Customer Reviews: Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800 (Studies in Comparative World History)
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on August 30, 2005
Issues of race have become central to American historiography in the past generation or so, and no modern historian of the American colonial era (or any other era afterwards, for that matter) can justifiably ignore its impact. Yet despite this, it is astonishing how little of the African political, social and cultural origins of New World slave populations is brought to bear on analyses of the Atlantic world. This relatively slim yet dazzlingly efficient book amply redresses this blind spot. In addition, the passivity customarily attributed to Africans is swept aside and replaced with a much more realistic and complex agency asserted on both sides of the Atlantic. It is truly astounding how much Thornton is able to cover in such detail within a mere 334 pages that include a rather general and theoretical introduction to Atlantic historiography with its roots in Fernand Braudel's pioneering "Annaliste" school of regional history, and an initial chapter on the birth of the modern Atlantic world as a whole (albeit with a recurrent focus on Africa's role).

Aside from this initial placesetting, the book is divided into two parts--"Africans in Africa", and "Africans in the New World". In the first section, Thornton skillfully explores the impact of European-dominated Atlantic trade on west African societies and economies, deftly dissolving common myths as well as disassembling the more carefully constructed theories and assertions of several generations of earnest historians. For instance, Thornton solidly establishes that west African societies were not dependent on European textiles, iron or firearms, that the slave trade existed almost entirely at the behest of local elites, and that simple formulae of "guns for slaves" or economic imperialism do not adequately describe or explain what was going on. He also delineates the fundamental differences in what constituted "wealth" in Africa (people) and Europe (land, and later, capital), and one is struck at how these complementary conceptions so smoothly dovetailed to give birth to one of the most heinous and durable streams of atrocities humanity has ever generated. Those eager to assign culpability to one or another long-dead group will be frustrated, however--Thornton refrains from projecting our current attitudes, struggles and judgements onto their worlds, as any good historian should, even as he unflinchingly reconstructs the horrors endured by those who embarked on the "Middle Passage". This excellent study is neither apology nor indictment, neither accusation nor excuse.

The second part focuses on the New World, surveying the lives of Africans--free, slave and maroon--in areas ranging from Brazil and Colombia, to the Caribbean and North America. Unfortunately, this section is fashioned as a refutation of scholars who assert, for a variety of reasons, that Africans were unable to successfully transfer, preserve and adapt African culture to the New World. For those (like me) who are already inclined to believe that Africans could and indeed did manage to do just that, many of Thornton's conclusions will be an unnecessary preaching to the choir. However, the theme nonetheless provides a decent scaffolding on which to present Thornton's wealth of knowledge concerning west African cultural groups, African military practices, the social evolution of slave communities and runaway societies, and, in particular, African religion and religious syntheses. In addition, he masterfully reconstructs the details of creolization, and delivers tantalizing glimpses into the complex interactions between Africans and Native American societies alongside their deeper and richer exchanges with Europeans.

At the risk of repeating myself, I have to say that when I was finished with this book, I was amazed at how much I had learned--I rarely find this much crystal clear information, insight and analysis in books three times its size.
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on August 24, 2002
This work serves as an excellent prelude to Hugh Thomas' SLAVE TRADE: The Atlantic Slave Trade from 1440..., Ira Berlin's MANY THOUSANDS GONE, and Price, et al.'s MAROON SOCIETIES since it touches on many issues developed in those works. In addition, it looks at how African culture influenced and encouraged the slave trade.
Starting with a consideration of African concepts of property (i.e., only personalty and chattel could be considered property by individuals since all realty was under collective ownership and could only temporarily be alienated), Thornton builds on how chattel property, notably slaves, were the basis for individual wealth in West Africa prior to the arrival of Europeans. Next, he considers how this caused the numerous wars and raids that continued to take place throughout West Africa.
He also looks at whether (and to what extent) supposed European superiority encouraged the slave trade - or at least made it a more violent and dehumanizing practice. Europeans governments were kept out of Africa and had to largely rely on factors or intermediaries for trade - with the exception of the Luso-Africans in Angola. Europeans traders had to submit tariffs and bribes to the local rulers and nobility, as well as meet the rulers' quotas at inflated prices.
As to economic pressure for trade, Thornton notes that there were no essential goods which the West sold to these leaders that could not have been otherwise attained in Africa. In addition, iron and horses could be bought from the Arabs and were also produced and bred in West Africa. The sale of Arms, especially, the early matchlocks (harquebuses), but including the later flintlocks provided little or no trade benefits because not only were they not decisive in African conflicts but various European nations were willing to sell weapons if one nation attempted to use the non-sale of weapons as a leverage to force a local government to unwillingly trade in slaves.
Turning to slaves exported to the West, he points out that not only did the fact that many of them were formerly military prisoners mean that they were excellent soldiers for various militias, but that they were also potential leaders of maroon colonies quite capable of being a real military threat to local slave-owners. In addition, many skills acquired from local African activities, such as rice and indigo production, led to their usefulness and importance in work on plantations - and, therefore, to the eventual development of artisan workers and the slave economies of various American (and African island) economies.
Again, an excellent primer for the study of African involvement in the slave trade and the development of the Americas.
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on July 6, 2000
John Thornton had already established himself as a major historian of West Africa and its relations with Europe before creating this volume for the Studies in Comparative World History series. In this volume he presents the world in which plantation slavery evolved as the collision of many cultures and forces on both sides of the Atlantic, with contributions for good and ill from Africa, the Americas and from Europe. His presentation of slavery, as taking place not just in the Americas nor in Africa, but in the shared society of the Atlantic region bound together by intercontinental trade, forces the reader to acknowlege the active participation of Africans in creating and shaping trans-Atlantic society and the New World. Far from being passive victims of a technologically superior Europe, Africans appear as equal participants in their economic relations with Europeans, and consciously self interested in their participation in the slave trade. The evolution of plantation slavery into a more malignant social arrangement than earlier forms of slave taking and holding traditions is explored considering the input of both slaveholders and slaves. Even those who are truly victimized by the slave trade have avenues of resistance and accomodation. In short, the Atlantic world, with its economic dependence upon slavery, appears as a complex and interesting place. Thornton's presentation of this world is both scholarly and absorbing. He illuminates his arguments with fascinating accounts of individual experiences that often surprise and never disappoint. A must for any serious study of slavery and the African Diasporah.
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on March 26, 2014
19 Africans were brought to the new World in this ships Treasurer and White Lion the first privateers in 1619.

They were more or less traded for victuals for the return trip to England. John Rolfe commented. 11 of the 19 ended up in the hands of George Yeardley and Abraham Piercy, whose connections with the Earl of Warwick may have given them better access to purchase slaves from his privateers. 11 Africans found at Piercy's Flowerdew Hundred in 1624. Eventually they found their way to Captain Samuel Matthews's estate in 1629.

P146.The Africans had personal and social relations with each other. One of the first cases mention John Gaeween.

The Authors lay out the history of Portuguese Angola from 1472, to the 160 time frame.
The fact that the 19 were probably well educated and were Catholic. Most retained their Christian names. Edward kept his unusual name Mozingo and is the forebear of all the descendants of that surname in America. They both helped the Mozingo research with information.

The Africans retained their Creole Culture and elements of European language. The book puts the English Colonies within the framework of the Atlantic Economy and Historical framework, of the Americas, Europe and the African Atlantic Coast.
They are the forebears and the foundation of all that historically followed.

There were many documents in all these countries and Archives researched. It is extensive in it's scope and actually took 2 books.

John Thornton also wrote Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800

Both Books are a must read for understanding ethnic cultures in early America.

In the Appendix of the book are many lists of Slave names found in early Colonial Virginia Records and is a wealth of information for researchers.
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on June 4, 2011
This probably is one of the best histories of the Atlantic slave trade available. While extremely scholarly, it lacks some of the sociological and psychological angles that would have made it more readable.
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on April 7, 2001
John Thornton, author of numerous studies centering around Atlantic Africa, presents a history of the slave trade which attempts to focus on (forced) African migration. He tackles approaches taken by scholars such as Mintz and Price to discuss developing New World cultures. Unfortunately, despite his interesting and important ideas and assertions, chapter 7 presents a disturbing view of a homogeneous African culture. One of this book's redeeming features is the agency attributed to African peoples. The (sometimes prevalent) idea that Africans were passive victims in the Atlantic slave trade is overturned.
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VINE VOICEon September 11, 2010
Admiring Braudel is no bad way to get started on a project of your own. If that project ultimately "does a Braudel" itself, so much the better. When I was an undergraduate I studied Japan and Southeast Asia, but then wound up concerned with India for most of my life. Latin America and the former Ottoman realms also interested me over many years. I always marvelled that Southeast Asianists resisted studying India; that China experts ignored Korea or Southeast Asia; that Middle East specialists stopped at Iran. And so on. Nice little boxes for everyone to preside over. I reckon history is broader and messier. So----whenever I find a history that dares to move outside those boxes, I feel very glad. When they are as interesting as Thornton's book, it certainly is a pleasure.

First off let me say that this book has some very interesting maps. However, there is no bibliography. The reader must glean the sources from the copious footnotes which, luckily, are all confined to the bottom of pages. Secondly, there is no concluding chapter, no summing up of all the insights and truths the author learned over his many years of study. The book ends very abruptly. Be that as it may, the rest is great.

Thornton does not accept the standard explanations for anything, does not "go with the flow". He challenges the many historians of the past who either excused or brushed aside the slave trade or tried to blame it on "imperialism". Immediately, he pooh-poohs the romantic version of why Europeans wanted to explore and develop commerce. He calls the slow advance of Portuguese navigation "the cautious advance of a new frontier, using or slightly modifying existing technology, and relying on relatively small amounts of private capital." (p.35) He points out that Europeans trading in Africa had to supply luxury goods because African economies were not deficient in any essential item. Also, European naval power up to the 19th century was not strong enough to dominate the African coast or change African societies. Therefore, he says, we should ramp up our estimate of the role Africans played in the formation of the whole Atlantic world. They were not passive victims, but conscious actors in history. Though slavery was an abomination, there is little point in assigning blame for it to one group of people.

Slavery was of course the major point of cultural contact between Africa and the Americas. Thornton takes an original point of view on slavery within African society, on the slave trade, and on the role of slaves in the Americas. He holds that as slavery was the basis of the economy in most African states---because the idea of "landownership" did not exist---owning slaves was the equal to owning land/property in Europe. Slave raids were thus the equivalent of wars of conquest in Europe, because people, not land, were needed. Africans were not under any direct economic pressure to deal in slaves because a) Europeans couldn't force them to do so and b) they didn't NEED European goods, but wanted them. Up to 1700, the Europeans only tapped existing slave markets. These are only a few ideas in a book packed with them. There are long discussions of the fragmentation of coastal Africa into dozens of small states with only a few big ones, usually inland; about African culture and religion, and then the connection of slavery to the making of societies in North and South America and in the Caribbean. We read his ideas about the process of slavery and the economic, politico-military, and socio-cultural contributions that Africans made to the New World. There is even a chapter entitled "Resistance, Runaways, and Rebels". All in all, this is a wonderful book on the whole topic. If you are concerned with the role of Africans in the Americas, you can't fail to read AFRICA AND AFRICANS:.
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on July 17, 2008
The major difference between African societies in an ethnic setting (per se) and African communities heavily influenced by European culture and commerce is accurately analyzed. But what myths have to do with the commerce development in young African countries, I would like to ask the author?
Was it necessary to bring the subject of slavery, and in particular the slave trade to make an argumentative point?
I have another concern; it pertains to the status and the fundamental elements of an "African Wealth" vis-à-vis European imperialism.
The author did not elaborate on the subject.
However, I found the comparative study of the African-American culture and the contemporary non-African culture amid white societies quite interesting.
The focus on major differences between the two is well centered.
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on September 9, 2008
This work was a required text for my college class, part of my master's program. The added detail and scope enhances a wider view and fuller analysis of the slave trade in the Atlantic world ushered in but not fully dictated by, the Europeans. The activist role of Africans in that development, and the transposing of African culture to the Americas,in spite of the inhuman nature of the slave economy, is a fresh approach to this period, and bears witness to the heroic humanity and strength of that culture. I highly recommend this work to American colonial historians and those interested in world history in general- a tremendous work!
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on January 11, 2016
Dry in parts but overall a good overview on the beginning of the slave trade
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