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Winner of the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding 2019
Shortlisted for the Cundill History Prize and the Pius Adesanmi Memorial Award
'Astonishing, staggering' Ben Okri, Daily Telegraph
A groundbreaking new history that will transform our view of West Africa
By the time of the 'Scramble for Africa' in the late nineteenth century, Africa had already been globally connected for many centuries. Its gold had fuelled the economies of Europe and Islamic world since around 1000, and its sophisticated kingdoms had traded with Europeans along the coasts from Senegal down to Angola since the fifteenth century. Until at least 1650, this was a trade of equals, using a variety of currencies - most importantly shells: the cowrie shells imported from the Maldives, and the nzimbu shells imported from Brazil.
Toby Green's groundbreaking new book transforms our view of West and West-Central Africa. It reconstructs the world of kingdoms whose existence (like those of Europe) revolved around warfare, taxation, trade, diplomacy, complex religious beliefs, royal display and extravagance, and the production of art.
Over time, the relationship between Africa and Europe revolved ever more around the trade in slaves, damaging Africa's relative political and economic power as the terms of monetary exchange shifted drastically in Europe's favour. In spite of these growing capital imbalances, longstanding contacts ensured remarkable connections between the Age of Revolution in Europe and America and the birth of a revolutionary nineteenth century in Africa.
A Fistful of Shells draws not just on written histories, but on archival research in nine countries, on art, praise-singers, oral history, archaeology, letters, and the author's personal experience to create a new perspective on the history of one of the world's most important regions.
Historian Green (The Rise of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in Western Africa, 1300-1589) won't disappoint scholarly readers with his dense latest. Covering five centuries, this meticulously researched book, based on archival research in nine countries, lays out a comprehensive overview of the economic history of West Africa and West-Central Africa before and after the slave trade. Green enumerates the ways in which Africa had formed global economic and political connections long before the arrival of Europeans, trading gold, cloth, pearls, and other commodities. Gradually, these were replaced by trade in captives, so that by 1750, "almost every area in West and West-Central Africa was affected by trans-Atlantic and/or trans-Saharan slave trades." Green links the slave trade to the militarization of African states, the growing inequalities between African ruling classes and their populations, and 19th-century revolts against these established authorities "as people sloughed off the aristocracies that had emerged to prey on them in the preceding centuries." This valuable history, while written in an accessible style, covers so much historical and theoretical ground that it will be probably be appreciated more by Africanists than a general readership.