The term, “legitimate trade” refers to the trade in commodities between Africans and the European merchants immediately after the abolition of slave trade. It was a trade where African raw materials, especially cash crops were exchanged for European goods. Such commodities included palm produce, rubber, cotton, skin, cocoa and gun. These produce were in high demand in Europe as a result of the industrial revolution.

However, some Africans and others had questioned the idea of legitimacy given to this type of trade. This was because to refer to it as legitimate was to hide the truth that by the time of its introduction, Europe was more in need of raw materials for its industries than slave labour. For this reason, there was said to be nothing legitimate about the so-called legitimate trade.



Although there was also a serious campaign for the abolition of slave trade on moral grounds, the introduction of legitimate trade was informed by the need to provide enough raw materials to European factories following the industrial revolution.

After the formation of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787, the economic potential of legitimate trade became a point of emphasis among the abolitionists. The idea of legitimate trade figured centrally in all abolitionist propaganda and testimony in parliament, such as in the mission of the new Sierra Leone Company at its founding in 1791 and, more broadly, in Danish and French schemes to promote abolition. After the abolition of slave trade by Britain in 1807, Anglican evangelicals organized the African institution with the aim of encouraging staple crop production in Sierra Leone. The idea of a legitimate trade, apart from the desire for raw materials in Europe, would seem to have been a creature of the abolitionist Movement, and perhaps would not have existed without it. The implication of legitimate trade was that Africans were encouraged to abandon the hunt for slaves and take up commercial farming to meet the industrial needs of Europe. The raw materials enterprise resulted in new wars and the rise of wealthy commodity merchants in Africa.

The legitimate trade started immediately after the abolition of slave trade. This does not mean that the European merchants were ignorant of the commodities involved in the legitimate trade until after the abolition of slave trade. In fact, Europeans’ first contact with West Africa was not to buy slaves but to buy commodities such as ivory, pepper and gold.



After the abolition of slave trade, European merchants turned their attention to the trade in palm produce and other commodities. The coastal areas of Nigeria had been noted for its rich production of palm oil especially in the hinterland.

The major commodities of legitimate trade were palm oil and palm kernels, which were used in Europe to make soap and as lubricants for machinery before petroleum products were discovered and developed for that purpose. Attracted by this prospect, British, French and German firms established their factories on the river estuary along the coast. These included Mclver, Miller Brothers, Thomas Harrison, Stewart and Douglas Hutton and Cookson. By July 1882, Consul Livingstone reported “five great English firms doing immense trade in the Opobo River”.

The firms bought and exported palm produce and other commodities and imported manufactured European goods for sale to the local people. Manilla was the major currency used in the transaction. Sometimes, European goods were sold to African middlemen or given to them in trust. The trust system enabled the African middlemen to collect European goods on credit. And after selling them, they paid back the agreed amount to the companies. This method was intended to encourage the middlemen or local produce dealers.

The need for complete eradication of slave trade, the promotion of legitimate trade and the protection of the British nationals, notably, traders and missionaries, led to the appointment of British Consuls to the Bights of Benin and Biafra (renamed Bight of Bonny in 1970). These consuls embarked on intensive signing of anti-slave trade and protectionist treaties with the coastal chiefs.



It is important to note that the early European travelers to Africa were mainly interested in gold and spices, but later realized that slaves offered more profits. Up to the end of the 18th century, Europe’s trade with Africa was largely in slaves.

Nevertheless, trade in gold, ivory, dyewoods and gum Arabic remained important. By the late 18th century, shipping had grown more efficient, which meant that bulk commodities could be profitably traded. In addition, the industrial revolution was creating markets in Europe for different African goods. Machines needed lubrication, which was provided by vegetable oils. In addition, ivory was used for billiard balls and piano keys and gum for cloth dye and medicines.

From 1820 and 1850, the increasing favourable terms of trade led to the demand for African exports. This demand was increasing and so were the prices Europe was willing to pay. While European industrialization was reducing the cost of exports, particularly of cotton textiles, new uses were found for vegetable oils even when petroleum replaced them as an industrial lubricant. Cotton was exported from Egypt and West Africa and coffee from Angola. First Sao-Tome and Fernando Po exported cocoa, the Gold Coast and Cameroon. By 1910, the Gold Coast was the world’s largest cocoa producer. East Coast plantations produced sesame, copra, and grain. The tapping of wild rubber trees developed from the 1870s and expanded greatly to satisfy the market for tyres and rubber raingear. In South Africa, significant quantities of diamonds were discovered in 1870 and gold in 1886.

As a result of the legitimate trade, African countries became centres of economic activities. African economy was integrated into the world economic system through the relationship between African producers and European manufacturers, and industrialists. The hostilities and warfare among Africans, largely as a result of slave trade became increasingly reduced and peace gradually returned among African communities. A new era of the utilization of African labour on the continent commenced.



The legitimate trade affected African societies in different ways.  In order to expand the legitimate trade and increase the trade with Europe, the Europeans developed agricultural plantations in West Africa. European settlements along the coast were not only trading posts, but also centres from which the settlers and freed slaves could engage in large-scale cultivation of produce.

The most important centres of these agricultural plantations were established in Sierra Leone and Liberia. There were also similar plantations established on the Gold Coast, in Nigeria, Bathurst (now Banjul), Fernando Po and other places. Missionaries also tried to establish coffee and cotton plantations in such settlements. However, not all West African societies experienced a transition from exporting slaves to exporting legitimate products.

The rise of the legitimate trade in African state economies yielded both negative and positive effects. It opened up the African continent to international trade, the expansion of literacy among former slaves and black Africans; the eradication of some tariffs, border restrictions and other economic hindrances to facilitate economic growth. However, in contrast, it also increased domestic slavery in many African states, resulting in a dwindling of the African labour force and indigenous industry. Warfare among Africans competing to control the trade and resources; the isolation of the peasant farmers from trade and commerce by placing them in the hands of wealthy European plantation owners, chiefs and warlords; laid the foundations for the penetration of Europeans into the continent and start the process of colonization. It also destabilized indigenous African state authority.

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