JOHN THORNTON.Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800. 2d Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp. xxxvi, 340. $37.00.


Originally published in 1992, Africa and Africans was the second monograph written by the American historian, Africanist, and current professor at Boston University, John Thornton. Begun as a reference work for non-specialists in 1984, the text was intended to bring “Africa into the Braudelian scheme of Atlantic history,” and, in doing so, revise dated anthropologists like Melville Herskovits, Eurocentric scholars like Pierre Chaunu, and dependency theorists like Walter Rodney. The original work addressed “Atlantic Africa” between 1400 and 1680. Aside from a new chapter that carries this analysis through the eighteenth century, Thornton has left the second edition unchanged. It is my thesis that Africa and Africans is a path-breaking work of revisionist history, providing scholars with a conceptual manual for re-evaluating the role that African history played in the making of the early-modern world.

The text begins with five maps depicting West and Central African states, the distribution of Africans in the Americas before 1650, and African cultural groups. A following source section provides a breakdown of mini-states in Atlantic Africa, including a list of the contemporary writers who chronicled them. The remaining text is separated into two parts: one concentrating on Africans in the continent and another concentrating on Africans in the diaspora. Throughout these chapters, Thornton combines a close reading of the primary sources—from missionaries like the Jesuit Alonso de Sandoval to traders like the Dutch Pieter de Marees to overseers like the British Thomas Thistelwood—with a mastery of the secondary literature.

After recounting the cautious and risk-free manner in which medieval, European states endorsed the gradual exploration of the African coast, Thornton concludes “Europeans possessed no means, either economic or military, to compel African leaders to sell slaves.” European competition and rivalries, African naval and bureaucratic power, and environmental challenges all prevented European states from monopolizing the trade. Instead, Europeans engaged with Africa according to existing, widespread, and internal systems of commerce, slavery, and diplomacy; and, although banditry occurred alongside state disorganization, Europe did not engage with Africa on a raid-and-trade basis. Europeans had to pay taxes when they called at African ports, and they remained subject to African kings who could shut down their operations at any moment.

African participation in the slave trade was “voluntary and under the control of African decision makers.” Unlike Europeans, who based their production on concepts of land ownership, Africans based their production on a “corporatist social structure” in which slaves were the main form of wealth and the “functional equivalent of free tenants.” Moreover, the products Africa received were not necessary for development. Precolonial Africa practiced metallurgy equivalent to European manufacturers, and most imported goods were actually prestige items.

According to Thornton, Africa did not fall behind the Western world developmentally until the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. Also, contrary to the logic of the “gun-slave cycle” and the “fragmentation thesis,” advanced by dependency theorists like Joseph Inikori and Paul Lovejoy, European technology and political fragmentation were not nearly as decisive in the enslavement process as the mass mobilization of interior African armies, created for political reasons that were often directly unrelated to the coastal slave trades of Upper Guinea, Lower Guinea, and Central-West Africa.

Thornton spends the latter half of the book addressing African acculturation in the New World. Contrary to the thesis of “cultural disorganization,” Thornton argues that logistics caused Europeans to buy slaves in bulk from single Africa ports, and so randomization was not achieved until the auction block, and then only partially. Indeed, more Africans came to the New World before the nineteenth-century than any other group, and they did not come in a “cultural wilderness.” Their aesthetics survived the trauma of passage, and first-generation Africans contributed to the shaping of new, Afro-Atlantic cultures. Instead of nationhood, these cultures organized themselves along estate and family lines with influences from Christianity, Native American society, and European culture. Although colonial languages became their lingua francas, their organizations reflected the pre-enslavement status of Africans as officers, nobles, horsemen, farmers, and warriors.