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November 2015: Africa, Empire and Globalization: Essays in Honor of A. G. Hopkins

Toyin Falola and Emily Brownell (eds). Durham NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2011. 657 pp. $65.00 (hardcover).

Reviewed by: James R. Brennan, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The impact of Antony G. Hopkins’ life work as a historian of Africa, the British Empire, and globalization is on full display in this festschrift volume of thirty-two chapters by thirty-five different authors. This book is a result of a symposium held in 2011 at the University of Texas at Austin, where Hopkins had held the Walter Prescott Webb Chair in History since 2002 following a distinguished academic career based in Birmingham, Geneva, and Cambridge. The editors begin by summarizing Hopkins’ publication record of nearly one hundred works, which not only impresses for its ambition and productivity, but also for its flinty commitment to the questions and concerns of economic history, to understand ‘how economic forces shape political realities’ (44). Two central themes emerge from this tour of Hopkins oeuvre – a belief in the economic agency of historical actors, be they individuals, firms, societies, or classes; and a universalist conviction that such agency transcends structures of cultural difference. To Hopkins’ mind, culturalist historians, by dint of their large numbers and professional influence, have effectively seceded the study of African poverty and development to economists with little background or concern for African history. Hopkins’ hallmark themes, however, are demonstrated to be alive and well across the many contributions of this volume. Above all, the reader comes to appreciate Hopkins’ unrivalled knack for initiating productive scholarly debate.

The most satisfying part of this volume is its first (‘Africa and the Wider World’), which is composed of essays from African historians that revisit aspects of Hopkins’ seminal An Economic History of West Africa (1973). This book remains, over forty years after publication, the most cogent book- length economic interpretation of the continent’s history. It still seems vaguely radical today, both in its insistence that Africans were largely the makers of their own economic history, and in the confident way that it dismisses substantivists and modernization theorists alike for positing a traditional Africa characterized by anti-capitalist values. Gareth Austin offers a rich retrospective of the book’s arguments and impact, and judges that subsequent research on Africa’s economic history has vindicated many if not all of Hopkins’ claims, in particular the explanatory power of rational economic behavior. He highlights Hopkins’ attention to African agency, markets, and resource constraints that continue to constitute the key features of more recent scholarship on African economic history. Austin’s literature survey is done with great clarity, rigor and command, and in effect serves as a useful primer for this entire subfield.

Although An Economic History of West Africa is a book of African economic agency, its pulses of periodization are largely exogenous, such as the nineteenth- century ‘crisis of adaptation’ that African warrior-merchants faced following the decline of the Atlantic slave trade and shift to ‘legitimate commerce’ such as palm oil. This volume’s contributions by other West African specialists more sharply qualify or even refute Hopkins’ signature thesis. Ann McDougall’s chapter on the Sahara, though inspired by Hopkins’ work, ultimately demonstrates the persisting autonomy of the trans-Saharan caravan trade across this entire period. In their study of Katsina, Yacine Daddi Adddoun and Paul Lovejoy make clear that the interior’s slave trade and Muslim commercial system proved ‘relatively immune to change in Atlantic trade’ (111–112) throughout the nineteenth century. Robin Law engages the ‘crisis of adaptation’ thesis directly by revisiting an important proving ground of the argument, the Yoruba War of 1877–93. Law argues, contra Hopkins, that the profitability of slave trading remained high and that of palm oil remained low throughout this period, and that the war itself was driven not by pressures from the palm oil producers below but rather by entrenched divisions among ruling Yoruba elites. While Austin’s wide-ranging defense of Hopkins’ classic work and these subsequent criticisms are each quite stimulating, the reader is left unsure about which elements of Hopkins’ model are most in need of revision.

The book’s second part (‘Empire’) examines the legacy and future of the influential volume British Imperialism, which Hopkins co-authored with Peter Cain. Its famous and well-coined thesis – that British Imperialism from the late seventeenth to twentieth centuries was primarily driven by ‘gentlemanly capitalism’, i.e., the influence of the City of London and other service industries, rather than provincial manufacturing interests, on Britain’s imperial policy – undergoes similar scrutiny. In perhaps the volume’s most important contribution of original research, Joseph Inikori tests the influence of gentlemanly capitalists in the case of Britain’s largely forgotten ‘first’ African colony of the Senegambia (1765–83). Inikori examines critical moments of decision-making to demonstrate that manufacturing interests, namely textiles, wielded inordinate influence to secure gum exports. Other regions of ostensibly greater ‘gentlemanly capitalist’ interest further east and south along the African coast, where the slave trade was far more important, however received no comparably favorable reception from the ‘official mind’, which, at least in this instance of the Senegambia, ‘identified manufacturing concerns with national interest, while those of the service sector were identified with private interest’ (228). Anthony Webster’s outstanding contribution on the decline of the East India Company offers a trenchant critique of the Cain and Hopkins model by challenging the model’s key assumptions – that there was a sharp division between London-centered services and provincial manufacturers, and that they inevitably competed to influence government policy. Webster shows, at least in the case of Asian trade from the 1790s to the 1850s, that pressure groups are far better characterized by complicated and intertwined networks rather than by large blocs. The displacement of the East India Company over this period was not simply the work of more agile gentlemanly capitalists outside the company, but rather was a decades-long lobbying campaign carried out by ‘a transimperial network of interests across Britain’s Asian empire that linked London gentlemanly capitalists, provincial industrialists and merchants, and British merchants on the periphery of empire’ (289). Webster does acknowledge, however, that gentlemanly capitalism works far better to explain the shape of lobbying after 1850, when divisions between services and manufacturers considerably sharpened.

The book’s third part (‘Globalization’) ranges across a vast thematic and geographical terrain. There is a more pronounced ‘grab-bag’ quality to this section, perhaps because Hopkins’ writing on globalization has not (yet) constructed similarly controversial and testable models as has his work on Africa and the British Empire. But as throughout the book, the quality of writing and reflection in this section’s contributions remains consistently high, and there are a number of interesting gems. William Roger Louis revisits the fascinating maneuverings at the United Nations that led to the partition of Palestine in 1947 to highlight the postwar diplomatic vulnerability of the British Empire – not only from both Cold War titans, but also from within the Commonwealth itself, namely Canada and Australia, while a desperate Britain was left, ironically, to count on India, Pakistan, and the Arab world for votes. Other contributions on the Black Atlantic, Pan-Africanism, American anticommunist multilateralism, and the Nigerian Civil War all similarly demonstrate the profitability of globalizing units of analysis.

The book itself is big, heavy, handsomely produced, and includes a full index. The heft of its scholarship justifies its hefty price. This volume will serve as an important reference for scholars interested in the scholarship and principal debates concerning the economic history of Africa, the British Empire, and globalization.

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