must be made of the US, because its share of the benefits from Africa was constantly increasing throughout the colonial period. As time went on, the US got an ever bigger slice of the unequal trade between the metropoles and colonial Africa. The US share of Africa's trade rose from just over $28m in 1913 to $150m in 1932 to $1.2bn in 1948.

US capitalists did not confine themselves to mere trade with Africa, but they also acquired considerable assets within colonies. It is common knowledge that Liberia was an American colony in everything but name. The US supposedly aided the Liberian government with loans, but used the opportunity to take over Liberian customs revenue, to plunder thousands of square miles of Liberian land, and generally to dictate to the weak government of Liberia.

The main investment in Liberia was undertaken by Firestone Rubber Company. Firestone made such huge profits from Liberian rubber that it was the subject of a book sponsored by American capitalists to show how well American business flourished overseas. Between 1940 and 1965, Firestone took $160m worth of rubber out of Liberia; while in return the Liberian government received only $8m. In earlier years, the percentage of the value that went to the Liberian government was much smaller, but, at the best of times, the average net profit made by Firestone was three times the Liberian revenue.

And yet the non-monetary benefits to the US capitalist economy were worth far more than the money returns. Vice-Admiral Cochrane went to the heart of the matter when he mentioned strategic raw materials for the functioning of the industrial and military machine of the US imperialists.

Firestone acquired its Liberian plantations precisely because Britain and Holland had been raising the price of the rubber which came from their Asian colonies of Malaya and the Dutch East Indies respectively. In Liberia, the US rubber industry obtained a source that was reliable in peace and in war--one that was cheap and entirely under American control.

One of rubber's most immediate connections was with the motorcar industry, and so it is not surprising that Henry Firestone was a great friend and business colleague of John Ford. Liberian rubber turned the town of Akron (Ohio) into a powerful rubber tyre manufacturing centre, and the tyres then went over to the even bigger motorcar works of Ford in Detroit.

After 1945, US capital moved into Africa, Asia and Europe itself with new aggressiveness and confidence, due to the fact that other capitalist competitors were still lying on the ground, after the War. In 1949, both British and French bankers had no choice but to invite American financiers into the African continent, for the French and British had insufficient capital of their own. The US-controlled International Bank for Reconstruction and Development [World Bank] became an important vehicle for American influence in Africa and one of the tools for the economic re-partition of the continent.

Research by Dr Kwame Nkrumah (the first president of Ghana) revealed that direct private investment by Americans in Africa increased between 1945 and 1958 from $110m to $789m, most of it drawn from profits. Official estimates of profits made by US companies from 1946 to 1959 in Africa are put at $1.234bn.

However, while the US was edging out the other colonialists, they all stood to gain from the advances made within the North American capitalist economy in terms of science, technology, organisation and military power. When an African colony contributed to European metallurgical industries or to its electrical industry, that contribution passed into other aspects of the society, because the sectors concerned were playing leading roles within the capitalist economy.

Similarly, the US was a geographical area that was in the forefront of capitalist development. For instance, its technological knowhow passed into Western European hands by way of a series of legal devices such as patents.

Furthermore, because the US was by then the world's leading capitalist state, it also had to assume active responsibility for maintaining the capitalist imperialist structure in all economic, political and military aspects.

After the War, the US moved into Western Europe and Japan both to establish its own stranglehold and at the same time to give a blood transfusion to capitalism in those areas. A lot of the blood was definitely African.

It is not just that America made (relatively) small profits out of Africa in the 19th century and in the early 20th century, but above all it must be recalled that North America was that part of the European capitalist system which had been the most direct beneficiary of the massacre of [Native Americans] and the enslavement of Africans.

The continued exploitation of African peoples within its own boundaries and in the Caribbean and Latin America must also be cited as evidence against US imperialism. The US was a worthy successor to Britain as the leading force and policeman of the imperialist/colonialist world from 1945 onwards. It took second place after Belgium in Congo's foreign trade, and US capitalists had to be granted a range of privileges.

So the paradox continued, whereby the US capitalists intruded and elbowed out French, British and Belgian capitalists in colonial Africa, while providing the funds without which the Western European nations could not have revived and could not have increased their exploitation of Africa--which is what they did in the period 1945-1960.

To sum up, colonialism meant a great intensification of exploitation within Africa--to a level much higher than that previously in existence under communalism or feudal-type African societies. Simultaneously, it meant the export of that surplus in massive proportions, for that was the central purpose of colonialism.
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Title Annotation:Black History Month
Author:Rodney, Walter
Publication:New African
Article Type:Excerpt
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Oct 1, 2005
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