This article is a translation from parts of a French article written by Peter Columns, an entrepreneur and engineer specialized in AI technology, for the website Adoxa.info. You can find the original piece here. We thank them for allowing us to translate their article.
There is a popular myth often repeated in the media, saying that Africa’s raw materials would have been looted by western powers and that their economic development would have been allowed by the colonization of Africa. This idea might be very pleasant or useful to various politicians or commentators with dubious political agendas however it is not rooted in historical facts.
To better understand why it is necessary to take an interest in the European Industrial Revolution and mining history.
Europe has been a mineral-rich continent with important mining activities since the Antiquity
One of the most disputable popular misconceptions asserts the idea that the European soil was always poor in mineral resources. In reality, Europe’s existing mineral wealth was more than enough to fill the needs of the industrial revolution.
The key resources for industrialization relied on the coal, copper and iron mines of the European soil. Indeed, geologically speaking, Europe is a continent with a rich history and its mineral resources have been exploited since the Antiquity. In southern England for example, Cornwall’s and Devon’s mines were already in use during the Bronze Age period ( 3’000 to 1’000 BC ), and cassiterite was extracted from open-air mines as soon as 2100 BC, then followed by copper and tin.
The largest goldmine in the entire Roman Empire was located in Las Médulas, Spain. The Romans also exploited numerous mines in eastern France and in the Pyrenees region, thousands of year before colonization started. Moreover, it is interesting to note that many mines that were exploited in France or England during the industrial revolution were already in use 2000 before BC and therefore had a rich Antic heritage.
Those mining activities were gradually broadened and increased during the Middle Ages and new mines were opened in both eastern and northern Europe, in Sweden and Hungary notably.
The industrial revolution was based on the deepening of ancient mines allowed by increased mechanization and new chemical purification methods
The industrial revolution started a new era for European mining activities as colossal investments were made in favour of steam engines equipment. These new steam engines were mostly used in the United Kingdom, in Alsace-Lorraine as well as in the region surrounding Lyon ( France ) and in the German Ruhr area where tin, copper, silver and coal were extracted in massive quantities until the end of 19th century.
These various mining sites that had been in use for three millenniums saw their production become ever more intensive thanks to the introduction of steam engines, which allowed miners to reach record depths where the heat was almost unbearable for human beings.
This development was also permitted by the discovery of new chemical purification methods which got rid of impurities in the extracted minerals. Indeed, it is rare for a mineral to be directly usable as without purification and refining procedures its quality is usually too low. However, when a good mineral quality is ensured, ever more ambitious manufacturing is then allowed whether the mineral is used to build machines, rails, boats, towers or bridges etc… Consequently, the more developed the purification methods are, the more deposits become exploitable.
In 1810, near 150 steam engines were installed in Cornwall ( England ) to facilitate copper extraction. They allowed more than 9’000 miners to go as deep as 400 meters under the surface. The tin production activities in the Cornwall mine were later equipped with more than 600 steam engines, unlocking access to depths located under sea water-levels.
Up until the end of the 19th century, Sweden was the world first producer of copper thanks to the Falun mine in Dalarna county. In 1670, 70% of the world’s copper was produced in Sweden, even though the share steadily declined as other European countries progressively increased their own copper productions during the 19th century.
Concerning French mining activities, it is interesting to note that mining registers from the 19th century are accessible online and show us that colonial Algeria’s share in the total production of raw materials in France is negligible in 1838.
Indeed, many mines were actually located in the Alsace-Lorraine coalfields and in northern France, where the harsh working conditions were perfectly captured by Emile Zola’s famous book Germinal ( published in 1885 ). In 1913, Lorraine alone used to extract 20% of the world’s total iron production, making it the world’s second iron producer. Back in these days, one of the world’s largest iron ore deposit was even located in the area and contained a grand total of several billion tons of the precious metal.
These iron ore deposits also were one of the leading causes of the many wars that broke out between German states and France and culminated when Germany annexed Alsace-Lorraine from France in 1870.
The development of American, Canadian and Australian mining industries
In the beginning, the Industrial Revolution was essentially a European phenomenon however this changed starting 1875 as Northern America took the world leader in mining production with production models similar to the European ones.
African mining, however, remained marginal as steam engines that permitted massive extraction were never introduced on the continent for mining purposes, and its production was essentially the work of the Portuguese colonial administration in Angola and Mozambique.
The European mines closed their doors as late as the end of the 20th century, and in the 90ies especially. At this period of time, they had been exploited for more than 4’000 years.
Africa is not as minerally rich as we tend to think and mining activities can be risky due to endemic political instability
Nowadays, raw materials constitute in average half of most African countries’ total exports and their developing economies are closely tied to global commodity prices. In some cases even, entire economies are based on the export of raw materials, such as oil. In Gabon for example, more than a third of the country’s GDP was generated by crude oil exports in 2010. These raw materials most African economies depend on are bought to global market prices by European, Asians are Americans alike.
Also, the importance of Africa on the global raw materials market is very often wrongly inflated in most people’s minds.
Indeed, Africa is a minor producer in most markets. For example, the continent possesses less than 2% of the world’s rare earth reserves whereas China has 47% and Russia 17%. When it comes to uranium reserves, Africa has 15% of the global reserves whereas Australia alone has 30%.
In this study realized by Business Insider, we can also note that among the top 15 countries with the largest estimated mineral reserves, only 2 are Africans countries.
In reality, the most sensitive issue in Africa in relation to raw materials isn’t looting, but rather the safety and stability of the mining sites that need susbstantial investments on the long-term to generate revenues and well-paid jobs for local populations.
Contrarily to many political actors’ rhetoric who wish to appeal to African immigrant communities in Europe, or to feed the guilt of European people, Europe was never built on the looting of African resources. As a matter of fact, the colonization of northern Africa started in 1830, at a time when the first Industrial Revolution was already well on its way and while Europe had already become an unrivalled modern industrial power. At this time, James Watt’s steam engine had existed for 60 years already.
The mining and metallurgic power of Europe relied essentially on its capacity to extract minerals with its steam engine technology, on its purification methods, on a native workforce dealing with extremely harsh working conditions ( child labour, widespread working-class misery, firedamp etc… ), and finally on the disponibility of mineral deposits on its own soil.
The second Industrial Revolution lies on the second half of the 19th century and is not characterized by the exploitation of African resources, but rather by the Northern American mass production, while in the same time the mining activities in Europe do not decrease.