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Gareth Austin Universidad de Cambridge y fellow del King's College

The Political Economy of Slave Labour in West African History

Social Sciences Conference Monday, 13 November 2023, 19:00 hours Madrid

General information:

Venue: Fundación Ramón Areces - salón de actos. Calle Vitruvio, 5. 28006. Madrid.

Attendance is free, but it is necessary prior registration. Limited capacity.


Organized by:

Fundación Ramón Areces e Instituto Figuerola de Historia y Ciencias Sociales de la UC3M


Miguel Jerez Méndez

Consejo de Ciencias Sociales de la Fundación Ramón Areces

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In Europe, precolonial West Africa is probably most associated with the Atlantic and Saharan slave trades. Slave labour also became central to the economies of West African societies themselves: a recent study asserted that by 1850 half the population of the largest nineteenth-century state, the Sokoto Caliphate, consisted of slaves. This lecture will explore the history of slavery within West Africa, addressing three problems.

First, while there was huge demand for manual labour in the plantation systems of the early modern Americas, labour was also scarce in relation to cultivable land in West Africa itself. Given also the costs of enslavement and transportation, why then was the Atlantic (and Saharan) slave trade profitable to the perpetrators, over hundreds of years?

Second, West Africa in the fifteenth to early twentieth centuries is a good example of the general observation that, unlike with the other major categories of labour coercion  -serfdom, debt bondage or corvée-  those enslaved were usually foreigners in their masters’ societies. Why was enslavement overwhelmingly a fate reserved for outsiders?

Third, of all the forms of labour coercion, slavery is arguably the most market-oriented. What were the relationships between slave trading, slave labour, and the growing commercialisation of West Africa, including after abolition?

For all three questions, I will argue that the answers have to be partly economic and environmental (resources and technologies), and partly political (relating to the constraints and opportunities for state formation in the region, and the incentives to rulers).

Monday,  13 November

19:00 h.


Miguel Jerez Méndez

Consejo de Ciencias Sociales de la Fundación Ramón Areces.


Juan Carmona

Director del Instituto Figuerola de Historia y Ciencias Sociales - UC3M.  


La economía política de la esclavitud en la historia de África Occidental

Gareth Austin

Universidad de Cambridge y fellow del King's College


Gareth Austin

Gareth Austin is a Professor Emeritus of economic history at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of King's College. He specializes in African, comparative and global economic history, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He has conducted extensive research on Ghana and other parts of West Africa, as well as on Asia and Latin America. He has published several books and articles on topics such as slavery, labour, land, capital, industrialization and environmental history. He is a former editor of the Journal of African History and a founder of the Journal of Global History. He has taught and worked at various universities around the world, including Birmingham, Ghana, London, Geneva, Cape Town, Kyoto, Delhi and Montevideo.



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