Africa and the Africans in the Nineteenth Century: A Turbulent History

By Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch; Mary Baker | Go to book overview

1
People and Their Environment
Africa’s Climate and Demography

Contemporary research showing renewed demographic growth supports the fact that despite strong regional variations, the nineteenth century was a relatively prosperous period for Africa. Specialists disagree about whether the upswing began in the period between 1760 and 1840 when the slave trade was at its height. The debate is likely the result of differing reference points, given the vastness of the continent.1 West Africa flourished earlier because it was the first to be absorbed into modern capitalism. In contrast, slave trading remained a scourge in East Africa into the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, general population growth occurred before the last third of the century owing to relative economic prosperity, at least among members of the ruling class. The increase in wealth was a result of more active, broader markets (including the slave market) and a more favorable ecological environment marked by better rainfall toward the middle of the century. This was a change from the series of droughts that began at the turn of the eighteenth century and included several of severe intensity in the final third of the nineteenth century. By the mid-century, demographic pressure had become obvious, including an unprecedented increase in population movement related to the Fulani jihad in West Africa and the Nguni migrations, formerly known as the Zulu mfecane, in southern and eastern Africa.


The Perils of Rainfall Variations

Fluctuations in population and migratory movement were largely the result of the continent’s climatic history, which is why it is so important to identify alternating periods of rain and drought. Seen from a distance of a few hundred years, the period from 1500 to 1630 was probably a more humid phase during which the desert retreated. The period from 1630 to 1890, on the other hand, was a long, relatively dry period during which desertification of the Sahel increased. Relatively dense forests that were home to tsetse flies could still be found in the Senegal Valley circa 1750.2 Corn was still cultivated there, but gradually gave way to sorghum and millet. As a comparison, in Saint-Louis 20.3 inches of rain fell in 1754 and only 15.6 inches in 1755. Between 1860 and 1899, the annual

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