New Book | A Fistful of Shells

Posted in books by Editor on April 16, 2020

From The U of C Press:

Toby Green, A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2019), 640 pages, ISBN: 978-0226644578, $40.

By the time the “Scramble for Africa” among European colonial powers began in the late nineteenth century, Africa had already been globally connected for centuries. Its gold had fueled the economies of Europe and the Islamic world for nearly a millennium, and the sophisticated kingdoms spanning its west coast had traded with Europeans since the fifteenth century. Until at least 1650, this was a trade of equals, using a variety of currencies—most importantly, cowrie shells imported from the Maldives and nzimbu shells imported from Brazil. But, as the slave trade grew, African kingdoms began to lose prominence in the growing global economy. We have been living with the effects of this shift ever since.

With A Fistful of Shells, Toby Green transforms our view of West and West-Central Africa by reconstructing the world of these kingdoms, which revolved around trade, diplomacy, complex religious beliefs, and the production of art. Green shows how the slave trade led to economic disparities that caused African kingdoms to lose relative political and economic power. The concentration of money in the hands of Atlantic elites in and outside these kingdoms brought about a revolutionary nineteenth century in Africa, parallel to the upheavals then taking place in Europe and America. Yet political fragmentation following the fall of African aristocracies produced radically different results as European colonization took hold.

Drawing not just on written histories, but on archival research in nine countries, art, oral history, archaeology, and letters, Green lays bare the transformations that have shaped world politics and the global economy since the fifteenth century and paints a new and masterful portrait of West Africa, past and present.

Toby Green is a senior lecturer in Lusophone African history and culture at King’s College London and is author of The Rise of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in Western Africa, 1300-1589.


List of Maps
Note on Spellings/Names


Part One
Causes: Economic Divergence in West and West- Central Africa
Timelines for Part One
1  ‘Three Measures of Gold’: The Rise and Fall of the Great Empires of the Sahel
2  Causeways across the Savannah: From Senegambia to Sierra Leone
3  Ready Money: The Gold Coast and the Gold Trade
4  Rivers of Cloth, Masks of Bronze: The Bights of Benin and Biafra
5  The Kingdom of Kongo: From Majesty to Revolt
Coda to Part One

Part Two
Consequences: Politics, Belief and Revolutions from Below
Timeline for Part Two: West African Political History, c. 1680–1850
Prologue to Part Two
6  ‘With Boots Worth 3 Slaves’: Slavery and Value in the Eighteenth Century
7  On a War Footing: The ‘Fiscal- Military State’ in West African Politics
8  Feeding Power: New Societies, New Worldviews
9  Transnational Africas, Struggle and the Rising of Modernity
10  Warrior Aristocracies and Pushback from Below
11  Let them Drink Rum! Islam, Revolution and the Aristocracy


List of Illustrations

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