Of stocks and barter: John Holt and the Kongo rubber trade, 1906-1910

Working Paper Number: 12

PDF file: PDF icon WP12(1).pdf

This paper examines trade relations in northern Angola during the early colonial period through the records of Liverpool merchant John Holt. The years 1906-10 represent the last phase of the African rubber boom, in which West Central Africa played a leading role. In contrast to the infamous rubber economy of the Congo Free State, which was mostly founded on forced labor, the rubber trade in Angola was driven by African entrepreneurship. Both on the coast and in the interior, European merchants relied on commercial networks and systems of brokerage still dominated by African businessmen. Consisting of incoming correspondence from John Holt’s factory manager in Ambrizete, the Holt records provide a rare inside view on the organization of the trade between the Kongo interior and the coast of northern Angola. Directly, they reflect on relations between African brokers and European merchants on the Kongo coast, with details on exchanged commodities, methods of payment, monetary units and forms of market regulation. Indirectly, however, they also convey commercial information received from Holt’s agent located in the Damba district hundreds of miles inland. The Holt papers are not only remarkable for the detail in which they describe the organization of the long-distance trade in northern Angola, but also because historians have thus far neglected John Holt’s presence on this part of the South Coast. Indeed, how this famous Liverpool trader became involved in the Congo trade is still a mystery, which this paper also tries to address.