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A bright candle in the dark
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.