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Research Area 2 — The long history of political economies and globalization in Africa

This research area places economic structures in the context of political history by drawing attention to the interactions between economics, politics and society in Africa down through history. Our intent is not to write an economic history as such but to study economic “objects” so as to improve our understanding African societies and politics. This research area has five main themes.

Tribute and taxation
Why was such and such an economic policy adopted for levies of various resources on different scales and during different periods? One factor underlying the growth of centers of power in Africa has been their control over economic resources. The income of ancient African polities came from quite varied forms of tribute in kind (local produce or products, raw or processed, precious metals, etc.) or sometimes in money, but also in the form of services and labor. The shift toward tax systems occurred at various times depending on the place, as administrations with their writing practices spread, as bureaucratic states emerged and as standards have been globalized. However these changes have not at all prevented a hybridization of tax systems.
Debt and is another, perhaps more contemporary, topic that is to be studied over a long historical period. On the national scale, the weight of debt on state budgets is to be assessed, along with its impact on the country’s tax system. At the individual level and over the long run, thought is to be given to the points of equilibrium and tension that public authorities regulate.

Property and agrarian systems: Social and environmental issues
We cannot, regardless of the period, study political economics in Africa (or elsewhere) without addressing questions related to the exploitation of natural resources and the structure of property rights. By borrowing from political ecology or environmental history, we want to understand how resource management policies are formed. What do they tell us about political and social structures, especially in the past?
One subject of study — central to the globalization of agricultural production — is landlordism and land-grabbing. The phenomenon of land ownership reaches far back in history, beyond today’s headlines. The formation of big landed estates in the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia in the 18th century, colonial concessions during the 19th and 20th centuries and, much earlier, the agricultural export trade along the Swahili coast (shamba) and the African companies with an intensive production of oil, sugar, etc. for exportation… these examples demonstrate that control over the land for the purpose of drawing economic rent from it has a long history. Questions about the systems for conveying or transferring property and ownership address key economic issues related to the reproduction or evolution of socioeconomic hierarchies.

Foreign trade and consumption
Africa has long been a part in globalized trading systems, which have shaped its economic geography and polities. In Africa, economics has historically had to do with interactions through trade organized from world centers, some of them African. By drawing these economic maps, we can reconstruct the scale of values on markets, down to the level of areas where the use of money was not current.
Let us pay more attention to the material aspects of trade than to the production cycles for making goods to be exported. The openness of Africa’s economy can be gauged by imports, in particular of manufactured and industrial goods. We can thus study modifications in the material culture. Trends in consumption and the taste for imported goods are a cultural aspect of these new markets for manufactured goods. A long-term study can be made of the use of agricultural products and of the domestication of plants, a cause of deep societal changes.

Imperialism, hegemony, monopolies
This theme focuses on the long history of African societies, which were enmeshed in systems of imperial or colonial relations. The historiography of empires, though expanding, has too often been left to the former colonial powers. A method for comparing sources and historiographical traditions of different origins (documents and archives from colonial administrations, texts in vernacular languages, etc.) can be used to present a new view of the history of imperialism. How do empires shape economies and geographically channel trade? Several “imperial situations” are analyzed: Christian and Muslim Ethiopia, Buganda, Madagascar and the Sudanese empires of the 19th century.
Besides these African empires, the mercantilist or free-trade organizations set up by European imperial powers (the Portuguese from the 16th to the 17th century or the French and British during the 19th and 20th centuries) are studied as processes of globalization. These imperial economies set up trade channels that, in place long after independence, are still shaping patterns of international trade, in which Africa is a stakeholder.

Slavery, human trafficking and servitude
This theme focuses on the long-term linkage between work and social status in Africa: slavery as an economic system of violence and punishment (quantification of the slave trade, trade routes, biographies, interactions with other forms of trade, etc.). The production of social hierarchies in systems based on servitude or slavery is examined from several angles: missionary efforts for freeing/redeeming slaves and the formation of new social classes; forms of servitude (such as statute or forced labor under colonial and then postcolonial administrations); forced or indentured labor in contemporary situations (domestic servants/workers) and sometimes even in the form of wage labor in agriculture.
The slave trade to the Americas, Middle East and North Africa considerably altered the flow of labor from Africa to other regions in the world. The slave trade was eventually abolished, but other forms of forced labor migrations arose: indentured labor is a new form along the old routes of the slave trade; the same areas of recruitment (East Africa, Central Africa) provided plantations in the Antilles and Mascarenes with a cheap work force that took the place of wage-workers whose forefathers had been slaves. Attention is focused on the conditions for recruiting, transporting and integrating laborers, hired or redeemed, in colonies in the Indian Ocean.
The shift from slavery to paid employment and wage labor marked a major change in economies and societies, in particular during the colonial period. The ways in which slavery was abolished and the time when this occurred shed light on in-depth changes in African modes of production. Emancipation from servitude is a foundational act that radically alters societies toward, at first, forced labor and then, a generation later, to a form of paid labor in a capitalistic economy. The shift from slavery to wage labor reorganizes society and enables some social categories to improve their status. Does this reorganization disrupt existing social hierarchies? And if so, to what extent?
The impact of slavery on contemporary identities will be analyzed. How does this past status “stain” the lives of descendants, in particular when there is a definite historical and geographical continuity with the situation of servitude (slavery or “subaltern” groups) inherited from the past? In the case of geographical discontinuity, researchers have to tap the “memory” of diaspora communities. Questions of ethics and of memory are crucial to understanding the identities and strategies now being used to reappropriate the past.