For my CHI project, I plan to publish a clean dataset composed of information about trade goods carried across the Volta River in West Africa. An important nexus of trade from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, the Volta River was traversed by traders moving back and forth from the forest region of present-day Ghana to the savanna region, and included both goods and traders from neighboring territories. I plan to publish my dataset as a CSV and JSON file on a website that includes contextual information about the historical context and the data cleaning process.
I collected the data from the Public Records and Archives Administration Department (PRAAD) in Accra and Tamale, Ghana. The trade records include statistics on the types and amounts of goods carried by traders across the river. The statistics, however, are not a complete picture of trade in the region, as many traders avoided customs stations where the statistics were recorded. Nonetheless, the statistics illustrate trends in the internal trade that reflect wider political, economic, and social changes in the region.
The dataset, like the statistics contained in the documents, will be organized by goods with quantity amounts for either monthly or yearly periods, depending on the custom station and reporting year. Additionally, the dataset will include descriptions of the goods being traded and information about the location where the good was recorded. In working with the archival documents, I found that the information written down by customs officials was more descriptive and more comprehensive than the reports issued by the customs department in Accra. For this reason, I sought to include as many original—rather than summary—documents as possible from the customs records at PRAAD. I entered approximately 8,000 records in nine different tables, which I plan to consolidate into one publishable dataset.
The data generated about African economies tends to be export oriented, with the best statistics covering sea-borne trade. This data draws on statistics recorded by colonial governments and postcolonial states. Internal trade is less well documented and thus not as thoroughly explored in the scholarship. My project takes a first step in exploring internal trade through the haphazard documentation that exists in the colonial archive.
In the short-term, I plan to use the dataset to contextualize my dissertation research on the history of animal skins and leatherworking in the Volta River Basin. Although skins do not feature in large quantities in the archival statistics, the dataset nonetheless illustrates trends in internal trade that reflect social and economic changes in the region. I also hope the dataset and the associated contextual information is useful for other historians working in the same region and time period as me. In future, as I continue conducting research in the Ghanaian archives, I plan to add entries to the dataset.