Journal of Interdisciplinary History 35.1 (2004) 173-174
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Luso-Africans played a significant role in the history of West Africa's westernmost coast during the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. They served as interpreters, sailors, compradors, spouses of European merchants, and, no matter what else, private traders who benefited from contacts in two commercial worlds. Luso-Africans stressed their putative descent from Portuguese merchants who had settled in coastal areas and married African wives. Mark's book examines the transformation of Luso-African identities and one expression of their cultural production—"Portuguese" houses. Mark uses the designation Portuguese in quotation marks to refer to Luso-Africans in contrast to Portuguese merchants who were born and lived most of their lives in Europe. He uses contemporaneous travel writings and paintings and other representations of architectural style to reconstruct Luso-African identity and culture. Mark admits that he does not have many depictions of the maisons à la portugaise described by his written sources (and none of the dwellings has survived), but he nonetheless offers a sophisticated interpretation of evolving identities and material culture (primarily architecture) through an analysis of the evidence that does exist.
Mark is an art historian and most of this book focuses on architectural history. Maison à la portugaise consisted of a rectangular building (with either a vestibule at the entrance or a veranda around the exterior wall) constructed from sun-dried bricks or dried earth covered with clay or lime to give a white-washed effect. Mark notes the functional aspects of these buildings: The vestibule or veranda allowed Luso-Africans to receive their commercial partners, and the white-washed walls reflected the daytime sun to make the interior cooler than it might otherwise be. He argues, through a persuasive analysis of early traveler writings, that "Portuguese" houses drew upon West African technologies and stylistic preferences (especially Mande cultural production) and expressed reciprocal influences between Luso-Africans and Africans (with little European influence). The "Portuguese" house, once established, became exclusively associated with Luso-Africans in West Africa, but it also was disseminated more generally in the Atlantic world, such as in Brazil, where the style was adopted and elaborated, and may have in turn influenced maisons à la portugaise built elsewhere in West Africa. Mark adeptly captures the complexities of cultural interaction and the emergence of an Atlantic architectural idiom.
Mark's approach to Luso-African identity adopts the insights of recent scholarship that stresses the social construction of ethnicity and the fluidity of African identities.1 He is concerned to demonstrate that many elements of Luso-African identity, such as religion (Christianity) [End Page 173] and language (Crioulo, a lingua franca based on Portuguese and West African languages), were adopted by other West Africans and were not categorical markers of Luso-African identity during the early years. Mark argues that increasingly essentialist European definitions of ethnicity during the eighteenth and especially nineteenth centuries—and the denigration of Luso-African culture as "black" and decadent— ultimately prompted Luso-Africans to assert a "Portuguese" identity that was exclusive of local African identities.
Mark's analysis might have probed more deeply into certain aspects of Luso-African history. The trans-Atlantic slave trade and the role of slavery in Luso-African social life are not fully analyzed. The treatment of Luso-Africans in the hierarchical societies north of the Gambia River vis-à-vis that in the less-centralized communities to the south is not adequately addressed.2 Finally, Mark might have discussed Luso-African culture in the context of the cultural production of other creole communities elsewhere on the African continent and in the Atlantic world. These criticisms should not detract from the excellent analysis in this fine study. Readers of this journal will find much to admire in this richly documented book.
John H. Hanson
1 Mark himself provides an insightful...