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Capitalism and hegemony: Yorubaland and the international economy

  • David D. Laitin


Certain relationships among hegemony, international openness, capitalism, and state formation are stipulated by Polanyi, Kindleberger, Gilpin, Krasner, and Wallerstein. Here they are put to question through an examination of the rise and fall of the Yoruba state in the 18th and 19th centuries. In contrast to what widely held theories would predict, the Yoruba state was strengthened through greater exposure to international commerce. Second, from the point of view of African traders, the rise of British hegemony meant a decline in freedom to trade. Third, although the remnants of the Yoruba state were on the periphery of the world economy, its traders were able to penetrate international markets, even during periods of international economic crisis, with considerable success. In light of these findings, some suggestions are made for the reformulation of conventional theories;



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1 This research tradition is aptly called “the second image reversed” by Gourevitch, Peter, “The Second Image Reversed: The International Sources of Domestic Politics”, International Organization 32, 4 (1978). Its basic assumption is, in Gourevitch's words, that “The international system is not only a consequence of domestic politics and structures but a cause of them” (p. 911). For the seminal formulation of the “second image,” see Waltz, K., Man, the State, and War (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959), chaps. 4–5.

2 Dependency theory has of course generated a rich secondary literature, but most of the critiques have been based on aggregate data analysis. See, for example, Schmitter, P., “Desarrollo retrasado, dependencia externa y cambio politico en America Latina,” Foro International, 12 1971; and McGowan, P. and Smith, D., “Economic Dependency in Black Africa: An Analysis of Competing Theories,” International Organization 32, 1 (Winter 1978). Very few critiques, to my knowledge, are embedded in historical expositions of peripheral areas. Proponents of dependency theory have been critical of the aggregate data studies because these data, divorced from historical context, have little meaning. This article attempts to criticize certain formulations within dependency theory on its own (historical) terms. As for theories of hegemony in international political economy, I know of no critical study that focuses directly on the periphery.

3 Polanyi, K., Dahomey and the Slave Trade (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966); and Wallerstein, I., “The Three Stages of African Involvement in the World-Economy,” in Gutkind, P. and Wallerstein, I., eds., The Political Economy of Contemporary Africa (Beverly Hills, Cal.: Sage, 1976). Hopkins, A., An Economic History of West Africa (New York: Columbia University Press, 1973), amongst others, has provided much of the historical data enabling one critically to reassess Polanyi and Wallerstein. Ironically, in a brilliant new interpretation of British imperialism, Hopkins claims to build upon the work of those theorists whose work I examine on the basis of data he has presented. He does suggest that he is not in full agreement with those theorists' findings, but is not specific. See Cain, P. and Hopkins, A., “The Political Economy of British Expansion Overseas, 1750–1914,” Economic History Review, 2d series, 33, 4 (11 1980).

4 Wallerstein, I., The Modern World-System (New York: Academic Press, 1974).

5 Gilpin, R., U.S. Power and the Multinational Corporation (New York: Basic Books, 1975), p. 50.

6 Polanyi, K., The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon, 1944), p. 160.

7 Calleo, D. and Rowland, B., America and the World Political Economy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973), p. 26.

8 Robinson, R., “Non-European Foundations of European Imperialism: Sketch for a Theory of Collaboration,” in Owen, R. and Sutcliffe, B., eds., Studies in the Theory of Imperialism (London: Longman, 1972), p. 130.

9 Flint, J., “Economic Change in West Africa in the 19th Century,” in Ajayi, J. and Crowder, M., History of West Africa, vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1973), pp. 387–89. My article does not confront directly the issue of international openness and the deindustrialization of Africa, but in the course of the following discussion I hope to show that the argument is unconvincing. It is therefore not surprising that new data presented by Goucher, Candice, “Iron Is Iron 'Til It Is Rust: Trade and Ecology in the Decline of West African Iron Smelting,” Journal of African History 22, 2 (1981), discount the connection proposed by Flint between the rise of European trade and the decline of iron-smelting in Africa. Ecological crisis rather than superior and cheaper European imports better explains iron-smelting's decline.

10 Polanyi, , Great Transformation, pp. 157–58.

11 Akinjogbin, I., “The Expansion of Oyo and the Rise of Dahomey 1600–1800,” in Ajayi, J. and Crowder, M., History of West Africa, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1972), p. 323.

12 See Gallagher, J. and Robinson, R., “The Imperialism of Free Trade,” Economic History Review, 2d series, 6, 1 (1953), p. 14. The Robinson and Gallagher argument for formal colonialism in West Africa is more complex, having to do with the international politics of protecting trade routes to India. See Robinson, R., Gallagher, J. and Denny, A., Africa and the Victorians: The Official Mind of Imperialism (London: Macmillan, 1961). A good critique of this argument appears in Hopkins, A., “Economic Imperialism in West Africa: Lagos, 1880–92,” Economic History Review, 2d series, 21, 3 (12 1968), pp. 582–84. Also, see the conclusions reached by Cohen, B., The Question of Imperialism (New York: Basic Books, 1973), chap. 7, who, like Robinson, Gallagher and Denny, focuses attention on the preemptive nature of imperialism. The problem with the discussion on this, the systemic level of analysis, is that it does not shed light on why the colonialists acted when they did, nor on which groups had an interest in furthering colonial aims.

13 Polanyi, , Great Transformation, p. 208.

14 Political Stages of Growth (1971), p. 109, quoted in Markovitz, I., Power and Class in Africa (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1977), p. 73.

15 Leys, C., Underdevelopment in Kenya (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), p. 13.

16 As cited in McGowan, and Smith, , “Economic Dependency,” p. 184.

17 See Akinjogbin, “The Expansion of Oyo,” for a discussion of trade expansion and centralization. There is, however, a contingent rather than a necessary relationship between the expansion of markets and political centralization. Bates, R., in chap. 2 of his Essays on Rural Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming) provides evidence of such a correlation. But Northrup, David, Trade Without Rulers: Pre-Colonial Economic Development in South-Eastern Nigeria (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), demonstrates that explosive market expansion can take place without political centralization. Peukert, W., Der Atlantische Sklavenhandel von Dahomey 1740–1797 (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1978), p. 373 (in the English summary of O. Raum) discounts the significance of the slave trade to explain the centralization of Dahomey, arguing that the dynamism of the internal economy was more significant. On Peukert's data, see Johnson, M., “Polanyi, Peukert and the Political Economy of Dahomey,” Journal of African History 21, 3 (1980). From the available historiographical literature, then, it is not possible to draw a clear connection between level of trade with the core and degree of centralization in the periphery.

18 Law, R., The Oyo Empire c. 1600–c. 1836: A West African Imperialism in the Era of the Atlantic Slave Trade (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), p. 228.

19 The following discussion relies heavily on Law, The Oyo Empire, Part III; and Ajayi, J., “The Aftermath of the Fall of Old Oyo,” in Ajayi, and Crowder, , History of West Africa, vol. 2, both of whom give political interpretations of Oyo's fall. Hopkins, An Economic History, chap. 4, and Gallagher and Robinson, “Imperialism of Free Trade,” give alternative explanations.

20 Rodney, W., “African Slavery and Other Forms of Social Oppression on the Upper Guinea Coast,” Journal of African History 7, 3 (1966).

21 See Hopkins, , An Economic History, pp. 121–22; and Bean, R., The British Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade 1650–1775 (New York: Arno Press, 1975), p. 73.

22 Ajayi, , “Aftermath of the Fall,” p. 141.

23 Ibid., p. 156.

24 Ikime, O., The Fall of Nigeria: The British Conquest (London: Heinemann, 1977), p. 5.

25 Hopkins, , An Economic History, pp. 125–26.

26 Ibid., p. 151.

27 Hopkins, “Economic Imperialism”.

28 Wallerstein, , “The Three Stages,” p. 37.

29 Wallerstein, I., “Africa in a Capitalist World,” Issue 3, 3 (Fall 1973), p. 8.

30 Akinjogbin, , “The Expansion of Oyo,” pp. 331–32.

31 Ikime, , The Fall of Nigeria, pp. 93100.

32 Hopkins, , An Economic History, pp. 154–61. See also Lynn, M., “Change and Continuity in the British Palm Oil Trade with West Africa, 1830–55,” Journal of African History 22 (1981). Lynn's study concerns politics in the Niger delta (east of Yorubaland), but his emphasis on conflicts among British merchants most probably applies to the Lagos (i.e., Yoruba) trade as well.

33 Ikime, , The Fall of Nigeria, pp. 55ff.

34 This interpretation relies on Hopkins, A., “Property Rights and Empire Building: Britain's Annexation of Lagos, 1861,” Journal of Economic History 40, 4 (12 1980), p. 788; and Cain, and Hopkins, , “Political Economy of British Expansion,” p. 466.

35 Berry, S., Cocoa, Custom and Socio-Economic Change in Rural Western Nigeria (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), p. 23.

36 Ibid., pp. 23, 29.

37 My main disagreement with Hopkins, “Economic Imperialism in West Africa,” is that he underemphasizes this adaptation and the concomitant shielding of the brunt of the economic crisis.

38 Berry, , Cocoa, p. 221.

39 Hobsbawm, E., The Age of Revolution: 1789–1848 (New York: Mentor, 1962), p. 355.

40 Krasner, S., “State Power and the Structure of International Trade,” World Politics 28, 3 (04 1976), p. 330.

41 Gilpin, , U.S. Power, p. 81.

42 Kindleberger, C., The World in Depression (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973).

43 Krasner, , “State Power,” p. 322.

44 Gilpin, , U.S. Power, pp. 82, 84.

45 Polanyi, , Great Transformation, pp. 137–38.

46 Kurth, J., “The Political Consequences of the Product Cycle: Industrial History and Political Outcomes,” International Organization 33, 1 (Winter 1979), p. 10.

47 Calleo, and Rowland, , America and the World Political Economy, p. 23.

48 Cohen, , Question of Imperialism, p. 32.

49 Gilpin, , U.S. Power, p. 25.

50 Calleo, and Rowland, , America and the World Political Economy, p. 26.

51 See Bean, British Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, chap. 5; and Drescher, S., Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977), p. 175.

52 Law, , The Oyo Empire, pp. 224–25.

53 Hopkins, , An Economic History, p. 105. Bean, , British Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, pp. 9, 73, and Klein, M. and Lovejoy, E., “Slavery in West Africa,” in Gemery, H. and Hogendorn, J., The Uncommon Market: Essays in the Economic History of the Atlantic Slave Trade (New York: Academic Press, 1979), both emphasize the sensitivity of slave supply to price, allowing Bean, (p. 6) to “analyze the Atlantic slave trade in much the same manner and with much the same tools that would have been used in a study of, say, the twentieth century home construction industry.”

54 LeVeen, E., British Slave Trade Suppression Policies 1821–1865 (New York: Arno Press, 1977), estimates that the slave suppression policies of Britain reduced by 825,000 the number of slaves who would otherwise have been transported to the Americas between 1811 and 1879. D. Eltis, “The Direction and Fluctuation of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1821–1843: A Revision of the 1845 Parliamentary Paper,” in Gemery and Hogendorn, The Uncommon Market, substantially reduces LeVeen's estimate of the “success” of the suppression policies. No one denies, however, that British policy coercively delimited the freedom to trade of West African states.

55 Hirschman, A., National Power and the Structure of Foreign Trade (1945), expanded ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), pp. 45.

56 Kirk-Green, A., ed., Lugard and the Amalgamation of Nigeria (London: Frank Cass, 1968), pp. 139–40.

57 Ikime, , The Fall of Nigeria, pp. 9394.

58 Temperley, H., “Capitalism, Slavery and Ideology,” Past and Present 75 (05 1977), p. 107, cites and criticizes Smith's argument.

59 Drescher, , Econocide, p. 175.

60 Ibid., p. 172.

61 Published in 1944 (rpt. New York: Capricorn, 1966). The literature on abolition is vast. Williams was responding to a viewpoint, exemplified by Klingberg, F., The Anti-Slavery Movement in England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1926), that emphasized the critical role of the humanitarians. Anstey, R. in, for example, The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition 1760–1810 (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1975), has long led the battle against Williams and the supposed narrowness of his argument. Temperley, , “Capitalism, Slavery and Ideology,” and Davis, D., The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770–1823 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975), have both highlighted economic variables while rejecting the monocausal analysis of Williams. My discussion relies most on Temperley.

62 Drescher, , Econocide, p. 166. Curtin, P., The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), is the seminal work on the numbers involved in the slave trade. New data, amending Curtin, are available in Klein, H., The Middle Passage: Comparative Studies in the Atlantic Slave Trade (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978); and McDonald, R., “Measuring the British Slave Trade to Jamaica, 1789–1808: A Comment,” Economic History Review, 2d series, 33, 2 (05 1980). These data support Drescher's view that the slave trade was not in economic decline in the period of suppression.

63 Temperley, , “Capitalism, Slavery and Ideology,” pp. ”117–18.

64 See, e.g., Great Britain, Parliament, Substance of the Debates on a Resolution for Abolishing the Slave Trade (London, 1806).

65 Gramsci, A., Letters from Prison, ed. Lawner, L. (New York: Harper, 1973), pp. 4243, sees ideological direction as a central component to hegemony. Davis, , The Problem of Slavery, connects “hegemony” and “abolition” (p. 349) in a way similar to what I have presented here, but he (mistakenly, I believe) also connects abolition with elimination of restrictions on enterprise (p. 353).

66 See Los Angeles Times, 14 September 1981. Nor is this the only case in the period of American hegemony. Heroin, opium, and enriched uranium are also examples of “illegitimate trade.”

67 Drescher, , Econocide, pp. 177–83.

68 Lloyd, C., The Navy and the Slave Trade (London: Frank Cass, 1968).

69 Cain and Hopkins, “Political Economy of British Expansion.”

70 Comments by P. Gourevitch and J. B. Webster were helpful in developing this point.

71 The full statement of Katzenstein's, position will appear under the tentative title Corporatism and Change: Austria and Switzerland in the International Economy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, forthcoming).

72 See Dike, K., Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956) and Northrup, Trade Without Rulers, for a discussion of African responses to market opportunities in the Niger delta (just east of Yorubaland). The whole question of why Africa remained in the periphery of course requires more extensive analysis. Historiography has not as yet provided an adequate explanation for the failure of plantations to make consistent profits in West Africa. See Munro, J., “Monopolists and Speculators: British Investment in West African Rubber,” Journal of African History 22, 2 (1981), for one attempt to explain why rubber plantations failed in the early 20th century.

73 Ruggie, J., “International Regimes, Transactions, and Change: Embedded Liberalism in the Postwar Economic Order,” International Organization 36, 2 (Spring 1982).

74 Gallagher, and Robinson, , in “Imperialism of Free Trade,” note that the United Kingdom engaged in mercantilist practices in India in the mid 19th century (p. 4).

75 Calleo, and Rowland, , America and the World Political Economy, p. 23.

1 Earlier versions of this paper, which was originally presented at the 1981 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, generated helpful comments from Robert Bates, Peter Cowhey, John Flint, David Friedman, Peter Gourevitch, Ernst Haas, Peter Katzenstein, Fred Lawson, Edward Reynolds, and J. B. Webster.


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