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.
Sugar and slavery became intimately connected in the Americas during the early modern era. Once the cultivation of sugar cane had been transplanted to the Americas in the early 16th century, Spanish and Portuguese planters turned to exploiting slaves as laborers on the plantations. The first slaves were taken from among Indigenous populations in the Americas. In the 17th century, English and French planters tried to recruit indentured servants from Europe. Both these sources of labor would, for several reasons, turn out to be insufficient to meet the great demand for laborers on the American sugar plantations. Planters throughout the Americas therefore came to import slaves from Africa, particularly following the so-called “sugar revolution” during the late 17th century. As sugar henceforth became the preferred crop of cultivation throughout most of the Caribbean and Brazil, it also became the main driver of the transatlantic slave trade. The particular demography of sugar planting—with a natural population decline as a consequence of hard labor, a brutal labor regime, and insufficient diet—did furthermore exacerbate the demand for slave imports even further. The cultivation of sugar, and all economic activities associated with the slave plantation complex, would be of great economic importance for investors, merchants and producers in Europe. The political decision to abolish the slave trade would therefore have large economic consequences both in the Americas, Africa, and Europe.
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.
Angola’s contemporary political boundaries resulted from 20th-century colonialism. The roots of Angola, however, reach far into the past. When Portuguese caravels arrived in the Congo River estuary in the late 15th century, independent African polities dotted this vast region. Some people lived in populous, hierarchical states such as the Kingdom of Kongo, but most lived in smaller political entities centered on lineage-village settlements. The Portuguese colony of Angola grew out of a settlement established at Luanda Bay in 1576. From its inception, Portuguese Angola existed to profit from the transatlantic slave trade, which became the colony’s economic foundation for the next three centuries. A Luso-African population and a creole culture developed in the colonial nuclei of Luanda and Benguela (founded 1617). The expansion of the colonial state into the interior occurred intermittently until the end of the 19th century, when Portuguese authorities initiated a series of wars of conquest that lasted up until the end of the First World War. During the 20th century, the colonial state consolidated military control over the whole territory, instituted an infrastructure of administration, and developed an economy of resource extraction. A nationalist sentiment developed among Luso-African thinkers in the early 20th century, and by the 1950s these ideas coalesced into a nationalist movement aimed at independence. Simultaneously, anticolonial movements developed among mission-educated elites in the Kikongo-speaking north and in the Umbundu-speaking central highlands. Portugal’s authoritarian New State leaders brutally suppressed these disparate nationalist movements during more than a decade of guerrilla war. A revolution in Portugal in 1974 ushered in negotiations leading to Angolan independence on November 11, 1975. Competing nationalist movements, bolstered by foreign intervention, refused to share governance and as a result plunged Angola into a brutal civil war that lasted until 2002.
There are many wild rice species, but only two are domesticated. The most widely known is Asian rice, Oryza sativa. Domesticated in China approximately 10,000 years ago, it has been a primary staple in Asia for millennia, becoming by the 20th century one of the world’s most consumed cereals. Less known is Oryza glaberrima, or African rice, which was not recognized as a unique species until the mid-20th century. Glaberrima’s history begins not in Asia, but in the inland delta of West Africa’s Niger River, where it was domesticated some 3,500 years ago. Africans adapted glaberrima to a variety of landscapes and developed specialized farming practices that advanced its diffusion elsewhere in the continent, notably to wetland swamps and the tropical coastal region between Senegal and Cameroon. Cultivated there for millennia, African rice became (and still is) a principal dietary staple of West Africa. Women play a major role in rice cultivation. They plant, harvested, mill, and cook this important food crop. Since the so-called Age of Discovery, Oryza glaberrima has been entwined with the history of transatlantic slavery, which lasted from the mid-15th century to the last quarter of the 19th century. Over 400 years, nearly 13 million Africans were kidnapped and imprisoned on European slave ships bound for the Americas. Once landed, the survivors were sold as chattel labor to work colonial mines and plantations. Many had experience growing rice. African rice often accompanied slave voyages. As slave ships plied the West African coast, their captains purchased it in bulk to feed their captives during the weeks-long Middle Passage. Eventually, unmilled seed rice found its way from ships’ larders into the hands of New World Africans, who planted it in their provision gardens or maroon hideaways. By the end of the 17th century, plantation owners in Carolina (and later Brazil) were beginning to cultivate rice in response to rising demand from Europe. They very likely grew glaberrima at first—acquired as leftover slave ship provisions—and were almost certainly tutored by slaves already proficient at growing it. The development of rice as a lucrative export crop, cultivated on a massive scale in the tropical and semi-tropical swamps and tidewater estuaries of the Americas, is also a story of African agency and know-how. Nearly all the technologies employed on New World rice plantations bear African antecedents, from the irrigation systems that made fields productive, to the milling and winnowing of grain by African female labor wielding traditional African tools. The recovery of African rice history dispels long-held beliefs that Africans contributed little to the global table and added nothing more than muscle to the agricultural history of the Americas. It upends the myth that they only provided labor, existing as less-than-human “hands” that uncomprehendingly carried out slaveholder directives. Rice history has directed scholars to new geographical spaces, such as the provision gardens of the enslaved, while integrating contributions from archaeology, botany, geography, linguistics, and genomics. Not least, it gives to slavery’s victims a voice rarely heard in traditional sources.
Kafuxi Ambari was a key leader in the history of west central Africa, one who became a symbol of the political and military roles of African authorities under European occupation. Kafuxi Ambari refers to both a leadership position with spiritual connotations, used to describe individuals with a particular vocation, as well as the individuals who held that political title. The ruler (soba) had control over other authorities and dependents who honored him, paying tribute and fighting his battles. In return, he offered them spiritual and material protection. Kafuxi Ambari ruled the eastern part of Kisama, a region south of the Kwanza River, part of present-day Angola. He is remembered for the successive defeats he inflicted on Portuguese forces in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially his notable victory in the battle of 1594, which protected his lands and blocked the advance of Portuguese occupation and expansion of the slave trade in his territory. His efforts, along with those of other leaders, to host fugitives from slavery enshrined Kisama as a rebel territory, which remained autonomous and little known to colonial agents until the beginning of the 20th century. Over time, Kafuxi Ambari remained a respected and feared name and title, even as it weakened on account of colonial expansion. Kafuxi Ambari embodied resistance against colonialism and human trafficking that still reverberates in the local memories of Kisama residents. Although historians have paid attention to Kafuxi Ambari’s historical roles, there is still much to learn about the history of Kisama, its leaders, and its residents, all of which reveal the role of the slave trade and its link to power relations and political practices.