The Economic History Review

What happened to the workshop of West Africa? Resilience and decline of handicraft textiles in colonial northern Nigeria, 1911–52

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Authors: Emiliano Travieso, Tom Westland
Published online: February 2, 2024DOI: 10.1111/ehr.13324

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The Sokoto Caliphate of northern Nigeria was the workshop of West Africa in the pre-colonial nineteenth century, producing famous blue-black cloth that reached many markets south of the Sahara as well as across it. Under British colonial rule this large handicraft textile industry was faced with the winds of foreign competition. We rely on a newly digitized set of colonial district reports to measure the impact of trade on northern Nigerian textile manufacturing and find that (contrary to British expectations) areas closer to railway stations were less likely to experience industrial decline. We argue that the resilience of local textiles relied on the low opportunity cost of dry-season labour. Analysing a piece of tax microdata, we show that a low opportunity cost of labour outside of the rainy season was associated with a higher likelihood of engaging in textile by-employment. Seasonal changes in relative factor prices were a trap as well as a refuge. Part-time employment limited specialization and technological innovation, and can help to explain why northern Nigerian textiles eventually declined. Thus, beyond our particular case study, these results contribute to our understanding of the role of seasonality in determining the structure and pace of development of tropical economies.

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