Book Review

‘Born with a copper spoon’ shows Africa’s long struggle for resource control

By David Whitehouse

Posted on March 3, 2023 10:57

Former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda once said that his countrymen were “born with a copper spoon in our mouths.” A new book traces Africa’s key role in copper’s global history and its struggle to get fair value for its resources.

Born with a Copper Spoon: A Global History of Copper, 1830–1980, edited by Robrecht Declerq, Duncan Money and Hans Otto Frøland, was published by University of British Columbia Press in December 2022.

The strength of the book, made up of a collection of chapters by specialists, is that it analyses “copper worlds”, defined as historical regimes with globally organised sets of institutions, trading relationships and labour practises. The smelters of South Wales in Britain stood at the centre of the first such copper world between 1830 and 1870.

The “American world” of copper driven by American capital and companies held sway between 1870 and 1960. It was replaced by a “postcolonial world” of copper between 1960 and 1990. During this period, producing states sought to establish control over their own resources.

Yet the main Western copper consumer nations were in the 1970s able to resist the establishment of an international agreement on copper prices. A chapter by Hans Otto Frøland analyses how the Global North was able to undermine the efforts of the Intergovernmental Council of Copper Exporting Countries (CIPEC), set up by Zaire, Zambia Chile and Peru in 1967, to achieve higher prices.

Iva Peša uses archival and oral sources to analyse communities in the Central African copperbelt from 1950 to 2000. A chapter from Ingeborg Guldal and Frida Brende Jenssen compares resource nationalism in Zambia and Papua New Guinea from 1964 to 1974. Zambia learned from Chile’s experience when it nationalised its copper industry, and Papua New Guinea in turn tried to learn from Zambia.

Robrecht Declerq writes on Katanga and the American world of copper, and shows how American engineers were used from 1900 to 1930 to establish a vertically integrated commodity chain from Katanga to Belgium’s mineral processing industry.

The idea that the Americans were freedom-loving anti-colonialists who undermined European attempts to cling on to their empires has always lacked historical realism. In fact, US and non-Communist Europe usually relied on each other to build and maintain their global economic systems, both before and after World War Two.

Declerq’s research provides a concrete example. Efficient American copper mining techniques, he writes, enabled a false “stable image of progress and modernisation” to be projected in Katanga in contrast to the earlier bloody Belgian plunder.

Rural supply side

A new world system has come into place in our century, with China being the largest consumer of copper since 2002. The only slight disappointment is that the book tells us little about it. Perhaps it’s for the best that the book does not over-extend itself: the ground covered is already huge. China’s copper world, and Africa’s place in it, needs at least a book all to itself.

The book’s approach has merits beyond the history of copper. A focus on the world systems which underpinned the exploitation of a commodity shows that the idea of a neat and simple division between “colonial” and “post-colonial” worlds is unrealistic. The “end of colonialism” is usually seen as the result of a process of European “decolonisation.” The very term “decolonisation” was invented by European governments rather than historians, which should in itself set off warning signals. It suggests a rational, planned and normally peaceful handover of sovereignty, which of course in most cases does not describe what happened.

More accurate is the depiction of African societies struggling to establish fair terms of trade for the continent’s resources in context of unequal power relations with the outside world, before, during and after flag colonialism.

Likewise, “post-colonial” history focuses overwhelmingly on African capital cities, the control of which has usually been enough to ensure recognition as a state. Large sections of the supply side of the global economy remain located in the invisible countrysides of the Global South, parts of which this book succeeds in bringing to life.

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