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  • Silent Trade
  • Toby Green (bio)
Paulo F. de Moraes Farias , "Silent Trade: Myth and Historical Evidence," History in Africa 1 (1974), 9-24,

If looking at History in Africa's influence over the field of African history since its inception in 1974, where better to start than at the beginning? A quick glance at the table of contents of the inaugural volume shows that the edition carried articles by, among others, Paulo Farias, Paul Hair, Marion Johnson, Tom Spear, Michael Twaddle, Albert van Dantzig, and Jan Vansina. Forty years on, the table of contents looks something like a Who's Who in Africanist history, and reminds us of the problematic aspects of replacing print editions of journals with electronic counterparts: yes, we all can scroll down the electronic table of contents, but in practice we are more likely just to click on the relevant PDF.

To begin right at the beginning, as it were, Paulo de Moraes Farias's "Silent Trade: Myth and Historical Evidence" was the very first research article in that edition's table of contents, and to my mind it remains one of the most influential. As David Henige had been (and Marion Johnson then was), Paulo Farias was based at Birmingham University, beginning work on his project of discovering, deciphering, transcribing and translating funerary inscriptions in Arabic, that would bear fruit in his major work - almost thirty years later - Medieval Arabic Inscriptions from the Republic of Mali (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

It has been said that a writer or historian's early work is always an exercise in procrastination, in that the extent of their research capacities is not [End Page s3] yet fully evident. Given the intellectual immensity of the monograph which Farias went on to produce, this could perhaps be seen as a fair comment; yet in this case, his article is certainly one of the pithiest and most characteristic exemplars of the procrastinating genre, containing within it many of the hallmarks which distinguish the later work.

The article deals with the myth that grew up over the preceding centuries as to what was known as "silent trade." This was the practice, said to be widely practiced in the Sahel, of conducting a commercial exchange without conversation. Various sources, beginning as early as Herodotus in classical times, had claimed that it was common practice for one party to leave on the path the goods which they proposed to exchange, and then to retire, whereupon the other party would leave what they proposed to give in exchange - with the system continuing until the "transaction" was completed. In practice, the idea of silent trade stood for the backwardness and primitiveness of the African continent in the minds of outsiders, and was a significant actor in shaping pejorative cultural associations related to Africa.

"Silent Trade" examines the sources and, in characteristic gentle but irrefutable style, concludes that the whole idea was a fabrication based on second- and third-hand sources and a fundamental misunderstanding of African systems of brokerage. The erudition which enables Farias to reach this conclusion is immense; for in the article, he quotes from (among others), the Italian of Ca da Mosto, the Arabic of al-Mas'ūdī and Yaqūt, and the Portuguese of Duarte Pacheco Pereira and André Alvares d'Almada. His analysis of sources also involves an important linguistic exegesis of the meanings of the Arabic samāsira ("brokers," "middlemen") and jahābidha (those who distinguish good quality merchandise from bad quality); as well as elucidating place names from knowledge of Wangara and Dyula terms for the Akan-speaking peoples.

Complementing this extraordinary linguistic versatility was the scope of the sources drawn upon. On any page Farias is just as happy among medieval Arabic sources as among sixteenth century Portuguese and later writers. The amazing scope of the article is pithily expressed in the concluding two pages, in which the author ends by citing important German and English sources from the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, which reflect different levels of the silent trade stereotype; but in which he is also quite happy discussing Ibn Battūta's comments on the relationship between the...


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