Taking another look at innovation and entrepreneurship under colonial rule – Fellows’ seminar by Tony Hopkins

28 February 2020

“Although African economic history is enjoying a renaissance, the branch of the subject represented by business remains relatively neglected. The aim of this project is to reconstruct the history of African merchants in Lagos, Nigeria during the period that opened with abolition of the slave trade and closed with the establishment of colonial rule and the crisis brought by World War I. A new generation of educated, Christian merchants appeared in Lagos in the 1850s and prospered in the import and export trades until the close of the century, when an economic depression reduced the profitability of their businesses and the advent of colonial rule reduced their status. However, the conventional view that the embryonic middle class was eliminated is misleading. Sources relating to the merchants themselves and their commercial activities make it clear that they diversified in two ways. One group moved inland and founded the Nigerian cocoa-farming industry; another stayed in Lagos, capitalised on rising land values and became rentiers. The revised story of adaptation has implications for understanding the character of entrepreneurship under colonial rule and the part played by these innovative activities in wider issues of economic development,” said Tony Hopkins of the Department of History at Cambridge University.

STIAS Fellow Tony Hopkins during his seminar on 20 February 2020

Hopkins described the work as “a very small comment on a big subject but a fulfilment of a moral obligation to the wonderful African families who participated in several years of fieldwork”.

“My comment on this large topic is necessarily modest because my study is confined to a sample of 100 African merchants in the port of Lagos between 1851, when the external slave trade was suppressed, and 1921, when colonial rule was firmly established. Nevertheless, the story I have reconstructed produces some surprising and instructive answers regarding the fortunes of the agents of modernity, the limits of standard entrepreneurial theory, and the assumption that the notion of modernity is a Western monopoly,” he said.

He pointed out that, inspired by Enlightenment thinking, the British launched the world’s first development plan from 1815 onwards. This was designed to shape other societies to fit priorities devised in London and the creation of a middle class was a key feature. “The assumptions were those of modernisation theory before the term was invented,” he added.

Ending the slave trade made models of alternative economic development necessary and this led to the establishment of an embryonic middle class in some African countries. Hopkins said that this elite group has been described as pioneers of a capitalist ethic but that their role and trajectory has been debated and reconstructing their history was not easy.

Hopkins focused on the case studies of two such individuals. James Pinson Labulo Davies, a Yoruba born to liberated slaves in 1828 in Sierra Leone and Jacob Kehinde Coker, a Yoruba of Egba descent who was born in 1866 in Iporo-Ake Abeokuta, the present capital of Ogun State.

Davies was educated in a mission school, trained in navigation and by 1856 was a successful export merchant in Lagos and described as the most prominent of the creole merchants.

He moved in high society – Queen Victoria was his child’s godmother. He engaged in philanthropy and the development of schools and churches. He also became involved in Lagos politics. In the 1870s, however, his business was hit by the international financial shock and he was declared bankrupt in 1876. Despite this, Davies went on to become a cocoa farmer in the village of Ijon and is credited with having pioneered cocoa farming in the country which eventually became the second-largest producer in the world.

Davies also passed on his cocoa farming knowledge to J.K. Coker who was later to help in the establishment of the Agege Planter’s Union which spread cocoa farming throughout the Yoruba region.

Hopkins pointed out that the lives, status and trajectory of such individuals were strongly impacted by the broader global influences which he divided into three phases – Enlightenment, the rise of scientific racism and colonisation, and the changing morality and emphasis on human rights post-World War I and II.

“Initially Enlightenment principles and global economic circumstances favoured this group and they undertook a silent but transformational revolution,” said Hopkins.

But by the mid-nineteenth century Enlightenment ideals started to decline. Europe began to change with the development of nation states, the economic and labour needs of industrialisation, the rise in scientific racism, and the resulting colonisation and partition of Africa.

In 1892 Yorubaland was invaded.

Hopkins said that the drama of the invasion and partition of Africa was a shock to a generation of educated Africans as is evident from both their personal correspondence and newspaper reports.

“It appeared that the golden keys to advancement were no longer in their hands and that the new colonial order would set strict limits to their opportunities.”

Not the full story

It’s generally assumed that colonisation led to the demise of the middle class but Hopkins believes that is not quite true.

“This subject has attracted a good deal of comment,” he continued, “much of it inspired by imperial or nationalist convictions. Was the rise of the new middle class followed by its decline? If so, was it brought down by internal failings or driven into obscurity by self-serving colonial interests? Such questions frequently prompt answers that attain the status of truth while dispensing with the need for evidence.”

Hopkins pointed to downsizing and sideways movements, but also a growing professional class of lawyers, administrators and politicians as well as a new class of property owners. Farmers continued to form co-ops, fostered the spread of farming, organised wage labour, and developed infrastructure as well as quality standards and regulations.

“For example, modern manufacturing in West Africa began before the end of colonial rule with a boom after World War II,” he said.

These individuals had to learn how to live with an overwhelming colonial force without being dominated. This necessitated adaptation and Hopkins believes many, in particular the cocoa farmers, showed an ability to continually adapt to the changing circumstances.

“Coker, in particular, managed to change and adapt – combining Western ideas and technology with his African heritage.”

Coker is known for his role in the establishment of the African Church in 1901 which represented a breakaway from the Anglican Church which dominated under colonial rule.

Some educated merchants adopted African dress and names, and effectively created a world of their own while still acting as intermediaries connecting the Western world with indigenous societies. They remained part of a cosmopolitan society “which gives us a different perspective on colonial rule,” said Hopkins.

The stories of Davies and Coker, among others, can be seen as a microcosm of what was happening elsewhere. Hopkins believes that detailed study of such individuals can offer a more balanced view of colonial rule and challenge the notion of modernity as a Western monopoly.

“Modernity was not developed in Africa in the 1950s,” he said.

He pointed to the need for more understanding of the history of entrepreneurship and innovation, further reconstruction of the writing of African history, and a renewed effort to uncover the past by searching for new source material, including undertaking fieldwork.

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw

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