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The development of capitalism in the Atlantic

world: England, the Americas, and West Africa,

Joseph E. Inikori

To cite this article: Joseph E. Inikori (2017) The development of capitalism in the Atlantic
world: England, the Americas, and West Africa, 1450–1900, Labor History, 58:2, 138-153, DOI:

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Download by: [Eastern Michigan University] Date: 05 April 2017, At: 11:43
Labor History, 2017
VOL. 58, NO. 2, 138–153

The development of capitalism in the Atlantic world: England,

the Americas, and West Africa, 1450–1900
Joseph E. Inikori
Department of History, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY, USA


The paper traces the development of capitalism in England, the Received 15 March 2016
Americas, and West Africa over a long time period, 1450–1900. The Accepted 14 December 2016
developments in these major regions of the Atlantic Basin during the
period were strongly interconnected and ultimately gave rise to the Capitalism; free wage labor;
nineteenth-century Atlantic economy which integrated the major Atlantic world; development
economies of the Atlantic world. The development of capitalism in
the three specified geographical areas is analyzed in the context of
the interconnected developments. Central to the historical analysis
is a discussion of the contending conceptions of capitalism as a
socioeconomic system. The paper shows that the original conception
by Karl Marx, which identified free wage earners separated from their
means of production and entrepreneurs who own those means of
production as the defining elements, was generally accepted by
supporters and critics for several decades; attempts to redefine
began in the 1960s. The paper contends that, unlike the original
Marxian conception, the new conceptions fail to capture precisely
and accurately the dynamic elements which distinguish capitalism
unambiguously from other forms of socioeconomic organization
and do not facilitate a sharply focused historical investigation of
its development over time. The employment of enslaved Africans
in large-scale commodity production in the Americas was critical
to the development of capitalism in England and in the Americas,
but the adverse effects on West Africa’s economies held back the
development of markets and the market economy and, ultimately,
the development of capitalism in the region.

1. Introduction
Growing interest in globalization as a historical process has brought back longue durée per-
spective into historical scholarship and, with it, long-run socioeconomic development pro-
cesses. This is the context for the recent revival of interest in the history of capitalism, seen
by some as the historical project most relevant to the central issues of our contemporary
world (Summers, 2014).1 The same context informs the ambitious project, ‘The Global
Collaboratory on the History of Labour Relations, 1500–2000’ (Hofmeester, Stapel, & Zijdeman,
2014). In tracing the historical development of capitalism, the first problem is to identify

CONTACT  Joseph E. Inikori

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correctly the constituent elements of capitalism as a socioeconomic system. The identifica-

tion exercise must rest on clear conceptual and methodological imperatives. The lead ques-
tion is which elements enable us capture most clearly and precisely the socioeconomic and
political dynamics of the capitalist system of production, so that our analysis of its long-run
process of development focuses on the most central factors. The second section of the paper
addresses this problem. The next three sections focus on the inter-connected long-run devel-
opment process which determined the level of capitalist development in the economies of
the main regions integrated by the nineteenth-century Atlantic economy. In chronological
and insightful order of importance, we start with the emergence of capitalism in England,
the first capitalist nation in the world (Section 3). The factors that mattered most in the
English process offer important insights for the study of the process in the other major
regions of the Atlantic world. The development of capitalism in the Americas follows
(Section 4). Our examination of the capitalist development process in West Africa comes
next (Section 5). The conclusion to the paper is drawn up in Section 6.

2.  Constituent elements of capitalism as a socioeconomic system

Identifying the constituent elements which distinguish capitalism unambiguously from other
socioeconomic systems has engaged the intellectual energy of some of the best minds since
Karl Marx invented the term (Antonio & Glassman 1985; Brenner, 1977; Dobb, 1946, 1958;
Frank, 1967, 1998; Hilton, 1978a; Kaye, 1984; Marx, 1952, 1976; Taylor, 1979; Wallerstein, 1974,
1983; Weber, 1958, 1978; Wood, 1991). As Rodney Hilton affirmed decades ago (Hilton, 1978b,
p. 145):
The history of capitalism was once studied by its supporters and its critics on the basis of rea-
sonably common agreement as to what both meant by the term. ‘The subject of capitalism’,
wrote Professor M. M. Postan, ‘owes its present place in political and scientific discussion to the
work of Marx and the Marxians’. Many historians substantially follow him. Mr. E. Lipson in his
Economic History of England on the whole adopts Marx’s definition of Capitalism. He agrees that
its essential feature is the division of classes between propertyless wage-earners and entrepre-
neurs who own capital …
Since the 1960s, there has been some attempt to redefine capitalism with emphasis on
elements such as attitudes, commercial relations, profits extraction, and large-scale organ-
ization of production (Frank, 1967; Macfarlane, 1987; Wallerstein, 1974, 1983). These attempts
to redefine were very much anticipated and rejected by the earlier writers who insisted on
precision and incorporation of the elements that matter most. The eminent British economic
historian, R. H. Tawney (Tawney, 1958, pp. 1b, 1c), put it emphatically:
Capitalism, in the sense of great individual undertakings, involving the control of large finan-
cial resources, and yielding riches to their masters as a result of speculation, money-lending,
commercial enterprise, buccaneering and war, is as old as history. Capitalism, as an economic
system, resting on the organization of legally free wage-earners, for the purpose of pecuniary
profit, by the owner of capital or his agents, and setting its stamp on every aspect of society, is a
modern phenomenon.2
It is significant that Tawney specified the notion of capitalism as an economic system that
structures every aspect of society. Both in his Protestant Ethic and Economy and Society, Max
Weber similarly anticipated and rejected the lack of precision and the inadequacy of the
more recent redefinitions (Weber, 1958, pp. 23, 24, 1978, p. 1394). As he put it (Weber, 1958,
pp. 23, 24),
140   J. E. INIKORI

in a universal history of culture the central problem for us is not, in the last analysis, even from
a purely economic view-point, the development of capitalistic activity as such, differing in dif-
ferent cultures only in form … It is rather the origin of this sober bourgeois capitalism with its
rational organization of free labour.
It is clear enough from the literature on capitalism that, attempts from the 1960s to rede-
fine notwithstanding, most students of the subject, Marxists and non-Marxists, continue to
specify the relationship between free wage earners and the owners of capital or their agents
as the constituent elements that distinguish capitalism unmistakably from all other forms
of socioeconomic organization.3 As Ernesto Laclau put it in his critique of Gunder Frank
(Laclau, 1971, p. 25), ‘the fundamental economic relation of capitalism is constituted by the
free labourer’s sale of his labour-power, whose necessary precondition is the loss by the
direct producer of ownership of the means of production.’ This conception of capitalism
captures the dynamics of the capitalist system far more precisely and accurately than all
others. As I expressed it elsewhere (Inikori, 2001, p. 10):
The form of combination of labour power and capital, which is compelled by the employment of
free wage labour, facilitates the appropriation of surplus value by the owner of capital through
the payment of wages that are less than the value produced by labour. This form of appropriation
is subtle, relative to all other forms; it takes place without the glaring view and consciousness of
the labourer and it does not entail the use of non-market and non-economic force. But because
both wage labour and capital move freely on the market, there is a strict minimum level beyond
which labour wage cannot fall. In consequence, the owner of capital is compelled to engage in
an eternal effort to raise labour productivity, on which alone the magnitude of his appropriated
surplus and survival depend in the long run. These are the central dynamics of capitalism that
distinguish it unambiguously from all other systems of production. And they are fully and pre-
cisely captured only by the conception of capitalism centred on free wage labour.
Capitalism conceived this way allows us to investigate its development over time with a
sharp focus, because we know exactly what we are looking for: the market conditions which
produced over long time periods the mass of workers separated from their means of pro-
duction and entrepreneurs who accumulated those means of production, together with the
social and political repercussions that followed. No other conception of capitalism as a soci-
oeconomic system offers similar precision. A case in point is the most recent conception in
The Cambridge History of Capitalism: ‘Capitalism, therefore, can be defined usefully as a com-
plex and adaptive economic system operating within broader social, political, and cultural
systems that are essentially supportive’ (Neal, 2014, p. 4).4 Because this definition does not
identify the constituent elements of capitalism with clarity and measurable precision, it is
difficult to conduct a sharply focused long-run study of the rise of capitalism as a socioeco-
nomic system, particularly as causes and effects are confusingly mixed up. For example, the
culture of capitalism did not produce capitalism; historically, it was the other way around.
Similarly, with the insights of institutional economics,5 we know that the political power
structure of mature capitalist societies did not predate capitalism; it was the ultimate out-
come of the long-run development process which established the capitalist system of

3.  The emergence of capitalism in England, the first capitalist nation

The establishment of a capitalist economy in England was preceded by a long drawn out
process of commercialization of socioeconomic life in the country. The available evidence

suggests the market sector of the Domesday economy (1086) could not have been more
than 25% of England’s GDP (Britnell & Campbell, 1995;7 Inikori, 2002, pp. 24–33). Between
1086 and 1600, the dominant labor relations changed from a combination of subsistence
production (production mainly for the immediate consumption of the producers, with very
little market exchange) and tributary labor (including slaves and serfs producing mainly to
provision their lords and their subordinates) to self-employed labor (producing mainly for
market exchange) (Inikori, 2002, pp. 28–33; Postan, 1954). The ending of slavery in England
left serfdom as the dominant labor relation. By the mid-fifteenth century, serfdom also ended,
setting the stage for the intensification of the commercializing process. Contrary to the
Marxian schema, in which capitalism followed the ending of serfdom, it took more than
three centuries after the ending of serfdom for a capitalist economy to be established in
England. What followed the demise of serfdom was the development of production mainly
for market exchange by self-employed labor (organized in families) freed from the burden
of serfdom. By the seventeenth century, the English economy was fully commercialized, but
not yet capitalist. It took more than two centuries thereafter for the national economy to
become capitalist (Inikori, 2001, pp. 17, 18). The 1831 census shows the dominant labor
relations in the national and county economies of England (Census, 1831, pp. 832, 833;
Inikori, 2015, pp. 249, 250).
Taking the distribution of adult males (20 years and above) as representative of the main
features of the labor employed in the economy, the data allow us to view the main charac-
teristics of the English economy at the beginning of the fourth decade of the nineteenth
century. Overall, it is clear legally free wage earners were now the numerically dominant
labor in the economy. Of the total 2,759,083 adult males employed in the national economy,
1,558,563 (56.5%) were wage/salary employees. Of the 980,750 employed in agriculture,
744,407 (75.9%) were wage earners, 141,460 (14.4%) employers (including owner cultivators
and tenants), and 94,883 (9.7%) self-employed (owner cultivators and tenants). Factory work-
ers (314,106) constituted only 24.6% of the 1,278,283 employed in manufacturing, and hand-
icraft and retail trades; the remaining 964,177 (75.4%) were in the latter. By our conception
of capitalism, the national economy had become capitalist by 1831. So, too, were agriculture,
and the major components of the service sector (import and export, shipping, internal trans-
portation, finance, education, government) which employed, in all certainty, the 500,050
wage earners unassigned by the census enumerators to the listed sectors (Inikori, 2015,
p. 249). But, the industrial sector was still dominated numerically by self-employed handicraft
producers, as the data show.8 The national economy, therefore, was yet to achieve industrial
But there were county economies that had already achieved industrial capitalism (with
more people employed in factory production than in handicraft and retail trades) at the time
of the 1831 census. Of the total 260,514 adult males employed in Lancashire’s economy in
1831, 179,014 (68.7%) were wage/salary employees; 56.1% of those in agriculture were wage
earners; factory workers (97,517) constituted 53.1% of those in manufacturing, retail trade
and handicraft (183,596). The comparable figures for the West Riding of Yorkshire are: wage/
salary employees, 63.1% of the total (210,697); wage earners, 58% of those in agriculture
(42,234); factory workers, 55.4% of those in manufacturing, and handicraft and retail trades
(134,778). For the West Midland county of Stafford, 67.3% of the total (98,453) were wage/
salary employees; 69.4% of those in agriculture were wage earners; factory workers, 51.9%
of those in manufacturing, and handicraft and retail trades. In all the remaining English
142   J. E. INIKORI

counties, wage/salary employees constituted less than 50% of those in manufacturing, and
handicraft and retail trades. Properly speaking, Lancashire can be called the first industrial
capitalist economy in the world, with 31.05% of all factory employment in England at this
time; followed by the West Riding of Yorkshire, and the West Midland county of Stafford a
distant third. The two contiguous northwest regions, Lancashire and the West Riding of
Yorkshire, together had approximately 55% of England’s total factory employment in 1831;
adding Stafford, these three regions had about 63% of the national total. In contrast, factory
employment in the three counties of East Anglia (Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk), with a total area
(3.2 million acres) just slightly less than that of the three former regions combined (3.5 million
acres), was only 2% of the national total. Though capitalist by 1831, the economy of East
Anglia (southeast England) was far from industrial capitalism, with handicraft production
and retail trades overwhelmingly dominant. So, too, were the economies of the other south-
ern counties.
The regional distribution of capitalist industry points strongly to the causal factors in the
process of capitalist development in England over the long period of this study. From 1086
to 1650, population growth and the wool trade (raw wool production for export, followed
by woolen textile production for export and for the domestic market, and raw wool produc-
tion for both markets) were the main operating factors (Inikori, 2002, pp. 24–33). East Anglia
was a major beneficiary of the developments of this period (centered on trade with conti-
nental Europe), at a time when Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire were among the
most backward counties in England. The development of agrarian capitalism in East Anglia
occurred during this period, stimulated by raw wool exports and proto-industrial production
of woolen textiles.
From 1650 to 1850, as mercantilist policies restricted England’s access to continental
markets (especially, Northwest Europe), Atlantic trade became the prime mover and England’s
regions most heavily involved in that trade (Lancashire, the West Riding of Yorkshire, and
the West Midlands) were the main beneficiaries. Those, like East Anglia, that had relied heavily
on continental markets and performed poorly in the rapidly expanding Atlantic trade, fell
behind. The expansion of proto-industrial exports in the leading regions (taking advantage
of their initial cheap labor) created the market conditions for the invention and employment
of new technologies that revolutionized manufacturing, created employment opportunities
in industry and commerce, stimulated the growth of population and urbanization, and cre-
ated the conditions for the growth of agrarian and industrial capitalism, first, in the leading
regions, from where improved internal and overseas transportation of the railway and steel
and steamship age diffused those developments to the rest of the national economy in the
nineteenth century (Inikori, 2001, 2002, 2015).

4.  The development of capitalism in the Americas

Before the exploration and colonization of the Americas by the imperial European powers
from the late fifteenth century, the economies of the region were dominated overwhelmingly
by subsistence production (including tributary labor). Production for market exchange was
marginal and the market economy was virtually non-existent (Inikori, 2014, pp. 56–88).
Following the takeover of the Americas by the Europeans, the latter’s exploitation of the
region’s resources stimulated the growth of production for market exchange and the devel-
opment and geographical spread of the market economy. Large-scale mining (silver and

gold) and plantation agriculture were the epicenter of the process, from which inter-regional
specialization and division of labor created expansive domestic product and factor
Because of the extremely low ratio of population to land in the Americas, large-scale
mining and plantation agriculture for export – the dynamic zone of the evolving Atlantic
economy – depended heavily on coerced labor (slave labor, mita, repartimiento, peonage).
Plantation agriculture in Brazil from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, in the Caribbean
from the seventeenth to the nineteenth, and in North America from the eighteenth to the
nineteenth century, all depended almost entirely on the labor of enslaved Africans and their
descendants. So, too, was gold production in Brazil in the eighteenth century and in Spanish
America from the sixteenth to the nineteenth (Inikori, 2002, pp. 156–214). Silver mining in
Spanish America depended partly on the labor of enslaved Africans, but more heavily on
coerced Indian labor (mita in Peru and repartimiento in New Spain). As the domestic econ-
omy responded to the market opportunities created by the export sector, the labor employed
was also largely coerced. In Brazil, commercial food production for the domestic market
employed a large number of enslaved Africans (Luna & Klein, 2004, pp. 120–149). In Spanish
America, the large agricultural estates (hacienda) depended heavily on resident peon pro-
ducers (very much like serfs) (Duncan & Rutledge, 1977). In the mid-Atlantic region of the
United States, in contrast, family-sized farms employing family labor produced foodstuffs
for the domestic market and for export during the colonial period (Shepherd & Walton, 1971).
By the mid-nineteenth century, the predominantly subsistence economies of the pre-
European Americas had been completely transformed into predominantly market-based
economies. Production for market exchange was now widespread in the major regions.
Socioeconomic life was largely commercialized. But, by definition, the capitalist system of
production was not yet established. Non-capitalist forms of labor remained dominant. The
slave plantations and the peon-based hacienda had to be transformed into capitalist agri-
cultural estates, and the self-employed family farmers of the United States had to be prole-
tarianized in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, before agrarian capitalism was
established. Major institutional changes – especially, the abolition of the slave trade and
slavery – and the expansive global market opportunities brought about by the Industrial
Revolution in England, with its new technologies in production and transportation (in par-
ticular, the railways and the steel and steamship) provided the conditions for the
Mechanization and factory organization of manufacturing brought down the cost of
producing manufactures entering the global market to a small fraction of what the costs
had been for centuries. The replacement of sailing wooden ships by steel and steamships
cut down drastically the cost of seaborne transportation, and the construction of railways
in the major regions of the world cheapened the cost of distribution of imported manufac-
tures to distant regions within countries. All these great reductions in costs were passed on
to consumers by competition. At the same time, as several countries imitated England and
developed their manufacturing, the demand for primary commodities and foodstuffs grew
and their prices rose. Latin American economies responded by expanding their production
of primary commodities and foodstuffs in exchange for imported manufactures. The devel-
opment of refrigerator technology, which allowed perishable foodstuffs (especially, animal
products, fruits, and vegetables) to be transported over long distances, expanded the range
of agricultural products they could produce and export.
144   J. E. INIKORI

As the Latin American economies responded to the global market opportunities, their
exports grew phenomenally in the nineteenth century, especially in the second half. Latin
American commodity exports increased from US$159.5 million in 1850 to US$1.6 billion in
1912 (Inikori, 2014, p. 67). Unlike Latin America, the United States expanded commodity
production for export in the nineteenth century, while, at the same time, imitating England
to industrialize (North, 1966). United States commodity exports increased from US$160 million
in 1850 to US$2.3 billion in 1912 (Inikori, 2014: 67). In both Latin America and the United
States, the growth of commodity production for export in the nineteenth century, employing
largely the labor of enslaved Africans and their descendants, created economic opportunities
which encouraged rapid population growth and urbanization through immigration (largely
from Europe, but also Asia, particularly following the abolition of slavery) and natural increase.
The population of Latin America grew from 30.4 million in 1850 to 77.5 million in 1912; that
of the United States increased from 23.2 million to 94.6 million during the same period
(Inikori, 2014, p. 67).9 The market and demographic conditions created by these develop-
ments, interacting with the abolition of slavery and other coercive labor forms in the late
nineteenth century, induced the proletarianization process (the transformation of self-em-
ployed producers owning means of production into wage earners with little or no means
of production) which produced a mass of wage earners as the dominant form of labor in
Latin America and the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.10

5.  The development of capitalism in West Africa

As the foregoing historical evidence makes clear, the commercializing process, which trans-
forms predominantly subsistence economies into predominantly market oriented econo-
mies, is a necessary pre-condition for the process of capitalist development. Production for
market exchange and the market economy must become dominant for capitalism to become
the dominant system of production. Otherwise, capitalist production may exist as a marginal
form of production in a sea of other forms of production. Our inquiry into the historical
development of capitalism in West Africa, therefore, has to start with the commercializing
process. To what extent did the market economy develop in West Africa during our period
of study, 1450–1900?
Our examination of the historical development of the market economy in West Africa
during the period of this study is broken into four distinct periods – c.1000–1450; 1450–1650;
1650–1850; 1850–1900. The available evidence shows the market economy was evolving
slowly, but steadily, in the first period, gathering an observable momentum in the second,
before suffering a devastating setback in the third, with a significant recovery of some of
the lost ground in the fourth.
From the last centuries of the first millennium to the mid-fifteenth century, what I have
characterized as a regional globalization process in West Africa, centered in the Niger Bend
(the stretch of territory watered by the River Niger between where the river takes a sharp
northward turn near the modern city of Segu and where it enters modern Nigeria), provided
favorable conditions for a sustained evolution and spread of the market economy across
major parts of the region (Inikori, 2010). Population growth and trade (local and long dis-
tance) were the main drivers of the process. Because of favorable environmental conditions
and geographical location, the Niger Bend was an early center of population concentration,
urban development, commerce, manufacturing, Islamic learning, and state formation

(Cissoko, 1984; Farias, 2003; Hunwick, 1999; McIntosh, 1998, 2005; Niane, 1984a, 1984b).
Population growth, urbanization, and state formation were local factors central to the pro-
cess. External factors were added by geographical location, which made the Niger Bend an
intermediary connecting the Mediterranean and the southern Sahara to other major sub-­
regions of West Africa. Merchants from the commercial cities of the Niger Bend (Jenne,
Timbuktu, Gao) spread out to important production centers in West Africa, distributing their
products and carrying imports to them.
Gold and kola nuts were among local products from the Guinea Coast (the Gold Coast,
in particular) distributed by the Niger Bend merchants. In exchange, these merchants
brought mostly manufactures produced in the Niger Bend, but also European and Asian
textiles, cowries, and south Saharan products, such as salt and copper rods. Gold from the
Guinea Coast paid for much of the imports from the Mediterranean. The network of long
distance trade in West Africa, developed by the Niger Bend traders, linked up with internal
developments within the major sub-regions. For example, in southeastern Nigeria, popula-
tion growth in the Igbo heartland (modern northern Igbo land), from the ninth to the fif-
teenth century, provoked migration and the growth of division of labor between northern
Igbo and their neighbors, in which the former concentrated more on manufacturing and
trade and the latter on agriculture, fishing, and salt production (Dike & Ekejiuba, 1990,
pp. 109–115). The findings of the Igbo-Ukwu archaeological excavations (especially, the large
quantity of copper ware), dating back to the ninth century C.E., is a clear indication of the
linkage between the broader West African trade networks and the internal developments
within the sub-regions (McIntosh, 1998, 2005, 2008; Farias, 2003, p. clxxi; Insoll & Shaw, 1997,
pp. 9–23; Alagoa, 1970, pp. 319–329; Shaw, 1975a; Northrup, 1972; Afigbo, 1977, pp. 119–139;
Latham, 1971, pp. 599–605; Shaw, 1975b, pp. 47–57). These internal and external develop-
ments created the conditions for the gradual evolution and geographical spread of the
market economy in West Africa from the last centuries of the first millennium to the mid-fif-
teenth century.
The first centuries of European seaborne commercial enterprise in West Africa, 1450–1650,
during which trade in the products of African labor and natural resources overwhelmingly
dominated, further boosted the pace of the commercializing process in the preceding period.
Economic activities devoted to the market in Greater Senegambia (comprising the stretch
of territory from parts of Mauritania to the Futa Jallon plateau) were stimulated by increases
in the export of hides and skins, cattle trade, and gold export (Barry, 1998; pp. xi, 25). Arguably,
the most expansive developments of the period occurred on the Gold Coast (modern south-
ern Ghana), where the expansion of gold production and export stimulated population
growth and urbanization, creating market incentives for the investment of profits from trade
and gold production in forest clearing for commercial agriculture (Kea, 1982, pp. 85–91;
Wilks, 1977, 1993, pp. 1–90). The entry of the European traders (the Portuguese, the Dutch,
and the English) as carriers in the cotton cloth trade between the Benin kingdom and north-
eastern Yoruba, and between the former and the Gold Coast, also increased economic activ-
ities devoted to the market in northeastern Yoruba and in the Benin kingdom (Inikori, 2009b,
pp. 96–101). The growth and geographical spread of the market economy during the period
is evidenced by the expansion of commodity currencies imported into West Africa at the
time (Inikori, 2009b, pp. 101–104).
The commercializing process suffered a fatal blow in the roughly 200 years from the
mid-seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century, during which the export of captives to the
146   J. E. INIKORI

Americas overwhelmingly dominated West Africa’s overseas trade. The two main drivers of
the process in the preceding half millennium, population growth, and commodity produc-
tion for export, were severely attacked. The forceful export of West African labor to the
Americas, where it was employed in large-scale production of commodities for Atlantic
commerce, considerably enhanced the competitiveness of the Americas, relative to that of
West Africa, in the production of those commodities. Added to the transfer of West Africa’s
relative advantage (labor) to the Americas, the disruptive externalities of the violent pro-
curement of captives for export lowered further West Africa’s competitiveness (relative to
the Americas) in the production of commodities for Atlantic commerce during the 200-year
The evidence on this could not be clearer. Brazil was the first major region of the Americas
to expand commodity production for Atlantic commerce, based almost entirely on labor
from western Africa. The Portuguese had developed plantation production of sugar in islands
off the Atlantic coast of western Africa (in particular, São Tomé) as soon as they were explored
in the fifteenth century. Portuguese São Tomé had become the main supplier of sugar to
the markets of Western Europe by the late sixteenth century, supplying over 2,800 tons a
year in the 1570s (Hodges & Newitt, 1988, p. 20). With the colonization of Brazil in the six-
teenth century and the availability of captives shipped from western Africa and enslaved in
Brazil, the latter became the main supplier of sugar to West European markets in the seven-
teenth century and São Tomé’s main role was to manage the shipment of the captives to
Brazil. In a somewhat similar manner, the gold trade was transferred from the Gold Coast to
Brazil, once gold was discovered there in the late seventeenth century. The Gold Coast, which
had produced gold for the European markets, importing labor from other parts of western
Africa as Akan entrepreneurs responded to the market opportunities offered by the gold
trade, became an importer of gold produced by enslaved Africans in Brazil and supplier of
captives for enslavement in the Americas (Inikori, 2013). In general, this was the fate of the
main sub-regions of West Africa, as further evidence will show.
By the seventeenth century, Brazil had become a major producer of commodities for
Atlantic commerce in the Atlantic world, exporting an annual average of well over ₤3 million
(sterling) in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and over ₤7 million (sterling) by the
mid-nineteenth century (Inikori, 2002, p. 181). The total value (f.o.b.) of commodities pro-
duced in the Americas for Atlantic commerce in the 40 years, 1761–1800, was ₤610.2 million
(sterling), over 80% of which was produced by the labor of enslaved Africans and their
descendants (the contribution of Brazil was ₤71.5 million, virtually all by Afro-Brazilians),
while that of western Africa in the 58 years, 1750–1807, was ₤12.1 million. By the late eight-
eenth century, the value of captives exported to the Americas was about 91% of western
Africa’s total Atlantic export trade (Inikori, 2013).
The adverse impact of captive exports on West Africa’s population, the other main driver
of the commercializing process, was extremely damaging to the process. The long-run sus-
tained slow and steady growth of the preceding centuries was not only arrested, but indeed
there was absolute population decline in the main sub-regions of West Africa. With all the
caution which the quality of the data requires on either side, the evidence from Patrick
Manning’s ongoing project shows the population of the Gold Coast declined from 4.4 million
in 1700 to 3.4 million in 1880; the Bight of Benin, from 7.1 million to 4.5 million; the Bight of
Biafra, from 9.2 million to 7.3 million (Manning, 2013). Ray Kea’s more detailed field evidence
is consistent with Manning’s estimates and reveals the far-reaching adverse effects of the

demographic change. Kea’s evidence shows the population of the Gold Coast was larger in
the seventeenth century than in the eighteenth. The larger population of the seventeenth
century gave rise to increases in the number and sizes of urban centers. The demographic
developments, interacting with the growth of gold production for export in the roughly 200
years from the mid-fifteenth to the mid-seventeenth century, stimulated the expansion of
urban markets that drew manufacturing from the rural areas to the towns, producing division
of labor between town and country. This was the development that induced the movement
of capital into forest clearing for commercial agriculture, mentioned earlier in the paper.
With the termination of further population growth and the absolute decrease, and the
decline of the gold trade, the number of towns and their sizes diminished, the urban markets
shrank, manufacturing was once again integrated with agriculture, and the division of labor
between town and country disappeared. The Gold Coast economy underwent significant
demonetization as the peasants in the rural areas switched from payment of rent in money
to payment in kind (Kea, 1982, pp. 11, 85–91).
Thus, it is clear the loss of the opportunity to expand commodity production for Atlantic
commerce in the two hundred years or so from 1650 to 1850 and the negative population
movements constituted a serious setback for the growth and geographical spread of the
market economy in West Africa. However, all was not lost forever. As the governments in
Europe and the Americas made the export of captives from Africa illegal in the mid-­nineteenth
century and the trans-Atlantic slave trade ended in the 1860s, seaborne trade in the products
of African labor and African natural resources began to grow, once again. In the last decade
of the nineteenth century, the value of commodity exports from West Africa to the United
Kingdom grew from ₤2.4 million (sterling) in 1891 to ₤3.1 million in 1899. Lagos contributed
31.10% of the 1891 total and 36.49% of that of 1899; the Niger Coast Protectorate (south-
eastern Nigeria) contributed 19.17 and 13.09%; the Gold Coast, 13.31 and 22.73%. The share
of Nigeria was, therefore, about one half of the total and the Gold Coast was second to
Nigeria. Palm produce and rubber led the expansion. Nigeria dominated the palm produce
trade, while the Gold Coast dominated the rubber trade (Inikori, 2008).
The impressive growth of commodity production in West Africa for seaborne commerce
in the last half of the nineteenth century revived substantially the commercializing process
held back for 200 years by the slave trade. As the export producers spent their income on
domestically produced goods, the multiplier effects stimulated the growth of production
for market exchange, leading to the growth and geographical spread of the market economy.
The import of commodity currencies for local and inter-regional exchange, which declined
greatly at the peak of captive exports, expanded rapidly in the late nineteenth century, a
pointer to the pace of growth of the market economy. Initially, cowries (imported in thou-
sands of tons into Lagos) dominated currency imports into southwest Nigeria and the Gold
Coast. By the last decade of the nineteenth century, British silver coins were imported in
very large quantities into Lagos and the Gold Coast. As a confirmation of the growing extent
of the market economy in British West Africa in the late nineteenth century, commercial
banking in West Africa was established for the first time in Lagos in 1891 (Inikori, 2009a,
pp. 176–180).
Impressive as the recovery was, West Africa continued to lag greatly behind the Americas
in the production of commodities for Atlantic commerce. West Africa’s exports in the late
nineteenth century were characterized by uncultivated products. Palm produce was col-
lected largely from wild palm trees; the contribution of cultivated palm plantations was
148   J. E. INIKORI

marginal. The same thing was true of rubber. Serious efforts were being made to expand
the production of cultivated products, such as raw cotton, coffee, and sugar. But, as of 1900,
West African entrepreneurs struggled to compete with the entrenched competitiveness of
the Americas in the production of these commodities with little success. Cocoa plantations
were beginning to spring up and West Africa would become the main supplier well into the
twentieth century. But, at the end of the nineteenth century, its contribution to West Africa’s
export to the U.K. was less than 1%, even from the Gold Coast and Lagos (Inikori, 2008). In
the end, the volume and value of total exports were not large enough to pull the vast majority
of producers from the subsistence sector into the market sector. At the end of the nineteenth
century, subsistence production still remained the dominant sector, the impressive gains
made by market-oriented production in the second half of the nineteenth century notwith-
standing. Even with the substantial further expansion of production for market exchange
during the colonial period, by the mid-twentieth century, the evidence indicates as much
as 70% of agricultural production in West Africa was not marketed (Inikori, 2013).
Given the limited development of the market economy during the period of study, as the
foregoing evidence has shown, it is clear enough that the development of capitalism as a
socioeconomic system made very little progress during the period. The evidence suggests
that subsistence production and self-employed labor producing for the market remained
the dominant form of the labor process; free wage earners were at the margin. Even servile
labor became significant in the late nineteenth century, as commodity production for export
grew under demographic conditions somewhat similar to those of the Americas in the six-
teenth to the nineteenth century. It is no surprise that John Iliffe’s search found no capitalist
forms of production in West Africa in the nineteenth century, except some embryonic form
of proto-industrial labor in cotton dyeing in Kano, Nigeria (Iliffe, 1983, pp. 6–15). It is signif-
icant that Iliffe did find a substantial capitalist agricultural sector among black farmers in
nineteenth-century South Africa, before they were undone by the unfair competition with
white farmers (employing their superior political bargaining power) for land, labor, and
markets. The growth of the market for agricultural products was what created the impetus
for the development. And, the growth of the market was associated with the expansion of
diamond and gold production for export in the late nineteenth century (Bundy, 1979; Iliffe,
1983, pp. 17–19).
It is fair to say there is a general consensus that the development of capitalism made little
progress in West Africa during our period of study. But the explanation for the limited pro-
gress is generally unsatisfactory. The application of the Marxian conception of capitalism by
John Iliffe and Frederick Cooper brings much precision to their explanation and helps the
reader comprehend their interpretation of the evidence (Cooper, 2014; Iliffe, 1983). What is
to be explained is clearly defined by their conception – the limited growth of a critical mass
of free wage earners as the dominant form of the labor process. Iliffe’s emphasis is on the
physical environment and culture. The physical environment restricted population growth,
leading to unusually high ratio of land to population which strengthened resistance to pro-
letarianization, he contends. On the other hand, according to Iliffe, the culture of conspicuous
consumption and the accumulation of dependents (instead of material wealth) prevented
capital accumulation by the more able entrepreneurs (Iliffe, 1983, 1995). Cooper’s emphasis
is on the strength of the state and individual entrepreneurs, under conditions of unlimited
supply of land. Drawing on Karl Marx’s notion of primitive accumulation, in which non-market
mechanisms are employed to forcefully create a mass of workers whose possession is virtually

limited to their labor power, Cooper argues such non-market mechanisms could not work
in Africa, except in South Africa (Cooper, 2014, pp. 13–15, 18–19, 21).
These explanations are problematic. The physical environment was not the critical factor
in West Africa’s population growth between 1650 and 1850. The evidence accumulated by
research in the past several decades points directly to the adverse effects of the transatlantic
slave trade as the critical factor. Furthermore, over the long-run, culture is not an independ-
ent, but rather, a dependent variable. The absence of market opportunities for the productive
investment of capital encourages conspicuous consumption, as the Dutch did after their
access to Atlantic markets was limited militarily by the French and the British (Hobsbawm,
1954, Number 5, pp. 33–53; Number 6, pp. 44–65). The culture of capitalism did not produce
capitalism; it was the establishment of the capitalist system of production that led to the
emergence of a supportive political power structure and capitalist worldview. As for Cooper’s
explanation, it is fair to say few scholars have a deeper understanding of the dynamics of
the capitalist system of production than Karl Marx. But he was historically wrong in his
application of the notion of primitive accumulation to the proletarianization process in
England. Evidence produced by research since Marx wrote leaves little doubt that the
response of English farmers (large and small) to changing market conditions – declining
agricultural producer prices in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and growing
employment opportunities in manufacturing and commerce – drove the proletarianization
process in England. The difficulty of applying non-market mechanisms does not offer a
satisfactory explanation for the limited development of capitalism in West Africa during our
period of study. A more satisfactory explanation is to be found in the limited development
of the market economy, the factors responsible for which have been shown in the paper.
Limited market development limited the size and power of the market engine that drove
the proletarianization process during the period.

6. Conclusion
This paper has attempted to offer a broad view of the development of capitalism in the
Atlantic world. The adoption of the Marxian conception of capitalism as a socioeconomic
system has helped to clearly define what is being studied – the emergence over time of a
critical mass of free wage earners as the dominant form of the labor process. England, the
first capitalist nation in the world, led the historical process. But, as the evidence shows,
England’s achievement was very much tied to the growth of the Atlantic economy from the
sixteenth to the nineteenth century. Similarly, developments in the main regions of the
Americas during the period were linked directly and indirectly to the growth of the Atlantic
economy. So, too, were developments in West Africa, whose forced migrants provided the
bulk of the labor that produced the commodities which fueled the growth of the Atlantic
economy. Thus, studying the Atlantic world as a unit of historical analysis during the period
makes good sense in historical scholarship.
The paper explains the successful development of capitalism in England and in the
Americas in terms of the development of the market economy, in the first instance. The
employment of coerced labor in large-scale commodity production for Atlantic commerce
in the Americas was critical in the first stage, during which the market conditions for the
Industrial Revolution in England emerged. The Industrial Revolution and its new technologies
(in production and transportation) and new forms of organization fueled further expansion
150   J. E. INIKORI

of the Atlantic economy and its extension to the other major regions of the world. West
Africa’s supply of forced migrants to the Americas imposed a huge opportunity cost on West
African economies. It raised the competitiveness of the Americas in the production of com-
modities for Atlantic commerce, while damaging that of West Africa. It is no surprise that
commodity production in West Africa for seaborne commerce in the years, 1650–1850, paled
in comparison to the Americas. Equally damaging was the demographic impact. Taken
together, the dual impact of the transatlantic slave trade largely explains the limited devel-
opment of the market economy and capitalism in West Africa up to the mid-nineteenth
century. Some impressive recovery made after the ending of captive exports notwithstand-
ing, by 1900 the market economy and capitalist production remained limited, relative to the
subsistence sector and non-capitalist forms of labor. Properly interpreted, it is clear enough
from the evidence that the development of capitalism in England and in the Americas during
our period of study was at the expense of West African economies.

1.  As Lawrence H. Summers puts it, ‘In many respects the history of capitalism is the history most
relevant to our times’ (Summers, 2014).
2.  Emphasis added.
3.  Some of the better known studies of capitalism in Africa adopting the Marxian conception
include Iliffe, 1983; Cooper, 2014; Hill, 1970; a collection of essays on the development of
capitalist agriculture in Latin America also adopted the Marxian conception (Duncan and
Rutledge (1977). It should be noted that in his last major work, Gunder Frank abandoned his
conception of capitalism based on market exchange, which led him to date its creation to 1492.
He affirmed that the establishment of capitalism dates from the nineteenth century, following
‘the industrial revolution in Europe’ ((Frank, 1998, p. xix).
4.  Larry Neal talks about ‘many varieties of capitalism,’ to which four elements are common: ‘private
property rights; contracts enforceable by third parties; markets with responsive prices; and
supportive governments’ (p. 2).
5.  In particular, see North, 1990. North’s discussion of the historical evolution of interest groups
with relative bargaining power sets the stage for analyzing how the establishment of the
defining elements of capitalism structures state power and determines the main direction of
state policy.
6. These points have nothing to do with base–superstructure model. It is simply a matter of
realistic historical sequence of causation.
7.  Particularly relevant essays in this volume to note include Snooks, 1995, pp. 27–54; Mayhew,
1995, pp. 55–77; Campbell, 1995, pp. 132–193.
8.  All the computations are made from Inikori, 2015: Tables 9.3 and 9.4, pp. 249, 250.
9. The contribution of enslaved Africans to the development of capitalism in the United States is
the focus of two recent publications: Baptist, 2014; Schermerthorn, 2015.
10. The contributors in Duncan and Rutledge (1977), provide the details of the process in Latin
America, which are quite similar to the English process presented in the preceding section of
the paper.

Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

Notes on contributor
Joseph E. Inikori is a professor of History, University of Rochester, USA. His published books include
Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England: A Study in International Trade and Economic Development
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002) and numerous journal articles and book chapters. He
is a global economic historian, with specialization in Atlantic World economic history.

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