Africa was almost completely under colonial rule at the time of the Great Depression and served as a source of agricultural produce and of ores and minerals for its masters. In a few areas white settlers owned large estates and were dependent on African labour, but in most parts of Africa the production and marketing of agricultural produce were in the hands of the Africans. Unlike in India where revenue administration and titles in land were major preoccupations of the colonial power, land law was for the most part of no concern to the colonial rulers of Africa. They left this to customary law, though in many places customary law turned into ‘lawyer’s customary law’, i.e. a hybrid breed of original custom and what the lawyers made of it when presenting cases in colonial courts. Taxes were mostly poll taxes or export taxes, therefore the colonial rulers had no reason to bother about the administration of land revenue or to interfere with the pattern of landholding.
The export of agricultural produce was in the hands of large European trading companies. Similarly the exploitation of mines and the export of ores and minerals were controlled by European companies. Just as in Latin America, such companies had to bear the brunt of the Great Depression. Africans were only affected to the extent that they lost their jobs and had to turn to agriculture in order to make a living. Many parts of Africa were still at the stage of subsistence agriculture and were therefore not immediately affected by the slump. But colonial rulers collected poll taxes and thus the African peasants had to market some of their produce in order to pay those taxes. Moreover, the colonial rulers used these poll taxes as a means of extracting a cheap supply of such produce from the peasantry. As we shall see, the Belgian Congo was a particularly glaring example of this type of practice.