African Women: A Modern History

By Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch; Beth Gillian Raps | Go to book overview

3
Women and Trade at the Dawn of Colonialism

Women's situations varied by region and society. Whereas the central and eastern areas of Africa were particularly ravaged by the slave trade, in West Africa some women enjoyed a certain autonomy because, in addition to working the land, they produced handicrafts and sold goods in the market. Such was the case in the Yoruba area, which had long been urban, and in areas with cash crops such as palm oil in what is now Benin or kola nuts in Bete country (now western Côte d'Ivoire) and Ghana.


Trade: A Tradition Rooted in West Africa

In the old kingdom of Abomey (or Danxhomé, now Benin), trading in cash crops began in the midnineteenth century. The cultivation of oil palms on royal plantations was the job of slaves. Gathering the palm nuts was perilous, requiring a climb up the high, smooth tree trunk with a rope about one's waist holding one to the tree, and was a male task. Little is known about regional trade in the nineteenth century, but there is some information for the early twentieth, when, after slavery had been abolished, large intact plantations remained. 1 Production and harvest were organized by village. Women participated in the production of palm oil and in transporting it by caravan to Western companies' coastal warehouses. According to a system that had probably begun the century before, husband and wife each had their own property and kept separate accounts, and the woman bought what she produced on credit from her husband and reimbursed him after making a profit from it. Polygamy made holding property in common unworkable,

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