Book Review: Africa And Africans In The Making Of The Atlantic World, 1400-1800

Africa And Africans In The Making Of The Atlantic World, 1400-1800, by John Thornton

This book is an example of some of the tensions that are inherent within revisionist history.  This book is an able if somewhat highly technical and not nearly source-driven enough effort at demonstrating the importance of Africans in navigating the complexities of the development of the Atlantic world of slavery.  As someone who reads from time to time about African history [1], I do not tend to feel myself as having a personal stake in the arguments over the role of Africa in the history of Europe and the Americas, their partners in the Atlantic world.  Yet I was struck by how this book gave something to its (likely) African or African-American audience with one hand while taking away with the other.  Specifically, this book grants agency to Africans and African-Americans while simultaneously undercutting any sort of claims that such people would have to claim reparations from the United States or European nations for slavery.  For if African nations were in charge of the trade and controlled it internally and if African-American survivors retained their agency in negotiating at the margins of plantation societies despite being unfree, where then are the grounds for seeking reparations from those who already paid for the souls they purchased at the cost of so much blood and treasure?

This book is a bit more than 300 pages long and is divided into two parts and eleven chapters.  After a preface to the second introduction that explains how the project morphed from being a very textually-based study to one that was more general and more broad in its date ranges to make it better for serving as a textbook for relevant courses, and some very interesting maps, the author manages to include some source notes to justify the boundaries on his maps about African regimes.  The first part of the book consists of four chapters that examine the agency of Africans concerning their trade with Europeans in Africa, including chapters about the birth of an Atlantic world (1), the development of prestige commerce between Europeans and Africans (2), the role of slavery in African social structure (3), and the process of enslavement and the slave trade (4).  The remaining seven chapters look at Africans in the New World with a discussion of Africans in colonial American societies (5), Africans and African Americans in the Atlantic world (6), African cultural groups (7), transformations of African culture (8), African religions and their relationship to Christianity (9), resistance, running away, and rebellion (10), and Africans in the eighteenth century Atlantic world (11).

This is a book that is likely to simultaneously please and displease its target audience.  On the one hand, those who wish to celebrate Africa’s historical greatness will find much to appreciate in the commentary of African political and economic strength and their ability to control the terms on which they traded with Europeans in the period before 1800.  Likewise, such people are likely to find a great deal that is pleasing in the author’s insistence that Africans were able to preserve a great deal of their own culture and language in colonial cultures despite the horrors of slavery and the middle passage.  That said, there are consequences of this appeal to resilience and agency.  Defending the power and humanity and agency of Africans in the past makes present problems more difficult to simply blame on imperialists, slaveowners, or descendants of Europeans and Euro-Americans who benefit from some sort of historical white privilege.  If it was Africans who set the terms of their engagement with European trading, including the slave trade, and the slave trade did not really demographically harm Africa and was not coerced on Africa, what do you have to complain about now?  It is likely this book, precisely because of its praise to Africans and their power in economic relationships with European merchants, will not be highly praised by those who want to claim victim status in the contemporary world over precisely the matters this book speaks about in such a weighty manner.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/03/04/book-review-a-brief-political-and-geographic-history-of-africa/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/04/03/book-review-chasing-the-devil/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/03/21/book-review-blood-river/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/03/26/book-review-a-concise-history-of-south-sudan/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/02/05/book-review-the-last-crusaders/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, International Relations and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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