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Africa and The Global Lives of Things

Abstract and Keywords

Inquiries into commodification, social distinction, and fashion have offered fresh perspectives on social relations and cultural formations in Africa. Imported consumer goods were both elemental to social relationships and a cornerstone of Africa's global interfaces. This article explores how the social dynamics of consumer demand in Africa were shaped by, and gave shape to, larger social, economic, and political relationships from the sixteenth to the early twentieth century. This approach underscores the interrelation of African cultural imperatives and histories of globalization. Focusing on East Africa in the late nineteenth century, the article begins with a snapshot of consumer trends before the nineteenth century. It then examines three dimensions of consumption in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: marketing consumer objects, the social relations of consumption, and the ways manufacturers accommodated African consumer demand. Taken together, these themes augment our understanding of social change in Africa, contribute to wider reflections on consumption as a mode of trans-societal relation, and highlight how manufactured objects can be conceptually and physically transformed throughout their global life cycles.

Keywords: East Africa, social relations, consumption, social change, globalization, life cycles, consumer goods, consumer demand, social dynamics, cultural formations

Consumer desire stands at a crossroads. It reflects and reinforces social norms, inequalities, and aspirations while translating these into the language of economic exchange. Thus, reflection on the rationales for and consequences of consumption practices can provide insight into shifting social relationships, but much more as well: it offers a window on processes of global interrelation. Holistic approaches to consumption that consider the cultural logics of demand alongside their distant reverberations have yielded new ways of understanding the history of global interdependence.1 The study of consumption in African societies is instructive in this regard. Inquiries into commodification, social distinction and fashion have offered fresh perspectives on African social relations and cultural formations. They have also contributed to a better understanding of how consumer demand has shaped Africa's relationships with other world regions, particularly before the colonial era. From the vantage point of consumer interests we have begun to gain a better appreciation of how Africa's articulation with global economic trends simultaneously affected Africans and many others around the world.

A focus on patterns of social change and mutual constitution through consumption brings African agency into relief. Such an analytical frame also risks minimizing Africa's economic marginalization. Yet the study of consumption in Africa and longer-term (p. 86) material disparities are intertwined. Imported consumer goods were both elemental to social relationships and a cornerstone of Africa's global interfaces. Reflection on African consumer interests thus promises to enrich our understanding of Africa's position within emerging global hierarchies. Specifically, attention to African cultures of consumption before colonial rule can sharpen our understanding of why, by what social and cultural rationales, Africans engaged in the regional and global exchanges that sowed social strife, adversely affected local ecologies, and gave rise to slave-plantation complexes in East and West Africa. While Africa's trade relationships created few opportunities for long-term capital accumulation on the continent, the consumer goods acquired through them were vital to position, belonging, and authority in most African societies before the colonial era.2 The consumer demands of Africans likewise shaped global economic relationships well into the colonial era, sometimes in ways that colonial administrations could not easily control.

Articulating African Consumer Interests

African poverty has prompted analysts to ask how the forces of global integration have affected the continent's systems of production. Colonial exploitation and recent structural adjustment programmes figure prominently in this reckoning, but scholars have likewise outlined how the pre-colonial demand for slaves, minerals, ivory, and the produce of burgeoning African plantation systems enriched Europe and the Americas while impoverishing Africa.3 This line of inquiry is of central import, but it has an epistemological limitation: to address questions of underdevelopment, analysts have often emphasized the interests and initiatives of non-Africans. While European-African relations became increasingly asymmetrical over time, by interpreting pre-colonial African societies through their adaptation (or resistance) to foreign demands, the social rationales for African engagement in transregional and global networks of exchange are easily obscured.

Greater attention to the socio-political matrices of power in pre-colonial African societies has offered a way to address this lacuna. Until recently, Africa's most limited resource was people; labour was scarcer than land. Patron-client relationships defined by mutual obligation were primary social bonds in many African societies. Thus, wealth was commonly located in clients and kinship networks—in the control of people more (p. 87) than in things, as Jane Guyer has emphasized.4 In return for their followers’ allegiances, political elites offered protection and material rewards. ‘[G]enerosity’, Megan Vaughan writes, ‘was the price one had to pay for the exercise of any authority’.5 Specifically, gifts of cloth, beads, foodstuffs, liquor, or other valuable goods were essential to the maintenance of subjects and, by extension, political power. As a result, objects, along with livestock and foodstuffs, were a means to acquire power and influence over people. Labour, however, remained notoriously difficult to control in most African societies.

The expansion of external markets created social and political opportunities for African leaders to circumvent some of the restrictions imposed by such socio-political conditions. They found that selling to the global market and controlling relationships with foreign merchants was less demanding than managing the productive practices of their subjects. This ‘externalization’ of wealth creation, and the rise of what Frederick Cooper has referred to as ‘gatekeeper’ states, was perhaps most evident in the slave trade. Foreign slave buyers offered the promise of, in Cooper's words, ‘externalizing the consumption of slave labor—and hence the problem of discipline’.6 By selling captives, leaders gained the means to placate subjects and subdue enemies. A seeming irony emerged: wealth lay in followers and their productive capacities, yet to gain and retain power one needed the means to distribute gifts and coerce labour. With the expansion of overseas trade, selling people, as opposed to disciplining them, offered the most immediate political returns since it was easier to convert people into useful goods than to extract their labour.

Slave-trading was only one dimension of Africa's global extroversion. By the middle of the nineteenth century a diverse set of global relationships had developed in the wake of the slave trade in West as well as East Africa. For instance, at the height of East Africa's economic expansion in the nineteenth century, ivory and the products of slave labour dominated the export market. As I demonstrate below, the region became more fully integrated into patterns of transoceanic exchange, and this created a dynamic in which control over people was increasingly difficult. More individuals began to accumulate objects such as cloth and beads, items that had important use- and exchange-values. These new imports were deployed by an increasing diversity of people to claim position and gain followers, thus weakening the ‘gatekeeper’ position of the old elite.

African definitions of wealth, difficulties in labour coercion and the profit of controlling interfaces with external markets offer insights into why Africa's pre-colonial global relationships took the shape they did. However, these internal dynamics of Africa's extroversion raise additional questions. For instance, why did African consumer demands take the form of goods such as cloth, beads, brass wire, alcohol, and guns? (p. 88) Just as importantly, how was it that Africans often found the terms of trade in their favour and thus regularly determined the shape of global interfaces?7 Moreover, what did African influence over these interfaces mean for the producers of goods exported to Africa? Emmanuel Akyeampong, Philip Curtin, Joseph Inikori, Joseph Miller, and others have addressed these questions by highlighting the importance of African consumer interests in the shaping of the continent's internal and external relationships.8 Curtin, for example, argues that at the height of the external slave trade in Senegambia French manufacturers went to great lengths to appeal to local tastes. Richard Roberts further demonstrates that French investors founded the first industrial textile mill in India for the purpose of producing cloth that appealed to Senegambian tastes.9 Studying Liverpool merchants, David Richardson shows that during the era of the transatlantic slave trade the requirements of satisfying the tastes of West African consumers affected suppliers, prices, and even the networks on which Liverpool traders relied. Liverpool firms regularly depended on foreign producers of textiles, beads, and iron since British manufacturers were less successful in producing consumer goods that met West African standards. Richardson's work suggests that African patterns of demand significantly affected the entire structure of the English slave trade.10

In this essay I wish to address how the social dynamics of consumer demand in Africa were shaped by, and gave shape to, larger social, economic, and political relationships from the sixteenth to the early twentieth century. Though this approach necessarily (p. 89) entails greater concentration on imported goods than on the circulation of regionally manufactured commodities, it underscores the interrelation of African cultural imperatives and histories of globalization. To give tight form to the essay, I will focus on East Africa in the late nineteenth century, an era notable for its dramatic increase in global interconnectivity. East Africa offers fertile ground for reflection because it boasts a long history of economic, cultural, and religious integration into the circuits of the Indian Ocean region. For millennia, East Africa enjoyed links to societies along the Indian Ocean rim. In the nineteenth century, both continental and transoceanic routes of exchange greatly intensified as the result of a regional economic boom. This proliferation of networks grafted over long timescales of transoceanic interaction provides a unique vantage point to survey the logics and meaning of African consumer demand.

I begin with a snapshot of consumer trends before the nineteenth century. Then I shift focus to three dimensions of consumption in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: marketing consumer objects, the social relations of consumption, and the ways manufacturers accommodated African consumer demand. Taken together, these themes augment our understanding of social change in Africa and contribute to wider reflections on consumption as a mode of trans-societal relation. Additionally, they highlight how manufactured objects can be conceptually and physically transformed throughout their global life cycles. The ‘new lives’ of consumer objects that I outline below demonstrate the plasticity of consumer goods—as forms reimagined and refashioned in their circulation.

Before the Nineteenth Century

Material consumption in East Africa has taken many forms. Regionally produced consumer goods were dominant in most places before European colonization. Staples of regional consumer demand included foodstuffs, locally brewed alcoholic beverages, iron products, pottery, jewellery made from copper and gold, and clothes made from available plant fibres or skins. Archaeological investigations across the region have identified diverse earthen vessels and metal instruments that bear testimony to changing uses. Evidencing Indian Ocean connections, East Africans imported Persian, Indian, Chinese, and many other ceramic wares since antiquity. The use of Chinese ceramics for ornamenting coastal tombs and mosques suggests that for at least 1,000 years East Africans have invested imports with special meaning.11

From the sixteenth century, Portuguese records yield a clear picture of consumer practices along the coast, the Zambezi River, and in the Mozambique hinterland. In the sixteenth century the Portuguese attempted to control the gold trade from the Zimbabwe Plateau. Though their influence rarely reached beyond the Zambezi Valley (p. 90) and a few coastal towns, Portuguese residents described a regional commercial system that relied on the importation of one category of goods above others: personal adornments. Specifically, cloth and jewellery figured prominently in regional exchanges. Accordingly, these were the most easily recognizable symbols of social status. They filled a variety of other social roles as well. Cloth, for instance, was important to codes of modesty, particularly in coastal Muslim societies. Through gifting, cloth was also a means to gain or retain power over others. Monarchs and other political elites cemented the allegiances of their subjects and allies through the distribution of cloth. Cloth thus mediated interpersonal, commercial, and political relationships.

Weavers on the upper reaches of the Zambezi, the Querimba Islands and in many urban centres made cotton cloth. Along the Zambezi and on the Zimbabwe Plateau local cotton textiles, called machira, were highly valued for their durability and were standard gifts to ancestor mediums. The machira was also commonly worn among political elites at the court of Mwene Mutapa. In the seventeenth century, the popularity of Indian textiles began to pose a severe challenge to regional weavers.12 Specifically, Gujarati (north-west Indian) cottons dyed in dark-blue hues—called kaniki in Swahili—became the standard clothing for both men and women along East Africa's main avenues of exchange. These also became symbols of social respectability. Stressing the social import of kaniki, a Portuguese resident of East Africa wrote that while a person may have been ‘very poor and have not even sufficient food to eat during their lives’ they would ‘use every endeavor’ to purchase a kaniki in which to be buried.13

While East Africans wove cloth from local cotton and imported textiles from India, they also remade imported cloth into fashions that appealed to local tastes. In a pattern that would be widely replicated in the nineteenth century, the city-state of Pate became a centre of remanufacture in the seventeenth century. Weavers on the small island near the Kenyan mainland imported Gujarati silk textiles, unravelled them, and wove them into popular styles. Pate's textile industry found eager buyers from Mogadishu to the upper reaches of the Zambezi. Pate silks became such measures of prestige in eastern Africa that Portuguese merchants often found it difficult to travel on the Zambezi River without offering Pate cloth as tribute to local rulers.14 East Africans added value to imports in other ways as well. For instance, entrepreneurs along the Zambezi purchased bertangi, a striped or dyed Cambay-made cotton cloth, unravelled it, wove beads into the fabric, and then resold it.15

(p. 91) While Portuguese attempts to control regional commerce in the sixteenth and seventeenth century dampened trade, in the eighteenth century new caravan routes revived the regional economy and contributed to a heightened demand for imports. The establishment of plantations on the French islands of Mauritius and Reunion drew slave traders to the East African coast. This increase in the demand for slaves, later augmented by Brazil, Saint-Domingue, the Cape region and other parts of eastern Africa, opened new long-distance routes of exchange.16 Direct trade between Mozambique Island and Makua-speaking areas in northern Mozambique, and from Kilwa Kivinje on the southern coast of Tanzania to the Yao region southeast of Lake Malawi, acted as giant conveyer belts bringing human captives and ivory to the coast and delivering consumer goods to the interior.

African demand for Indian cloth was an important engine of this economy, but styles changed quickly and were difficult to predict. For example, in late eighteenth-century Manyika, Indian cotton cloths such as the dark-blue indigo zuartes, coarse white dotis, and narrow white samateres were in great demand. By the end of the century, middlemen trading to the interior only found a market for zuartes. To address such shifts in demand, Indian cloth merchants, particularly Gujarati Vaniya from Diu, entered into a long-term dialogue with African middlemen. As Pedro Machado demonstrates, Vaniya cloth merchants, with information supplied by local interlocutors, regularly relayed shifts in East African consumer demand to producers in Gujarat. Indian weavers could thus make adjustments to cloth designs and send the desired articles in the next trading season.17

Fashion and Refashioning

The contours of material consumption in East Africa changed significantly in the nineteenth century. As the region became more integrated into expanding global markets, East Africans purchased imported consumer goods in volumes that surpassed previous eras. In the early nineteenth century the East African savannah was one of the few regions where large numbers of elephants remained. East Africa's bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) had tusks of soft ivory, the variety coveted by manufacturers of jewellery and other ivory products. The region produced high-grade copal (used for varnish), rubber, and, with the establishment of plantations on the coast and islands, cloves, sesame, sugar, and grains. At mid-century East Africa was also the last major slave-exporting region of the world, though the export slave trade did not play as (p. 92) important a role in East Africa as it had in Atlantic Africa.18 Since Indian, European, and American manufacturers were mechanizing production and overseas firms in Zanzibar —the region's largest entrepôt—were competing with each other for African consumers, the average price of imported consumer goods in East Africa fell during the second half of the century. At the same time, the price for ivory and other East African exports increased. These convergent price curves offered Africans much greater purchasing power.

Omani influence at the coast had been significant since the end of the seventeenth century, but Omani commercial interests, financed by Indian capital, expanded in the early 1800s. To better exploit economic opportunities in eastern Africa, the Busaidi sultan Seyyid Said moved Oman's capital from Muscat to Zanzibar, a small but well-positioned island close to the Tanzanian mainland. The new sultanate then extended its rule to most of the coastal towns. Seyyid Said made Zanzibar a free port and encouraged foreign investment. Zanzibar-based firms, most of which were subsidiaries of Indian financial houses, began offering unprecedented lines of credit. This credit fuelled trading ventures to the interior, increased agricultural production for export and brought more cash into circulation. Simultaneously, enterprising traders in many interior societies pioneered new roads to the coast. For instance, Stephen Rockel has shown how Nyamwezi merchants in central Tanzania augmented an older trade in salt and iron across central Tanzania, with direct links to port towns where they bartered for imported consumer goods.19

The region lacked navigable rivers to connect the coast and the interior, but caravans facilitated vast networks of exchange. Roads reached from coastal towns such as Kilwa Kivinje, Bagamoyo, and Mombasa to Lake Malawi, the eastern forest belt, and the Kingdom of Buganda on the shores of Lake Victoria. Caravans with porters numbering into the thousands became mobile markets trading imported cloth, beads, and brass wire for export commodities, provisions, and to a lesser extent slaves. As a result, Indian, British, and American cloth was readily available as far as eastern Congo. In the 1840s and 1850s, American cloth—called merekani in Swahili—was an important means of ‘tribute’, or gifts in recognition of a ruler's authority, in many East African societies. At the same time, American cloth became a common component of bride wealth. As a testament to the interpenetration of use- and exchange-values in East Africa, merekani even became one of the region's few broadly recognised currencies.

At the coast, access to credit allowed the elite to spend lavishly; it offered social aspirants the means to accumulate and redistribute wealth in attempts to gain retinues; and it gave manual labourers, such as caravan porters and stevedores, the leverage to buy against future wages. Simultaneously, the expansion of regional commerce made it easier for people across the East African region to market subsistence goods or livestock. Along the caravan routes monarchs and small-scale farmers alike exchanged (p. 93) local products for imported goods. For instance, the sale of a cow to a passing caravan could deliver a windfall of calico, dyed cloths, tobacco, beads, wire, hoes, knives, or gunpowder.20 Similarly, Zigua farmers living near the coast of northern Tanzania stored up maize surpluses, and in the dry season carried these to port towns to exchange for cloth and other goods. The proliferation of outlets for local products had far-reaching effects. As Jonathon Glassman has demonstrated, by the middle of the century the consideration of exchange-values began to overshadow the use-values of local products. The region quickly transitioned from a subsistence economy to one increasingly dominated by market transactions. Over the course of the century East Africans devoted ever more energy to the production of commodities as a means of acquiring consumer goods. This process of commodification, or the greater market mediation of social interaction, affected all but the most isolated.21

Access to imported goods changed how East Africans dressed, how they related to each other, and how political power was defined. For instance, Stephen Rockel relates that in the 1860s most Nyamwezi women wore cotton cloth, but men often favoured skins. By the 1880s almost all Nyamwezi men wore imported cloth, while only people in very remote areas continued to wear skins. A man without cloth was regarded as a ‘struggling man’, and those who wore skins became objects of derision. The long and arduous trek to the coast was a rite of passage for Nyamwezi men, and cloth became so socially important that poor men saw the journey as a critical means of obtaining cloth.22 In late nineteenth-century Buganda, most shunned bark-cloth in favour of European or Swahili (coastal Muslim) styles. Neil Kodesh argues that by the beginning of the colonial era imported clothing had become a measure of rank. Baganda women would not cultivate bananas—Buganda's staple crop—if they were not supplied with coloured clothes or white calicos.23 Even supernatural beings were hungry consumers of cloth. At the coast and on Lake Tanganyika presents in the form of imported cloth were a common means to appease spirits, or jini.24

The diversity of consumer goods spurred shifting fashions. Joseph Thomson, a British traveller who visited East Africa in the 1870s, wrote that fashion was as important to East Africans as it was to ‘the belles of Paris or London’. ‘Each tribe’, he explained, ‘must have its own particular class of cotton, and its own chosen tint, colour, and size among beads’. Thomson noted the exasperation of traders who discovered how quickly consumer goods (p. 94) could decline in value. Only the specific cloth or bead in fashion could fetch a high price, he wrote, everything else ‘will hardly be accepted as a present’.25 New consumer items even drew emotional reactions. For instance, in the 1840s a women's Indian silk-cotton cloth was popularly called the pasua moyo, or the ‘bursting heart’. The cloth's name was a metaphor for the excitement and longing it engendered. Trademarks became signifiers of prestige as well. In some parts of East Africa, such as Ukuni in south Unyamwezi, the most prized length of American cloth was that with the blue ‘Massachusetts Sheeting’ stamp on it.26

East African consumer tastes were highly differentiated. Beads imported from as far away as Italy, Austria, France, and China offer insight into the diversity of demand. There were at least 400 varieties of beads circulating at mid-century, each with a different value, name, and particular locale of preference. In 1857, for example, red beads were the only kind saleable in Nyamwezi country, whereas black beads were currency in Gogo areas (midway between the coast and Lake Tanganyika) and worthless everywhere else. ‘Egg’ beads were valuable at the market town of Ujiji on the eastern shores of Lake Tanganyika, but refused most other places. White beads were popular with Fipa, Sagara (east central Tanzania), and Gogo buyers but disliked by Zigua consumers near the coast. The bright yellow ‘ghee’ bead was in demand by Chagga and Maasai near Mount Kilimanjaro, yet they found no market further south. A consumer's cultural-linguistic affiliation did not always define the minutiae of their wants, however. One traveller who followed the caravan route from the coast to Mount Kilimanjaro wrote that within social or political blocs, ‘scarcely two villages concur in their canons of taste’. A certain colour of bead might be in fashion in a specific community, but each person wanted a different shape or size.27

At ports of trade foreign merchants had to deliver goods that fit the parameters of East African tastes. This often meant that in addition to watching fashion trends, merchants had to pay close attention to the ways East Africans used imports. Popular uses of brass wire—the most common import after textiles and beads—offer an intriguing example. In East Africa manufactured brass wire was used as a raw material for jewellery-making. In Unyanyembe, the centre of trade in Nyamwezi country, local artisans made imported wire into armlets, leg bracelets, bells, beads, rings, and inlays for gunstocks or knife hilts. As a result, Zanzibari importers would only buy certain gauges, shapes, and lengths and only wire packaged in ways they knew would satisfy jewellers in the interior. American manufacturers designed brass coil conforming to these specifications, and as a result Indian and European firms in Zanzibar were left with no choice but to buy US-made brass coil to sell in East Africa.

(p. 95) Foreign merchants suffered when they did not deliver goods that accorded with current African tastes. British merchants, for instance, played only a minor role in the Zanzibar trade because they did not offer much that appealed to East African consumers. Though the British consul exercised considerable political influence at Zanzibar, British firms exported little beyond luxury goods to Zanzibar, including items such as shoes, umbrellas, and carriages. British cloth did find a market in East Africa, but only after a circuitous itinerary. Most of the British cloth purchased by East Africans had been re-exported from India. Mumbai exporters appealed to African consumers by dying, tailoring, and stamping British cloth with designs that conformed to regional tastes. Mumbai firms were so successful in this re-export trade that it continued well into the colonial era (see below). Indian firms recognized that their success was dependent on their agents’ abilities to identify trends and relay information about these to dyers and printers. Other importers recognized this, too. In order to gauge the market so that time and money were not lost in sending the wrong goods to East Africa, manufacturers in the United States, Germany, and France usually forwarded samples to their agents in Zanzibar before exporting large consignments.

Given the sluggishness of communication and travel, and the socio-cultural diversity of the East African region, overseas merchants could not always cater to changing trends. To address the minutiae of consumer demand and add value to imports, artisans in coastal cities as well as inland trade centres altered textile designs. Based on information provided by caravan leaders and porters, they added colours, patterns, and borders onto imported cloth. In the 1850s Zanzibari printers found a market in Unyamwezi for the kitambi banyani, or white Indian-made cloth stamped with a narrow red border. Similarly, Zanzibaris gave Surati white cotton loincloths broad border stripes of indigo, red, and yellow for discrete interior markets. One of the most impressive examples of how East Africans remade imported consumer goods is the leso, a popular item of Muslim women's fashion in Mombasa. The leso was a remanufactured cloth, made from colourful men's handkerchiefs exported from Manchester to Mumbai and then on to Zanzibar. In Zanzibar, the handkerchiefs were stitched together to form large wrappers that gave a stunning play of colour and pattern. The style quickly travelled west along the caravan routes, finding eager buyers in non-Muslim societies. By the 1850s women in many societies along the caravan routes were buying the leso. Indian manufacturers even began printing cloths with the distinct multiple handkerchief patterns, and by the twentieth century the word leso had become the commonly used term in Kenya for bright, printed cloth.

Islam made only limited inroads beyond the coast in the nineteenth century, but as contact with the Muslim coast intensified so did the appeal of Muslim fashions. At the same time that non-Muslim women embraced the leso, men in interior markets were drawn to coastal men's fashions—often referred to as ‘Swahili’—such as the turban, waistcoat (kizibao) and overcoats of Omani provenance (joho). While these styles tended to be more popular in the immediate hinterland than further abroad, demand for them in places as far west as Buganda increased in the latter nineteenth century. This demand reached an apex at the turn of the century (see below). Virtually everywhere (p. 96) Swahili fashions were found, they were symbols of prestige and access to foreign sources of power. Since items like the kizibao and kanzu were tailored in Zanzibar, coastal artisans benefited from this increase in demand. Yet even tailors in coastal towns and inland trade fairs could not always stay apace of changing local demands. Fashions changed so quickly that caravan traders often found it necessary to redesign pieces of cloth or restring beads while in transit. One strategy caravan leaders employed was to purchase the kinds of cloth or beads previously reported to be in style in a particular locale. Then just before entering the area, the caravan would pause to assess current trends. If necessary, porters would redesign textiles in a way that appealed to local consumers, adding fringes or brightly coloured cloth strips. Though necessary, such tasks could take caravans several days to complete.28

As these examples suggest, attention to the life cycles of imported consumer goods reveals an underappreciated layer of complexity to Africa's global interfaces. We typically think of cloth, beads, and brass wire as finished manufactured goods distinct from the raw materials Africans exported. It is more appropriate to think of most imports as unfinished goods. Before they could be sold in local markets, they often had to be redesigned in India, East African ports or on caravan roads. Refashioning was the only means of addressing the uncertainties of changing consumer demands in an era when both travel and communication were slow. By refashioning imports and manufacturing for market niches, regional artisans responded quickly to shifts in consumer demand and translated imported goods into objects of local desire.

Economies of Display and Distribution

By representing aspirations publicly, new consumer imports were tools in the constitution of personhood and strategies of distinction. For instance, in Mombasa, where residents placed a premium on the social ideals of prestige and respectability, the ability to convert desires into material things was linguistically inscribed in the objects themselves. The Swahili word for ‘ability’ or ‘power’, uwezo, was not simply a reference to strength; it was also figurative language for home furnishings and their reflection on the home's owner. The uwezo wa nyumba, ‘the ability of the house’, was said to be reflected in the imported mirrors, glasses, and silver vessels in its receiving room, or the Dutch, French, and Chinese porcelain affixed to its walls.29 ‘Ability’ referred both to the perceptual effect—the sign-value—of configuring objects in a particular fashion as well as the (p. 97) social status of a family, its respectability. Home decor was also part of a larger symbolic system as well. In many East African coastal cities the juxtaposition of mirrors, porcelain, and other ornaments created a standard assortment of domestic consumer objects that symbolized connection to distant markets and engagements with common western Indian Ocean region cultural trends.

Greater access to credit and imports contributed to upward mobility in many East African societies, and this fostered crises of power and distinction. For example, Steven Feierman has shown how the wealth available from regional trade had a dramatic effect on the Kingdom of Shambaa in northern Tanzania. The new trade benefited people like district headman Semboja. While historical methods of securing authority in Shambaa centred on the control of shrines and agricultural production, because of his district's position on a caravan route Semboja was able amass imported goods, including guns. These, in turn, allowed him to build a new base of social power and ultimately unseat the hereditary ruler of Shambaa.30 In many societies, amassing and distributing imports offered the means for aspirants to challenge figures of authority, creating what Justin Willis has termed ‘new paths to autonomy’, sometimes taken by force.31 Many aspirants were willing to use newly acquired firearms and followers to mount military campaigns against rulers or rivals. This contributed to increasing political insecurity and conflict across the region. Violence was not the only means to political power, however. In fact, it was more common for political and social aspirants to legitimize their authority by manipulating pre-existing political ideologies.

Jonathon Glassman argues that in the nineteenth century parvenus destabilized structures of authority in novel ways by enhancing their prestige through access to imported goods.32 Glassman's research on the towns of the northern coast of Tanzania (Mrima) offers insight into the socio-political tensions created by new sources of material wealth. On the early nineteenth century Mrima, power and authority was contingent on lineage as well as the display and distribution of goods that accorded with high social rank. Rituals of chieftainship, for instance, depended on the presentation of expensive prestige goods, such as fine cloth and umbrellas, seen to represent the authority of the leader. During the economic boom, upstarts and new settlers to the towns were able to acquire and display similar objects, pushing the cost of retaining power higher. Soon the objects and rituals that had once cemented the prestige of the old patricians slipped out of their control. Wealth, not lineage, became the critical determinate for claiming rank, even for the highest local offices. By displaying and distributing luxury goods non-patricians began claiming patrician status regardless of ancestry.33 Imports had become vital political resources in an economy of display and distribution.

(p. 98) Some rulers responded to challenges to their prestige and authority by creating (or revising) sumptuary regulations. To maintain social distance from the nouveau riche, rulers deemed certain luxury goods off-limits to their subjects. More regularly, political elites attempted to represent their power by acquiring objects that reflected privileged connections to global markets, items such as music boxes, silk cloth, or the latest firearms. Mandara, the hereditary ruler of Moshi (near Kilimanjaro) in the 1880s, demanded only the most unique or technologically sophisticated consumer goods from passing caravans in an effort to draw a strong distinction between himself and his subjects. While the value content of imported commodities was inherently unstable, in Buganda coastal and European fashions did not significantly alter social hierarchies. Instead, they were integrated into pre-existing modes of social differentiation and only added greater variation to the equivalence of status and clothing.34 Across the East African region, emphasis on imported prestige goods as a mirror of social position encouraged the perception that connections to global markets were a crucial source of power. Buganda's elite might have successfully retained older social hierarchies, but many rulers who cultivated the notion that access to imported objects were a reflection of authority and social standing undermined their own positions because their ability to control access to new markets was often limited.

Some of the most sweeping changes of the era were evident in Zanzibar. First, the sumptuary regulations that once preserved symbols of status for the political elite evaporated. The Busaidi sultan was a transplant from Muscat and so had little interest in maintaining the drums, chairs, and other objects that were common symbols of the earlier Swahili state. At the same time, the demographic diversity of Zanzibar heightened the importance of consumer goods for negotiating social relations. By the 1860s, half of all urban Zanzibaris had been brought to the city as slaves. The other half of Zanzibar's population hailed from places as distant as Muscat, Mumbai, Unyanyembe, and Mogadishu. Most new Zanzibaris were vying for position and social inclusion, and consumer goods offered the most tactile mode of social communication. A diversity of imports, combined with the possibility for some to accumulate modest, even significant, fortunes, meant that forms of status representation were constantly in flux.

Slaves and freed people put a high premium on material consumption. Violently uprooted from their homes and harbouring little hope of returning, most slaves and freed slaves sought social inclusion in coastal society. One means of representing claims to social citizenship in Zanzibar was to acquire symbols of coastal culture. The most important symbol for enslaved and plebian Zanzibaris was clothing. Since slave status was often synonymous with nakedness, slaves used all means available to cloth themselves in local fashions.35 Freed slaves often spent large sums to signal (p. 99) their social distance from slavery. For freedmen, a primary symbol of transcending slavery was the kanzu, the long shirt indicative of Muslim modesty and made of imported cloth.36 American and Indian cloth, when fashioned into a kanzu, became a vehicle for the relocation and grounding of identity; it signified a cultural elsewhere distinct from freed slaves’ home societies and a social position distinct from slavery.

For freed people, aspiration to the fashions of the elite led to the appropriation of many goods that had once been the preserve of a small few. One such item was the kizibao, or embroidered waistcoat made from European broadcloth, popular among free men of means in the early nineteenth century. By the mid-nineteenth century the kizibao was one of the greatest investments for Zanzibari freedmen of lesser means. It even became popular at trade fairs in the interior. For Zanzibari women, jewellery became so essential to appearances that even the poor spent large sums to obtain earrings and bangles made of precious metals, including gold. But the most ubiquitous and remarkable example of the use of consumer goods to claim social inclusion was that of the umbrella. Umbrellas had long been symbols of the state and male patrician identity in Swahili societies. In early nineteenth-century Zanzibar, however, umbrellas of British, Indian, Chinese, and American manufacture became common accoutrements of South Asian businessmen and wealthy women. By the 1870s, umbrellas had become fashionable among even those of meagre means. Marginal groups in Zanzibar, including slaves, defied conventions by carrying umbrellas. As a result, umbrellas were invested with new meanings. They were no longer symbols of patrician status, but through their local popularization were associated with broader Zanzibari cultural norms. Throughout the region, imported umbrellas came to be seen as a common symbol of Zanzibari cosmopolitanism. The material strategies of Zanzibar's plebian majority thus entailed a double movement: claims to social citizenship in Zanzibar and difference from those of lesser social status, including slaves and non-Zanzibaris. In appropriating the status symbols of the elite, Zanzibaris of lower social status democratized the use of some consumer objects and transformed them into symbols of Zanzibari society.37

Much like freed slaves who sought to distinguish themselves from their former slave status, wealthy Zanzibaris searched for objects that could magnify social distance from their poorer neighbours. Simultaneously, they attempted to distinguish themselves from other wealthy people. This dual drive sometimes led to ludicrous extremes, such as investments in expensive carriages when few roads on the island could accommodate them. Commonly, modes of claiming distinction concentrated on clothes and interior decor. Wealthy Zanzibaris invested large sums in silk and silk-cotton clothing. They filled their homes with porcelain, imported curios, and mirrors that magnified their possessions. Perhaps the most iconic objects that the wealthy employed to create (p. 100) distance between them and other Zanzibaris were American and European wall clocks. These were items of conspicuous consumption. Few regulated their day by clocks since prayer times provided the common rhythm of life. Yet because clocks were rare outside coastal cities and their machinations pleased local audiences, clocks became synonymous with urban culture and indispensable objects of display for elites.

The greatest example of the uses of consumer goods to represent personal ability and authority was Sultan Barghash bin Said's Beit al Ajaib, or ‘House of Wonders’. Completed around 1883, the House of Wonders was the largest building in the region and positioned at the seafront in Zanzibar as the most prominent symbol of the state. Beit al Ajaib served largely symbolic purposes, as evidenced by its narrow rooms and vast central auditorium. The building entailed the creolization of myriad global symbols, a trend typical of cosmopolitan Zanzibar. British Indian in inspiration, the House of Wonders had wide four-sided verandahs, French doors accented by low-hanging lamps, richly worked wooden overhangs and massive western Indian-designed carved doors. To complete the picture of opulence, Barghash laid the floor of Beit al Ajaib with a French black and white marble and filled the building with large chandeliers. In front of the House of Wonders Barghash built a massive tower, and, as a testament to his close relationship with European powers, furnished it with East Africa's largest clocks.

The contents of the House of Wonders were carefully selected to impress. The reception room boasted Persian carpets, red velvet and gilt wood furniture, as well as ormolu timepieces, aneroid barometers, thermometers, anemometers, telescopes, opera glasses and music boxes. In addition, the Beit al Ajaib housed swords, spears, rifles, pistols, photograph albums, portraits of famous personalities, and sets of photographs of famous sites around the world.38 Barghash visited London's Hall of the Great Exhibition (‘Crystal Palace’) in 1875, and it is likely that his visit provided the inspiration for the House of Wonders. Like the Crystal Palace, the House of Wonders was ornamented with objects of manufacture representing new technologies—tools used for measurement and magnification, in particular. Barghash designed the House of Wonders as a museum of the contemporary world, and the sultan was keen to show off the collection to his subjects and foreigners alike. Barghash's House of Wonders equated new consumer objects with the sultan and so offered a dramatic example of the domestication of consumer goods in the service of the state. In this imposing structure, Barghash demonstrated to his subjects that he had the power to possess myriad images and objects collected from across the globe.

In the final years of his life, the sultan would see his regional influence dwindle and his mainland possessions fall into the hands of European powers. By the end of the 1880s, much of East Africa was under direct European rule. The colonial epoch ushered in new concepts of global relation, local power relations, and belief systems, all of which shaped East African consumer demands. In the coastal region many nineteenth-century fashions persisted. At the turn of the century, the abolition of slavery offered new economic and social possibilities to a substantial sector of the population. As in earlier decades, clothing was a primary means of representing social integration into a changing society. (p. 101) For instance, Laura Fair has shown that the long and colourful Indian printed cloth known as khanga came to be a primary sign of a woman's adherence to post-abolition social norms in Zanzibar.39 In the 1920s the black, full body, women's covering called the buibui—which was likely an import from southern Arabia—evidenced an increasing trend of veiling in urban coastal East Africa. Veiling had once been a practice of only the Arab elite. With the buibui, the veil quickly gained esteem as a barometer of respectability and adherence to new concepts of proper Muslim attire. While the buibui dominated coastal women's fashion across social categories, materials ranging from fine silk to cheap cotton allowed for the maintenance of considerable social differentiation among women in Zanzibar, Mombasa, and Dar es Salaam.40 Muslim women drew more deeply from Arab social mores in the first decades of the twentieth century, but Muslim men cast off items such as sandals and the kizibao, embracing European shoes and jackets in their place. Such sartorial choices came to represent men's greater engagement with European concepts of modern attire as well as the normalization of Western fashions across the Muslim world.

Beyond the coast, Swahili fashions found a broad audience in the early colonial era, bringing to a climax a trend that had begun with the caravan trade. Part of the reason for this increased consumption of Swahili styles was that colonial administrations and missionaries encouraged non-Muslims to wear kanzus and khangas, among other Swahili clothes. In the eyes of many Europeans, Swahili clothing was more authentically ‘native’ than European dresses, trousers, shirts, and ties. Some European employers even forced their African workers to wear Swahili fashions, while the government of Kenya Colony issued the kanzu, fez and joho to its newly appointed chiefs. As a result, many young people across East Africa sought to assert freedom from ‘traditional’ authority, and even equivalence with European residents, by shunning Swahili styles and wearing Western clothes. This practice, one influenced by the presence of Christian missions and new patterns of labour migration, would signal a remarkable shift in East African consumer interests.41 Indeed, the self-conscious identification as ‘modern’—a term with multiple and ambiguous meanings in East Africa—was nowhere more evident than in the demand for Western-style clothing, particularly in East Africa's burgeoning cities.42

The influences of Christianity and perceptions of modernity were most readily apparent in urban East Africa, but many rural people likewise chose to don Western clothes. (p. 102) Margaret Jean Hay has demonstrated how the early colonial era's matrix of social, political, and economic change gained material form through revolutionary shifts in rural consumption patterns. In Nyanza Province (western Kenya), an area less affected by the nineteenth century caravan trade than regions closer to the coast, Hay shows that household spending on objects of personal adornment such as brass wire and beads increased in the early twentieth century. Yet missionary emphasis on minimal jewellery and maximal body coverage ultimately led to the demise of an earlier mode of dress that juxtaposed these imported objects with locally available skins. European clothing reflected new concepts of self-identity contingent on Christian mores, while the expanding colonial labour market both exposed young people to new styles and offered the means to purchase them.

For Luo men who earned wages in cities and on plantations, European hats, pants, and trousers became prominent symbols of wealth and success in the early twentieth century. Migrant labourers (almost exclusively men) also discovered that, despite official policies, some employers paid higher wages to those who wore European-style shirts and shorts, a fact that made European clothes pragmatic. Luo women were largely excluded from the migrant labour market, but increased earnings from the sale of agricultural goods, particularly in the interwar period, offered them access to new fashions. And like their male counterparts, they found that Western clothes paid dividends—as did Christianity. For example, entrance into the community of Christians offered social leverage to challenge elders, notably around the question of arranged marriage. The most obvious means of representing this socio-religious conversion and rejecting senior authority was wearing European clothes, usually dresses and headscarves.

For Luo men and women, European styles were seen as symbols of new sources of authority and influence. They also offered a means of claiming a social identity distinct from the perceived cultural strictures of the past. Thus, European fashions highlighted and exacerbated social frictions inaugurated by the new economy, a radically altered political environment and the appeal of a new religion. By the 1940s, not only had skins and beads all but disappeared in places such as western Kenya, but across East Africa European-style clothing, sometimes in combination with Swahili fashions, had come to define a new generation of East Africans.43

African Consumers and the Global Economy

East African consumer interests reflected the era's changing socio-political relationships and the region's deeper integration into global markets. They also affected societies and economies in distant parts of the globe. Pedro Machado demonstrates that in the eighteenth century textiles made in Jambusar (near Surat, north-west India) were popular (p. 103) in south-east Africa. With the increasing sale of ivory and slaves, African demand for the cloth became so great that Jambusar manufactured cloth almost exclusively for the African market.44 Early in the nineteenth century, a similar relationship developed between East African consumers and manufacturers in Kachchh (north-west India, bordering modern Pakistan). Varieties of Kachchhi cloth, particularly the indigo taujiri, came into fashion in East Africa and Kachchhi textiles quickly surpassed Gujarati cloth in popularity. This popularity coincided with the dramatic expansion of the East African economy. As a result, from the 1810s to 1840 Zanzibar was the single most important market for Mandvi, Kachchh's largest port.45 Weaving constituted the city's largest industry and the port city's economy became narrowly focused on East Africa. As profits from the trade with East Africa rose, Kachchhi capital investments in the region helped fuel the further expansion of the East African economy.

In the 1840s, East African tastes shifted again. American merchants based in Salem, Massachusetts had been muscled out of the lucrative China and India markets by more powerful New York- and Boston-based businesses and so ventured into the south-western Indian Ocean. New Englanders wanted East African ivory and copal, and East Africans were eager consumers of American cloth. Though merekani was more expensive than Kachchhi cloth and did not boast the same vibrant colours, it was prized for its durability. This mutually beneficial relationship between Zanzibar and the United States resulted in a ‘most favoured nation’ trade agreement between the two states. Initially, most of the American cloth exported to Zanzibar came from Lowell Mills in Massachusetts. Due to increasing competition for Lowell cottons and the introduction of a railway system between Lowell and Boston, Salem merchants saw the price of Lowell goods rise beyond their profitability in East Africa. In response to the higher prices, Salemites invested in their own textile mill.

On its completion, the Salem mill was the largest in the country as well as the first steam-powered textile factory in North America. Though the factory did not produce exclusively for East Africa, many of its products were specifically designed for East African consumers. Where American merchants had once only sold simple unbleached Lowell sheeting to East Africa, between the 1840s and the 1880s they exported a variety of cloth, including bleached and unbleached varieties of sheeting and drills, linen, red broadcloth and handkerchiefs. In the years leading up to the American Civil War, demand for American cloth not only provided a commercial staple for trade to East Africa, it also assured a primary export market for America's largest textile factory. East Africa proved important to Salem's economy in an era of intense competition from larger Boston and New York firms while playing a key role in Salem's transition from mercantile capitalism to industrialization.

The American Civil War signalled the end of American cloth's dominance in East Africa. English merchants were flooding Indian markets with cheap British cloth, and (p. 104) Indian exporters took advantage of the high price of wartime American cottons to substitute English cloths for merekani. Though much of this cloth was dyed and printed in India, Mumbai exporters also began to cultivate a market for Mumbai-manufactured textiles by replicating the merekani. Recognizing the long-term profits in mechanization, Mumbai financiers invested in expensive European steam power technology. Though most of the cloths produced by the new factories were consumed within South Asia, East Africa became one of the primary overseas markets for industrial manufactured cloth from Mumbai. The new factories wove kaniki, lighter cotton doti, and copies of the famous merekani cloth. They even stamped and folded imitation merekani to appear like the original American product.

In the 1870s, the telegraph connected the two cities, making it easier to relay changes in demand. At the same time, the Sultan of Zanzibar purchased several steamships and initiated his own service between Zanzibar and Mumbai in an effort to boost trade between the cities. Though a British company ran a similar service, the sultan offered substantially lower shipping rates than his competitor. As a result, the price of Mumbai-manufactured cloth fell in East Africa. This facilitated even greater East African consumption of Mumbai cloth—as much as 13 million yards of knock-off merekani in 1890 alone. In that year, East Africans consumed nearly half of all the unbleached cottons exported from Mumbai. At a time when the Indian textile industry faced great competition from Britain, Mumbai manufacturing received stimulus from East African consumers who had more purchasing power than ever before. As a result of its large South Asian market and burgeoning export trade, by the end of the century Mumbai was the commercial heart of the western Indian Ocean. In part because of East African demand for cloth, Mumbai became the epicentre of India's industrialization.46

In the late nineteenth century, colonial rule altered trade routes within the region as well as patterns of exchange with other parts of the world. In German East Africa, British Kenya, and the Protectorate of Zanzibar, Indian trading firms and shopkeepers retained a central role in the economy. At the same time, a variety of European manufactured goods began to make inroads. This was partially the result of complementary colonial policies: the promotion of agricultural production for export and the marketing of British and German products in the colonies. Efforts to restructure the regional economy around the production of cash crops such as coffee, tea, and sisal met with success in the early twentieth century. At the same time, the labour market that serviced these and other sectors of the new economy offered access to cash and credit, while railways and roads linked once isolated locales to growing urban centres such as Nairobi, Kisumu, and Kampala. In the earlier twentieth century colonial administrations succeeded in expanding the production of cash crops for export and stimulating African consumer demand, but their corresponding attempts to influence African consumption patterns met with decidedly mixed results.

Colonial officials’ success in shaping consumer choices was often the result of extreme measures. For example, in colonial British East Africa fears of the corrupting effects of (p. 105) imported liquor (as opposed to local brews, or what colonial laws termed ‘native intoxicating liquor’) led to a near-complete ban on both the supply of imported alcohol to Africans and their consumption of it.47 On the other hand, the volume of British manufactured porcelain, soap, and other household goods increased with the wider acceptance of certain European cultural mores—evidence of a cultural shift that would also spur demand for second-hand European clothes and cotton cloth. As significant as such cultural trends were, they did not ensure markets for British cloth. Popular European styles were usually tailored locally, much as Swahili styles had been for decades, and so Indian textiles continued to offer stiff competition to British imports.

The most dramatic change in the relationship between East African consumers and foreign producers would, in fact, have little to do with British goods and instead reveal the limits of Britain's ability to shape regional consumer demand. By the late 1920s it had become clear that colonial economic restructuring was fuelling a phenomenal increase in Japanese imports to East Africa. Almost from their introduction in the mid-1920s, Japanese cottons, notable for their durability, vibrant colours, and low prices, found a wide market in East Africa. From Nyasaland to Uganda, sales of Japanese textiles quickly outpaced British and Indian imports. In 1930, East Africans were buying more Japanese piece goods than British and Indian varieties combined, a fact that caused considerable concern in official circles. Colonial administrators and manufacturers anticipated that the appeal of Swahili and European styles among East Africans, when combined with greater purchasing power, would ensure a booming market for the products of British and British Indian industry. Yet for over a decade, Japanese manufacturers reaped the greatest benefits of East African demand for cloth.48

In an attempt to address the increasing inability of British and British Indian textiles to compete with Japanese goods in East Africa, the Colonial Office increased tariffs on non-British imports. Kweku Ampiah suggests that the new tariff structure had a geopolitical dimension as well. Ampiah argues that British policymakers used their ability to restrict Japanese access to vast colonial markets as an indirect means of checking Japan's expanding economy at a time of growing rivalry in Asia and the Pacific. Whatever the rationales for increased tariffs, East African consumer interests trumped imperial policy. The consumption of Japanese imports increased in the 1930s such that by the end of the decade Japanese textiles accounted for a staggering 80 per cent of all imported piece goods in Britain's East African possessions. Since the high prices of Lancashire cloth put it beyond the reach of most East Africans, protectionist policies only ensured that East Africans paid much higher prices for Japanese piece goods than before such measures were put in place, a fact that drew the ire of African consumers.49 Much as with the American trade in the mid-nineteenth century, only war would upset Japan's economic relationship with East Africa.

(p. 106) The success of the imperial tariff scheme was limited, but such protectionist policies evidenced a new turn in East Africa's relationship with the global economy: in both the export and import sectors Africans’ interfaces with international markets were now mediated by a government over which African subjects exercised little direct influence. It would be a mistake, however, to presume that colonial regimes could dictate consumer trends. Consumption patterns were often far less constricted by government directives than were other aspects of Africans’ economic lives under colonial rule.


At the end of the nineteenth century the constraints of interaction enforced by colonial empires restricted African economic possibilities. Yet the notion that the interests of outsiders steered the continent's past for centuries obscures the social complexities of Africa's interface with the global economy before and during colonial rule. The socio-political logics of consumer desire offer some insights into why global trade came to be important to Africans long before most were coerced to produce for the market. One insight we can draw from recent reflections on pre-colonial consumption is that regional fashions were incredibly differentiated. Tastes changed quickly and differed among societies, social groups, and neighbours. Consumer demands were often so specific that regional traders were compelled to develop ingenious ways to address them. Caravans became travelling warehouses that catered to wide audiences, and East Africans refashioned imported consumer goods to suit local demand. This value-adding was essential to the regional economy and, by extension, networks of exchange beyond the region. Processes of refabrication in East Africa were not unique, yet they remain an aspect of global exchange too often overlooked by theorists of global integration. In the case of pre-colonial East Africa, trade was not simply the exchange of African raw materials for imported manufactures. Instead, the constant reinterpretation and transformation of consumer goods was elemental to East Africa's interface with the global market before and throughout the colonial era.

The nineteenth century's expanding world of goods dramatically affected East Africa's socio-political landscape. East Africans used gains from the overseas trade to shore up local power relations. While investments in clients and social distinction may not have paid long-term economic dividends, these were primary concerns in societies where controlling people was of the highest priority and wealth was rarely figured by capital accumulation alone. Wealth in the form of imports also offered the means for aspiring elites to challenge historical patterns of rule by redistribution and force. Greater material differentiation highlighted inequalities in East African societies. Rulers enforced sumptuary regulations to ensure their possession of symbols of authority. But this socio-material distance became increasingly difficult to maintain. The availability of luxury goods in some instances reproduced older social hierarchies, while in other cases it created and reflected new communities of aspiration. In places like Zanzibar, where sumptuary regulations were not enforced after the 1830s, elites collected luxury goods to represent their power and ability. During the era of the slave trade, newcomers to Zanzibar often claimed (p. 107) social citizenship through acquisition of the signs of Zanzibari cosmopolitanism. For many, consumption was a strategy of belonging, one that remained important after the formal abolition of slavery.

Shifts in the social logics of consumption and consumer demand also affected East Africa's trading partners. By responding to changing consumer interests, East Africa, northwestern India, and New England engaged in mutually constitutive relationships, modes of reciprocity that were not premised on gross asymmetries of power. East African interests in cloth, New England demand for ivory, and Indian hunger for cloves oscillated over the nineteenth century, but each shift had distant repercussions. Nyamwezi demand for particular kinds of brass wire shaped Zanzibar's trade relationship with America and the working lives of New Englanders. Ultimately, New England and western Indian responses to East African consumer demands contributed to the industrialization of both regions. In the colonial era, African consumer interests continued to influence global networks of exchange and production. As the case of Japanese textiles suggests, colonial administrations’ attempts to harness the power of consumer choice were not always successful. East African demand for Japanese cottons, driven at least in part by a thriving market in locally tailored European clothing, helped bolster the industrial capacity of an imperial rival that by the late 1930s posed a considerable threat to British interests in East and Southeast Asia. This was surely an unintended consequence of Britain's exacting economic policies in Africa.

The study of African consumption patterns offers a window on multiple reciprocities, palimpsest feedback loops spanning time and space. Holistic appraisals of East Africa's history of consumption demonstrate that the minutiae of consumer desire and negotiated transaction have been significant factors in the patterning of global integration. In pre-colonial East Africa, the consumer object both crystallized socio-political tensions and acted as a vehicle for their articulation with the wider world. Thus, consumer interests were equally personal and relational. They affected bonds between consumers as well as among consumers, producers, and those who remanufactured imports—before and during the colonial era. Yet, as the economies of display and distribution shaped East African societies in the nineteenth century and stimulated mass production in India and the United States, East Africans rapidly depleted local resources and became increasingly dependent on slave labour for the production of exports. While neither economic activity proved beneficial to a region whose economy would be radically altered by colonial policies, reflection on the African interests that defined these trends adds nuance to our appreciation of why global hierarchies emerged and how they have been affected by consumer choices.


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                  Miller, Joseph, Way of death: merchant capitalism and the Angolan slave trade, 1730–1830 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988).Find this resource:

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                          (1) See for instance, Arjun Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); C. A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, 1780–1914 (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004); Karen Tranberg Hansen, Salaula: The World of Secondhand Clothing Trade and Zambia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000); Jan Hogendorn and Marion Johnson, The Shell Money of the Slave Trade (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Marcy Norton, ‘Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics’, American Historical Review, 111/3 (2006), 660–91; Gary Y. Okihiro, Pineapple Culture: A History of the Tropical and Temperate Zones. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009); Frank Trentmann, ‘Crossing Divides: Consumption and Globalization in History’, Journal of Consumer Culture, 9 (2009), 187–220.

                          (2) As Jane Guyer outlines in her study of Atlantic Africa's interfaces with European economies, Africans were often ‘capitalist in commercial method but not in the uses of money capital’. Marginal Gains: Monetary Transactions in Atlantic Africa (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 9.

                          (3) Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1989); Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System, 3 vols. (New York: Academic Press, 1974–89).

                          (4) Jane Guyer, ‘Wealth in people, wealth in things: Introduction’, Journal of African History, 36/1 (1995), 83–8.

                          (5) Megan Vaughan, ‘Africa and the Birth of the Modern World’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 16 (2006), 152.

                          (6) Frederick Cooper, ‘Africa's Pasts and Africa's Historians’, Canadian Journal of African Studies 34 (2000), 321; Frederick Cooper, Africa since 1940: the Past of the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); see also Jean-François Bayart, ‘Africa in the World: A History of Extraversion’, African Affairs, 99/395 (2000), 217–67.

                          (7) In the case of the Loango coast of West Central Africa, Phyllis M. Martin argued that Africans ‘called the tune’ of transoceanic exchanges. The External Trade of the Loango Coast, 1576–1870: The Effects of changing Commercial Relations on the Vili Kingdom of Loango (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), 144.

                          (8) Emmanuel Akyeampong, Drink, Power, and Cultural Change: A Social History of Alcohol in Ghana, c.1800 to Recent Times (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1996); Philip Curtin, Economic Change in Precolonial Africa: Senegambia in the Era of the Slave Trade (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1975); Joseph Inikori, Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England: A Study in International Trade and Economic Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Joseph Miller, Way of death: merchant capitalism and the Angolan slave trade, 1730–1830 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988). See also Stanley Alpern, ‘What Africans Got for their Slaves’, History in Africa, 22 (1995), 5–43; Dmitri van den Bersselaar, The Drink of Kings: Scnapps Gin from Modernity to Tradition (Leiden: Brill, 2007); Timothy Burke, Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women: Commodification, Consumption, and Cleanliness in Modern Zimbabwe (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996); Jean and John Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution, 2 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995–97); Ghislaine Lydon, On Trans-Saharan Trails: Islamic Law, Trade Networks and Cross-Cultural Exchange in Nineteenth-Century Western Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Justin Willis, Potent Brews: A Social History of Alcohol in East Africa, 1850–1999 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2002).

                          (9) Richard Roberts, ‘West Africa and the Pondicherry Textile Industry’, in T. Roy (ed.), Cloth and Commerce: Textiles in Colonial India (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996), 142–74. The story of Dutch wax print cloth and West African consumers offers a similarly complex story of manufacturing to appeal to specific African consumer interests. Ruth Nielsen, ‘The History and Development of Wax-Printed Textiles Intended for West Africa and Zaire’, in J. Cordwell and R. Schwarz (eds.), The Fabrics of Culture: The Anthropology of Clothing and Adornment (The Hague: Mouton, 1979).

                          (10) David Richardson, ‘West African Consumption Patterns and their Influence on the Eighteenth-century English Slave Trade,’ in A. Gemery and J. Hogendorn (eds.), The Uncommon Market: Essays in the Economic History of the Atlantic Slave Trade (New York: Academic Press, 1979), 308, 310.

                          (11) Mark Horton and John Middleton, The Swahili: The Social Landscape of a Mercantile Society (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2001); Chapurukha M. Kusimba, The Rise and Fall of Swahili States (Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 1999).

                          (12) Pedro Machado, ‘Awash in a Sea of Cloth: Gujarat, Africa, and the Indian Ocean, 1300–1800’, in Giorgio Riello and Prasannan Parthasarathi (eds.), The Spinning World: A Global History of Cotton Textiles, 1200–1850 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 173; Malyn Newitt, A History of Mozambique (Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press, 1995).

                          (13) João dos Santos, Ethiopia Oriental, Vol. 1 (Lisbon: n.p., 1609), 111.

                          (14) Jeremy Prestholdt, ‘As Artistry Permits and Custom May Ordain: The Social Fabric of Material Consumption in the Swahili World ca. 1450–1600’, Northwestern University African Studies Center Working Paper Series, 3 (1998), 15–16.

                          (15) Elizabeth MacGonagle, ‘Mightier than the Sword: The Portuguese Pen in Ndau History’, History in Africa, 28 (2001), 183.

                          (16) Edward Alpers, Ivory & Slaves in East Central Africa (London: Heinemann, 1975).

                          (17) Pedro Machado, ‘Cloths of a New Fashion: Networks of Exchange, African Consumerism and Cloth Zones of Contact in India and the Indian Ocean in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries’, in Tirthankar Roy, Om Prakash, Kaoru Sugihara and Giorgio Riello (eds.), How India Clothed the World: The World of South Asian Textiles, 1500–1850. (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 53–84.

                          (18) Frederick Cooper, Plantation Slavery on the East Coast of Africa (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972); Abdul Sheriff, Slaves, Spices, and Ivory in Zanzibar (London: Heinemann, 1990).

                          (19) Stephen Rockel, Carriers of Culture: Labor on the Road in Nineteenth-Century East Africa, (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2006).

                          (20) Rockel, Carriers of Culture, 139.

                          (21) Jonathan Glassman, Feasts and Riot: Revelry, Rebellion, and Popular Consciousness on the Swahili Coast, 1856–1888 (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1995), 35–8, 45; Juhani Koponen, People and Production in Late Pre-Colonial Tanzania: History and Structures (Jyväskylä: Finnish Society for Development Studies, 1998).

                          (22) Rockel, Carriers of Culture, 66–8.

                          (23) Neil Kodesh, ‘Renovating Tradition: The Discourse of Succession in Colonial Buganda’, International Journal of African Historical Studies, 34/3 (2001), 511–41, at 526.

                          (24) Alpers, ‘ “Ordinary Household Chores”: Ritual and Power in a Nineteenth-Century Swahili Women's Possession Cult’, International Journal of African Historical Studies, 17/4 (1984), 677–702; Henry Morton Stanley, How I Found Livingstone: Travels, Adventures, and Discoveries in Central Africa. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1887).

                          (25) Joseph Thomson, To the Central African Lakes and Back: The Narrative of the Royal Geographical Society's East Central African Expedition, 1878–80 (London, 1881), 35–6.

                          (26) J. Grant, A Walk Across Africa or Domestic Scenes from my Nile Journey (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1864), 87.

                          (27) Harry Johnston, The Kilimanjaro Expedition. A Record of Scientific Exploration in Eastern Equatorial Africa (London, 1886), 45; Jeremy Prestholdt, Domesticating the World: African Consumerism and the Genealogies of Globalization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

                          (28) Jeremy Prestholdt, ‘On the Global Repercussions of East African Consumerism,’ American Historical Review, 109/3 (2004), 755–81.

                          (29) For a close analysis of this complex subject, see Prita Meier, ‘Objects on the Edge: Swahili Coast Logics of Display,’ African Arts, Winter (2009), 8–23.

                          (30) Steven Feierman, ‘A Century of Ironies in East Africa (c.1780–1890)’, in Philip Curtin et. al., African History: From Earliest Times to Independence (New York: Longman, 1995), 352–376; Steven Feierman, Peasant Intellectuals: Anthropology and History in Tanzania (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990).

                          (31) Willis, Potent Brews, 78.

                          (32) Glassman, Feasts and Riot, 47, 53.

                          (33) Ibid., 37, 154–8, 161–5.

                          (34) Kodesh, ‘Renovating Tradition,’ 526.

                          (35) Laura Fair, Pastimes and Politics: Culture, Community and Identity in Post-abolition Urban Zanzibar, 1890–1945 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2001); Laura Fair, ‘Remaking Fashion in the Paris of the Indian Ocean: Dress, Performance, and the Cultural Construction of a Cosmopolitan Zanzibari Identity’, in Jean Allman (ed.), Fashioning Africa: Power and the Politics of Dress. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004), 13–30.

                          (36) For freed women the ukaya (muslin head covering), kisutu (English square cloth dyed in Mumbai), and leso (colourful cloth made from imported handkerchiefs) served similar purposes.

                          (37) Jeremy Prestholdt, ‘Mirroring Modernity: On Consumerism in Nineteenth Century Zanzibar’, Trans/forming Cultures, 4/2 (2009), 165–204.

                          (38) Prestholdt, Domesticating the World, chapter 4.

                          (39) Fair, ‘Remaking Fashion in the Paris of the Indian Ocean’.

                          (40) Fair, Pastimes and Politics, ch. 2.

                          (41) Margaret Jean Hay, ‘Hoes and Clothes in a Luo Household: Changing Consumption in a Colonial Economy, 1906–1936’, in Mary Jo Arnoldi, Christraud M. Geary and Kris L Hardin (eds.), African Material Culture (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996), 243–61; Margaret Jean Hay, ‘Changes in Clothing and Struggles over Identity in Colonial Western Kenya’, in Jean Allman (ed.), Fashioning Africa: Power and the Politics of Dress (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004), 67–83.

                          (42) Maria Suriano, ‘Clothing and the changing identities of Tanganyikan urban youths, 1920s–1950s’, Journal of African Cultural Studies, 20/1 (2008), 95–115; For the immediate post-colonial era, see Thomas Burgess, ‘Cinema, Bell Bottoms, and Miniskirts: Struggles Over Youth and Citizenship in Revolutionary Zanzibar’, International Journal of African Historical Studies, 35/2 (2002), 287–313 and Andrew M. Ivaska, ‘ “Anti-Mini Militants Meet Modern Misses”: Urban Style, Gender and the Politics of “National Culture” in 1960s Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’, in Allman (ed.) Fashioning Africa, 104–21.

                          (43) Hay, ‘Changes in Clothing and Struggles over Identity’.

                          (44) Machado, ‘Clothes of a New Fashion’; Machado, ‘Awash in a Sea of Cloth’.

                          (45) M. Reda Bhacker, Trade and Empire in Muscat and Zanzibar: The Roots of British Domination (New York: Routledge, 1992), 160.

                          (46) Prestholdt, ‘On the Global Repercussions of East African Consumerism’.

                          (47) Willis, Potent Brews.

                          (48) Kweku Ampiah, ‘British Commercial Policies against Japanese Expansionism in East and West Africa, 1932–1935,’ International Journal of African Historical Studies, 23/4 (1990), 619–41.