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Abstract Since the seminal work by W. A. Lewis, exports of primary products have been deemed the main or sole source of growth in tropical countries before the Great Depression. However, this conventional wisdom relies on very limited evidence. This article analyses the growth of exports with a constant market share analysis for 84 tropical polities. Exports grew a lot, but less than total trade, while relative prices of tropical products remained roughly constant. We thus tentatively infer that the decline in the tropical shares of world trade reflects an insufficient demand for tropical products. Asia dealt well with these headwinds throughout the whole period, while African polities blossomed after the First World War. The loser was (South) America, and most notably the Caribbean former slave colonies, especially before 1870.