Monday, October 7, 2013

Book Review: Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World

In the absence of normal blog content, I'm reduced to publishing one of my book reviews. I really do want to keep the blog up, but it's difficult right now.

Thornton, John. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800. 2nd Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Originally published in 1992, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World appeared at a historiographical moment in which Africans had gained historians’ sympathy as victims, if not always their attention as historical actors. Thornton argues that African states, African institutions, and Africans themselves on both sides of the Atlantic, acting as dynamic participants rather than passive victims, were integral to the creation of an Atlantic world. His overarching concern is to establish the agency of Africans in the context of this emerging Atlantic milieu. In such a project the question of the slave trade looms large, and Thornton returns to it repeatedly, contending that the trans-Atlantic slave trade was a function of African agency rather than a negation of it. He also emphasizes the ways in which the African economy and African social systems affected Atlantic trade more broadly, and traces the transmission of African culture to the Americas.

Thornton divides the book into two parts, reflecting the Atlantic reach of his study: “Africans in Africa,” and “Africans in the New World.” The first part of the book focuses heavily on African state, economic, and social institutions, emphasizing how the internal dynamics of the African continent, rather than outside European pressure, explain key developments in the rise of an Atlantic World. This section includes chapters on African social structures pertaining to slavery, and the transatlantic slave trade itself. He convincingly argues that the African economy was more productive than much of the scholarship has acknowledged, bolstering his case with compelling evidence such as the vast cloth exports from eastern Kongo and advanced iron production in West Africa. The relative prosperity of Africa is an important point for Thornton to establish, for it underlies his claim that, far from being dependent on European imports, Africans engaged in a supplemental trade with Europe primarily for luxury goods. An African continent with the economic and military power to dictate the terms of its involvement with Europe is a key context for Thornton’s understanding of the slave trade.

The other vital backgrounds Thornton establishes are the structures and traditions of African societies pertaining to slavery, from property rights to war-making. In order to argue that Africans engaged in the slave trade willingly, on their own terms and to their own advantage, he seeks to demonstrate that preexisting African practices were well-suited to adaption to a trans-Atlantic slave trade. He is particularly convincing in his discussion of the ways in which property in people in the African context was roughly equivalent to property in land in the European context. By the same token, African states engaging in slave-raiding can be seen as conducting “wars of conquest” in much the same way European states sought to do through territorial aggrandizement (102). By demonstrating the embedded structures of slavery within African societies, Thornton offers a portrait of the slave trade that makes sense on African terms. He concludes that the rise of a massive trans-Atlantic trade in slaves owed at least as much to the internal dynamics of African societies as any external pressure from Europeans.

In the second part of the book Thornton follows Africans to the Americas and treats them as productive partners rather than passive victims in the formation of the economic, religious, and cultural landscape of the Western Hemisphere. The crucial economic role of African slaves in the American colonies is well known, the persistence of African religion and culture, less so. Thornton frames African religious adaptation not as a process of conversion to European religion but as the formation of a new African Christianity. He also challenges historiography that emphasizes the cultural breach that accompanied the process of enslavement and the subsequent dislocation that occurred in the unfamiliar Americas, arguing that African culture persisted to a greater degree than much of the scholarship has acknowledged. He convincingly shows that slave ship populations were frequently drawn from common cultural areas and usually disembarked in large groups. Thus the randomization and resulting cultural isolation that some scholars posited has been overstated. To the extent that it did occur, Thornton notes that ruptured social structures did not necessarily lead to drastic cultural loss, as the very ubiquity of slavery in Africa meant that Africans were accustomed to building ties around relationships other than kinship. He acknowledges that Africans underwent significant cultural change in the Americas but reframes it as a case of deliberate African adaptation rather than European imposition.

Thornton’s work raises powerful questions about the nature of victimhood and historical agency. As he vigorously debunks the status of Africans as mere objects to be acted upon in the Atlantic World, one might reasonably ask what is lost or gained in shedding old labels. One need not join Henry Louis Gates in extreme and anachronistic assertions about the slave trade as a “black on black holocaust” to recognize that trading victimization for agency carries with it complex historical and political implications, especially on a subject as fraught as the slave trade. In portraying Africans as full and willing participants in the creation of the Atlantic world, does Thornton appropriately contextualize a story of agency amid oppression? Or does he, at times, fall into downplaying external coercion in his zeal to establish agency? Readers may well disagree on these questions. On the one hand, his discussion of rape in the Americas takes a questionable turn when he describes females slaves using the “sexual game” (itself an odd phrase) to advance their interests. “No doubt many women did not welcome the sexual advances of their masters,” he acknowledges, but concludes: “On some occasions slaves appear to have been raped by their masters; in others it was apparently a voluntary participation” (181-82). In this instance, Thornton’s desire to emphasize the choices of enslaved African women leads him to submerge the oppressive context that rendered those choices less than free. On the other hand, the chapter on “Resistance, runaways, and rebels” in the Americas offers a delicately told narrative of agency amid oppression. If Thornton’s balance fails him one or twice, it is only a testament to the difficulty inherent in writing about individual human agency in a world defined by stark disparities of power.

Thornton necessarily makes use of many European, especially Portuguese and Spanish, sources. Yet his expertise on West Africa shines through, as he contextualizes the sources with demographic reconstructions, archaeology, and other sources that show the Europeans are often as revealing for what they got wrong as what they got right. Thornton carries on a robust conversation with various streams of historiography and does an excellent job bringing them in front of even the uninitiated reader. When introducing a new subject, he regularly poses a question and then briefly traces the historiography of the question, naming two or three historians whose work exemplifies the debate. As its status as a textbook has made clear, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World is clear, cogently argued, and a useful introductory text for undergraduate and graduate students. It should, however, be read as the incisive corrective that it is rather than a comprehensive perspective on Africans’ place in the Atlantic world.