Sunday, May 6, 2012

Into Africa–Part 2

(Link to part 1 of this series.)

conquestcoverThomas Sowell, in his book Conquests and Cultures, addresses some of the unique problems (or at least the unique combination of problems) that face Africa relative to cultural development on other continents. He cites three problems in particular that I wish to summarize here. The suitability of the coastline for harbors, the availability of navigable rivers to the interior, and almost singular impact of disease on man and beast. 

First let me put in a plug for the Hoover Institution economist Thomas Sowell generally. You can find his column at and his personal web site. His books Basic Economics and Applied Economics are personal favorites. Read his stuff – you’ll get smarter automagically.


Although Africa is the second largest continent (Asia being the largest), it has the shortest coastline of any. Even shorter than the comparatively tiny Europe. How is that possible you ask? Well, grab a map and a magnifying glass – or spend some time with Google Maps – and notice how convoluted the the coast of Europe is with its many inlets and bays. These characteristics not only make the coastline longer but also lead to the formation of natural harbors that are so essential to seaborne commerce. Now consider the relatively smooth (and therefore shorter) coast of Africa – with consequently fewer places for shipping to approach the shore.

Particularly in the age of sail, the coastline and the wind and current patterns around Africa actually made it easier to sail past it to China or India than to stop and engage in trade with African peoples. Of course, there are exceptions – Alexandria, Egypt and Durban, South Africa, for example. But there can be little doubt that Africa has a clear paucity of natural harbors and that has definitely impacted the development of African commerce over time.

For the trade that did happen, it was often required to transport the goods to the shore overland or through repeated river portages, loaded onto smaller boats and then transported to larger ships offshore. Considering the effort required for the transportation arrangements, it is not difficult to imagine that it worked much better for items that compressed a lot of value into into a small package – or better yet, goods that could transport themselves. Ivory, gold, and slaves became the primary exports – lending their names to the Ivory Coast (Cote d’Ivoire), the Gold Coast (Ghana), the Slave Coast (Togo, Benin, and Nigeria).  

Navigable Rivers

The second disadvantage raised by Dr. Sowell is the limited number of navigable rivers leading to to inland. Cities and cultures tend to grow up around rivers and waterways. Consider one of the notable enduring cultures in Africa – the Egyptians, and even in that case, the Nile was not navigable by the largest Roman ships of the day. There is some question about the nature of “navigability”.

“Even the Niger River – the heart of a great river system in West Africa, draining an area nearly twice the size of Texas – is not navigable at all in some places because of rapids. At the height of the rainy season, the Niger may become a ‘20-mile wide moving lake’ but, during the dry season, the average depth of the Niger can in places fall below 4 meters. … The Niger has been characterized as ‘the easiest to navigate in all of tropical Africa.”
-- Conquests and Cultures, p103

Seasonal changes, rocks, waterfalls, and other hazards contribute to this limited navigability, but there are additional topographic challenges as well. The inland area of Africa is essentially composed of a huge plateau area. As geographer Ellen Churchill Semple wrote in Influences of Geographic Environments, Africa is “cursed with a mesa form which converts nearly every river into a plunging torrent” as it approaches the coast.

Compare that to the Hudson River, which is navigable even to modern aircraft carriers for a good distance. And the Yangtze which is navigable by 10,000 ton ships for hundreds of miles.


tsetseAfrica is home to a number of indigenous diseases and parasites – schistosomiasis, onchocerciasis (“river blindness”), yellow fever, and trypanosomiasis (“sleeping sickness”). These problems, particularly the tsetse fly, take a toll not only on humans, but on animals as well – severely limiting the availability of beasts of burden. The lack of animal muscle is bad enough in terms of transportation, but one must also consider that where there domestic animals are few in number, natural fertilizer is also missing, reducing the fertility of the land for agriculture.

Of course, at least one disease worked somewhat in Africa’s favor. The threat of Malaria forestalled major colonization by Europeans until the late 19th century when widespread use of quinine offered some protection, helping to end Africa’s reputation as “the white man’s grave” – setting off the “Scramble for Africa”. Historian Clifford Conner wrote, “it was quinine's efficacy that gave colonists fresh opportunities to swarm into the Gold Coast, Nigeria and other parts of west Africa".


Dr. Sowell illustrates just a few of the unique limitations Africa has faced. Many of these problems continue to linger, either in actual fact or at least in the form of the development of the continent being “held back” in the period of 1500-1900.

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