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  • The Rise of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in Western Africa, 1300–1589 by Toby Green
  • Rebecca Shumway
The Rise of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in Western Africa, 1300–1589. By Toby Green. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 366 pp. $99.00 (cloth); $79.00 (e-book).

Drawing on archival sources in Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean, Toby Green presents a new study of the earliest phase of European maritime activity and settlement on the Cape Verde islands and the West African coast between the Senegal River and Sierra Leone. The book examines conditions in fourteenth- and fifteenthcentury Iberia and West Africa that set the stage for the complex interactions between Europeans and Africans that followed, though the book primarily focuses on the period from 1460 to 1589, when Cape Verde was a hub of long-distance trade. Most of the nine chapters deal exclusively with the islands and coastal towns where Iberians conducted trade, although frequent reference is made to the African hinterland as well as locations in Europe and the Americas that were connected to Cape Verde by maritime trade.

The book provides a richly detailed analysis of the evolution of Cape Verde as both an entrepôt for trade in enslaved Africans and a very early European colony in which African slaves produced agricultural products for export. Green’s use of documents from the Inquisition enables him to paint a detailed portrait of the settlers who came from Iberia in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries seeking their fortunes in the first site of what Philip Curtin has dubbed the “plantation complex.” A large proportion of these settlers were New Christians of Jewish ancestry, and Green argues that their experiences with violence and exclusion in Europe shaped the ways in which they built a new society based on slavery and slave trading on Cape Verde and the African coast. One of the most intriguing ideas presented in the book is that this part of the world was simultaneously shaped by three overlapping diasporas in this period: the New Christian diaspora in Cape Verde and the Mediterranean, the diaspora of Islamic traders involved in trans-Saharan trade, and the Mandinka diaspora through which coastal Western Africans shared a cultural and linguistic link with their neighbors in the distant interior.

Green is very keen to show that he has uncovered new evidence that warrants a reassessment of the volume of the early slave trade from Upper Guinea. He makes a strong argument for the underappreciation of the Portuguese contraband slave trade and introduces evidence showing that the scale of this trade may have been quite large. For example, he demonstrates that many slave ships could have been provisioned by the increasing agricultural production in Upper Guinea [End Page 729] in this period. The number of enslaved Africans taken by slave ships in this period nevertheless remains extremely uncertain, however, and historians who have used quantitative methods to assess the volume of the trade will undoubtedly question Green’s interpretation. Moreover, this evidence alone does not refute the generally accepted view that African gold was more important than slaves to the first generations of European traders in Africa, which Green rejects.

New evidence presented here regarding early Europeans’ travels in the Americas has more potential to stimulate fruitful historical analysis. Green shows that many of the first “explorers” of the Americas, including Columbus, actually had extensive experience in and knowledge of West Africa, and that they referenced their African knowledge in their encounters with the indigenous people of the Americas. The ways in which these European travelers introduced ideas about slavery and slave trading from the Old World to the New constitute a new dimension of the ideological processes involved in the formation of the early Atlantic World.

Some readers will be put off by Green’s exaggerated claims. This book certainly advances historical knowledge of the complex processes that might be called the making of the Atlantic World (à la John Thornton); however, it is a stretch to say that it makes a significant contribution to our understanding of major events in the more recent history of the world—such as the colonization of Africa...


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