Academic journal article African Economic History

Precolonial Palm Oil Production and Gender Division of Labor in Nineteenth-Century Gold Coast and Togoland1

Academic journal article African Economic History

Precolonial Palm Oil Production and Gender Division of Labor in Nineteenth-Century Gold Coast and Togoland1

Article excerpt

Introduction

Much has been written of West African palm oil as an export commodity in the nineteenth century. The development of its trade is a major focus of describing and analyzing the transition of precolonial West African communities away from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade to alternative forms of economic activity, what contemporaries called "legitimate commerce." The effect on African economic, political and social structures of that transition informs all economic histories of nineteenth century West Africa, and the extent and severity of its impact on African communities is rightly debated by major historians.2 One of the theoretical debates that has developed concerns the shift (whether it occurred or not and, if so, how completely) from political monarchs and military chieftains in control of the acquisition and export of slaves, to smaller scale entrepreneurs and cultivators who emerged able to participate in the new agricultural-produce export markets of the late nineteenth century thus initiating, according to A.G. Hopkins, the "start of the modern economic history of West Africa." A question related to this issue which this paper attempts to address is: if ruling, ascribed elites were losing their dominance of the external (slave) trade, how did small-scale producers, perhaps even households, with an initial lack of capital and probably labor, reorient their traditional livelihoods to produce enough product to meet the demands of a largescale export market? This paper will focus on the details of traditional methods of manufacturing palm oil in order to shed light on how communities in the area of what is today southern Ghana were able to accomplish significant, or at least adequate, expansion of palm oil production.

My interest in this subject was stimulated by research I conducted on nineteenth and early twentieth century cotton production in eastern Gold Coast and Togoland.4 As I tried to discern what factors inhibited or enabled increased production of cotton for the export market, two factors among many stood out: One was the rather strict gender division of crop cultivation, processing, and marketing which, in the case of cotton, was grown and spun almost exclusively by women, while cloth was woven almost exclusively by men. The female monopoly on cultivating cotton had an inhibiting effect on German colonial demands for large scale cotton production for export. The other, though not perhaps unrelated, factor was that, in the opinion of European observers, African producers much preferred expanding palm oil to cotton production since palm oil yielded better profits.

While gender division varies from place to place in West Africa, most precolonial societies designated some crops and processing tasks for women, some for men, and some for both. Domestic palm oil processing was primarily a female activity in most parts of West Africa. One might therefore hypothesize that, as with cotton production in eastern Gold Coast/Togoland, the large increases in palm oil production that must have occurred to meet the export demand documented for West Africa in the nineteenth century, would surely have altered women's labor patterns, and perhaps also their access to wealth and social mobility. S. Martin has written about this phenomenon in Ngwa, Eastern Nigeria contending that women there did not maintain control over the proceeds of palm-oil sales, though their labor for the gender-identified work was exploited by men through the expansion of polygyny "as marriage remained an attractive alternative to the purchase of slaves." R. Law also addressed the issue in Yorubaland and Dahomey noting that on the one hand "the manufacture and export of palm oil was to a large degree a female business," while on the other hand "other evidence points to a significant role for male labor." Hence he demurs that the "implications of this for gender relations are difficult to determine."6

One might also hypothesize that unless women's work time was extremely elastic and not already occupied with subsistence farming, marketing, household tasks, food preparation, and child care, that the female labor designation of palm oil production could constitute an inhibiting factor and restrict precolonial capacity for expansion for the export market. …

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