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Reviewed by Mira Wilkins
D. K. Fieldhouse's huge archive-based volume starts with a disclaimer that while the central focus of the book is the history of United Africa Company (UAC), 1929-1987, "this is not primarily a history of this company as a business...." Rather, Fieldhouse's goal was to describe the interaction between a European merchant firm and its customers and suppliers in Africa and elsewhere - to see West and Central African economic development through the lens of the giant enterprise. Fieldhouse was in the envious position of being allowed access to the archives of the largest British trading firm in West and Central Africa. One opens this tome with the highest expectations, which it meets. This important book contains a fabulous amount of valuable material on an extremely complex multinational, multifunctional, multiproduct corporation.
Business activities are basic to economic development. In some cases, international businesses are so big, or in such fundamental operations, that it is impossible to write the economic history of a country or region without including them. Typically, when this happens, writers use government records or other data; too infrequently do students of economic development employ the records of the business enterprise. Those who have done so have found a splendid source. The use of business archives to cast light on economic history greatly enriches understanding. Fieldhouse is to be applauded for undertaking this project, for UAC was a firm whose business activities were not only influenced by the economic changes, but because of the size and scope of its business, it, in turn, had major consequences.
In March 1929, with roots in 93 firms, United Africa Company was formed, with headquarters in London and staff in Manchester and Liverpool. That year alone it had over 1000 trading posts in West Africa. In 1929-1930, it handled 39 per cent of the Gold Coast's cocoa exports; while Fieldhouse does not give comparable figures of the company's portion of the Nigerian palm oil, palm kernels, cocoa, and groundnut (peanut) trade, UAC's share appears to have been far greater than the Gold Coast amount. The company's principal business was in British West Africa, but it had operations in French and Belgian colonies in Africa; its activities extended into Central and North Africa, the Middle East and, minimally, the Far East. It had Paris and Brussels offices.
At origin, UAC was partly-owned by …