A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution: Toby Green

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.

Editorial Reviews

“This meticulously researched book, based on archival research in nine countries, lays out a comprehensive overview of the economic history of West Africa and West-Central Africa before and after the slave trade. . . . A valuable history written in an accessible style.”
Publishers Weekly

A Fistful of Shells, Green’s survey of the economic history of West African slave-trading states from the Niger valley to the drainage area of the Zaire, is exemplary: scholarly, sensitive, enlightening and often vivid. The author, a lecturer at King’s College London, does much more than make Africa seem normal. He proclaims a daunting ambition: to explore the local and global implications of West Africa’s economies during the age of slavery. He succeeds.”
Wall Street Journal

“Drawing on written accounts and oral histories from nine countries, Green traces the long-term consequences of a European-dominated capitalist system that gave rise to mounting inequality and political upheaval in West and West-Central Africa. . . . Summing Up: Essential.”
CHOICE

“His book is a work of staggering scholarship, drawing on previously untapped sources locked away in European vaults and historical records which, taken as a whole, contradict the age-old perceptions foisted on Africa.”

Telegraph (UK)

“A rich and insightful work. . . . What emerges is a radically different view of the region from the one that has been generally available. West Africa, according to Green, was both cosmopolitan in its outlook, culturally and politically sophisticated and in some ways globally connected long before Europeans arrived to ‘civilise the natives.’ . . . Green concludes by pointing to the lack of history being taught in schools and universities in West Africa and elsewhere; if it is taught at all, it tends to focus on the slave trade. A Fistful of Shells shows that there was so much more, and of so much relevance when looking at the issues of our own time.”
Spectator

“All too often, the history of early modern Africa is told from the perspective of outsiders. In his book A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution, Toby Green draws upon a range of underutilized sources to describe the evolution of West Africa over a period of four transformative centuries. With these sources Green demonstrates that the region was integrated into the developing transcontinental trade networks far earlier than is often portrayed in more Western-centric accounts, and in ways that influenced the development of local communities long before European ships arrived off of their coast.”
New Books Network

“One of its great strengths is that it reveals the often surprising success that Africans had throughout the first four hundred years of their encounter with Europe. . . . [a] sprawling and nuanced look at the steady depletion of a continent with a powerful lament about the lack of academic interest in Africa’s precolonial eras.”
New York Review of Books

A Fistful of Shells is the fruit of research conducted in the archives of nine nations and required the author to undertake fieldwork across eight West African states. It shows. Passages from the author’s travels provide observations and anecdotes that usefully link the past to the present day and give voice to the lives and experiences of African themselves. Ranging far beyond economics, Green’s thesis becomes, ultimately, an almost philosophical meditation on the nature of value across differing cultures and societies during a long and underexamined era of early globalisation.”
New Statesman

“Green’s A Fistful of Shells illuminates the flourishing and connected economy of West Africa that existed long before a European capitalist system established itself on the continent. Extraordinarily written and researched, the book paints a huge, complex canvas, crammed with individual detail.”

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