Interview: Paul Lovejoy

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Paul E. Lovejoy, Distinguished Research Professor, Department of History, York University, and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He has published 40 books and 140 articles and papers, including ‘The Transatlantic Slave Trade and Slavery: New Directions in Teaching and Learning’ (2013), co-edited with Benjamin Bowser, and ‘Jihad in West Africa during the Age of Revolutions’ (2016). He is Founding Director of the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on Africa and its Diasporas, and was Canada Research Chair in African Diaspora History (2000-15).  He is General Editor of the Harriet Tubman Series on the African Diaspora, Africa World Press and the journal, ‘African Economic History’.

Felix Meier zu Selhausen (University of Sussex) talked with Paul about his long career in African economic history and developments in the field.


Prof. Lovejoy, you held the keynote at the 2016 Meeting of the AEHN hosted by the University of Sussex. It was also your first attendance of the Annual Meeting of the AEHN. What was your impression of the AEHN and the conference? Have you been involved with similar organizations in North America or elsewhere?

I have been involved in the study of African economic history since I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in the late 1960s. I am impressed that the field has attained a level of recognition that has resulted in the establishment of the AEHN, and the annual conferences. Although I have been associated with the journal, African Economic History, since its inception and have been a co-editor for a long time, I have not been a member of a similar organization previously. I was astonished by the size of the Sussex conference and only regret that because panels were held simultaneously it was not possible to attend more sessions. I think the necessity of holding simultaneous panels is a problem and the possibility of holding a longer conference should be considered to enable greater access to the excellent scholarship that has clearly emerged. Because of the Sussex conference, I am now involved in forming a special association within the American African Studies Association that will be specifically focused on African Economic History. Moreover, African Economic History will now be available to the Network participants at a special rate from the University of Wisconsin Press, and AEHN will be mentioned specifically in the journal, on the UWP website and in JSTOR. Several new members of the African Economic History editorial board are now AEHN members.

I was astonished by the size of the Sussex conference.

The theme of the 2016 Meeting of the AEHN was coined around “methods and interdisciplinarity” in African economic history. In your view, how interdisciplinary is African economic history, and how has this evolved since the 1970s? What could be gained by an increasing dialogue between economics and history?

There is still a large gap between history and economics because of the way these disciplines have evolved over the last several decades. It is good to see an attempt to bring the two disciplines back into dialogue. The methodologies of the two disciplines are very different, although the aims of both are the same, which is an exploration of the past, how that past is best interpreted, and what different interpretations can tell us about the present and project for the future. One serious problem is the lack of quantifiable data about Africa, especially historically.

The methodologies of the two disciplines [history and economics] are very different, although the aims of both are the same.

To some extent in limited areas more quantifiable data has been accumulated, although there will always be a serious gap in the amount of data, even for relatively recent times. Nonetheless, this problem is a specific challenge to both economists and historians. Economists pose questions that historians often don’t see because historians work outward from primary materials that can be recovered, while historians can test the assumptions of economists by examining the data base itself. The hypothetical projections that have to be based on imperfect data can lead economists to suggest problems and trends that historians have not contemplated. The exchange can be beneficial to both, encouraging economists to revise and question their own analysis as better data is forthcoming or gaps are exposed, while historians can discover possible explanations that had not occurred to them previously.

In your AEHN keynote speech on your book Jihad in West Africa during the Age of Revolutions (Ohio University Press, 2016) you mentioned hugely underexploited Arabic sources and important archives in Turkey and Brazil. What types of sources have you encountered? Where can they be found? And what is their potential for advancing our knowledge of West and North African history?

Jihad in West Africa during the Age of Revolutions focuses on the era c.1775 through c. 1850, which coincides not only with the area of political revolution in the Americas and western Europe but also with the economic “take off” of industrialization. As I explained in my keynote address, the era of jihad and the age of revolutions (economic and political) were parallel and not directly related in any causal way but unexpectedly influential in shaping the Atlantic world and the new global economy. In the first instance, this dichotomy has to be recognized in historical analysis, and especially in terms of economic history, because of the limitations on globalization. Historians are only beginning to understand the Islamic world during this period, despite some focus on the Ottoman Empire and the British conquest of Islamic states in the Indian Ocean region. There is a particular gap in this study in relation to Africa, which my keynote address emphasized.

There are important archival sources in many countries, especially in Muslim countries from Morocco, Mauretania, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria through Egypt, Libya, Turkey, and elsewhere. There is also a lot of such materials in France, the UK, and repositories in North America. Most of these materials are in Arabic and Turkish, and few economic historians have ventured to study these sources. We simply don’t know how much information of an economic nature is in these archives. We do know there is a lot on taxation, commerce, legal cases, government policy, and other topics that are essential in historical reconstruction, including economic history. There is an extensive amount of material on slavery and other social relationships that have economic significance, such as land ownership, trusteeship, and credit relationships. Examples of these materials can be found in the publications of John Hunwick, Gislaine Lydon, and Bruce Hall for West Africa, for example.

Most of these materials are in Arabic and Turkish, … We simply don’t know how much information of an economic nature is in these archives.

You have been involved with various efforts to preserve rare African historical sources. Your latest preservation project, together with Suzanne Schwarz (University of Worcester), digitized documents in the Sierra Leone Public Archives at Freetown. What kind of data was digitized, and what insights do you hope that researchers will gain from the analysis of those sources?

The Sierra Leone materials are particularly rich on the demography of the slave trade and the resulting system of indentured labor through the apprenticeship system. Some of these materials can be accessed through the Liberated Africans Project website, which is an open source project that within the next year will have extensive documentation on over 100,000 Africans who were taken off slave ships and hence to some extent are representative of the forced migration of the “second slavery” that characterized the expansion of slavery in the Americas in the 19th century. There are similar documentary sources for Angola, Mozambique, and various enclaves in the Indian Ocean that will tell us a lot about the size of populations and the economic impact of the slave trade on specific parts of Africa. There are already special issues of the Journal of African History, Journal of Global Slavery, African Economic History, and other journals that will deal with the new knowledge coming out of these sources, their organization into databases that can be mined by scholars, and the new questions that undoubtedly will be raised by intercontinental collaboration.

In a recent article and in this blog, Johan Fourie (Stellenbosch University) described the past decade in African economic history as a “data revolution.” You are able to look back on a long and distinguished career, having researched and taught African economic history for over 45 years. How has the field developed over the span of your career?

The area of the data revolution with which I am most familiar relates to the quantification of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, especially in the development of Voyages by David Eltis and David Richardson and subsequently through interaction with many, many scholars. This work builds on the pioneering study of Philip Curtin whose Census of 1969 marked the true turning point in the study of slavery and indeed African history and the African diaspora in the Americas, in my opinion. I was drawn into that revolution through Curtin’s mentorship and then through collaboration and dialogue with researchers on both sides of the Atlantic basin that has spawned a revolution in analysis of what now can be called Global Africa. The subsequent focus of economic historical analysis on the 20th and indeed the 21st centuries in many ways has grown out of that first breakthrough.

Today, the databases on forced migration and labor continue to stand out as the most developed areas of analysis, and they have a robustness that has established standards for data management. I know from personal observation that the amount of economic data for the colonial period in the Nigerian and Sierra Leone archives, for example, is enormous and largely untapped on issues relating to taxation, agricultural output, income, gendered production, and other topics, despite individual studies and some very important breakthroughs. I personally have in my own archives at the Tubman Institute materials from the National Archives of Nigeria in Kaduna digitized materials that no historians, let alone economists, have looked at.

You are best known for your influential works on West African long-distance trade and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. As a young PhD student how did you come to decide to work on those topics? And looking back, what would be your personal advice to PhD students currently entering the academic job market?

I have consistently resisted any attempt to do anything autobiographical. I can say that as a student of Philip Curtin and Jan Vansina, I had to study economic anthropology and economics, much of which proved very difficult for me to comprehend. The substantivist school of Karl Polanyi was particularly challenging, although I learned a lot from Polly Hill, despite the fact that eventually I understood that her work was seriously flawed, which proved to be a quite sobering discovery. Initially, I wanted to work on a topic that was internal to West Africa and that had nothing to do with slavery and the slave trade. That proved to be completely naive. Many of the merchants I studied who were involved in the overland trade between Kano, Katsina, and Borno, on the one hand, and Asante and the middle Volta basin, on the other, were of slave descent, had become very wealthy, and invested in slave plantations around their home towns in the Bilad al-Sudan. So much for my attempt at a prophylactic approach to history. When I moved onto the study of salt production and trade from kola nuts, I knew I was studying the importance of slavery in trade and production, although some salt was produced by slave labor, some was produced by free women, some was associated with a craft of blacksmiths, some was the work of free migrant laborers who owned a few slaves, and some was actually mined by slaves. Everything became more complicated.

Make sure that research is really what you want to do. If you don’t enjoy it all the time, day and night, dream about, suffer from it, then find something you want to do that becomes a passion.

The result of this odyssey of discovery is the following advice for young scholars. First make sure that research is really what you want to do. If you don’t enjoy it all the time, day and night, dream about, suffer from it, then find something you want to do that becomes a passion. Make sure you are not afraid of hardship, financial, physical, mental, risking health, eating food that you may not like, and dealing with colleagues who can be jealous, petty, and unhelpful. My advice to most young people would be to do something else; go and make some money, raise a family, and enjoy your weekends and holidays. I wouldn’t inflict what I have done on anyone. I have now published 40 books, mostly edited volumes because I like to help other scholars publish the results of their work, no matter gender, national origin, religion, or disability. I helped to establish a research institute, keep journals alive, organize a publishing series through an obscure publisher that isn’t recognized in most tenure proceedings or by most scholarly associations. The new knowledge has to get out, no matter what, and true scholars will not ignore the work that is being done in the smallest of African countries or in any of the 140 universities in Nigeria. They will not let language be a barrier but instead will consider research a challenge of intellect, stamina, and collaboration.

The new knowledge has to get out, no matter what, and true scholars will not ignore the work that is being done in the smallest of African countries or in any of the 140 universities in Nigeria.

Based on your recent work, what role would you say Islam has played in shaping development outcomes in West Africa?

Islam, or rather Muslims, have had an enormous impact in shaping development outcomes in West Africa. This can be seen with respect to the colonial era and the development of peanut cultivation in Senegal, in which the Mouride brotherhood played such an instrumental role. The Mourides attracted former slaves, in particular, who left their masters in large numbers by simply running away. This internal colonial migration laid the basis of the colonial Senegalese economy. Peanut production in northern Nigeria was similarly a major economic development of colonialism, although there the aristocracy, with its large enslaved population, was the motivating factor in economic take off. The fact that petroleum is not found in the areas that were dominated by Muslims might lead to false conclusions about the backwardness of the interior regions of West Africa that might seem apparent today but does not reflect the past. The economic component of Islam might seem bewildering to economists trained at LSE or elsewhere because the economics of Islam is often not taught. This is a serious omission, in my opinion. Anyone who has been to Abu Dhabi or similar places can see what can be done in Muslim countries and through Muslim agency. Understanding Islamic economic principles, restrictions, and structures should be part of any study of economic development.

Understanding Islamic economic principles, restrictions, and structures should be part of any study of economic development.

Scholars working at European universities are strongly represented in the AEHN. With some notable exceptions, those working from the Americas and Africa less so. What are your experiences with collaborations and exchanges between scholars from across the globe working on African economic history? And how could such contacts, particularly with African universities, be strengthened?

The AEHN is European dominated, and hopefully there will be expansion. Our journal African Economic History, by contrast, has been almost entirely North American and indeed concentrated through the Wisconsin network and then subsequently through my network at the Tubman Institute at York in Toronto. We kept AEH alive when it was almost dead. In fact, I became editor again when the current editors decided to “kill” the journal because there were no submissions – none at all. I came back in and created “special issues” for which we recruited articles around select themes. We are now back up to a point where we have a lot of submissions and are expanding to two issues per year starting in 2017. We will still have special issues, but we actually have enough articles already for this coming year, and the next issue goes to press at the end of January. The biggest problem is that the economics profession does not recognize AEH as a journal that counts, and hence there is no reason for economists to subscribe or submit papers. We have strengthened ties with Africa primarily through the co-editorship of Toyin Falola, who has extensive connections in Africa. The other editors have their own networks, of course, but his network is the most extensive.

The featured image above depicts Kano city c. 1851 in Northern Nigeria.


The Frontiers editorial team consists of Michiel de Haas, Kate Frederick (both Wageningen University) and Felix Meier zu Selhausen (University of Southern Denmark & University of Sussex). AEHN board members Ewout Frankema (Wageningen University) and Morten Jerven (Norwegian University of Life Sciences) form the supervisory board.

We welcome external contributions to the blog and encourage those interested to submit a summary of a recent working or published paper or book review, a commentary on current African developments or something else. Please contact the editors to discuss possible posts at [email protected]


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