Capitalism in the Colonies: African Merchants in Lagos, 1851–1931

An account that challenges the conventional views of African merchants under colonialism, examining the emergence and changing fortunes of indigenous entrepreneurs in Lagos, Nigeria


Published (US):
Jul 16, 2024
Published (UK):
Sep 10, 2024
6.13 x 9.25 in.
30 b/w illus. 3 maps.
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In Capitalism in the Colonies, A. G. Hopkins provides the first substantial assessment of the fortunes of African entrepreneurs under colonial rule. Examining the lives and careers of 100 merchants in Lagos, Nigeria, between 1850 and 1931, Hopkins challenges conventional views of the contribution made by indigenous entrepreneurs to the long-run economic development of Nigeria. He argues that African merchants in Lagos not only survived, but were also responsible for key innovations in trade, construction, farming, and finance that are essential for understanding the development of Nigeria’s economy.

The book is based on a large, representative sample and covers a time span that traces mercantile fortunes over two and three generations. Drawing on a wide range of sources, Hopkins shows that indigenous entrepreneurs were far more adventurous than expatriate firms. African merchants in Lagos pioneered motor vehicles, sewing machines, publishing, tanneries, and new types of internal trade. They founded the construction industry that built Lagos into a major port city, moved inland to start the cocoa-farming industry, and developed the finance sector that is still vital to Nigeria’s economy. They also took the lead in changing single-owned businesses into limited liability companies, creating freehold property rights and promoting wage labour. In short, Hopkins argues, they were the capitalists who introduced the institutions of capitalism into Nigeria. The story of African merchants in Nigeria reminds us, he writes, that economic structures have no life of their own until they are animated by the actions of creative individuals.