Understanding the Slave Trade

By | 3rd June 2019

I have long thought that sociologists should read more history. It might correct some of their sweeping generalizations about the emergence and development of Western societies. This reflection has been reinforced by a recent book, A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution by Toby Green, a historian at Kings College London. Area specialists may, of course, question elements of the analysis – but it is an extraordinary work of scholarship that dismantles many myths about African societies…

Where does this leave our understanding of the legacy of the slave trade? Clearly, it does not compromise our revulsion at the idea of trafficking in human beings or the horrors of the Atlantic passage and plantation life. We rightly need to ensure that they are incorporated into our national stories and inspire a continuing commitment to fight current forms of abuse. However, Green’s work also restores the agency of West Africans to the narrative in ways that complicate calls for reparations, apologies or restitution. Europeans did not invent slavery or the slave trade. Many West African elites were willing partners, knowingly participating in economic transactions that made sense on their own terms and secured their own status for many years.

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