Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Imperial Impact

Book Cover

Book Title

The Imperial Impact: Studies in the Economic History of Africa and India. London: The Athlone Press, 1978


Dewey, Clive and Hopkins, A.G. (eds.)


Dewey and Hopkins search for an overarching framework within which the economic history of India and Africa may be studied, and in doing so examine the value of various emerging approaches of economic history. They argue for the comparative approach, in which links between various historical situations are drawn in order to make broader conceptual inferences. More specifically, they also hope to use these historical studies to account for the present economic situations of former colonies.

This collection of essays has both a zoom-in and zoom-out approach. It begins and ends with discussions on relevant concepts such as neo-mercantilism, capitalism, and most importantly, the development of economic history as an independent intellectual discourse in its own right. In between, however, chapters narrow down on specific historical economic practices in Africa and India—for instance, the slave trade or the lifting of cotton tariffs. While the subject of study in each chapter can be quite isolated, they all examine colonial governments, merchants, peasants, the international market, and the economic relations between each of them.

While empires are not a focus of this collection, colonial economic practices and motives are a key component of the economic histories of Africa and India. African and Indian activities are often examined in relation to the dominant European economic ideological systems—neo-mercantilist, capitalist—within which they operate. Moreover, authors invest in the detailed indigenous political and social contexts to which economic activities are inextricably tied, and colonial presences have a profound impact on these.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The essays all focus on the economic histories of either India or Africa. Discussion ranges from pre-colonial times to the modern 20th century. Some essays remark on the general performance of a colonial economy within a broader theoretical framework: for instance, India’s performance in the days of neo-mercantilism. Others focus on specific functions or trends found in that colony alone; for example, examines the motivations of the Moplah revolutions in India.

Because economic history is only a fledgling intellectual discourse, most authors also devote some time to consider the various approaches an economic historian may make, and the challenges he may face.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Firstly, the collection contains rich debate about the burgeoning body of economic history, and how such history is best approached. Hopkins, Usoro and Dewey all provide a meta-historical discussion of the utility of economic history and its significant limitations. Usoro concludes that quantitative data is only helpful insofar as it is appropriately connected to qualitative contexts; Hopkins similarly considers the value of treating economic history either as a positive or a normative discipline. Other major discussions include the application of modern models to economic situations, and the pertinent problem of collecting proper data. Africa in particular is lacking in official documentation of economic activity; this has greatly impacted the way in which economic historians tackle Africa as an area of study.

Secondly, the essays primarily focus on the effects of contact with the international economy on two key indigenous groups: merchants, and rural peasants. For instance, Bayly considers the existence of a merchant city which defies the traditionally low caste status of merchants, and the relevance of the north Indian social universe to merchants, while Fisher, Wood and Miles write about rural unrest in response to unpopular colonial policies or international economic circumstances. On the other hand, Wrigley and Dewey provide the European perspective, detailing colonial decisions within the ideological frameworks of capitalism and neo-mercantilism. Wrigley argues that while the economic was necessarily blurred with the political, it was not always true that mercantilist concerns dictated political ones.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, many authors contribute to the growing body of literature on African economic history. Africa does not have a tradition of rigorous documentation, so its economic history is a combination of—in Usoro’s words—simple economic theory and imagination.

Annotated by Jennifer Yip