Proposal preview

Tropical economies in the making of the modern world

William Arthur Lewis (1915-1991) is a pioneering economic historian who discussed the trade and development of the world’s tropical regions including South Asia, Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. Although he was writing during the age of dependency theory, his work on tropical economies, represented by Aspects of Tropical Trade 1883-1965 (1969) and Tropical Development 1880-1913 (1970), advanced an argument that the export of raw materials was the engine of economic growth in the tropical regions from the 1880s to the eve of the First World War. In this argument, he offered an insightful view that highlighted the initiatives among peasants who effectively responded to the factor endowments and the natural environment in their respective regions, and to economic opportunities brought from outside their regions. More importantly, however, he also pointed to factoral (income) terms of trade as the determinant of the divergence in economic development between the temperate and tropical zones.

The aim of this session is to revisit Lewis’s argument to extend the scope of his work into the late pre-colonial period of the nineteenth century, which had already witnessed the early growth of the global export of raw materials from the tropical regions to industrializing countries in Western Europe and North America. It will provide a platform to discuss the agency, rather than the dependency, of the tropical economies in the making of the modern world during the first wave of globalization. Also, it will shed fresh light on multiple paths of economic development from tropical perspectives.

The session is comprised of five papers on tropical economies in the early to mid-nineteenth century and includes comments from two renowned economic historians of Asia and Africa. In Southeast Asia, especially in Java and Philippines, the unlimited supply of low-wage labor to the subsistence sector made possible the rapid growth of exports in primary products such as coffee and sugar. Kohei Wakimura reveals that this labor supply to the Southeast Asian economies consisted of two phases: the rise of fertility in the first half of the nineteenth century and migrant labor from China and India in the second half of the century. Ryuto Shimada takes up the case of tea production in tropical Asia by arguing that the growth of tea production had already begun for domestic consumption before Europeans organized tea plantations to boost exports. In Sub-Saharan Africa, both East and West, the rapid growth of exports of raw materials and food offered new income-earning opportunities to coastal producers and enabled them to consume imported cloth from Britain, India and the United States. Katharine Frederick reveals that increasing global demand for gum copal and other goods produced on the East African coast led to different income-earning opportunities between coastal and interior producers. Similarly, Kazuo Kobayashi argues how the export of palm oil and groundnuts from West Africa made it easier for coastal producers to gain access to cheap British calicoes. In Brazil, cane sugar and coffee were the two most important export commodities during the nineteenth century. Christopher Absell demonstrates that European trade policy influenced the imperfect competition that led to the divergence in growth performance of these commodities.


  • Kazuo Kobayashi, University of Tokyo,,
  • Ryuto Shimada, University of Tokyo,,

Session members

  • Kohei Wakimura, Osaka City University,
  • Katharine Frederick, Wageningen University,
  • Christopher Absell, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid,
  • Atsushi Kobayashi, Osaka Sangyo University,

Proposed discussant(s)

  • Gareth Austin, University of Cambridge,
  • Kaoru Sugihara, Research Institute for Humanity and Nature,