Economy and Feudalism in Africa

Economy and Feudalism in Africa Author(s): Jack Goody Source: The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Dec., 1969), pp. 393-405 Published by: Wiley on behalf of the Economic History Society Stable URL: . Accessed: 06/08/2013 15:51

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SECOND SERIES, VOLUME XXII, No. 3, December i969

Economy and Feudalism in Africa


IN an earlier paper in another journal I discussed the application of the term “feudal” to pre-colonial African states from the formal point of view and I concluded that “there appears little to be gained by thinking of African soci-

eties in terms of the concept of ‘feudalism’.”1′. The usage, and indeed debate, have continued; the number of feudal states in

Africa has proliferated in the last few years, the authors of the accounts explicitly or implicitly rejecting my caveat about the use of this term.2 I should make it clear that these doubts are not about the possibility of finding resemblances be- tween the states of medieval Europe and those of pre-colonial Africa: there are plenty of similarities in the structure of monarchical systems of government, wherever they are found.3 My queries had to do with the utility of any analysis that rested on such vague and all-embracing concepts and which approached the situation in terms of fixed categories rather than sets of variables. But there are more precise reasons why the overall comparison with medieval Europe seems in- appropriate and this has, initially, less to do with government and politics than

1 J. Goody, ‘Feudalism in Africa’, Journal of African History, iv ( I963), I I . I would like to thank G. C. Homans, E. Miller, and M. Postan for their comments at various times,

especially helpful to one whose knowledge of medieval Europe is as limited as mine. I gave an earlier version of this paper as the StJohn’s College lecture to the University of East Anglia, which offered me the opportunity of developing certain themes in a more general context.

2 See E. M. Loeb, In Feudal Africa (Bloomington, I 962); J. Beattie, ‘Bunyoro: an African feudality ?’, Jnl. African Hist. v (i964), 25-35; R. Cohen, ‘The Dynamics of Feudalism in Bornu’, in African History, ed. J. Butler (Boston Univ. Papers on Africa, vol. i I, I 966); J. Lombard, Structures de typefdodal en Afrique noire: Jtude des dynamismes interned et des relations sociales chez les Bariba du Dahomey (The Hague, I 965). For an extreme position see Pierre Bettez Gravel, ‘Life on the Manor in Gisaka (Rwanda)’, jnl. African Hist. vi (i965). Gravel’s article is based on field work in i960-I; in it he “purports to describe certain specific aspects of life on a small ‘manor’ in eastern Rwanda, and to show how remarkably similar they are to the same aspects of life on a baronial manor of medieval continental Europe” (p. 323), especially with regard to the absence of “true markets”, the “economy of subsistence”, and the “self-sufficiency of the com- munity”. For a view much closer to my own see Edward I. Steinhart, ‘Vassal and Fief in Three Lacus- trine Kingdoms’, Cahiers d’Jtudes africaines, VII ( I967), 606-23 . In general these discussions place very little emphasis upon the basic technology of medieval Europe, the use of mills, animal traction, etc.

3 For a discussion of some of these similarities see my introduction to Succession to High Office (Cambridge, I 966).


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with economics and technology. In my opinion, most writers about African social systems, particularly when they are dealing with class and government, have failed to appreciate certain basic differences between the economies of Black Africa and of the Eurasian continent, and this failure has led to superficial com- parisons not only in relation to “feudality” but also in relation to marriage, descent groups, property, and other important spheres of social action.’

Before I continue, I add a disclaimer. The identification of “feudalism” in Africa has been associated with the left rather than the right. Palaeo-Marxists accept a fixed progression, inherited from their nineteenth-century predecessors, from tribalism through feudalism to capitalism, though a greater element of flexibility is introduced with the recent publication of some of Marx’s writings.2 Others regard the discovery of the same processes in Africa that earlier occurred in Europe as crucial to the recognition of African history as a proper subject for academic discussion. Such an approach seems to me understandable, often correct, but in this case misguided. We are here concerned with the utility of analytic concepts and whether “feudalism” illumines more than it obscures. I suggest that we need to take a closer look at the means and organization of pro- duction in Africa and Europe instead of tacitly assuming identity in these impor- tant respects.

There are three interrelated aspects of the society I want to discuss: the system of exchange (that is, trade and markets), the system of production (especially the ownership of the means of production), and the military organization (and especially the ownership of the means of destruction).

My thesis is that while the pattern of trade showed little difference from Eurasia, and while the military organization displayed some similarities, at least in the savannah country of West Africa, productive relationships did differ in certain major respects. And secondly that these differences are relevant not only to the understanding of the past but to the present as well, and need to be taken into active consideration when formulating development programmes.

First of all I want to stress that the difference between Africa and Eurasia does not lie in the presence or absence of markets and, in some spheres of activity at least, of a market economy. Much writing about non-European economics is based on the island communities in the Pacific-of the Trobriands, Tikopia, or Rossell Island. These communities are atypical in that certain primary features of the economy arise from the fact that they are small, relatively isolated groups rather than just “simple societies”. The concept of non-monetary economics is hardly applicable to pre-colonial Africa, except possibly for certain hunting groups of minimal importance. Africa was involved in a vast network of wide- ranging trade long before the Portuguese came on the scene. For East Africa we have a late first-century sailors’ guide, the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, 3 to the trade along the coast. Long before the Europeans arrived there were trade routes from Madagascar up to the East African coast, through the Red Sea and into the Mediterranean, along the Persian Gulf to India, South-east Asia, and Indonesia. By the time the Portuguese had reached East Africa, the Chinese had already

1 See ‘Inheritance, Property and Marriage in Africa and Eurasia’, Sociology, iII I 969), 55-76. 2 See Karl Marx, Pre-capitalist Economic Formations, ed. E. J. Hobsbawm ( I965), and the comment by

M. I. Finley, ‘Slavery’, International Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, XIV (i968), 307-I3. 3 Trans. W. H. Schoff (New York, I 9 I 2).

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been active there; before the development of the gun-carrying sailing ship on the Atlantic seaboard, the maritime commerce of the Indian ocean made western Europe seem an underdeveloped area.’ Indeed the trade between Ethiopia, the Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean had much to do with the developments in the Arabian peninsula, including the rise of Muhammad.2

In West Africa the medieval empires of the Niger bend were built up on the trade which brought salt, cloth, and beads south from the Sahara across to West Africa and took gold and ivory and slaves back to the Barbary coast and from there into medieval Europe. When the British defeated the Ashanti in I 896 they found a war shrine in Kumasi consisting of a bronze ewer and jug. The jug now stands in the medieval section of the British Museum as one of the finest examples of English craftsmanship at that time. It bears the arms of England and the badge of Richard II, and is inscribed with the following proverbs:

He that will not spare when he may he shall not spend when he would. Deem the best in every doubt till the truth be tried out.

Were the story known ofhow these pots reached the tropical forest of West Africa, it would encapsulate much of the economic history of trans-Saharan trade.3

From the point of view of mercantile economy, parts of Africa were similar to western Europe of the same period. Metal coinage was in use on the East African coast. In the west, currencies consisted of gold, brass, and salt, but more especially cowrie shells which, coming as they did from the Maldive Islands off the south of Ceylon, filled most of the necessary attributes of money. In certain respects this was a monetary economy. Trade was highly organized and in kingdoms such as Dahomey and Ashanti important sectors of the economy were under state con- trol, whereas in the savannah regions exchange was left largely in private (Muslim) hands. Most of the kinds of economic operations that were found in pre- industrial Europe were also to be found in Africa; even in the stateless societies of the interior, barter had been superseded by more complex forms of exchange and again production was rarely limited to subsistence alone; the extensive use of cowries from the Maldives and carnelians from Gujerat shows that they were all in some degree part of the economic system of the Old World. The impact of trade on social organization of course depends upon the degree to which productive activity is diverted to serve the purposes of external trade. My point is that except in the special fields of the wine and wool trade,4 the differences between the ex- ternal exchanges of Africa and early medieval Europe appear to have been rela- tively slight.

1 C. M. Cipolla, Guns and Sails in the Early Phase of European Expansion, I400-I700 (I965); R. B. Serjeant, The Portuguese off the South Arabian Coast (Oxford, I 963) .

2 The early trade in the Indian Ocean had important consequences for the population of Madagascar, the spread of Asian food crops to Africa, and for the change in the social organization of the coastal areas of eastern Africa and parts of the Arabian peninsula prior to the rise of Muhammad. Some aspects of these latter changes are discussed by E. R. Wolf, ‘The Social Organisation of Mecca and the Origins of Islam’, Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, vii (I 95 I), 329-56.

3 Guide to AMIediaeval Antiquities (I 924), fig. I 56. See also the fourteenth-century bronze ewer, in the same museum, which was “the great war fetish of the Ashanti Nation” (British Museum Quarterly, VIII, I 933, 52). For the European side of the trans-Saharan slave trade see Charles Verlinden, L’Esclavage dans 1’Europe mididval, I (Bruges, I955).

4 See E. M. Carus-Wilson, Medieval Merchant Venturers (I 954) .

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If mercantile activity, then, was not vastly different from that of medieval Europe, what about other aspects of the productive system? It has been claimed by some writers that land tenure was feudal in kind; others have disputed this contention, denying the utility of the concept of a landed fief in Africa. Most of this discussion has taken place on a politico-legal level, but there is one crucial and obvious difference which has been largely overlooked. It is a difference which means that land tenure (and hence vassalage and landed fiefs) in Africa were basically different from Europe and indeed from the Eurasian continent gener- ally; and it has to do with the means of production rather than with productive relations, though its influence upon these relations is of some importance. Basically Africa is a land of extensive agriculture.’ The population is small, the land is plentiful, and the soils are relatively poor. Moreover, one fundamental invention that spread throughout the Eurasian continent never reached Africa south of the Sahara, with the exception of Ethiopia. I am referring to that Bronze Age invention, the plough.

What effect does the plough have? In the first place it increases the area of land a man can cultivate and hence makes possible a substantial rise in productivity, at least in open country.2 This in turn means a greater surplus for the main- tenance of specialist crafts, for the growth of differences in wealth and in styles of life, for developments in urban, that is, non-agricultural, life.3 In the second place, it stimulates the move to fixed holdings and away from shifting agriculture. Thirdly (and not independently), it increases the value (and decreases the avail- ability) of arable land.

In Africa, then, there was little use of machines, even elementary ones; agri- culture meant hoe farming, which was carried out by men and women or both, depending upon the particular society. Indeed animal power, that drew the Eurasian plough, was not used for any form of traction. One immediate reason was that the wheel,4 though it crossed the Sahara, both in the West (as evidenced in the two-wheeled chariots liberally engraved upon Saharan boulders) and in

1 The difference between extensive and intensive modes of agricultural production is clearly relative, and one which has to be related to the nature of the soils, the labour force, and the terrain; shifting culti- vation continued in less fertile and accessible parts of medieval Europe long after the plough dominated the agricultural scene, and the same is of course true of Ethiopia today.

2 In forests it clearly has many limitations. Nor does the plough improve vegeculture to the same extent as it does the cultivation of cereals. The main point, however, was effectively made by V. G. Childe. See also W. M. McNeill, The Rise of the West (Chicago, I 963): “The harnessing of animal power for the labor of tillage was a step of obvious significance. Human resources were substantially increased thereby, since for the first time men tapped a source of mechanical energy greater than that which their own muscles could supply. The use of animal power also established a much more integral relation between stock- breeding and agriculture. Mixed farming, uniting animal husbandry with crop cultivation, was to be- come the distinguishing characteristic of agriculture in western Eurasia. It made possible a higher standard of living or of leisure than was attainable by peoples relying mainly or entirely upon the strength of merely human muscles” (pp. 25-6).

3 Urban centres of course existed in pre-colonial Africa; they ranged from the agro-cities of the Yoruba to the trading and administrative towns of the Saharan fringes and the coastal regions.

4 Animal disease was another factor limiting the use of the plough. Of Ethiopia, which may have obtained the plough from South Arabia or Egypt even in pre-Semitic times (about IOOO B.C.), F. J. Simoons has written: “Where there are animals suitable for ploughing, both Cushites and Semites use the plough; but where, as along the Sudan border, these animals are excluded by disease, even Semites turn to the hoe or digging stick for preparing their fields.”-‘Some Questions on the Economic Prehistory of Ethiopia’, YnI. African Hist. vi (i965), i I. Iron-working, however, appears to have arrived from South Arabia at about the same time as writing, that is, in the fifth century B.C.-Anfray, ‘Aspects de l’archeo- logie ethiopienne’, JnI. African Hist. IX (i968), 352.

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the East (in Ethiopia and in the early Sudan), never penetrated pre-colonial Africa (or rather was never adopted there). Nor was this because of the lack of a metal technology. While Black Africa escaped the civilizing influence of the Bronze and Copper ages, the smelting of iron diffused from the Mediterranean down both sides of the continent.

In the East the technique of iron-smelting travelled to the Sudan, where Mero6 has been described, with some exaggeration, as the “Birmingham of Africa”; this movement occurred in the sixth century B.C., roughly the same time as iron was found in Ethiopia. From there it spread to Chad in the first century A.D., together with horsemen using a long lance. In the West, iron-working was transmitted from Carthage and the Barbary Coast to the Niger towns in the third century B.C. The technique spread down eastern Africa, being introduced to Zambia in “the first few centuries A.D.” by a number of small related groups of immigrants who brought not only metallurgy but also food production and pot- making from the area west of Lake Tanganyika. Copper and bronze were em- ployed in many parts of pre-colonial Africa, but before the coming of iron the extent of this use was negligible.

The absence of the wheel meant that man was unable to use not only animal power but hydraulic power and wind power as well. This is why the recent intro- duction of the lorry, the bicycle, and the engine-driven mill has been so import- ant for the rural economy of Africa. But the lack of the wheel had another con- sequence for agriculture, since it limited the possibilities of water control. In the drier regions of the Eurasian continent the wheel has played a dominant part in raising water from wells to irrigate the land. Simple irrigation there is in Africa, as in almost every agricultural area. Some of the inhabitants of Birifu (Lo Wiili) in northern Ghana channel a permanent water supply to run among their fields, and thus get two crops a year in place of one. The Sonjo of Tanzania practise more developed water control. Rice-growing in the Western Sudan (and it should be remembered that Oryza glaberima was domesticated independently of Asian rice in the Senegal-Mali region) demands yet more positive measures.

There are other means of water control that do not involve the wheel, using various techniques of temporary storage. Methods of this kind did of course exist. Everywhere there was some improvement of natural pools. In Gonja and in neighbouring areas of northern Ghana there are many ancient cisterns hollowed out of the laterite; in the famous market town of Salaga, the city of i,ooo wells, these are cylindrical in form and do not seem wholly dependent upon surface water. But these storage systems are very different from the village tank of South- east Asia; while there is no lack ofwater in Africa, the problem ofits distribution is enormous. And in terms of agriculture what is lacking is any mechanical device for drawing water, such as is used in the Middle East and even in the Saharan oases.

One example of the pragmatic effects of the technological gap between Africa and Eurasia lies in the military field. When the Portuguese spearheaded Euro- pean expansion into other continents, they succeeded largely because of their use of gun-bearing sailing ships.’ Through these they could dominate their African

1 At first they depended upon the cannon on their floating castles, later upon hand-guns. See Cipolla’s useful discussion where he quotes Pannikar as saying that by I498 “the armament of the Portuguese ships was something totally unexpected and new in the Indian (and China) seas and gave an immediate advantage to the Portuguese.”-Op. cit. p. 107.

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