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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

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

West Africa and the African diaspora share an intertwined history. From the earliest moments of the development of the diaspora, West Africans and members of the African diaspora have sought ways to connect to each other. They have done so through the exploration of cultural links, travel back and forth between West Africa and the diaspora, and the development of shared philosophical and political movements. They have celebrated the idea of a collective “African” identity shaped by people on both sides of the Atlantic including the Pan-African Movement, the New Negro Movement, and Negritude. The late 20th century has seen the travel of diasporic subjects to West African countries including Ghana, the Gambia, and Senegal, which have fashioned themselves as African homelands. Artists, activists, and migrants continue to travel back and forth between West Africa and various points in the African diaspora and, in doing so, shape the contours of the Black Atlantic World. The continuous communication and contact between West Africa and the diaspora constitute an ongoing dialogue that has led to cultural innovations on both sides of the Atlantic.

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

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.

Article

Hilary Jones

The idea of race shaped the encounter between Africa and Europe from the “age of discovery,” through the height of colonial rule in the 20th century, and on into the age of independence, decolonization and the birth of the postcolonial nation. Race, understood today as a social construct rather than a biological fact, emerged as an ideological framework in Western thought to rationalize difference. In the 16th and 17th centuries, religion and color stood as markers of difference. The Atlantic slave trade furthered the notion of African inferiority by defining African people as “heathen” and therefore suitable for enslavement. By the 19th century, scientific racism advanced the idea of blackness as biologically and culturally inferior to whiteness, which in turn served to justify colonial conquest under the guise of “civilizing dark Africa.” Colonial rule, moreover, relied on ethnicity as a means of categorizing African peoples. Using the idea of “tribe” to characterize and govern African peoples furthered the objectives of European imperialism by taking a complex landscape of social, cultural, political, and linguistic identity and establishing a rigid and fixed system of classification. African women stood at the intersection of racialist thinking about Africa and the construction of a colonial social order that used race and ethnicity as means of defining and controlling African populations. Women like Sara Baartman became the symbolic projection of racial and ethnic difference for Europe; at the same time, customary marriages between African women and European men in Atlantic Africa defined cross-cultural trade and gave rise to multiracial communities. As European imperialism gave way to colonial bureaucracy, the fluidity of interracial unions gave way to policies that sought to police the boundaries between black and white in the colony; children of mixed racial ancestry did not fit neatly into the ethnic or racial categories erected by colonial regimes. Far from being passive receptacles of racial and ethnic thinking, African men and women used these categories of European knowledge as tools for their own purposes. African women, in particular, developed their own strategies for engaging with European merchants and officials in the age of encounter, and for navigating the evolving landscape of colonial rule, whether defying colonial boundaries by entering into intimate partnerships with European men, or rejecting European suitors.