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The Zamani Reader

On West Africa, Britain, and the West Indies in the Eighteenth Century

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Michael Gomez

Case Studies of West African History in the Eighteenth Century — The Senegambia Region

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.

Introduction

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] Continue reading “Case Studies of West African History in the Eighteenth Century — The Senegambia Region”

All Creole Cultures: Identity, Community, and the Limits of Talking About African “Ethnicities” in the Early Americas

In taking their cues from the extant primary-source materials, scholars have written about African “ethnic” communities in the colonial Americas since almost the moment that they began writing about the transatlantic slave trade and its origins. Researchers today are occasionally surprised to discover that even scholars of the Jim Crow-era, such as Ulrich B. Phillips, wrote about these various “ethnic” groups in the Americas. As early as 1918, Phillips gestured to a theory of ethnogenesis—the idea that distinct African identities underwent a collective transformation on American plantations. “Ceasing to be Foulah, Coromantee, Ebo or Angola, ” Phillips wrote, African people in the diaspora became “instead the American negro.” This statement was one of the earliest expressions of what the historian Michael Gomez has more-recently called the “process whereby Africans [in the Americas] moved along a continuum from ethnicity to race.”[1]

The discussion around African “ethnicities” has a long history in the literature of American slavery. Nonetheless, as a scholarly conversation, it has received an unprecedented amount of attention over just the past quarter century. Case studies by authors like David Littlefield and David Wheat (Rice and Slaves, Atlantic Africa and the Spanish Caribbean), surveys by authors like Michael Gomez and Gwendolyn Midlo Hall (Exchanging Our Country Marks, Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas), and compilations by editors like Paul Lovejoy and David Trotman (Trans-Atlantic Dimension of Ethnicity in the African Diaspora) have all contributed to a renewed interest in studying African diasporic identities through the framework of “ethnicity.” For many of these historians, “ethnicity” serves the simple function of moving our dialogue beyond homogenous portrayals of African peoples in the diaspora. “Ethnicity” helps scholars avoid speaking in the analytically flat categories of “African,” “Black,” or “Negro.” In this sense, the conversation is both well-intentioned and necessary. However, in another sense, the language of “ethnicity” brings with it a series of assumptions that threaten to limit our ability to understand African identities. I address a couple of those limitations in this essay. In doing so, I argue that that framework of “ethnicity” is useful, provided scholars localize their studies, interrogate their sources, and emphasize the inherently creole, dynamic, fluid nature of all diasporic groups.[2] Continue reading “All Creole Cultures: Identity, Community, and the Limits of Talking About African “Ethnicities” in the Early Americas”

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