Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800 / Edition 2by John Thornton
Pub. Date: 05/01/1998
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
This book explores Africa's involvement in the Atlantic world from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries. It focuses especially on the causes and consequences of the slave trade, in Africa, in Europe, and in the New World. Prior to 1680, Africa's economic and military strength enabled African elites to determine how trade with Europe developed. Thornton examines the dynamics which made slaves so necessary to European colonizers. He explains why African slaves were placed in significant roles. Estate structure and demography affected the capacity of slaves to form a self-sustaining society and behave as cultural actors.
Table of ContentsPreface to the second edition; Preface to the first edition; Introduction; Part I. Africans in Africa: 1. The birth of the Atlantic world; 2. The development of commerce between Europeans and Africans; 3. Slavery and African social structure; 4. The process of enslavement and the slave trade; Part II. Africans in the New World: 5. Africans in colonial Atlantic societies; 6. Africans and Afro-Americans in the Atlantic world: life and labour; 7. African cultural groups in the Atlantic world; 8. Transformations of African culture in the Atlantic world; 9. African religions and Christianity in the Atlantic world; 10. Resistance, runaways, and rebels; Part III. Africans in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World.
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This is a work of immense learning and often brilliant insight on African/Afro-American history over four key centuries. Some conclusions can be questioned, but that doesn't detract from its overall worth. Thornton takes as his model the social/economic approach of the great French historian Fernand Braudel, rather than the older kings-and-battles model, and his research goes very deep, especially his reading of pre-1680 primary sources-- and in six languages, apparently! The work neatly divides into an African section and a New World section, and though only 334 pages long it's more densely packed with ideas and information than many larger works. His writing style's reasonably alive for an academic, and passion for his subject shines through. Thornton's overall goal, with no taint of Bernal/Diop-style racial cheerleading, and with strong scholarship, is to create respect for the African, including in his time of trial, and show the extent to which he shaped his own destiny, and the European's too, on both sides of the Atlantic. He makes clear Europeans and Africans traded essentially as equals, with the Africans wanting but not really needing European goods, and shows why the West couldn't pull a Cortez/Pizarro on them. It's regarding individual points that Thornton can be contested, for instance his statement that West Africans were working iron in 600 B.C. 'or even earlier', when many scholars would say 500-300 B.C., just one example of how Thornton may give African civilization too much credit, and not let us know there's scholarship that disagrees with him. On slavery he takes the realistic position that Africans had it before the West arrived, and were willing, not coerced, sellers. In the second part of the book he discusses the New World Black experience, from slavery (including resistance/rebellion) to cultural preservation and transformation to the meeting of African and Western religion. (He's brilliant on the subject of Africans' continuing revelation versus the closed revelation of Christianity.) Some problems crop up. He smooths out African diversity-- 'only three different [African] cultures...contributed to the New World' ! (pg. 187)-- denies tribalism's full reality, like some other recent scholars-- and softens the slave experience somewhat ('...although these [Middle Passage] experiences were never to be forgotten, they do not seem on the whole to have been more than temporarily debilitating.' )-- as part of his explanation why more of African culture survived in the New World than some scholars would concede. He's flatly contradicted on the subject of African cultural homogeneity on individual slave estates by other scholars who also have serious research behind them. And of course, by cutting off at 1800 (really, the early 1700's, for the most part) he never gets to the true Black/White pop culture/Capitalist hybrid we've come to live in. But while individual points can be argued, the overall richness of the work remains, and there's deep excellence in this re-creation and analysis of African and Afro-American history.