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This article examines how historians have approached the history of poverty in Africa before European colonisation. From an earlier focus on the emergence of class difference to more recent studies on the emergence of poverty, scholars have demonstrated the longevity of economic inequality in Africa. This historiography counters a linear view of the growth of economic inequality and the idea that poverty is a necessary corollary of wealth. The article then considers how historians have studied the meanings of poverty within particular societies to the nineteenth century allowing us to move beyond the inadequacy of quantitative data. It ends by arguing for more longue durée studies of poverty in Africa with a focus on the qualitative and on the internal dynamics of particular societies. This will improve our knowledge about how colonial rule changed the experience and reality of poverty for people across the continent and form a basis for comparative studies.



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This forum piece owes much to the participants in the conference I organised at Columbia University in March 2014 on ‘The History of Poverty in Africa: A Central Question?’ and to the students who have taken my course on ‘Histories of African Poverty’. I also acknowledge debts to Kavita Sivaramakrishnan, Gregory Mann, and Jarod Roll, an anonymous reviewer and the editors of The Journal of African History, who all read and commented on earlier versions and pushed me to clarify my thinking and writing on this topic. Email:



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1 Chief Philip James Karanja to PC, 8 Jan. 1936, KNA PC/CP 9/24/7, qtd. in Anderson, D., Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (New York, 2005), 149.

2 Anderson, Histories; Kanogo, T., Squatters and the Roots of Mau Mau, 1905–63 (London, 1987); Lonsdale, J., ‘The moral economy of Mau Mau: wealth, poverty and civic virtue in Kikuyu political thought’, in Berman, B. and Lonsdale, J., Unhappy Valley: Conflict in Kenya and Africa. Book Two: Violence and Ethnicity (Oxford, 1992), 315504.

3 Lonsdale, ‘The moral economy’, 340. For a different interpretation of the emphasis on reciprocity, see Feierman, S., ‘Reciprocity and assistance in precolonial Africa’, in Ilchman, W. F., Katz, S. N. and Queen, E. L. (eds.), Philanthropy in the World's Traditions (Bloomington, Ind., 1998), 10. For detailed discussion of relations between the respectable and disreputable, see Wayne Dooling's contribution to this forum. Dooling, W., ‘Poverty and respectability in early twentieth-century Cape Town’, Forum on Poverty, The Journal of African History, 59:3 (2018), 437–61.

4 Lonsdale, ‘The moral economy’, 342.

5 For example, see Coquery-Vidrovitch, C., ‘The political economy of the African peasantry and modes of production’, in Gutkind, P. C. W. and Wallerstein, I. (eds.), The Political Economy of Contemporary Africa (London, 1976), 90111; B. Magubane, ‘The evolution of the class structure in Africa’, in Gutkind and Wallerstein (eds.), The Political, 169–97 (although Magubane notes that Africa was not ‘an eldorado of egalitarianism.’ [174]).

6 Amin, S., ‘The class struggle in Africa’, in Amin, S. and Cohen, R., Classes and Class Struggle in Africa (Lagos, 1977), 2752; Rodney, W., How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Washington, DC, 1974).

7 Christopher Ehret points out that the external trade imbalance, whereby Africans predominantly export raw materials and import manufactured goods, can be traced back as far as the first millennium B.C.E., see Ehret, C., An African Classical Age: Eastern and Southern Africa in World History, 1000 B.C. to A.D. 400 (Charlottesville, 1998), 19. The scale of trade, however, needs to be taken into account in determining its impact.

8 For example, James Robinson and Daron Acemoglu, political scientist and economist, respectively, assert the lack of precolonial centralised states as the central factor, rather than external exploitation through unequal trade and colonial rule. The problem with their argument arises from the manifold counter-examples from across the continent which exist, see Robinson, J. and Acemoglu, D., ‘Why Africa is poor’, Economic History of Developing Regions, 25:1 (2010), 2150. See footnote 26 for some of the literature responding to their claims. Other large-scale approaches can be found in Akyeampong, E. et al. (eds.), Africa's Development in Historical Perspective (New York, 2014).

9 Austin, G., ‘Resources, techniques, and strategies south of the Sahara: revising the factor endowments perspective on African economic development, 1500–2000’, Economic History Review, 61:3 (2008), 587624.

10 Rodney, How Europe, 36–7.

11 Nyerere, J. K., ‘Socialism and rural development’, in Freedom and Socialism/Uhuru na Ujamaa: A Selection from Writings and Speeches, 1965–1967 (London, 1968), 338–9.

12 Iliffe, J., The African Poor: A History (Cambridge, 1987), 1. This is a theme he returned to in Africans: The History of a Continent (Cambridge, 1995), 131.

13 ‘The hunters’ oath/Manden kalikan’, translated by G. Mann from Mande-kan and French versions published in CLETHO, La Charte du Kurukan Fuga: aux sources d'une pensée politique en Afrique (Paris, 2008) and Cissé, Y. T. and Sagot-Duvaroux, J.-L. (transl.), La Charte du Mandé et autres traditions du Mali (Paris, 2003).

14 Lonsdale, ‘The moral economy’, 338.

15 In doing so, they acknowledged the influence of earlier economic historians of Africa such as K. Onwuka Dike, Richard Gray, and David Birmingham, see Palmer, R. and Parsons, N., The Roots of Rural Poverty in Central and Southern Africa (Berkeley, 1977); Dike, K. O., Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta, 1830–1885: An Introduction to the Economic and Political History of Nigeria (Oxford, 1956); and Gray, R. and Birmingham, D. (eds.), Pre-Colonial African Trade: Essays on Trade in Central and Eastern Africa before 1900 (London, 1970).

16 N. Parsons and R. Palmer, ‘Introduction. The roots of rural poverty: historical background’, in Palmer and Parsons (eds.), The Roots, 5.

17 Guyer, J.I., ‘Pauper, percentile, precarity: Analytics for poverty studies in Africa’, Forum on Poverty, The Journal of African History, 59:3 (2018), 463–74; Jerven, M., ‘The history of African poverty by numbers: Evidence and vantage points’, Forum on Poverty, The Journal of African History, 59:3 (2018), 475–87. Please see also, Guyer, J. I., ‘Household and community in African Studies’, African Studies Review, 24:2/3 (1981), 87137.

18 Bonnecase, V., ‘When numbers represented poverty: the changing meaning of the food ration in French colonial Africa’, trans. Kantrowitz, Rachel, Forum on Poverty, The Journal of African History, 59:3 (2018), 489507. See also, Bonnecase, V., La pauvreté au Sahel: du savoir colonial à la mesure internationale (Paris, 2011); Davie, G., Poverty Knowledge in South Africa: A Social History of Human Science, 1855–2005 (New York, 2015). Clifton Crais invokes ‘modern poverty,’ but locates its origins in South Africa ‘in the violence of colonial conquest’. See Crais, C., Poverty, War, and Violence in South Africa (New York, 2011), 17.

19 Parsons and Palmer, ‘Introduction’, 10. This argument was based on a combination of archaeological data and ethnographic projection into the deeper past, as was also the case for the other chapters about the deeper economic history of the region. For example, see D. Beach, ‘The Shona economy: branches of production’, 37–65; and S. Young, ‘Fertility and famine: women's agricultural history in southern Mozambique’, 66–81.

20 Parsons and Palmer, ‘Introduction’, 10. See also J.-L. Vellut, ‘Rural poverty in western Shaba, c. 1890–1930’, in Parsons and Palmer (eds.), The Roots, 294–316.

21 Vansina, J., How Societies Are Born: Governance in West Central Africa Before 1600 (Charlottesville, VA, 2004), 29.

22 Ibid. 46. Please note that the asterisk here and below denotes a reconstructed (rather than attested) form and the diacritics indicate tone.

23 Ibid. 40.

24 Delius, P. and Schirmer, S., ‘Order, openness, and economic change in precolonial Southern Africa: a perspective from the Bokoni terraces’, The Journal of African History, 55:1 (2014), 50.

25 A. Felber Seligman, ‘Encircling value: inland trade in the precolonial East African-Indian Ocean world, ca. 1st –17th centuries’ (unpublished PhD thesis, Northwestern University, 2014).

26 For the latter argument, they singled out in particular Acemoglu and Robinson who have argued that Africa's contemporary poverty is rooted in the failure to centralise political power in past centuries. Acemoglu and Robinson, ‘Why is Africa poor?’. For other critiques of this institutional argument, see Jerven, M., ‘African growth recurring: an economic history perspective on African growth episodes, 1690–2010’, Economic History of Developing Regions, 25:2 (2010), 127–54; and Frankema, E. and Waijenburg, M. van, ‘Structural impediments to African growth? New evidence from real wages in British West Africa, 1880–1965’, Journal of Economic History, 72:4 (2017), 895927.

27 Delius and Schirmer, ‘Order’, 45.

28 Ibid. 44.

29 Ibid. 53.

30 McIntosh, R. J., The Peoples of the Middle Niger: The Island of Gold (Oxford, 1988), 166. See also, McIntosh, R. J., Ancient Middle Niger: Urbanism and the Self-Organizing Landscape (Cambridge, 2005); and McIntosh, S. K., ‘Pathways to complexity: an African perspective’, in McIntosh, S. K. (ed.), Pathways to Complexity: An African Perspective (Cambridge, 1998), 130.

31 McIntosh, The Peoples, 200–1.

32 Schoenbrun, D. L., A Green Place, A Good Place: Agrarian Change, Gender, and Social Identity in the Great Lakes Region to the 15th Century (Portsmouth, NH, 1997), 114.

33 Burials from this period remain very rare in the archaeological record, but one was fairly recently excavated in Rwanda and included high status objects in the grave, see Giblin, J., Clement, A. and Humphris, J., ‘An Urewe burial in Rwanda: exchange, health, wealth and violence c. AD 400’, Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa, 45:3 (2010), 276–97.

34 Schoenbrun, A Green Place, 99; Schoenbrun, D. L., The Historical Reconstruction of Great Lakes Bantu Cultural Vocabulary: Etymologies and Distributions (Köln, 1997), 134.

35 For an anthropological overview of clientship in the region, see Mair, L. P., ‘Clientship in East Africa’, Cahiers d’Études africaines, 2:6 (1961), 315–25; on fostering and poverty, see Stephens, R., ‘Birthing wealth? Motherhood and poverty in east-central Uganda, c. 700–1900’, Past and Present, 215 (2012), 235–68.

36 Schoenbrun, A Green Place, 139.

37 Ibid. 153.

38 Vansina offers an especially critical view of the inequality under the Rwandan Nyiginya dynasty, see Vansina, J., Antecedents to Modern Rwanda: The Nyiginya Kingdom (Madison, 2004).

39 M. Davies, ‘Landscape, environment and settlement in Karamoja, Eastern Uganda. c. 2000 BP to present: preliminary report on first season of fieldwork’, unpublished report to the British Institute in Eastern Africa; Widgren, M. and Sutton, J. E. G. (eds.), Islands of Intensive Agriculture in Eastern Africa: Past and Present (Oxford, 2004).

40 The following draws on Stephens, R., ‘“Wealth,” “poverty” and the question of conceptual history in oral contexts: Uganda from c. 1000 CE,’ in Fleisch, A. and Stephens, R. (eds.), Doing Conceptual History in Africa (Oxford, 2018), 2148.

41 The following draws on Stephens, R., ‘The bereft, selfish and hungry: Greater Luhyia concepts of the poor in precolonial East Africa’, The American Historical Review, 123:3 (June 2018), 789816.

42 For overviews of the methodological underpinnings, see de Luna, K. M., Collecting Food, Cultivating People: Subsistence and Society in Central Africa (New Haven, 2016), 2460; Schoenbrun, A Green Place, 19–60; Stephens, R., A History of African Motherhood: The Case of Uganda, 700–1900 (New York, 2013), 1737.

43 Iliffe, J., The African Poor: A History (Cambridge, 1987), 2.

44 Prestholdt, J., Domesticating the World: African Consumerism and the Genealogies of Globalization (Berkeley, 2008), 53.

45 Ibid. 45, 54–6.

46 Krapf, J. L., A Dictionary of the Suahili Language (London, 1882), 168, qtd in Prestholdt, Domesticating, 50.

47 Jan Kuhanen's exploration of how Ganda people understood poverty prior to colonial rule similarly offers us important insights, although it is further constrained by a reliance on proverbs as the source base. See Kuhanen, J., Poverty, Health and Reproduction in Early Colonial Uganda (Joensuu, Finland, 2005), 35–6.

48 Mandala, E., The End of Chidyerano: A History of Food and Everyday Life in Malawi, 1860–2004 (Portsmouth, NH, 2005).

49 Fleischer, J. and LaViolette, A., ‘The early Swahili trade village of Tumbe, Pemba Island, Tanzania, AD 600–950’, Antiquity, 87:338 (2013), 1151–68; Wynne-Jones, S., A Material Culture: Consumption and Materiality on the Coast of Precolonial East Africa (Oxford, 2016). See also Kusimba, C. M, Kusimba, S. B. and Dussubieux, L., ‘Beyond the coastalscapes: preindustrial social and political networks in East Africa’, African Archaeological Review, 30:4 (2013), 399426.

50 Guyer, ‘Pauper’, 463–74.

This forum piece owes much to the participants in the conference I organised at Columbia University in March 2014 on ‘The History of Poverty in Africa: A Central Question?’ and to the students who have taken my course on ‘Histories of African Poverty’. I also acknowledge debts to Kavita Sivaramakrishnan, Gregory Mann, and Jarod Roll, an anonymous reviewer and the editors of The Journal of African History, who all read and commented on earlier versions and pushed me to clarify my thinking and writing on this topic. Email: .





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