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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: June 2014

Chapter 6 - Economy and work


One of the main motivations for Germany’s acquisition of colonies was the promise of rich financial rewards. But these hopes remained largely unfulfilled; in economic terms, Germany profited very little from its colonies. However, the economies and societies of the colonies themselves were deeply transformed by imperialism. Characteristic features of colonial economies included a monopoly (by the colonial state) on taxation, control over currencies, and controls over imports and exports. Of even greater significance for the societies affected were changes to market structures, to production, and to ownership, in particular of land. At the same time, it is important to remember that colonial economies were not created out of nothing; there were many continuities, both in agricultural production and in terms of links to export markets. Large parts of Africa were already engaged in trade links with other parts of the world in pre-colonial times; trade connections across the Indian ocean, for example, linked the eastern coast of Africa with the Arabian peninsula and with south Asia. In many instances, for example in western Africa, the colonizers continued to use the export infrastructure and links that had been there before they arrived. The persistence of pre-colonial trade links was even more pronounced in the case of Kiaochow; even after the takeover by the Germans, Japan remained its most important foreign trading partner.

Colonial economic policy:

Most of the colonial conflicts – within the colonial administration, between different colonial interest groups, between Germans living in the colonies, and finally between Germans and the colonized populations – had to do with economic policy. There were three main competing visions of economic development propagated by different colonial interest groups in Germany (although in practice these often overlapped). The first was a plantation economy, made up of large areas of monoculture worked by native labourers, focusing on the export trade. This model required high levels of capital investment and large amounts of labour (in 1912, almost 12,000 people were employed on plantations in Cameroon), often recruited only with the use of force. Brutal treatment and inadequate conditions caused many deaths among plantation workers. While the colonial governments, for example that in East Africa, claimed that the abolition of slavery was one of the main objectives of German colonialism, the plantation owners established new forms of bonded labour that had high mortality rates too.

von Byern, GerhardDeutsch-Ostafrika und seine weißen und schwarzen BewohnerBerlinSüsserott 1913 13
Bohner, H.Die Einführung geregelter Arbeit in KamerunDie deutschen Kolonien 1 1902 67
Peters, CarlZur WeltpolitikBerlinKarl Siegismund Verlag 1912 129