Why was Africa so underdeveloped before colonization?

Dec 2011
2,085
That seems a quite personal definition of “underdevelopment” that most probably would thrown all the world civilizations, pre-19th or 20th centuries to the that definition.

It is a personal definition or you took it from some author? If so, can you mention him?
Yes, I made that clear on more than one occasion, that all societies, prior to 1800 were in a state of underdevelopment. No country anywhere today has life expectancy lower than 40. Yes it is a personal definition, but do you know of a better one?
 
Dec 2011
2,085
“Kaffir” may be the Indian word in a depreciative way for a black person, and I don’t know any Indian languages, but “kaffir” is a English word, it comes from “cafre” a Portuguese word.

When the Portuguese sailed around Africa, the southern corner was known as “Cafraria”, i.e. land of the “cafres”, as far as I know the word is probably a corruption/adaptation of the Arab word “infidel” used in the Swahili Coast (the ones that know Arab may give me some help here to state to what extent the word is corrupted).

The word didn’t had the racial depreciative connotation that gained in the late 19th and in the 20th centuries in the South of Africa.
I thought "kaffir" was an Arabic word meaning "infidel". A 19th century British explorer met Muslims treating their black slaves badly. They answered his question by saying "Why care, they are just kafirs". It only meant "unbeliever" but like "n*ger" which only means "black", it was commonly spat out as a gesture of contempt.
 
Jan 2012
406
South Midlands in Britain
was wondering why sub- saharan Africa was underdeveloped compared to the rest of the world before colonization. I know about civilizations such as Mali, Nubia, and Great Zimbabwe, however I saw someone online saying these civilizations weren't as advanced as those in Europe, Asia, or even Mesoamerica. Is this true? And if so, why??
It is appropriate to define your terms. In medieval times Mali was renowned for its wealth. Then there are the kingdoms in Africa that were overthrown by the European powers because they wanted to go their own way. The wealth of the Ashanti is in UK museums and remember that Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scout movement, learned his bush-craft fighting the Ashanti. Then there are the Zulu whose strength if anything was a direct consequence of persistent European incursions. The only trouble about development that the Africans experienced was that they didn't have machine-guns.

A great uncle of mine was shipped out in the Great War to train the Kings African Rifles as a local force to fight the African regiments created by the Germans. He quickly developed a deep respect for the African volunteers and, on his return to the UK in 1919 expressed concern as to how the native way of life of kraal and cattle was being ripped apart as the Europeans turned the African people into an industrial proletariat with little or no dignity.
 

Tulius

Ad Honorem
May 2016
4,905
Portugal
Yes, I made that clear on more than one occasion, that all societies, prior to 1800 were in a state of underdevelopment. No country anywhere today has life expectancy lower than 40. Yes it is a personal definition, but do you know of a better one?
Since language is a tool of communication, having personal definitions that no-one shares is most of the time an obstacle to communication, unless you are using it as a working definition to a thesis.

If I have one “better”? Not necessarily. It is not a question of being “better”, it is a question of “being” more useful in the communication.

We can take a look what two reference and widely used sites say about it:

Definition of UNDERDEVELOPED

Underdevelopment - Wikipedia

“having a relatively low economic level of industrial production and standard of living (as from lack of capital)” from the first link.

No direct mention to life expectancy. The use of the word “relatively” implies a comparison. And in history the comparison must be taken preferentially with contemporary societies. If not how can we say that Africa in the 15th or 16th century was or was not underdeveloped? Surely isn’t comparing with today’s societies! If the comparison is made with other continents and other societies the life expectancy of 40 years doesn’t seem to make sense, since at the time, mostly due to the child mortality, the life expectancy was lower. If a person passed infancy it could live much more than 40 years, but the major issue was the child mortality.

In our case the Wikipedia page doesn’t help us much since is mostly dedicated to post-colonial themes, and not pre-colonial as the theme of this thread, even didn’t saw any direct reference to the life expectancy of 40 years old.

I thought "kaffir" was an Arabic word meaning "infidel". A 19th century British explorer met Muslims treating their black slaves badly. They answered his question by saying "Why care, they are just kafirs". It only meant "unbeliever" but like "n*ger" which only means "black", it was commonly spat out as a gesture of contempt.
Yes, I also mentioned the Arab link, if the word is exactly the same, I don’t know, since I don’t know Arab. My point was that its use to refer to black persons in Africa isn’t Indian, and predates much its depreciative use in the 19th and 20th centuries, by the Dutch and English.

By the way, I jumped to this small paper about the theme, that confirms the Arab origin, and the Portuguese use (p.3):

http://www.cilt.uct.ac.za/usr/cci/publications/aria/download_issues/2004/2004_MS4.pdf

But the Portuguese sources since the beginning of the 16th century use often the two words (Cafre and Cafraria/Kaffir and land of the Kaffir) to describe specifically the people and the land in the south corner of Africa. For instance, in the Portuguese epic poem “Lusíadas”, by Camões, written in the second half of the 16th century we can already see the word "Cafres" (in Canto V, 47) at a time that I don't think that the Dutch and the English had arrived there:

https://ia801401.us.archive.org/32/items/oslusadasthelu01camuoft/oslusadasthelu01camuoft.pdf
 
Dec 2011
2,085
“having a relatively low economic level of industrial production and standard of living (as from lack of capital)” from the first link.
So on that definition, and comparing with other continents at the same time, was Africa underdeveloped in pre-colonial times?

I don't have a thesis, but I do believe that a broader context can inform people. People ask "Why is Africa so poor, why do they lag so far behind when the rest of the wold is advancing?" In asking this, they are obviously comparing the production and income most countries have and, looking at Africa, are struck by the stark difference. But in a sense that is looking at things the wrong way round. What is amazing is not Africa's poverty, but most of the world's HUGE development that has occured in the past 200 years, which has broken a period of thousands of years when all were in poverty.

Here, of course, what is being asked is why Africa was underdeveloped even before colonialism. In reply I say pre-colonial Africa was clearly underdeveloped, but then so was the rest of the world. Yes, there were all sorts of nice things like printing and wheeled vehicles, big ships and clocks, but all this I see as only laying the foundations for the development that would in future take place. I would guess that the absence of clocks, printing etc. in sub-saharan Africa was partly a result of the relative isolation because of the Sahara. But I say again, most parts of the world didn't have those things.
 
Jun 2015
5,620
UK
By the time Europeans started to trade with Africa, they found political systems in some way more advanced than their own.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, France was just ruled by the King, and little else. Asante had a feudal-like structure, and Kongo and Benin had administrative structures on par with Europe.

Even up until the 20th century, most European countries were autocratic. Britain and France were the most notable exceptions, and Russia only ended serfdom in the 19th century.

Europeans did bring some improvements to Africa, possibly mostly in terms of infrastructure like bridges and railways. But not in a political nor social sense.

When thee British invaded both Asante and Benin, they were impressed with the works in each royal palace, and the level of organisation required to run their empires. There is a reason why the Benin Bronzes are still in the British Museum, and why the British desperately wanted to take the Asante Golden Stool and failed. Britain even gave Asante independence in 1930.
 
Jun 2015
5,620
UK
Its quite funny though - it's clear Africa had some developed states pre-colonialism. But seldom do these racists ever pick up on North America or Australia. Central and South America are well-known, but North America has had few developed polities. Cahokia is there, but nobody really knows what it was, or its purpose.
 

Tulius

Ad Honorem
May 2016
4,905
Portugal
So on that definition, and comparing with other continents at the same time, was Africa underdeveloped in pre-colonial times?
The level of development underdevelopment is not constant in the Continent. It isn’t in Europe, in Asia, in Africa, in America or in Oceania. Probably the exception is Antarctica, and we know why!

There were regions of Africa that were au pair with many regions of Europe and Asia. Others were (using my Eurocentric concepts) at a Medieval level, others in the Iron Age, others in the Neolithic, others in a Gather-hunter state. The problem is usually the over-generalization. And usually due to stereotypes and racial issues the over-generalization about Africa has been often made by the lowest levels of cultural technological development, looking “development” under the current western paradigm that can be one, but certainly it is not the only one.

I don't have a thesis, but I do believe that a broader context can inform people.
Curious, I just commented because I found your definition resctric not broader than the definitions (and so contexts) presented in the links.

People ask "Why is Africa so poor, why do they lag so far behind when the rest of the wold is advancing?" In asking this, they are obviously comparing the production and income most countries have and, looking at Africa, are struck by the stark difference. But in a sense that is looking at things the wrong way round. What is amazing is not Africa's poverty, but most of the world's HUGE development that has occured in the past 200 years, which has broken a period of thousands of years when all were in poverty.
When the west had the industrial revolution a huge part of the world was under its domain. That meant that it didn’t gain with intercultural exchanges. The relatively small gap existed in some areas became bigger and bigger.

Here, of course, what is being asked is why Africa was underdeveloped even before colonialism. In reply I say pre-colonial Africa was clearly underdeveloped, but then so was the rest of the world. Yes, there were all sorts of nice things like printing and wheeled vehicles, big ships and clocks, but all this I see as only laying the foundations for the development that would in future take place. I would guess that the absence of clocks, printing etc. in sub-saharan Africa was partly a result of the relative isolation because of the Sahara. But I say again, most parts of the world didn't have those things.
First of all let me state that by pre-colonial Africa I mean before the 15th and 16th centuries, so we all know what we are talking about, and I would counter-argue that for some regions that underdevelopment was not that evident. For instance, overall, and with all the errors of generalizations, I think that the technological gap is more evident in Oceania and in America than in Africa. I don’t know if you had the opportunity to read or at least take a look to the book that I linked previously about the Kindgom of Congo, according to the explorer Duarte Lopes, and written by Pigafetta, but if you take a look you will see a state organization that is not Neolithic, like many users here want to describe pre-colonial Africa. And we are talking about a kingdom in the Middle of Africa that had few contacts with the outside – and we know that intercultural relations allow a quicker grow, and even so it had a state organization, provinces, army, cities, mines, coins, etc… ok, they didn’t had silver or gold, but they were under a different paradigm. About Benin the situation was somewhat similar, even if there are people here that know much more about Benin than I. For the East Coast of Africa the situation is somewhat different since it was integrated and participated actively in the huge trade network that existed in the Indian Ocean. The situation in the North of Africa is usually reasonably well known by most of us here at Historum.

Besides those pre-colonial states gained and suffered with the slave trade that marked the continent for some 400-500 years, and that destroyed much of its societies.

Naturally we can say that in the 15th and 16th centuries the Portuguese had two main technological advantages over the Africans: the guns and the ships. But for some years they also technological advantages over the Castilians, and the other Europeans, until Castile took over, then the Dutch…

Curiously, today in Pop history, when we talk about the history of Africa, I think for most of the people the first mental images are the ones of the Zulus or of the Massai, or some other tribal society, that under the Western paradigm were not among the most developed ones.

Anyway, even today, I have the idea that Anthropology can undress much more of the Western development paradigm than History, while studying different societies. Or maybe is just me that see the things that way because I am not that informed about Anthropology.
 
Sep 2015
1,657
England
dreuxengThat was a commercial project. J N Tata went to England in 1872. On his return he set up a cotton mill at Nagpur. By 1900 India was the 4th largest cotton producer on the planet. He hired British engineers. A hard fact of life you might think, but there it is none the less.
Okay. I guess you are just highlighting another instance of people learning from British engineers?
At one point before 1921 the Chief Medical Officer of the Gold Coast was an indigenous African.
 
Sep 2015
1,657
England
There was a possibility for technology transfer in the 19th century, at least for some African states; it just never materialized since even the attempts to have the first railways built in those states by Europeans were deliberately blocked.

It could have started with the European engineers building the railways for those African states at first, and then from there the Africans could have sent some people to certain European countries to learn railway engineering or some Europeans could have come to those African states to teach them how to build railways and locomotives. That is essentially what happened in Japan after all. The first Japanese railways and locomotives were built by the British, and the Japanese learned how to build their own railways and locomotives afterwards with help from the British.
'Administration in West Africa would be impossible without the vast army of clerks and accountants who fill the departmental offices. Railway extension would have been equally impossible without the telegraphists, guards, storekeepers, signallers, and the rest of the trained assistants. In every branch of Government he bears his share, and both the government and the merchant would find it difficult to exist without his services.'