We know that European colonization affected Africa in multiple ways. The direct effects were generally, well, at best neutral. Outside a few long-standing enclaves (like Dakar) and (maybe) Tunisia and South Africa, it’s difficult to imagine a counterfactual in which the Europeans never extend sovereignty and the Africans have a harder time of it in the 20th century.
One understudied way in which the Europeans might have affected Africa negatively is through gender norms. If there were benefits to, for example, learning English or French, but the colonial authorities only taught men, then gender inequality would increase. One can imagine many other channels in which this effect could have operated.
On the other hand, it is far from given that pre-colonial Africa was a paragon of gender equality, relative to Europe. It hard to see how colonization might have improved the situation, but it is possible.
So what was the effect? Well, Felix Meier (Utrecht) and Jacob Weisdorf (Southern Denmark) have an answer! It turns out that the Protestant churches in Kampala kept incredibly detailed occupational data going back to the 19th century. They found that the initial impact of colonialism was what you’d expect … but it didn’t last:
“We find that the arrival of Europeans in Uganda ignited a century-long transformation of Kampala involving a gender Kuznets curve. Men rapidly acquired literacy and quickly found their way into white-collar (high-status) employment in the wage economy built by the Europeans. Women took somewhat longer to obtain literacy and considerably longer to enter into white-collar and waged work. This led to increased gender inequality during the first half of the colonial period. But gender inequality gradually declined during the latter half of the colonial era, and after Uganda’s independence in 1962 its level was not significantly different from that of pre-colonial times. Our data also support Boserup’s view that gender inequality was rooted in indigenous social norms: daughters of African men who worked in the traditional, informal economy were less well educated, less frequently employed in formal work, and more often subjected to marital gender inequality than daughters of men employed in the modernized, formal economy created by the Europeans.”
In other words, the British conquest had little overall effect at the end of the day … or at least by the end of the 20th century. Thoughts?