By the time the “Scramble for Africa” among European colonial powers began in the late nineteenth century, Africa had already been globally connected for centuries. Its gold had fueled the economies of Europe and the Islamic world for nearly a millennium, and the sophisticated kingdoms spanning its west coast had traded with Europeans since the fifteenth century. Until at least 1650, this was a trade of equals, using a variety of currencies—most importantly, cowrie shells imported from the Maldives and nzimbu shells imported from Brazil. But, as the slave trade grew, African kingdoms began to lose prominence in the growing global economy. We have been living with the effects of this shift ever since.
With A Fistful of Shells, Toby Green transforms our view of West and West-Central Africa by reconstructing the world of these kingdoms, which revolved around trade, diplomacy, complex religious beliefs, and the production of art. Green shows how the slave trade led to economic disparities that caused African kingdoms to lose relative political and economic power. The concentration of money in the hands of Atlantic elites in and outside these kingdoms brought about a revolutionary nineteenth century in Africa, parallel to the upheavals then taking place in Europe and America. Yet political fragmentation following the fall of African aristocracies produced radically different results as European colonization took hold.
Drawing not just on written histories, but on archival research in nine countries, art, oral history, archaeology, and letters, Green lays bare the transformations that have shaped world politics and the global economy since the fifteenth century and paints a new and masterful portrait of West Africa, past and present.
A Fistful of Shells has been shortlisted for the Nayef Al- Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding, an annual £25,000 prize awarded by the British Academy to a non-fiction book which contributes to public understanding of world cultures. The other shortlisted writers are Kwame Anthony Appiah, Julian Baggini, Julia Lovell, Seema Malhotra, and Ed Morales. The book has also been shortlisted for the 2019 Cundill History Prize, run by McGill University in Canada, which has the largest purse in the world for a book of non-fiction in English; it is on a shortlist of 8 books for a prize awarded annually to the book that represents historical scholarship, originality and literary quality.
Toby Green is a lecturer at King’s College London.
After studying Philosophy, Toby Green worked as a writer and editor, publishing various books that have been translated into 12 languages. He then studied for his PhD at the Centre of West African Studies at Birmingham University, working with Paulo de Moraes Farias and completing in 2007, before coming to King’s in 2010.
After holding fellowships from the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust, in 2015 he was recipient of a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award. He has also been PI of research projects funded by the AHRC, British Library, European Union, and the Leverhulme Trust, and was awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize for History in 2017. He has organised events in collaboration with institutions in Angola, Brazil, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, and The Gambia.
- Hardcover : 640 pages
- ISBN-10 : 022664457X
- ISBN-13 : 978-0226644578
- Publisher : University of Chicago Press; First Edition (March 21, 2019)
- Paperback : 448 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0141977663
- ISBN-13 : 978-0141977669
- Publisher : Penguin (January 30, 2020)