The Journal of African History

Research Article

The end of red rubber: a reassessment1

Robert Harmsa1

a1 University of Wisconsin

The African rubber boom, which lasted from 1890 to 1913, had a significant economic and political impact on many parts of Africa. While the broad outlines of the boom were determined by the world market, the numerous local and regional variations were influenced more by the depletion of the rubber supplies. The factors that influenced the depletion varied according to whether the region in question was a free trade area or a concession area.

The end of the notorious concession companies in the Congo Independent State has generally been attributed to the efforts of English and Belgian reformers. Recent research on Abir, a major Congo concession company, has revealed that attempts at reform were ineffective, and that exhaustion of the of the rubber supplies had caused the rubber system in the Abir concession to break down by 1906, when serious debate on the Congo question was just beginning in Europe.

The article shows how the Abir system, which was designed to constantly increase production, led to depletion of the rubber resources. When the depleted areas merged, the territory passed into a period of crisis during which Abir lost control and production plummeted. Production figures for other Congo concession companies suggest that events in their territories followed a similar pattern.


1 This article is based on my M.A. thesis at the University of Wisconsin. I would like to acknowledge the help and encouragement I received from Professor Jan Vansina. Any errors are my own.