- Brokers of Change: Atlantic Commerce and Cultures in Pre-Colonial Western Africa ed. by Toby Green, and: Black Ranching Frontiers: African Cattle Herders of the Atlantic World, 1500–1900 by Andrew Sluyter
Each of these two books will surely be required reading for scholars, teachers, and students of world history for years to come. Initially they appeared to me to be so dissimilar that I thought reviewing them together would not be fruitful. Their differences—in topic, format, and authorship—are striking. Brokers of Change is an edited volume of fifteen conference papers about Atlantic commerce on the Upper Guinea coast of West Africa (ca. 1415–1880), written by seventeen scholars from the disciplines of history, archaeology, linguistics, geography, art history, and political science. Black Ranching Frontiers is a single-authored monograph about cattle ranching in the Americas (1500–1900), written by a professor of geography and anthropology. The former could be considered an African history, the latter an American one, for each addresses sets of questions and problems that arise from [End Page 405] its specific scholarly literature. In spite of their differences, though, and perhaps even because of them, reading them as a pair in the wider context of world history has been both fruitful and satisfying. Both of them bring to the fore all sorts of crucially important analytical and methodological issues having to do with the sources for and study of social, and especially cultural, history. And their complementary approaches and formats add much to the mix.
Brokers of Change provides a sweeping historical view of a major region along the northern west coast of Africa. The choice of terminology in the title, calling this part of the coast and its hinterlands “Western Africa” (as opposed to the much larger West Africa), is a deliberate and useful one, as it refers to this place at a particular time—that is, as a special precolonial commercial zone from the beginnings of Euro-African trade in the Atlantic on up to the eve of European colonial rule in most of Africa during the twentieth century. Geographically, it spanned about eight hundred miles in length from the mouth of the Senegal River southward to what is today Liberia, or roughly equivalent to the distance between New York City and Savannah, Georgia. As such an extensive trading zone, it also became an important and dynamic site of cross-cultural exchange and social interaction that connected together the worlds of continental West Africa and Atlantic maritime commerce. Key to this economic and social dynamism were the major facilitators of it—countless well-placed individuals who were able to pass into, out, through, and between these worlds, bringing people and goods together and forging new contacts, relationships, cultural practices, and communities along the way. They were brokers of trade and brokers of culture as well.
The book’s exceptionally rich chapters are revised papers that were presented at a conference held at the University of Birmingham, England, in 2009. Its central theme of brokerage in Western Africa yielded a wide range of studies based on a variety of sources—written, oral, visual, material—deployed by an interdisciplinary group of scholars working in and with a number of different languages. It helps the reader enormously that the editor, Toby Green, divided the chapters into five thematic sections: Afro-European relations; Atlantic merchant networks; the “insular” Atlantic; trade in slaves and commodities; and “post-slavery” (nineteenth century). I cannot adequately convey in a review just how significant this collection is, but I will try to at least provide a brief summary of what I consider to be two of its major achievements.
First, some chapters, based on newly uncovered archival evidence or on new analyses and interpretations of familiar sources, fill in and flesh out what had previously been gaps in or...