There is a species of tree in the savanna region of Africa whose sap contains unique industrial characteristics. The sap easily dissolves in water and maintains relatively low levels of viscosity even in high concentrations. This means the sap of the Gum Arabic tree can be used as an adhesive, stabalizer, or thickener in industrial processes.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, gum from the savanna region became prized by burgeoning European industries. The gum was used in dyeing textiles and printing paper. It was also used as an adhesive in stationery, matches, and inks. Confectioners and pharmacists also used the gum to produce sweets and coughdrops respectively.
The below scatterplot contains a point for every recorded export of gum in the African Commodity Trade Database (ACTD). Hovering over one of the points will show the place of export, type of commodity, year, and quantity exported. You can also zoom into and drag the visualization with your mouse.
Unlike other commodities, gum shows relatively stable export quantities from 1840 to the start of World War II. There are a few outliers in the late 1880s and in 1919, all of which are exports from Senegal. The below sections compare the export trends in Senegal with those in Sierra Leone.
In the nineteenth century, French trading companies dominated the export trade from Senegal. They purchased from and bartered with traders who collected gum from Acacia trees across the region.
The below barchart shows the annual export of gum from 1839 to 1894. Hovering over one of the bars will show the precise quantity of export along with the year.
The barchart demonstrates a steady increase in gum exports from the 1840s to 1870s. Around the time of the Berlin Conference in 1884, gum exports from Senegal more than doubled from 150 metric tons to over 300 metric tons per year. This significant increase decreased to pre-spike levels by the next decade.
In 1895, the French government consolidated control over Senegal and remained in control until Senegalese independence in 1960. The below barchart shows the annual export of gum after formal colonization up to the onset of World War II. Hovering over one of the bars will show the precise quantity of export along with the year.
Unlike the pre-colonization figures, the colonial exports are fairly consistent. Gum exports fluctuate between 50 and 250 metric tons up until the onset of World War II. While exports decreased in the first decade of the twentieth century, they increased in the second decade and then held steady in the third. There is one significant outlier in 1919 when gum exports exceeded 500 metric tons.
The gum exports from Sierra Leone are significantly less than those from Senegal. The export traders in Sierra Leone obtained gum from long-distance traders who collected it beyond the coastal swamps and forests.
The coastal history of Sierra Leone during the nineteenth century is dominated by three groups:
- People like the Temne who lived in the region
- Freed slaves who settled in the Freetown area
- British and other European merchants and officials, also concentrated in the Freetown area
Each of these groups contributed to the commodity export trade in the nineteenth century. The below barchart shows gum exports from Sierra Leone from the mid-nineteenth century to 1910.
The quantity of gum exports were relatively small compared to Senegal. Exports never exceeded 20 metric tons. Nonetheless, the barchart shows increases in the 1870s and in the 1890s. After formal colonization in West Africa, Sierra Leone's gum exports ceased as the internal trade was redirected to other export ports.
The history of gum in the ACTD demonstrates the commodity's increase in export quantities during the nineteenth century. In the case of Senegal, the main place of export, gum exceeded 300 metric tons in annual exports in the 1880s. More generally, European merchants exported significant quantities of gum from West Africa before formal colonization.