BOUBACAR BARRY. Part II of Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Part II is called “Senegambia in the Eighteenth Century: the Slave Trade, Ceddo Regimes, and Muslim Revolutions,” 55-126.

MICHAEL GOMEZ. “Bundu in the Eighteenth Century,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1 (1987): 61-73.


The readings for this week are the first in a series of four case studies about specific regions of West Africa in the eighteenth century. The first case study is on Senegambia, an area that encompasses parts of the present-day nations of Mauritania, Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. Historically, the Senegambian area is somewhat ambiguous. Some historians refer to the area between the Senegal and Gambia Rivers as Senegambia, while others make a distinction between this area, which they call northern Senegambia, and the region south of the Gambia River, which they variously define as southern Senegambia, the “Southern Rivers,” or the “Rivers of Guinea” and Sierra Leone.[1] Occasionally, scholars refer to the entire region as the “Upper Guinea Coast.” Other times, they deploy that term more exclusively for southern Senegambia.[2] The readings assigned for this week are secondary sources. One is an excerpt about the eighteenth century from the historian Boubacar Barry’s survey Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade, and the other is an article written by the historian Michael Gomez about the polity of Bundu in northern Senegambia. I will briefly discuss Gomez’s piece before proceeding to Barry’s.

Michael Gomez’ “Bundu in the Eighteenth Century”

In “Bundu in the Eighteenth Century,” the historian Michael Gomez traces the history of a single polity in the Senegambia region from roughly 1698 to 1790. This polity is Bundu. According to oral tradition, it was founded by a Torodbe cleric named Malik Sy in 1698, and it was ruled by his descendants, called the Sissibe, until it was dismantled by the French in 1905.[3] Gomez argues that the eighteenth century was a crucial era of Bundu’s development, “for it was during this period that Bundu emerged from an obscure grouping of villages [scattered in the upper Senegal valley] into a sovereign government of some significance.”[4] Gomez narrates the history of Bundu largely through the reigns of its various leaders (known as elimans and later almaamis), with the objective of establishing a more-reliable chronology for Bundu’s evolution. He concludes that the watershed administration is that of the expansionist  Maka Jiba, a grandson of the kingdom’s founder. “It was under Maka Jiba,” Gomez observes, “that the commercial nature of Bundu was established, as well as the military tradition necessary to maintain and expand control of trade.”[5] Equally important to understanding Bundu’s eighteenth-century history is the over two-decade reign of Amadi Gai, one of Maka Jiba’s sons. Amadi Gai presided over an Islamic reform movement in Bundu after facing external pressure from the centralized Islamic states of Futa Jallon and Futa Toro.[6]

Gomez draws several broad conclusions from his research into Bundu that are worth noting in a discussion of the Senegambia region. First, Gomez proclaims that “the attempt to control trade of the upper Senegal valley became the chief concern of every government in the region” throughout the eighteenth century.[7] In practice, this belief means that Senegambian trade routes lay at the center of the region’s history. One cannot engage with Bundu’s history without accounting for the history of various other polities and peoples. These include the English and French presences upon the Gambia and Senegal Rivers, the presence of raiding Moroccan and Mauritian armies, the Malinke villages along the Falémé River, the interior towns of Bambuk, the neighboring communities in Galaam, and the centralized and powerful states of Futa Jallon and Futa Toro. As Gomez demonstrates, for example, Bundu’s political and military exploits are intimately connected to these latter states through ancestral lineages. These states had the ability to sway the outcome of military conquest in Bundu through their leaders’ decisions to sanction or withhold support. Likewise, Gomez’ thesis about trade leads him to imply an argument about the nature of conquest in the Senegambian region. Though religion played a crucial role in Bundu’s eighteenth-century development, historians should not be so eager to label regional wars as jihad. A closer look at the campaigns of Maka Jiba, for instance, reveal that “economic considerations outweighed religious affinity.”[8]

Boubacar Barrry’s Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade

In Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade, Boubacar Barry also demonstrates the interconnected nature of the Senegambian region. He conceptualizes the region’s history by employing a concept that he calls the “Atlantic trading system.”[9] Throughout the eighteenth-century, this system referred explicitly to Europe’s dominance of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. From this perspective, Barry’s portrait of the Senegambia writ large is much different than the more-intimate picture that Gomez has given us of Bundu. While Gomez was interested in explaining the development of a single African polity from the reference point of its own internal political history, Barry is interested in explaining the developments of the greater Senegambia in reference to its dependency on an all-encompassing Atlantic economy. For Barry, the Atlantic slave trade subordinated the entire Senegambia region to European dominance, ushering in a period of widespread violence that was increasingly facilitated by classist states devoted to inequality for non-Muslims. In his own words, Barry says the violence that was brought into being through the Atlantic slaving networks “became self-perpetuating in an infernal spiral of civil strife and inter-state wars that wasted the country and brought profits to European markets along the Senegambian coast.”[10] Put simply, Barry’s characterization of Senegambian history during the eighteenth-century is extremely grim.

Before we critique Barry’s characterization of Senegambian history, we should discuss the scope of his part about the eighteenth century. Barry breaks this part up into four distinct chapters. The first is called “The Slave Trade in the Eighteenth Century.”[11] While this chapter outlines some of the social dynamics of Atlantic slaving communities in the Senegambia, Barry devotes most of his time to making the argument that Atlantic historians have both underappreciated and misrepresented the devastation the trade caused in the region. Barry takes a particular issue with the work of Philip Curtin who set down estimates for regional slave exports in his work entitled The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census.[12] In the course of a rather scathing critique that pervades the entire chapter, Barry argues that Curtin’s numbers run the “risk of becoming exercises in absurdity.”[13] They “cannot,” he proclaims, “contribute in any serious sense to the evaluation of the population drain caused by the slave trade.”[14] Furthermore, Barry argues that Curtin “misses entirely” the fact that influential Moorish kingdoms north of the Senegal River, particularly the emirates of Brakna and Trarza and the Sultanate of Morocco, were deeply integrated with the Atlantic trading system throughout the eighteenth century.[15] This being the case, Barry interprets Curtin’s choice to separate the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade statistics from the Transatlantic Slave Trade statistics as evidence that Curtin is “predisposed to minimize the importance of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.”[16]

Barry’s first chapter on Senegambian history in the eighteenth-century makes the argument that “Senegambia’s economy was now entirely under European control.”[17] A such, violence henceforth “became the dominant motive force” of Senegambian history.[18] Barry will explore Senegambian history through various themes in his remaining three chapters on the eighteenth-century, but the Transatlantic Slave Trade will loom like a specter over it all. In the second chapter, called “The Strengthening of Ceddo Regimes in the Eighteenth-Century,” Barry shows how the “Atlantic trading system” encouraged the rise of secular warlords who shared a common, class-based investment in the Atlantic slave trade with the European and the Afro-European factors.[19] These monarchies—called ceddo regimes—were autocratic states built through standing armies of royal slaves. Rulers armed these slaves with firearms imported from Europe and sold by the coastal traders. These guns turned the armies into “deadly instruments of centralized authority.”[20] In particular, Barry focuses on two warlords. The first is Lat Sukaabe Faal of Kajoor in the Wolof Kingdoms, while the second is Samba Gelaajo Jeegi of Futa Toro of the Denyake dynasty. These warlords ordered their armies to terrorize the Senegambia hinterland through large-scale man-hunting operations.

But Barry does not forget about the involvement of European traders during the slave raids conducted by the ceddo regimes. Rather, Barry demonstrates how commandments often exploited the situation by giving guns to rival African states with the hope they would inflate the slave market and refrain from collaborating with one another.[21] Throughout Barry’s part on the eighteenth-century, the British Governor Charles O’Hara makes frequent appearances. In one example, he funnels weapons to Moorish Orman slavers in 1775 so that they can reduce “the entire Senegal valley to a killing field.” As Barry says, O’Hara does this so that he can “drain the maximum number of slaves from the region to his own plantations in the Caribbean islands.”[22] O’Hara’s actions encapsulate Barry’s view that European ambitions and the demands of the Transatlantic Slave Trade are generally at the core of all violence in eighteenth-century Senegambia. In helping Trarza Moors inflict violence upon sedentary Waalo communities, O’Hara cares not that he is sparking a regional civil war. Rather, he cares only about stirring up greater business for Atlantic market. In his concluding thoughts on the ceddo regimes, Barry laments that epic oral traditions are remembered today without any awareness of the fact that they testify to a legacy of slave-trade oppression. [23]

In chapter three, entitled “Muslim Revolutions in the Eighteenth Century,” Barry traces the history of what he names “the marabout movement.” He argues that a rising class of Muslim religious scholars, known as marabouts, began to challenge the authority of the ceddo regimes during the eighteenth-century. Bolstered by the popular support they received from peasant communities who turned increasingly to Islam as a refuge against violence, the marabouts waged a revolutionary struggle against the warlords. They cultivated “underground Islamic movements opposed to ceddo regimes and the disastrous slave trade throughout Senegambia.” [24] Their movements brought about a new era of theocratic states. Prominent among these was Bundu led by Malik Sy, Futa Jallon led by Karamoko Alfa, and Futa Toro led by Suleyman Bal. The rise of these states drastically transformed Senegambia so that its history would thereafter be shaped by struggles between the secular ceddo regimes and the Muslim theocratic states. [25] During the initial phase of the Muslim revolutions, Barry depicts the marabouts as heroes who used the true meaning of jihad to reject the vision of class-based inequality that defined all of Senegambia under the Atlantic slave system. Nonetheless, Barry shows how this heroism faded after the first generation. The Muslim scholars are succeeded by members of a warrior aristocracy. They appropriate the term jihad in order to maintain their authority and to expand their wealth.[26] This second generation proves that “Islam was simply another opportune ideology” to “consolidate the power of the incumbent aristocracy.”[27]

In the fourth and final chapter, called “The Impact of the Slave Trade: Economic Regression and Social Strife,” Barry takes a broader look at some of the ways the Atlantic trading system affected Senegambian history. In particular, he discusses three different subjects. The first is how the slave trade—as “the root cause” of Senegambia’s violence—exacerbated the damage of natural disasters, warfare, and famine. The second is on “slaveholding relationships in Senegambian society.” In this section Barry argues that, even though slavery is an ancient institution in Senegambia, the Atlantic slave trade “intensified slave-master relationships in all areas of Senegambian life.”[28] It created a system whereby the development of local societies stalled because Africans who would otherwise be producing food were destined to serve the slave trade. They served the slave trade in one of two ways, as export commodities to the New World or as domestic labor reserves for trading communities. Barry highlights the oppression of this domestic system by drawing our attention to slaves rebellions that occurred in prison-villages known as runde.[29] Also in this third section, Barry discusses the effects of the Atlantic slave trade through the Senegambian diaspora. He focuses on two individuals, Ayuba Suleiman Diallo and Abdul-Rahman ibn Ibrahima Sori, who both returned to Senegambia after being captured and taken to North America on the Middle Passage.[30]

Takeaways and Critiques from Boubacar Barry’s Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade

Barry’s work on Senegambia during the eighteenth-century offers many takeaways for historians of Atlantic Africa. First, Barry demonstrates the centrality of slavery as a social and political institution. Whether we are talking about slaves serving in the royal families of ceddo regimes in the north, or slaves serving as sustenance farmers in runde settlements in the south, Barry makes is clear that “the entire society was intimately involved in the slaveholding system.”[31] One of his achievements is the way that he expands our knowledge of the Transatlantic Slave Trade’s effects. Understanding the trade is not just about those slaves who experienced the Middle Passage. Rather,  it is equally about those slaves who remained on the continent, as well as those free persons whose options during times of hardship were structured by the institution of slavery. In times of severity, selling yourself or your children as slaves was one of the few survival mechanisms that Senegambian people had. And yet, since slavery in the region developed over time, one may not understand the system of slavery they are entering. Without undermining “the hell of the New World plantations,” Barry acknowledges that domestic slavery became increasingly brutal. Captive slaves from outside an African community and non-Muslim slaves were often treated like chattel.[32]

Another strength of Barry’s work is the way that he shows the transformative effects of the slave trade through the social worlds that it creates in various regions. In the north, commerce was more-often dominated by the French and the British via chartered companies. These were empowered by state monopolies and based out of permanent forts like Saint-Louis, Gorée, and Fort Saint James. Further to the north, European competition was also shaped by the gum trade and the Moorish emirates on the coast of Mauritania. In the South, by contrast, the climate was less healthy and there were no permanent factories.[33] This situation led to the dominance of a “powerful class” of maverick European and Euro-African traders. These traders secured footholds in local communities through strategic marriage alliances, and they generally worked out of informal posts at places like Rio Cacheu, Bissau, and Bance Island. Many of them were mixed-race traders with Portuguese heritage, known as lancados and tangomaos. Meanwhile, within the northern factories, the wealthy wives of white European company officials, called signares, also came to hold predominant influence over coteries of private castle slaves that were called grumetes or laptots. These are just some of the many ways that Barry shows us how the world created by the Atlantic trading system meant the birth of new social relationships in addition to new economic and political hierarchies.

In his argument about how the predatory nature of European commerce creates aristocracies in Africa, Barry’s Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade is strikingly similar to work produced a generation ago by the Marxist historian Walter Rodney.[34] Perhaps the most famous example of this tradition is Rodney’s controversial 1973 text How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, even though Barry does not cite this work.[35] Instead, Barry cites Rodney’s revised dissertation, History of the Upper Guinea Coast. As with Barry in Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade, Rodney argued in his study that Senegambian societies were radically reorganized by the transatlantic slave trade so they were little more than outposts of a foreign capitalist system. For his evidence, Rodney discussed how African measurements, like the “country bars” used to pay taxes to African royalty, became instruments of European market economies. He described how local palaver customs were restructured  to support slavery and how secret societies, like the Poro, became dominated by chiefs that supported the slave trade. He also wrote about the brutal administration of the domestic slave towns and how emerging states leveraged Islam as a justification for enslaving infidels. Most importantly, like Barry, Rodney saw the 1700s as the turning point in which Senegambian authorities went from being equal partners in the transatlantic slave trade to being dependent actors.

That being said, Barry’s Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade provides an explanation of Senegambian history that is just a bit too neat. His idea of Senegambian history traces everything horrible back to the same origin: European commerce. Everything from locust swarms to warlords are either caused or exacerbated by the existence of the Atlantic trading system. Occasionally, this influence is argued on the basis of European interest alone. Consider the following quotation: “Because European traders were less interested in such products as gold, ivory and hides than in slaves, the predominance of the slave trade became a permanent feature of life in the eighteenth century.”[36] This quote suggests that European traders needed only to exist and articulate their interest in slaves to elevate that institution to its dominating place in Senegambian history. Later, it feels a bit convenient when Barry ends his section on the eighteenth century by nodding to Eric Williams’ thesis about the end of the Atlantic slave trade and the beginnings of industrialism.[37] After claiming that European commerce based in transatlantic slavery had essentially destroyed Senegambian society, Barry makes the transition to the nineteenth-century by proclaiming that the end of that very system was equally detrimental to Senegambia’s history. While this may in fact be true, one wonders how to balance Barry’s constant focus on European predation and dependency with other scholarship—like Gomez’ article—that emphasizes the historical agency of African polities.

At times, Barry’s passion for his thesis about the harmful effects of the Atlantic slave economy comes off as detracting from, rather than supporting, his work. In specific, Barry’s eagerness to discredit Curtin’s quantifiable data comes off as strange, especially since most of Barry’s argument ends up being about what the slave trade does to Senegambian internally. On a similar note, Barry devotes more space to discrediting Curtin’s numbers than to presenting a consistent case for his own. At one point, he states that perhaps as many as 500,000 Senegambian slaves were shipped into the Middle Passage.[38] At two other points he says maybe 6,000 or 8,000 each year.[39] At times, Barry’s emphasis on European commerce as the “root cause” of all violence in Senegambia comes off more like an organizing principle for the book than a solid argument. It allows Barry to position the “disastrous consequences of the slave trade” as “a background” upon which he can explore the struggles between various African agents, like warlords and marabouts.[40] With this formula, Barry can narrate the political violence of African societies without being accused of blaming them. The downside of this formula, perhaps, is its tendency toward paternalism. Barry runs the risk of readers coming away believing that Senegambians did not understand the power dynamics at play.

I want to end this review on a positive note. Despite heavy-handed indictments of European commerce, Barry’s work feels both the most honest and engaging when the European presence is marginal or absent. One of Barry’s most powerful insights comes when he describes the rise of the marabout movement and its subsequent takeover in Futa Jallon. Like Gomez, Barry articulates this movement as an Islamic cultural triumph[41] The new Muslim leadership constructed mosques, forts, schools, and courts. They expanded literacy, and they translated sacred texts like the Sharia laws and the Koran from Arabic into indigenous languages like Peul. States such as Futa Toro and Futa Jallon even outlawed the enslavement of Muslims. However, Barry draws our attention to contradictions inherent in this reform movement. “There is no doubt,” he concludes, “that the practice of domestic slavery was the root cause of cultural revolution in Futa Jallon.”[42] The emerging marabout leaders only had the leisure to devote themselves to studying Arabic texts and reforming their society because their enslavement of non-Muslims freed them from “the constraints of farm labor.” In the end, perhaps these unfree origins of Islamic high culture in Futa Jallon do the most to forward Barry’s argument about aristocratic class consciousness with Europeans. After all, the historian Edmund Morgan argued much the same thing about Virginia colonist in 1975.[43]


[1] Boubacar Barry, Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 65.

[2] For a couple of historical works on Senegambia or Atlantic Africa that make use of these various designations, see Walter Rodney, History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970); John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); and Toby Green, The Rise of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in Western Africa, 1300-1589 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 111.

[3] This article was developed out of Gomez’ dissertation on Malik Sy. See Michael Angelo Gomez, “Malik Sy, Bokar Saada, and the Almaamate of Bundu” (PhD Dissertation, The University of Chicago, 1985).

[4] Michael Gomez, “Bundu in the Eighteenth Century,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1 (1987): 61.

[5] Ibid. 70.

[6] Ibid. 72-73.

[7] Ibid. 73.

[8] Ibid. 70-71.

[9] Boubacar Barry, Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade, xv.

[10] Ibid. 73, 81.

[11] Ibid. 61-80.

[12] Philip D. Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1969).

[13] Barry, Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade, 61.

[14] Ibid. 63.

[15] Ibid. 68

[16] Ibid. 67. Historians other than Barry have since acknowledged that Curtin’s export numbers for Senegambia were much too low. For an example, see Green, The Rise of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in Western Africa, 7. Green cites the work of both Joseph Inikori and Boubacar Barry in his recognition of Curtin’s numbers as understating the truth. See n. 27.

[17] Ibid. 73

[18] Ibid. 80.

[19] Ibid. 85.

[20] Ibid. 81.

[21] Ibid. 85.

[22] Ibid. 87.

[23] Ibid. 90.

[24] Ibid. 94.

[25] Ibid. 94.

[26] Ibid. 105-106.

[27] Ibid. 98.

[28] Ibid. 113.

[29] Ibid. 108.

[30] Curiously, Barry writes off the fact that Suleiman Diallo was a slave trader throughout his life by saying “The slave trade was the foundation on which all business affairs rested,” 124. One does not get the sense that Barry would excuse European slave traders so easily. Also, Barry does not make note of the fact that his second figure from the Senegambia diaspora, Ibrahima, was a slave driver/overseer in North America. Gomez also writes on the Muslim-African diaspora in the Americas. See Michael Gomez, “Prayin’ on duh Bead: Islam in Early America,” in Exchanging Our Country Marks: the Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 59-87.

[31] Ibid. 118.

[32] Ibid. 115.

[33] Ibid. 76.

[34] Barry’s ideas are also similar to the work of the historians Joseph Inikori and Paul Lovejoy, particularly their idea of the “gun-slave cycle.” Barry appears to cite Lovejoy but not Inikori. See Joseph Inikori, Forced Migration: The Impact of the Export Slave Trade on African Societies (London: Hutchinson, 1982), and also Inikori, “The Import of Firearms into West Africa 1750-1807: A Quantitative Analysis,” Journal of African History 18 (1977): 339-368. Paul E. Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

[35] Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (London: Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, 1972). Note that Barry does not cite this particular text in his Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade.

[36] Barry, Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade, 99.

[37] Ibid. 125. See Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944).

[38] With this number, Barry is concurring with earlier work by Charles Becker. See page 63.

[39] Barry, Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade, 63, 65, 72.

[40] Ibid. 59.

[41] Michael Gomez, “Bundu in the Eighteenth Century,” 71-72. Barry, Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade, 101.

[42] Ibid. 101.

[43] I am referencing Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1975).