University of Cambridge > > Core Seminar in Economic and Social History > Why Malthus wasn’t African. Reviewing explanations and implications of low population densities in pre-1900 Sub-Saharan Africa

Why Malthus wasn’t African. Reviewing explanations and implications of low population densities in pre-1900 Sub-Saharan Africa

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Low population densities and open land frontiers, or alternatively, the absence of Malthusian conditions, have been foundational to a range of deep explanations of long-term comparative development in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to theories of factor-biased technological change high ratios of land to labour have induced long-term patterns of economic specialisation in land and resource extensive commodities (Austin 2008). High land-labour ratios have also been argued to have shaped African labour regimes (e.g. slavery, pawning), lineage systems and household formation strategies (e.g. polygamy) (Domar 1970, Iliffe 2007, Fenske 2014). It has also been argued that scarce supplies of human labour have induced particular colonial policies with respect to labour mobilisation and commodification (Cooper 1996, Frankema and van Waijenburg 2012). In addition, land abundance and limited capacities to tax vast empty hinterlands have been pointed to as barriers to pre-colonial state centralisation (Young 1994, Herbst 2000). Very few scholars, however, have made attempts to trace back demographic developments into the distant past (see Manning 2010 for the most important exception). The dearth of quantitative evidence prevents the field from engaging in a more systematic discussion of the possible factors that may have suppressed the growth of African populations before 1900. Of course, centuries of slave trading are part of such explanations as several scholars have pointed out (Manning 2010, Inikori 2007), but they are not necessarily the dominant factor. This paper reviews the possible explanations for the comparatively slow evolution of African populations in pre-colonial times by distinguishing time-variant from time-invariant factors, and by using variation in population densities around 1950 to develop some systematic arguments. In my discussion I will pay attention to at least five factors: 1) the ecological conditions of food crop cultivation, 2) ecological conditions for the survival of domesticated and wild animals, 3) tropical disease incidence, 4) deliberate practices of population control, 5) unintended checks on population growth. I will not try to weigh these factors and rank them in order of importance. Instead, my focus will be on the question how these factors may be related in determining the long-term evolution of populations in specific areas and periods of time.

This talk is part of the Core Seminar in Economic and Social History series.

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