Unraveling the African Textile Mystery: An Investigation of Global and Local Factors in sub-Saharan Africa’s Long-Term Industrial Lethargy

This individual PhD project, funded by the N.W. Posthumus Institute under the auspices of the NWO Graduate Program, examines the impact of foreign cotton textile imports on the growth of sub-Saharan African textile industries by assessing the scale, composition and geographic distribution of imports in three periods: the slave trade era, the colonial era, and the post-colonial era.

Periodization of Africa’s trade history will help ascertain if a historical pattern of de-industrialization began during the slave trade era or should be linked to later colonial or post-colonial trade relations.  A comparative perspective will reveal to what extent sub-Saharan Africa’s industrial textile history represents a universally shared continental experience or rather, very diverse local and regional developments.  The primary focus is on the comparative experiences between the core areas of the respective Eastbound and Westbound slave trades, including the colonial geographies (coast versus interior) that emerged out of this trade during the late nineteenth century.   

Importantly, insufficient empirical evidence has precluded definitive conclusions on this piece of the African textile puzzle.  This project aims to fill this void in the historiography by employing previously underexploited materials to construct a database of African cotton textile trade and investigate realities of African production and consumption during the slave trade, colonial, and post-colonial eras.  By constructing and utilizing a new African cotton textile trade database, this project bridges the gap between theory and historical empirical reality.

However, this project’s objectives go beyond delivering the missing empirical foundation for the long-debated question of the effects of foreign imports on African textile production.  It also addresses important questions about the overarching nature of African development from a global perspective.  The intra-continental comparative approach of this project will provide valuable insights and new explanations regarding enduring structural versus temporary historical impediments to industrial development in sub-Saharan Africa, while also helping to locate Africa more firmly within the “great divergence” debate and addressing questions of African dependency and agency.

This four-year PhD project will be carried out by Wageningen University PhD student, Katharine Frederick (MA, Utrecht University), and supervised by prof.dr. Ewout Frankema and dr. Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk.