State-of-the-art predictive models of soil organic carbon (SOC) dynamics associated with land use changes are unable to reflect the diversity of tropical soil types as the knowledge of contrasting site-specific factors in mediating the response of the SOC pool is sparse. This paper examines the influence of soil type and management on SOC dynamics following the conversion of forests to annual cropping in Ghana. Soil from primary forests and from areas with short (2–7 years) and long (20 years) histories of maize cultivation was sampled from a Vertisol dominated by smectite and Ultisol dominated by kaolinite. Wet sieving was used to separate soil fractions below and above 250 µm. SOC concentrations and δ13C signatures of SOC in soil fractions and bulk soil were determined. SOC stocks were calculated by the commonly used fixed depth approach and by the equivalent soil mass approach. After 20 years of cultivation of the Vertisol, the total SOC content was 40 per cent lower than under forest, and about 95 per cent of the forest-derived SOC had been lost. After 20 years of cultivation of the Ultisol, total SOC content was only about 20 per cent lower than under forest and merely 30 per cent of the forest-derived SOC had been lost. Both soil types were managed as they would typically be in small scale farming systems, thus the higher SOC losses and the substantial loss of forest-derived SOC from the Vertisol question the conventional concept of smectite having a higher SOC-stabilizing potential than kaolinite under field conditions. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.