The Zamani Reader

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


West African history

Lecture for HIS 115A (Week One) — An Introduction to West Africa and the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Dear readers,

This quarter I am posting lectures for my new class, “HIS 115A: West African History, the History and Memory of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.” This allows anyone who wants to follow along with the lecture component of the class to do easily. It is also helpful for me because it creates an online archive of my lecture materials that I can easily access from a computer without a USB or external hard-drive. The lecture posted below is my longest lecture of the course. It is my introductory lecture on Africa and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. It is meant to give students some basic facts, themes, and context concerning the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its history in Africa. The information is designed as a way to set students up for their research papers. Each student must write a research paper on a specific region of West Africa during the era of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and they must select their paper topics by the end of this week.  I gave this lecture to the class on Thursday, 10 January.  I have posted it below in two formats, with and without notes.

Thanks. Enjoy!

lecture 1 — introduction to the study of the tast in africa (r, 1-10)

lecture 1 — introduction to the study of the tast in africa (r, 1-10, with notes)

HIS 115A Starting Up This Week — Lecture Introducing Myself and the Class

Dear readers,

Winter Quarter at UC Davis begins next week! This means that I am starting to teach my new class, “HIS 115A: West African History, the History and Memory of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.” I have decided to post all of my PowerPoint presentations here on TZR for anyone who would like to follow along with the lecture component of the course. This is also helpful for me because it creates an online archive of my lecture materials that I can easily access from a computer without a USB or external hard-drive. I am giving the short lecture below at our first meeting on Tuesday, January 8. I wrote this lecture at the suggestion of my friend, who thought that it would be a good idea to devote some time on the first day to introducing myself to the students. This presentation is meant to give students some background on why I became interested in the history of Atlantic Africa, why I decided to design and teach this course on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and how my current research in the PhD program at UC Davis intersects with my pedagogy. I have posted the lecture in two formats, with and without my notes.

Thanks. Enjoy!

introducing myself and the class (1-8)

introducing myself and the class (with notes, 1-8)

Introducing “HIS 115A: West African History. The History and Memory of the Transatlantic Slave Trade”

Dear readers,

I am thrilled to announce that over the summer I was approved to teach my new course at UC Davis this coming Winter Quarter. The course is officially designated as “HIS 115A: West African History.” It is a special topics course about “The History and Memory of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.” I could not be more excited to teach this course. This was the class that I designed during Fall Quarter, 2017, to satisfy requirements for my minor field in the PhD program here at Davis. I have amended the syllabus a bit because the original design was for a semester-long course and Davis only teaches in quarters. However, as of yesterday, the syllabus for the course is complete. I am sure that I will be making changes over the next couple of months but, nonetheless, I wanted to share the syllabus with you today. I have attached it below in PDF, along with a separate “Lab Schedule.” This shows the primary sources that I am considering assigning for our weekly lab exercises. If you or anyone you know are a UC Davis student and might be interested in taking the course, please sign up! Or if you are a student of African History who wants to offer some advice or criticism, please do not hesitate to reach out. I am always looking for ways to improve my classes and give my students the best experience possible. Finally, I have also used a copy of the course flier as the image for this post. I hope you like it. Enjoy!

HIS 115A Syllabus

HIS 115A Lab Schedule

HIS 115A Flier

Case Studies of West African History in the Eighteenth Century — The Slave Coast

ROBIN LAW. First half of Ouidah: The Social History of a West African Slaving ‘Port,’ 1727-1892. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004. The first half covers the eighteenth century, 1-154.

SILKE STRICKRODT. “In Search of a Moral Community: Little Popo and the Atlantic Trade in the Mid-Eighteenth Century,” Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana, New Series, No. 14 (2012): 105-130.


The readings for this week are the third in a series of four case studies about specific regions of West Africa in the eighteenth century. This third case study is on the “Slave Coast,” an area on the Gulf of Guinea that stretched from the River Volta in the west to the Lagos Channel in the east. This area comprised small portions of western Ghana and eastern Nigeria as well as all of modern-day Togo and Benin. The region is often known to historians as the Bight or Gulf of Benin, though sometimes the Slave Coast is described as the Bight’s western half. During the eighteenth century, the Slave Coast hosted a variety of European traders at its many coastal ports, like Jakin or Badagry in the east and Keta in the west. Danish, Dutch, English, French, and Portuguese traders all conducted business here with private individuals and representatives of African kingdoms like Dahomey and Little Popo. The readings assigned for this week are both secondary sources. They discuss two different parts of the coast. One is the first half of Robin Law’s monograph Ouidah: The Social History of a West African Slaving ‘Port.’ This half surveys the eighteenth-century history of Ouidah, a city near the shore of present-day Benin.[1] The other is an article on African-European trade relations at the port of Little Popo, which is today the town of Aného in the nation of Togo.

Silke Strickrodt’s “In Search of a Moral Community”

In his article, “In Search of a Moral Community,” historian Silke Strickrodt examines trading relations between European and African merchants at the port of Little Popo, which is situated on the Western Slave Coast in what is now the nation of Togo. Strickrodt examines these relations during the reign of Ashampo, who ruled the Ge Kingdom of Little Popo between the years of 1737 and 1767. Strickrodt approaches her subject by using the concept of the “moral community,” which she basically defines as a mutual, cross-cultural system of values that serves to stabilize commerce. In the “moral community,” traders establish a shared system of values, generally around a common binding principle like ethnicity, religion, or political allegiance. This system of values gives traders confidence that their contracts will be honored or guaranteed by the opposing party. It also creates a situation where traders are comfortable taking risks, like extending credit or opening permanent centers (known as “lodges” on the Western Slave Coast).[2] Alternatively, a “moral community” can be established by the presence of a strong and reliable intermediary, such as a centralized state. As Strickrodt explains, this was the case with other areas of West Africa. A notable example is further to the east, where the Kingdoms of Dahomey, Oyo, and eventually Bonny operated.[3]

But Strickrodt argues that Little Popo is a peculiar trading center. She concludes that, even though “there was no effective ‘moral community’ between African and European traders at Little Popo in the period of Ashampo’s reign,” European merchants continued to do business there.[4] Her main research question is, then, how can historians explain the continuance of trade at Little Popo despite the absence of traditional mechanisms for ensuring trust among trading partners? As a king, Ashampo neither guaranteed the sanctity of contract nor cultivated an environment of trust; rather, he engaged in a short-term strategy of ripping-off European traders, playing them off one another, and otherwise deceiving them. Meanwhile, the particular geographic makeup of the Western Slave Coast meant that European traders needed to come on shore to do business. As a result, they were ever at the mercy of the African traders with whom they negotiated. They were periodically taken captive, robbed, killed, or swindled. Nonetheless, Strickrodt argues that European traders continued to do business at Little Popo because it presented a “high-risk – high-reward environment” in an era of heightened demand for slaves, increasing competition among European powers, and new demand for alternative sources of procuring slaves. Despite the myriad difficulties posed by Little Popo, Europeans could occasionally depend on Ashampo for a quick boatload of slaves.[5] Continue reading “Case Studies of West African History in the Eighteenth Century — The Slave Coast”

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.


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”

Surveys of West African History in the Eighteenth Century — A Classic Work by Philip D. Curtin

PHILIP D. CURTIN. The Image of Africa: British Ideas and Action, 1780-1850, Vol. I. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1964.[1]


The primary reading for this week is The Image of Africa. It is a classic study by the historian Philip D. Curtin about British ideas and action related to West Africa from 1780 to 1850. This is also the first in a series of two weeks that will focus on British perceptions of Africa in the early-modern era. Published in 1964, The Image of Africa belongs to a generation of works that emerged during the professionalization of African History in the 1950s and early 1960s. As David William Cohen, Stephan Miescher, and Luise White explain in the introduction to their 2001 edited volume, African Words, African Voices, the field of African History had its precedents, however, it emerged as an academic discipline “after the Second World War, when Europeans and Africans were awakening to nationalist rhetoric from many arenas across the continent and the world.”[2] It was in this era of African decolonization, when a host of new researchers were starting to study contemporary African cultures, that Curtin turned his attention to the years before 1850. What he discovered was a relative Golden Age of interest in African societies on par with his present generation. “Relative to their knowledge of the world in general,” Curtin explains, “eighteenth-century Europeans knew more and cared more about Africa than they did at any later period up to the 1950s.”[3] Building off of this initial observation, The Image of Africa seeks not only to explain Britain’s remarkable interest in Africa before 1800, but also to trace its hardening and decline by the 1850s.

Before I discuss some of the ways that The Image of Africa contributes to eighteenth-century African History, it would be helpful to outline both the scope and the thesis of the book. Curtin breaks The Image of Africa into three distinctive parts that correspond to major developments in Britain’s ideas about the continent. The first part focuses on British views of Africa and Africans in the eighteenth century, and it is entitled “The ‘New World’ of Eighteenth Century Africa.”[4] The second part is entitled “The Age of Exploration and Disappointment,” and it covers the years between 1795 and 1830.[5] Finally, the third part is entitled “The Age of Humanitarianism.” It stretches from about 1830 to 1850.[6] Afterward, in a two-page postscript, Curtin shares his conclusions about “the most striking aspect of the British image of Africa in the early nineteenth century.”[7] He argues that detachment from “African reality, as we now understand it” is the common denominator that underlies all British ideas about Africa during the period of this study. Whether approaching Africa through a discourse of “medicine, race, history, or political and economic development,” European authors manufactured the image of Africa from within a European worldview and largely “to suit European needs.” By the 1850s, this image had hardened into a series of racial and cultural stereotypes. This stagnation was the defining feature of Britain’s attitude toward Africa during the age of imperialism and the colonial era, until it began to change once again in the 1950s.[8] Continue reading “Surveys of West African History in the Eighteenth Century — A Classic Work by Philip D. Curtin”

Oral Sources on West African History in the Eighteenth Century — Case Study from the Kingdom of Dahomey in Benin

JAN VANSINA. Oral Tradition as History. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

MELVILLE J. & FRANCES S. HERSKOVITS. Selections from Part II of Dahomean Narrative: A Cross-Cultural Analysis. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1958. Part II is called “The Narratives,” 124-324.


This review paper is the second part of a two-part series on non-textual sources for studying West African history in the eighteenth century. It is based on a reading of selected narratives from the anthropologists Melville and Francis Herskovits’ 1958 work, Dahomean Narrative, with a bit of comparison to the revised version of the anthropologist Jan Vansina’s Oral Tradition as History. I would like to begin by using Vansina’s work to define what “oral tradition” means in comparison to “oral history.” Oral tradition is defined simply as “reported statements from the past beyond the present generation.”[1] Put a bit differently, the “truly distinctive characteristic of oral tradition is its transmission by word of mouth over a period longer than the contemporary generation.”[2] While oral histories typically pertain to events that took place during the life of the person who is being interviewed, oral traditions extend beyond the lifespan of a single individual; instead, they represent the preserved beliefs of a particular culture, people, or society. Vansina devoted much of his career to the systematic study of oral traditions in African History. He first published Oral Traditions as History in 1959 and then updated the text in 1985. He wrote this guide to introduce historians “to the usual set of rules of historical evidence as they apply to oral traditions.”[3]

Oral Traditions as History is a taxonomic guide for beginners who are looking to use oral traditions as primary sources in their research. Vansina breaks oral traditions down into a series of categories, each with its own set of general rules and principles. There are so many different genres and forms, including epics, tales, proverbs, riddles, myths, testimonies, reminiscences, songs, poetry, genealogies, historical gossip, commentaries, verbal art, and more. While some oral traditions are intended to deliver news, others are intended to be more interpretative; and while some traditions are casual and improvisational, others are solemn and relatively unchanging. Historians must be aware that many traditions vary with the performance and performer. Most of them are culture-bound, fluid, and have undergone both conscious and unconscious alterations.[4] Furthermore, when an historian engages with a particular oral tradition, they must learn to account for the present and the past. As Vansina says, every oral tradition is “the creation of a profile of past history which is the historical consciousness of the present.”[5] Despite these obstacles and quite a few more, Vansina argues that oral traditions are an essential primary source for the study of African history. “Without oral traditions,” he concludes, “we would know very little about the past of large parts of the world, and we would not know them from the inside.”[6] It is with this idea in mind that we turn our attention to the case study from this week’s reading: Dahomean Narrative by the Herskovits’.[7] Continue reading “Oral Sources on West African History in the Eighteenth Century — Case Study from the Kingdom of Dahomey in Benin”

Review of History of the Upper Guinea Coast by Walter Rodney

WALTER RODNEY. History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800 (Oxford Studies in African Affairs)New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. Pp. ix, 283. $7.00.

History of the Upper Guinea Coast is the refurbished dissertation of the late Guyanese historian and political activist, Walter Rodney. Originally written in 1966 for a PhD in African History at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, the text is a chronological/conceptual history of a section of the West African coast (between the Gambia and Cape Mount) from its first contact with Hispano-Portuguese sailors in the mid-fifteenth century until approximately 1800. Continue reading “Review of History of the Upper Guinea Coast by Walter Rodney”

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