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Article

Daniel B. Domingues da Silva and Philip Misevich

Over the past six decades, the historiography of Atlantic slavery and the slave trade has shown remarkable growth and sophistication. Historians have marshalled a vast array of sources and offered rich and compelling explanations for these two great tragedies in human history. The survey of this vibrant scholarly tradition throws light on major theoretical and interpretive shifts over time and indicates potential new pathways for future research. While early scholarly efforts have assessed plantation slavery in particular on the antebellum United States South, new voices—those of Western women inspired by the feminist movement and non-Western men and women who began entering academia in larger numbers over the second half of the 20th century—revolutionized views of slavery across time and space. The introduction of new methodological approaches to the field, particularly through dialogue between scholars who engage in quantitative analysis and those who privilege social history sources that are more revealing of lived experiences, has conditioned the types of questions and arguments about slavery and the slave trade that the field has generated. Finally, digital approaches had a significant impact on the field, opening new possibilities to assess and share data from around the world and helping foster an increasingly global conversation about the causes, consequences, and integration of slave systems. No synthesis will ever cover all the details of these thriving subjects of study and, judging from the passionate debates that continue to unfold, interest in the history of slavery and the slave trade is unlikely to fade.

Article

Stephanie Wynne-Jones

The east African coast and its offshore islands are home to the Swahili cultural tradition. This is a fascinating and long-lived urban tradition that has been synonymous with this coast for nearly two millennia. Archaeologically, Swahili culture is most visible in the remains of a series of stonetowns, which contain houses, mosques, and tombs built of coral and lime. These sites were once cosmopolitan centers of trade and an important part of the medieval Islamic world. They are also the culmination of a long period of urban development, starting with villages built of wattle and daub founded on the coast from around the 7th century ce, which were key players in international trade circuits. The Swahili world is thus associated with a diverse and changing culture, united through oceanic connections and with a range of relationships with interior regions of Africa. The archaeology of these settlements reveals a developmental trajectory that continues directly to the stonetowns of the contemporary coast and islands.

Article

Mariana P. Candido and Vanessa Oliveira

The institution of slavery existed in West Central Africa before the arrival of Europeans as a form of labor exploitation. While in local states political elites targeted outsiders and criminals as potential captives, slavery in the colonial settlements of Luanda and Benguela was similar to bondage in other Atlantic ports such as Rio de Janeiro, Havana, or Cartagena, and even in other colonial towns on the African coast including Cape Town and Lagos. Captives of war or people born into bondage performed most of the domestic and public labor. Their productive and reproductive capacities were appropriated for the benefit of their owners. Slaves could be bought and sold, were considered property, and did not enjoy rights, including to their own sexuality. Despite owners’ control, enslaved men and women resisted oppression and sought to ameliorate their condition and status through different strategies such as flight or paying for their own manumission. Slavery remained an important element of colonial societies in Luanda and Benguela until it was officially abolished in 1869, and new forms of compulsory labor were introduced.

Article

Jane I. Guyer and Karin Pallaver

African peoples have managed multiple currencies, for all the classic four functions of money, for at least a thousand years: within each society’s own circuits, in regional exchange, and across the continent’s borders with the rest of the world. Given the materials of some of these currencies, and the general absence of formalized denominations until the colonial period, some early European accounts defined certain transactions as barter. The management of multiplicity is traced through four eras: a) the precolonial period, with some monies locally produced and acquired, and others imported through intercontinental trades, such as the Atlantic slave trade, and eventually under the expansion of capitalism to Africa; b) the colonial period, when precolonial monies, in some places, still circulated with official monies; c) postcolonial national monies for the new African states; and d) the most recent phase of multiplicity in use, due to migration and sales across borders as well as to the use of new technologies, such as mobile money. The management of multiplicity thereby has a long history and continues to be an inventive frontier. History and ethnography meet on common ground to address these dynamics through empirical study of money in practice, and broader scholarship has drawn on a large variety of original sources.

Article

The robust, sustained interest in the history of the transatlantic slave trade has been a defining feature of the intersection of African studies and digital scholarship since the advent of humanities computing in the 1960s. The pioneering work of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, first made widely available in CD-ROM in 1999, is one of several major projects to use digital tools in the research and analysis of the Atlantic trade from the sixteenth through the mid-nineteenth century. Over the past two decades, computing technologies have also been applied to the exploration of African bondage outside the maritime Atlantic frame. In the 2010s, Slave Voyages (the online successor to the original Slave Trade Database compact disc) joined many other projects in and outside the academy that deploy digital tools in the reconstruction of the large-scale structural history of the trade as well as the microhistorical understandings of individual lives, the biography of notables, and family ancestry.

Article

Igbo  

Chima J. Korieh

The Igbo-speaking people inhabit most of southeastern Nigeria. Their political economy and culture have been shaped by their long history of habitation in the forest region. Important themes relating to the Igbo past have centered on the question of origin, the agrarian bases of their economy, the decentralized and acephalous structure of their political organization, an achievement-based social system rooted in their traditional humane living, and a fluid gender ideology that recognized male and female roles as complementary rather than oppositional. The Igbo contributed to major historical developments including the development of agriculture, the Bantu migration, and its influence in the making of Bantu cultural areas in sub-Saharan Africa. On the global arena, the Igbo contributed significantly to the transformation of the New World through the Atlantic slave trade and the making of New World cultures. The Igbo made the transition to palm oil production in the postabolition era, thereby contributing to the industrialization of Europe as well as linking their society to the global capitalist economy from the 19th century. The Igbo encounter with Europeans continued through British colonialism, and their struggle to maintain their autonomy would shape British colonialism in Nigeria and beyond. The postcolonial era has been a time of crisis for the Igbo in Nigeria. They were involved in a civil war with Nigeria, known as the Nigeria-Biafra war, and experienced mass killing and genocide but continued to be resilient, drawing from their history and shared experience.

Article

Richard Anderson

“Liberated Africans” refers to a group of African-born men, women, and children intercepted by naval forces from slave ships and slave trading factories in the Atlantic and Indian oceans as part of the 19th-century campaign to abolish the transoceanic slave trade from Africa. Following the passage of Britain’s 1807 Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, the British Royal Navy patrolled both the Atlantic and Indian oceans in order to suppress the external trade from Africa. Captured vessels were taken to a series of Vice-Admiralty courts, and later Mixed Commission courts, located in Freetown, Sierra Leone; Havana, Cuba; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Tortola; Cape Town, South Africa; James Town, St. Helena; Luanda, Angola; and Port Luis, Mauritius. Naval interdiction by Brazil, Portugal, the United States, and other powers resulted in a smaller number of cases brought before unilateral anti-slave-trade tribunals. Between 1808 and 1896, this complex tribunal network “liberated” approximately 214,000 Africans who survived the Middle Passage. Perhaps 75,000 of these individuals were settled in Sierra Leone; the remainder were settled in the British Caribbean, Brazil, Cuba, Liberia, and British colonies and outposts from the Gambia, Cape Colony, and Mauritius, to Mombasa, Zanzibar, and Bombay. The arrival of an estimated 192,000 Liberated Africans into Atlantic ports continued through the demise of the transatlantic slave trade in the 1860s. In the Indian Ocean, approximately 22,000 Liberated Africans disembarked in East Africa, the Persian Gulf, and India as a result of a highly uneven British naval campaign from 1808 into the 1890s. Many Liberated Africans experienced very liminal freedom. Adults and children were apprenticed to colonial inhabitants for periods of up to fourteen years. Men were conscripted into the British West India Regiments and Royal African Corps. Many women were forcibly married to strangers soon after arrival. Approximately one out of every four Liberated Africans underwent a second oceanic passage, most of them forcibly relocated to the British West Indies. The settlement of Liberated Africans—referred to by British officials as their “disposal”—represented a sizable involuntary African migration into and across the British Empire in the decades after the abolition of the British slave trade. Their arrival brought with it a lasting linguistic and cultural impact in many colonial societies. The descendants of Liberated Africans remain identifiable communities in many postcolonial societies from Africa to the Caribbean.

Article

Efforts to mitigate slavery in Africa were multidimensional. Many drew upon Christian discourses and institutions, yet fully assessing Christian antislavery in Africa raises complex moral and historical questions. Christian abolitionism inspired missionaries throughout Africa and the diaspora, helped generate support for Christian missions, advanced global treaties that made slavery illegal, and profoundly shaped 20th- and 21st-century African Christianity, including through the evangelization of slaves, some of whom became famous abolitionists themselves. Antislavery appealed to humanitarian instincts among Christian missionaries, their benefactors, and European populations, and it undoubtedly alleviated some suffering. Notwithstanding the benevolence in such motivations, racialized paternalism was also in operation. Moreover, like slavery for export, antislavery altered African political economies, sometimes abruptly, helping some Africans and disempowering others. It also legitimated eventual colonial rule in Africa, since depictions of a vulnerable, slave-ridden continent implicitly defended European intervention as an urgent humanitarian undertaking. Europeans also applied antislavery unevenly in Africa due to their own self-interests, often, for example, delaying emancipation (legally ending all slavery) because it threatened labor systems deemed vital for colonial order and economies. Christian antislavery impulses and actions, whether to stop the slave trade or in pursuit of legal abolition, thus resist generalization and do not allow easy self-congratulation for either defenders of European colonization or Christians, African or non-African.

Article

Edward A. Alpers

The Indian Ocean has occupied an important place in the history of Africa for millennia, linking the continental land mass to the peoples, products, and ideas of the wider Indian Ocean world (IOW). Central to this relationship are environmental factors, including the biannual operation of monsoon winds, which determined the maritime movement of people, things, and ideas. The earliest of these connections involve the movement of food crops, domestic animals, and commensals both from and into Africa and its offshore islands. From the beginnings of the Current Era, Africa was an important Indian Ocean source of valuable commodities, such as ivory and gold; in more recent times, hardwood products like mangrove poles, and agricultural products like cloves, coconuts, and copra gained economic prominence. Enslaved African labor also had a long history in the IOW, the sources and destinations for the export trade varying over time. In addition, for centuries many different Indian Ocean immigrant communities played important roles as settlers, merchants, sailors, and soldiers. In the realm of culture and ideas, African music, dance, and spiritual concepts accompanied those Africans who were forcibly removed from the continent to the different Indian Ocean lands where they were enslaved. A further indicator of Indian Ocean connectivity is Islam, the introduction of which marks an important watershed in African history. The human settlement of Madagascar marks another significant Indian Ocean connection for Africa. At different times and in different ways, colonial rule—Portuguese, Dutch, Omani, French, and British—tied eastern African territories to India, Arabia, and Southeast Asia. Since regaining independence, African nation-states have established a variety of new linkages to other Indian Ocean states.

Article

Anne Hugon

Ama Ata Aidoo is one of the most prominent African writers of the 20th and 21st centuries. Her works comprise plays, novels, short stories, poetry, and essays. She is recognized worldwide and has received many prizes and honorary distinctions. In Ghana, her country of origin, her books are part of the syllabus for secondary schools, and they are studied in many universities around the world. A number of late 20th and early 21st century women writers from the African continent acknowledge their debts toward her work and speak of her as their literary big sister, as did Nigerian author Buchi Emecheta, or mother, as does Ghanaian author Amma Darko. Like many other African authors, she is both a major writer and more than “just” a writer: she is also an activist, notably an acknowledged feminist, a dramatist, a teacher, and a craftswoman—this list is not exhaustive.

Article

People of African descent who migrated from their “homelands” constituted, and still constitute, important forces in many African cultures outside of their “homelands” as well as in many other cultures outside of the African continent. Historically, the migration of people of African descent from their “homelands” is mainly linked to the pre-20th century Muslim or Asian trade and the Atlantic trade as well as to the post 1980 globalization of the capitalist system. Even before the post 1980 globalization of the capitalist system deepened the crises in African states and resulted in the migration of skilled and unskilled Africans to places like the United States, Canada, Britain and the Middle East, some scholars had written on people of African descent in several parts of the world. Although the earliest among those who wrote on the subject before the 1980s did not employ the term “African diaspora” in their analysis, an increasing number of scholars who wrote after 1950 have used the term in question in their study of people of African descent in various parts of the world. The relevant literature written after 1950 features disagreement over the meaning of the concept “African diaspora” and point to diverse methodologies that are useful in working on the subject. This particular literature can be divided into three broad categories: works that deal with the Old African diaspora, works that deal with the New African diaspora and works that deal with both the Old and New African diasporas. The historiography shows that works situated in all of these three categories mainly offer competing view over three fundamental questions: why did Africans leave their “homelands” and settle elsewhere? What was the impact of this process on the societies they left? How did Africans who left their “homelands” integrate into their host societies or preserve their unique identities; or, more broadly, what was the impact of their arrival on the host society they entered? Despite the rapid strides that have been made since the 1960s in regard to addressing these questions or in regards to the scholarly study of the African diasporas in general, there is still no firm definition of the term “African diaspora.” Moreover, there are still other gaps in the scholarly knowledge of the subject.

Article

Iron, critical for its utilitarian and ceremonial functions, was the staple metal in the socioeconomic, political, and environmental transformations of the prehistoric settlement of Great Zimbabwe during the first and second millennium of the Common Era (ce). Great Zimbabwe is the largest and one of the earliest settlements associated with social complexity, urbanism, and statehood in the southern African region, established by people with an agro-pastoral, mining, metalworking, and trading lifestyle. The size of the Great Zimbabwe settlement and its significance as a political, religious, and international trade center would have required considerable supplies of finished iron tools and other metal objects, particularly during its fluorescent urban phase spanning the 11th and 16th centuries ce. Since the early 1990s, research within and around the drystone-walled urban center of Great Zimbabwe reveals that from at least the end of the first millennium ce, the settlement experienced significant transformations in its iron production technologies in the broader hinterland. These changes corresponded, presumably, with other technological and sociopolitical developments at the drystone-built urban center. Forms of evidence including tap slags, tuyeres fused in multiples, and natural draft furnaces (one with a long base), clearly indicate that the people of Great Zimbabwe employed remarkably complex and varied designs and approaches to produce iron from its ores. Again, evidence of primary and secondary iron production activities at Great Zimbabwe’s domestic and specialized settings outside settlements illuminate more significant spatiotemporal complexities and ambiguities in the organization of iron production than previously thought. Within domestic contexts, the smelting of iron would have offered an inclusive social space, which made possible the transformation of not just materials, but also women and children into active social agents of technology. This way of looking at iron provides an alternative and more socially embedded perspective of Great Zimbabwe and its daily material practices.

Article

Egypt’s trade in the Ottoman period with the Sudanic kingdoms to its south waxed and waned according to political conditions at either end of its trade routes. During the 16th and 17th centuries, powerful kingdoms developed in the area of Sinnar (near modern-day Khartoum) and to the west in the area of Darfur. The trade route connecting western Sudan to Egypt, known as the Forty Days Road, was ancient, probably dating to the Pharaonic period, but it experienced a remarkable revival in the 17th century when the Keira sultans of Darfur consolidated their rule in western Sudan and engaged in trade with Egypt in order to obtain luxury goods. In the following two centuries, trade between Egypt, Sinnar, and Darfur flourished, the pattern being that Egyptian, Syrian, and European-made goods were exchanged primarily for Sudanic exports of slaves, ivory, ostrich feathers, and livestock. Sudanese merchants, known as jallaba, came to Egypt and Egyptians settled in the Sudan as a result of these developments. Asyut was the town in Upper Egypt chiefly benefiting from the revival of the caravan trade, but the primary trade destination was Cairo, whence most merchants went. In 1820, the Egyptians invaded the Sudan and trade between the two countries fell under a different set of rules and regulations. Initially monopolized by the government, items in the trade began to be sold by individual traders, and after 1839, when the Muhammad Ali, ruler of Egypt, was forced to withdraw from lands his army had conquered in Arabia and the Levant, European free enterprise soon became a major economic force in the Nile Valley. For a brief period, between 1845 and 1860, Egyptian middlemen, working closely with jallaba, profited richly from the Sudan trade, the city of Asyut prospered, but eventually they fell victim to European economic domination.

Article

The social and economic history of the Mascarene Islands of Mauritius, Réunion, and Rodrigues must be viewed in the context of regional and global developments including the African diaspora of slave origin and European colonialism in both the Indian Ocean and Atlantic worlds. Mauritius and Réunion’s transformation into plantation colonies during the 18th and early 19th centuries was a complex process shaped by the cultivation of coffee, cloves, cotton, indigo, and sugar; Anglo-French rivalry for domination in the Indian Ocean; a reliance upon domestically generated and controlled capital; the importation of hundreds of thousands of African and Asian slaves from a global catchment area that stretched from West Africa eastward to Southeast Asia; and the increasing socioeconomic importance of the local free population of color during the early 19th century.

Article

Arabic-speaking Muslim polities existed in medieval Spain and Portugal where they were superseded by Christian empires that gradually disavowed cultural connections to this past. Hebrew and Arabic were largely expurgated from homes and libraries. Jews and Muslims who refused to convert were expelled. And while an incipient study of that past existed, echoed even in popular literary forms, the need to disavow kinship prevailed, at least publicly and officially. The Maghrib, for its part, separated by a mere fourteen kilometers of sea from the southern tip of Spain, experienced Portuguese and Spanish imperial expansion firsthand, receiving the bulk of the displaced and interacting with fortified settlements and encroachments along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. Later European colonization of North Africa completed the galvanization of a Maghribi culture of resistance to and disavowal of European, Latin, and Christian cultural forms and connections. Spain and North Africa came to be conceived as separate worlds; domains of inimical faiths; divided by culture, language, religion, and a history of mutual hostility. This sense of separateness is deceptive, however, as the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa are bound by deep and extensive commercial, material, and cultural contacts. They share inextricable histories in which alternating movements of commerce, conflict, and migration have played fundamental roles in shaping recognizably Western Mediterranean societies. They should be thought of as areas of a unified region with a common culture, or at the very least, as areas sharing a common region, in which they interact regularly, creating extensive ties and parallel forms of cultural and social organization.

Article

Political complexity in archaeological research has traditionally been defined as socio-political differentiation (roles, statuses, offices) integrated through centralized systems of power and authority. In recent decades the assumption that complex organizational forms tend to be hierarchical in structure has been called into question, based upon both archaeological research and ethnological observations worldwide, including in classic archaeological case studies of centralization. Moreover, there has been an increasing interest in exploring variability in political legitimizations and articulations of power and authority globally. Until these theoretical shifts, West African complex societies, both archaeological and from ethnographic analyses, were largely ignored in discussions of political complexity since many (but not all) conformed poorly to the expectations of highly centralized power and administration. West African ethnohistoric and archaeological examples are now playing important roles in current discussions of heterarchical organizational structures, checks on exclusionary power, cooperation, urbanism, ethnicity, and the nature of administration in states.

Article

The Soninke are an ancient West African ethnicity that probably gave rise to the much larger group that is called the Mande of which the Soninke are part. The Soninke language belongs to the northwestern Mande group but through the dynamism of its speakers has loaned many words and concepts to distant ethnic groups throughout the West African ecological zones. Mande groups such as the Malinke and Bambara may be descendants of the Soninke or a Proto-Soninke group. The Soninke are the founder of the first West African empire, Ghana, which they themselves call Wagadu, from the 6th to the 12th centuries ad Ghana was wealthy and powerful due to its access to gold, its geographic location between the Sahara and the Sahel, and its opening of trade routes from these ecological zones into the West African forest. Long distance trade contributed to the development of an ethos of migration among the Soninke, arguably making them the most traveled people of the whole continent. As they embraced Islam, some Soninke clans became clerics and proselytizers and followed the trade routes, sometimes becoming advisers to kings and chiefs. By the time of Ghana’s fall, the Soninke diaspora and trade networks were found all over West Africa. At present, pockets of Soninke, small and large, are found on all continents.

Article

E. Ann McDougall

The Sahara: bridge or barrier? Today, most would answer that the desert was more a historical facilitator than hindrance in moving commodities, ideas, and people between North and sub-Saharan Africa. A recent publication even coined a new name for the region: “trans-Saharan Africa.” However, the Sahara is also a place where people live. Complex societies, sophisticated polities, extensive economies—all flourished at various times, waxing and waning in response to much the same factors as societies elsewhere. It is just that in the Sahara the vagaries of climate and the availability of water always established the parameters of development. A long-term drying era led to the dispersal of the Late Stone Age Dhar-Tichitt agro-pastoral settlements in eastern Mauritania, but in the east, Lake “Mega-Chad” shrank, leaving rich, sandy soils that attracted new cultivators. The Garamantes people of the Libyan Fezzan overcame their lack of water by developing a sophisticated underground irrigation system that supported an urbanized, cosmopolitan civilization that outlasted the Roman Empire. The introduction of the camel in the 4th century and the gradual growth of Islam from at least the 9th century added new possibilities for economic, cultural, and religious life. The Sahara benefited from the sequence of medieval empires emerging across its southern desert edge. Camel pastoralism, salt mining, oasis agriculture, and expansive trade networks shaped the region’s economy; those same networks facilitated cultural and scholarly exchanges. As Islam took root, growing its own understandings of North African and Middle Eastern schools of thought, a prodigious body of Saharan scholarship was created. It underpinned much of the jihad-led political upheaval and state-building in the 18th and 19th Sahel. Saharan clerics also directed their religious fervor against the invasion of French imperialists; “pacification” took the colonialists decades to achieve. But the impact of this violence exacerbated traditional clan conflict and disrupted economic life. So too did policies aimed at sedentarizing pastoralists and reshaping their social relations in the interests of the colonial economy. Much talked-about but largely ineffective efforts to abolish slavery had far less real impact than taxation policies; these both suppressed traditional exactions such as those levied by “warriors” and introduced new ones, including those to be paid in forced labor. Life in the Sahara became increasingly untenable. The arrival of Independence did nothing to address colonial legacies; the years of drought that devastated herds and crops in the desert and along its edge less than a decade later further fueled both political instability and economic crisis. That today the region nurtures radicalized Islamic movements promising to return “true meaning” (not to mention material benefits) to that life is not surprising.

Article

Africa’s economic history went through various stages, beginning with Stone Age hunter-gatherers, through the Iron Age and the development of agriculture, to sedentary communities with growing and varied economies, bigger and more sophisticated political states, and growing trade activities. Between the 7th and 19th centuries, several large states emerged in the Sahel and in eastern and southern Africa. Key to their rise and prosperity was a growing population and agriculture as well as expanding trade, either through the trans-Saharan trade to the Mediterranean or across the Indian Ocean to Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. Africa’s fortunes dipped with the onset of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which ravaged the continent and led to Africa losing millions of people to the New World. Following the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, Europe partitioned and colonized the continent and presided over varied economic regimes. These were settler colonies, peasant-agricultural colonies, and concession company colonies. Of the three, settler colonies developed most, although at the expense of the African majority. Independence came after the Second World War and Africa entered its postcolonial phase. After a promising start in the decade of the 1960s, African economies went into decline in the 1970s, necessitating governments to borrow from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in order to revamp their economies. The structural adjustment programs they were required to implement as a condition for the loans proved to be deleterious to African economies. African economic history scholars have generally shied away from the continent’s very early periods, preferring to focus on the period after the 15th century which has more documented history. They have used three analytical approaches: classical economics, dependency theory, and Marxist paradigms. Each of the three approaches has some shortcomings. Recently, the New African Economic History approach is using cliometric techniques to study Africa’s economic past. More economics than conventional economic history, it has attracted some from more history-based scholars as ahistorical.

Article

Archaeology’s focus on material culture provides it with unparalleled opportunities to investigate the entire span of the human past. For periods for which historical records (verbal as well as textual) exist, this includes its ability to deliver insights into the lives of individuals and communities only partially represented, if at all, in those records. Its remit ranges from individual sites requiring excavation to surface scatters of artifacts, from upstanding monuments to entire landscapes. Interpreting archaeological observations depends upon establishing that they are in valid association with each other and can be accurately dated. In both cases the principles of stratigraphic superimposition, association, and context are key concerns. While analogies derived from ethnographic data sustain many archaeological interpretations, individual finds and assemblages of finds are also investigated using a wide range of scientific and other techniques.