Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800 (review)
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Africa Today 47.3/4 (2000) 198-199

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Thornton, John. 1998. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800. 2d Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 340 Pp.

Africanist and Americanist scholars and their students will be indebted to historian John Thornton for years to come for this second edition of his book on the transatlantic slave trade. Readers of the earlier (1992) edition will find that text reproduced here, essentially unchanged. What is different about this edition, and what marks it as an improvement, is a change in periodization with the addition of a final thirty-one page chapter on the eighteenth century, the peak period of the traffic in slaves across the Atlantic. Finally, we have an analysis of the forced migration of Africans to the Americas that convincingly demonstrates the importance of Africa's role in creating commerce and culture change in the Atlantic world, written in accessible language that makes it useful as a course textbook.

The book is divided into two sections: Part I consists of four chapters having to do with African societies and how trade developed among them and with European merchants; Part II consists of six chapters about Africans in new colonial Atlantic societies, and a seventh chapter, the new one, covering the eighteenth century. What is extremely valuable (though also problematic) about this book is that Thornton has relied as much as possible on primary sources in the form of contemporaneous written documents, presenting us with very particular views of Africa and the Atlantic world through literate, mainly European male, eyes. An example is the series of maps of political organization along the western African coast, composed according to descriptions written in the seventeenth century, sources that show a preoccupation with European-style kings and kingdoms. Thus, there is also much of interest here about European cultural values and mindsets at this time, though it is often hidden between the lines.

Thornton's insights into and perspectives on a number of historical debates have not lost their freshness over the last eight years, and so it is worth reviewing some of the most important of them for readers who are not familiar with the first edition. In Part I, Thornton touches on debates about economic "underdevelopment," arguing that Europeans during this period did not have a dominant role in trade with African societies. He is one of the few historians who has shown an interest in precolonial manufacturing in Africa, and so he is able to demonstrate that African societies were producing their own metalwares and textiles, as well as importing them from overseas. By doing so, he rebuts the assertion that Europeans had an advantageous trading position by introducing new products to Africa. Even more provocative is Thornton's discussion of African legal systems and property rights, where he challenges conventional wage labor ideology by arguing that slavery in Africa was productive, having been the major form of wealth-generating private property there. He contrasts this with European norms which emphasize land, a point that becomes crucial [End Page 198] to his later argument about motivations in warfare. Following a logic based on African conceptions of wealth, he concludes, "Just as slavery took the place of landed property in Africa, so slave raids were equivalent to wars of [territorial] conquest" (p. 102).

In Part II, Thornton focuses especially on identifying and assessing the roles Africans played in transforming American cultures. He alludes throughout to the Frazier-Herskovits debate about the degree to which slaves were able or not to maintain and pass on to subsequent generations the cultural values of their homelands in Africa. Crucial to his investigation is the thorny question of African cultures--how to define them, and how homogeneous or heterogeneous they were in the past. Probably more for the sake of convenience, he tries to steer a middle course, identifying three "culture zones": Upper Guinea, Lower Guinea, and Angola. These become the cultural groupings he uses to argue that barriers preventing slaves from communicating with one another and...