How far were local goods transported by rail in colonial Africa?

I’m working on a major new project measuring market integration and food markets in tropical Africa and Southeast Asian in the colonial period, and in particular on the integration of grain and salt markets in French West Africa. Though a great deal has been written both about railways and their impact on the one hand and local trade on the other, there is still a lot of historiographical blanks on the question of the impact of the construction of colonial railways on local product markets. One question I am trying to answer is: how geographically wide were grain markets in…

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The contested real estate empire of a colonial Senegalese businessman

While looking for information on Dakar’s mid-century housing crisis, I came across a little legal story that played out in the pages of the newspaper Paris-Dakar in 1948. This was the year of the death of Alassane N’Dir, a major landowner in Dakar and a prosperous businessman and philanthropist. By the time he died, N’Dir had been an active merchant for over half a century, since starting up in 1895. He first made his fortune trading kola nurs in Côte d’Ivoire. In that colony, N’Dir acquired a portfolio of urban land from early on: in 1906, he purchased a block…

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Transport of crops to market — a little fact

In the 1970 world census of agriculture, seven countries asked farmers how they transported their crops to the first point of sale (to a market, or a trader, etc.). All seven countries were reasonably poor (under US$1000 per capita GDP) but it is striking how common transporting crops to market by foot was in the two African countries compared to the South/Central American countries and Jordan (still a low-income country at the time the census of agriculture took place, though it grew spectacularly in the 1970s due largely to remittances). Of course, there are physical differences between the countries —…

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New article: How accurate are the British colonial Blue Books?

I have a new article out at the Economic History of Developing Regions on the British Blue Books, a staple source of statistical information for historians of the British Empire. In the article, I compare the retail prices listed in the Blue Books with market prices collected from African newspapers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and show that in some contexts the Blue Books can be an unreliable source for price history.

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The rent was too damn high: Singapore edition

As my more devoted readers know, I am very interested in the relationship between housing costs and historical living standards and have shown that incorporating estimates of housing costs in a measure of the real wage in colonial Dakar makes a substantial difference to the story. I’m trying to accumulate more evidence for the proposition that housing costs matter, and in particular the proposition that housing costs likely swallow up a substantial fraction of the increase in real urban income in cities in developing countries where housing supply is relatively inelastic. One part of the developing world which is relatively…

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Food prices and the Little Divergence

One of the less remarked upon ‘divergences’ in the economic history literature is the ‘Little’ Divergence between West Africa and Southeast Asia in the twentieth century. Up until around the 1970s, the differences in income between the two regions were not large. But after that point, Southeast Asia grew much quicker. Some Southeast Asian countries—Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar—have followed a more ‘West African’ path, but broadly speaking the divergence in striking. There is no single explanation for the divergence. One is simply the existence of Japan, which seeded low-wage industries in which it was no longer competitive to Southeast Asia with…

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Urbanisation without industrialisation

One of my favourite papers from the past 10 years is Gollin, Jedwab and Vollrath’s paper on ‘Urbanisation with and without industrialisation’. They note the difference between ‘production cities’, where manufacturing dominates, and ‘consumption cities’, where the services sector rules. They connect this with natural resources, and with non-homothetic preferences in consumption: a natural resource boom brings ‘manna from heaven’ (essentially, income without opportunity cost), and this can be spent on food, manufactures or services. As incomes grow, the demand for food grows too, but not in proportion to income. People demand more manufactures and more services. Since manufactures can…

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Gratuitous chart #3: integration in the market for enslaved labour

Recently Martin Klein wrote an interesting article suggesting that the functioning of urban slave labour markets in Africa require more theorising, and (fortunately, since a chapter of my dissertation is on precisely this subject) I agree. One question worth exploring is a subset of the more broader question of market integration: were domestic African markets for enslaved labour integrated with the broader trans-Atlantic slave trade? Paul Lovejoy and David Richardson argued about twenty-five years ago that they were integrated, rejecting Emmanuel Terray’s thesis that they were two essentially distinct and unconnected markets. But Lovejoy and Richardson’s conclusion was based on…

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