This summer, I updated Africa’s Imperial Commodities, a digital history project that explores export data from Africa to Europe. I added a new commodity page that examines the history of gum exports from West Africa. Additionally, I updated other pages to elaborate on the historical context and to engage more fruitfully with the limitations of the dataset. I made these changes while working on a new commodity dataset that compiles internal trade statistics from the colonial period in Ghana. Doing the data entry and cleaning helped me rethink aspects of Africa’s Imperial Commodities.
The website originally featured essays on animal skins, kola, and peanuts. In some ways, however, these essays told similar stories about commodity exports from the precolonial to the colonial period. In each case, the exports increased after formal colonization around the turn of the twentieth century. This shift highlights export-oriented activities of colonial governments. Moreover, it depicts colonialism as a period of increasing economic activity in Africa. This, however, is not true for all commodities across the African continent. The new page on the website demonstrates how gum exports increased most significantly during the precolonial period, especially in the 1870s. After formal colonization, gum exports fluctuated only occasionally exceeding the precolonial figures.
I also realized the website launched in May did not clearly address the historical context. For this reason, I included additional information on the methodology page about the underlying dataset and so-called legitimate trade in African history. This information better situates the commodity essays within broader trends during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Moreover, the historical context helps to explain why the commodity information exists in the first place.
I noted other minor problems with the website’s organization. I consider the main problem to be the repetition of information in the commodity essays. When writing the essays, I decided to compare export data for two colonies in each essay. I often selected Senegal and Nigeria who have more instances of commodity exports than others. In doing this, I tended to repeat the historical context for these colonies. Moreover, I repeated historical information on the transition to colonialism and instructions for interacting with the visualizations. In the updated website, I reduced some of this repetition while keeping enough contextual information so users can understand the essays without reading them in any particular order. I opted for this solution rather than creating new pages on the historical context, for example, to maintain the simplicity of the website’s organization.
While making these changes, I started another project on the movement of commodities in Ghana during the colonial period. I compiled a dataset of 8,000 commodity records that detail the movements of animals, agricultural foodstuffs, and manufactured goods at internal customs offices. Most of these records show the movements of trade items across the Volta River from northern to southern Ghana. Generally, I am interested in the history of the individual commodities and their connections to northern Ghana and the broader savanna region. As I continue exploring and cleaning this new dataset, I plan to publish it as an extension of export-oriented historical datasets. The history of internal commodity movements is much less explored in the literature.