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African agricultural productivity and the transatlantic slave trade: evidence from Senegambia in the nineteenth century

Journal article
Authors Klas Rönnbäck
Dimitrios Theodoridis
Published in Economic history review
Volume 72
Issue 1
Pages 209-232
ISSN 0013-0117
Publication year 2019
Published at Department of Economy and Society, Economic History
Pages 209-232
Language en
Links https://doi.org/10.1111/ehr.12697
Keywords Senegambia, Agriculture, Productivity, Nineteenth Century, Comparative, Transatlantic Slave Trade
Subject categories Economic History

Abstract

The role of agriculture has been central in Africa’s long-term economic development. Previous research has argued that low productivity of African economies has posed significant challenges in African efforts to produce an agricultural surplus or develop commercial agriculture. Low agricultural productivity has also served as a key explanation for the transatlantic slave trade, on the basis that it was more profitable to export humans overseas than to grow and export produce. The field has however suffered from a lack of comparable empirical evidence. This paper contributes to this field by presenting quantitative data on historical land- and labour productivity in Africa, from a case study of the agricultural productivity in Senegambia in the early nineteenth century. Focusing on five key crops, our results suggest that both land- and labour productivity was lower in Senegambia than it was in all other parts of the world for which we have found comparable data. We thus lend support to claims that stress ecological factors as one of the main determinants of Africa’s historical development.

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