This is also a follow-up to an article I wrote some time ago about the Transatlantic slave trade that took place in Africa some centuries ago. I have received several emails and questions concerning the mode of trade and the taxation system that was in place in colonial Africa. I will try my best to answer some of those questions in this post.
To begin with, yes, there were some well-established and well-regulated market systems in Africa before the arrival of the Europeans. In fact, some of Africa's market systems had existed for centuries before the arrival of the Europeans.
It is also true that great empires like the old Ghana Empire (The first great African empire of the western Sudan. Founded in year 300. Prospered and survived until year 1235.), the old Malian Empire (Founded by Sundiata Keita in year 1230. It collapsed in year 1600), the Songhai empire (From 1375 to 1591) and several other great empires all had well-established and very well regulated market systems. Some of these great empires even had their own "currency" systems in the forms of gold, silver, etc.
However, the idea of modern-day monetary system or currency in trading was something foreign to most communities in pre-colonial Sub-Saharan Africa. Most communities in Africa practiced what is known as “Barter Trading”.
So what exactly is barter trading? "Barter" is a system of exchange by which goods or services are directly exchanged for other goods or services without using a medium of exchange such as money. In other words, in barter trading, money is out of the equation. Barter trading was the only form of trade in most communities in Africa, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa mostly because of the great language barrier. The language barrier was so great in pre-colonial Africa that only barter trading was possible in most cases.
So how exactly was the barter trading? Let’s say I would love to have some boiled yams for lunch today but I have no yam left in my barn. However, I have salt in abundance and my next door neighbor might need some of my salt. I go straight to my neighbor with some of my salt and ask if he would love to trade some of his tubers of yam for some salt. The number of tubers of yam I get would depend on the amount of salt I can give in return. It was that simple. However, this was just one form of barter trading.
This was possible because both parties involved spoke a common language. For example, a trade between Akans (Tribes from the same ethnic group). a trade between Ashantis (people from the same tribe) or a trade between an Ashanti and a Fanti (Different tribes but same ethnic group), etc.
Now imagine a situation whereby my next door neighbor spoke a totally different language. It would not be that easy reaching an agreement and the only way out was through another form of barter trading.
In this type of barter trading, I take some of my salt to a market square or a spot where my neighbors can easily see it and then signal to my neighbors that I have placed some items (for sale) at that spot by beating a drum, a gong, a flute, or something to attract their attention. I can then leave the items there and go wait somewhere. The neighbors will then come and check my products out. If interested, they place some yams beside my salt and also leave. If I come back and see the yams and think it is a fair deal, I take the yams leaving the salt. My neighbor who placed the yams, can then come and take the salt away.
However, let’s say I was expecting 3 tubers of yam for my salt but my neighbor placed just 1 tuber of yam. Since it is not a fair deal, I take some salt away leaving the rest with the tuber of yam. If my neighbor comes back and finds it a fair deal, he takes the salt leaving the yam for me. We might repeat this a couple of times until a fair deal is reached. Someone may ask, how could my neighbor tell I needed yam and not potatoes or plantains? To make things easier for both parties involved, I place some yam peels or something like that beside my salt to signal to my neighbor that I am interested in yams and not plantains.
Although it sounds like it would take forever for one transaction to conclude, it was much faster in the market squares (places set aside for such transactions) where several people could easily see your item. It was much similar to the modern-day "bidding" system. This was the system of trade in place in pre-colonial Africa.
Taxation and modern-day monetary systems were introduced into colonial Africa by the coming of the Europeans. It was a way to compel the locals to work against their will and also to create an efficient way for the Europeans to easily outsource the locals. I will come back to this point.
Before I continue, please note that there were some very well-established traditional government systems in Africa before the arrival of the Europeans. The king was the head of government just like the president in today’s world. The king did not run the affairs of the land all alone. Every king had some council of elders chosen from the various clans and communities within the kingdom. The council of elders represented their various clans, towns, and communities and acted just like the members of parliament, ministers, senators, etc. The council of elders helped the king in decision-making and carried the voices of their people to the seat of government just like in today’s world. The queen mother and her council were mostly in charge of women and children affairs.
Although tribal wars are generally bad, great empires were born and kingdoms grew through tribal wars. Every kingdom or empire had a paramount king and several other sub-kings, chiefs and sub-chiefs all of whom acted under the commands of the paramount King. This came about mostly through tribal wars.
Let’s say the King of Land A conquers the King of Land B. Land B becomes part of Land A. In other words, the King of Land A now rules over both Lands A and B as the paramount King while the King of Land B remains the King of Land B. However, now, the King of Land B is a sub-king under the King of Land A and must pay homage to the King of Land A. The people on Lands A and B become one people and join forces. This helped a lot in times of battle. It also allowed for free flow of goods and services. Because the King of Land B now enjoys the protection of the paramount King of Land A, it was expected of the King of Land B to pay homage to the King of Land A. This could be in the form of gold, silver, cattle, sheep, goats, free labor (not slaves), etc. every year or so.
This was one way some kingdoms and empires prospered just by conquering other tribes and kingdoms. Although the idea of conquering other tribes and kingdoms are generally bad, it somehow united the people just like in the case of the United States of America. In other words, it brought several smaller tribes and kingdoms together to form mighty kingdoms and empires and enabled them survive external forces. For example, when the Europeans first arrived in Ghana, the isolated communities and kingdoms along the coast were easily defeated. However, it took the British several attempts and several years before they were able to defeat the united and powerful empires like the Ashanti, etc.
When the Europeans came to Africa, they took advantage of those well-established structures already in place in Africa and manipulated those structures to their advantage. For example, any kingdom or empire the British conquered in Ghana, came under the “protection” of the British Monarchy and therefore had to pay “homage” to the British crown through taxes. The British introduced several forms of taxes including the famous “hut tax” which was per hut or household basis. These taxes were very important to the colonial masters. In fact, the entire colonial economy depended upon taxes.
The Europeans introduced the modern-day monetary system to colonial Africa so as to effectively compel the locals to pay taxes. This was because, the taxes were paid either with money or labor and the only way to get money to pay your taxes was to work for the Europeans. The Europeans established plantations, mining fields, etc. throughout colonial Africa. In fact, some of those plantation farms in countries like the Congo, were worse than Hitler's concentration camps. In just under 10 years, Belgium's King Leopold II and his troops murdered and destroyed over 50% of Congo's population all because of rubber.
Traditional leaders who stood up for their people and spoke against the numerous taxes were either flogged publicly or shot dead. Several Congolese people had their limbs chopped off by Belgian troops for failure to meet their daily rubber quotas. Entire villages were set ablaze by European forces just because some locals refused to pay their taxes.
The taxation system introduced by the French colonial masters for example, forced farmers in French-ruled Sudan to migrate seasonally to Senegal to work in the groundnut fields there. Subsistent farmers were forced to grow European cash crops instead of local food crops so they could get some money to pay their taxes. Laborers had to travel 100s of miles to work on cocoa plantations and to cut timber in the Ivory Coast (Côte d'Ivoire), etc. That was how barbaric the colonial system was.