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Ideological and Technological Exchanges in the Early Modern Atlantic  

Walter C. Rucker

Despite assumptions regarding the unidirectional flow of ideas and technologies from Europe to Atlantic Africa beginning in the 1440s, African-European interactions were far more complex and dynamic. The multilateral flow of concepts in the early Atlantic world had a precedent in the Mediterranean world. New and reintroduced concepts entering Iberia from North Africa and Arabia propelled sustained contacts between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Beginning with the Umayyad Caliphate’s conquest of Iberia until the defeat of the last Islamic stronghold in 1492, Iberian architecture, language, and science received waves of innovation from foreign sources. This constant cross-fertilization reintroduced Iberians and other Europeans—emerging from the early Middle Ages—to physics, astronomy, and geometry; navigational instruments like compasses, quadrants, and astrolabes; and seafaring technologies like lateen sails. This process of multilateral exchange and interaction set the stage for the complex engagements between Europeans and Atlantic Africans by the mid-15th century. Beginning with the Portuguese in the 1440s, Europeans engaged with Atlantic Africans and, together, developed commercial networks, political alliances, and social connections from Senegambia to Angola. Within these regions, a matrix of exchanges occurred that shaped the course of Atlantic history. Above and beyond the Columbian Exchange of agricultural products, Atlantic Africans introduced Europeans to an array of aquatic proficiencies; techniques associated with mineral extraction, mining and metallurgy, and crop cultivation; and herblore. Instead of understanding Atlantic Africa as a recipient of foreign ideas and innovations and in a state of dependency, communities in the region were partners within the many exchange networks through the 18th century. As they absorbed, internalized, and—in some cases—Africanized European ideas and technologies, Atlantic Africans also introduced Europeans to African innovations. As vectors of Atlantic African and Atlantic creole ideas, enslaved women and men fueled a broader range of exchanges in Western Hemisphere colonies.