Summary: Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800

By: John Thornton

Summary: Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World is an excellent and useful text. Thornton's scope is enormous, but he manages to tackle his topic admirably. He begins each chapter with a review of the scholarship on a particular issue (the retentions debate, "social death," etc.) and then states his own argument. I found his major arguments--that Europeans did not "force" slavery on African states, that Africans did not go through a "deculturation" process during the Middle Passage, and that Africans played an essential role in creating an Atlantic "culture"--persuasive.

Chapter 1: The birth of an Atlantic World

Thornton argues that geography and wind channels had a formative effect on the European entrance into the Atlantic World. Due to the different challenges presented by the North Sea and the Mediterranean, Europeans could develop technology that could be used in diverse environments. The wind currents that ran from Europe and down the African coast initially hampered European ventures south of the Saharan coast and also limited African seafaring. The wind channels similarly defined Atlantic ventures. Finally, Thornton argues that “long-range” European goals like discovery or “encircling and isolating” Muslims were not as motivating as short-term goals like raiding and commerce.

Chapter 2: Commerce between Europeans and Africans

Thornton emphasizes that European trade in African was not "forced" or one-sided, with Europeans exploiting Africans. He argues against recent scholarship (most notably, Walter Rodney) that sees Africa at a "lower level of development" and thus "forced into a sort of "colonial" trade in which Africans gave up raw materials and human resources (in the form of slaves) in exchange for manufactured goods" (43). Instead, Africans played an active role in developing commerce. Africans were not dependent upon European goods. Africa's trade with Europe was "largely moved by prestige, fancy, changing taste and a desire for variety" (45).

Neither European nor African states could monopolize the trade in Africa because "the presence of private traders, their interconnections, and the military and political rivalries of both African and European state systems went a long way to reduce the potential impact of state control" (71). As a result, the African trade remained competitive, dominated neither by states or "continents."

Chapter 3: Slavery and African social structure

Africans were not forced into participating in a slave trade; slavery was widespread in Africa and its growth and development were "largely independent of the Atlantic trade (74). Unlike European societies, which had developed a legal system in which "land was the primary form of private, revenue-producing property" upon which the landlord-tenant relationship rested, slaves in Africa were the "only form of private, revenue-producing property recognized in African law" (74). The absence or primacy of private/personal ownership of land was a crucial difference between African and European legal traditions (Thornton also argues that land ownership was basically a "fiction") and had implication for the meaning of “slavery.” Slaves tended to be used in two ways: by individuals, state officials or kings as a form of private investment/wealth or as part of a military force that state officials could call on to consolidate their power.

Chapter 4: Enslavement and the Slave Trade

Thornton goes into more detail about his argument that “African participation in the slave trade was voluntary and under the control of African decision makers” (125). He explains that slavery was ubiquitous before contact with Europeans traders, based on the importance of slaves (and the virtual absence of land ownership) in the African legal tradition. Thornton also rejects the argument that Europeans “influenced African behavior through control over military resources,” stating that Europeans played only a marginal role as military “experts” or equipment suppliers. Finally, Africans were not “forced” to expand the slave trade when the European market increased dramatically with in the mid-17th century.

Chapter 5: Africans in colonial Atlantic societies

In the American colonies, African slaves had a significant impact on economy and culture. In the Iberian colonies, African slaves came to play a larger role than Native Americans in "shaping the culture of the Atlantic world" (131) and African slaves were preferred to Native American slaves for a variety of demographic and political reasons (see 134-138 for details). The most significant number of Africans were owned by wealthy whites, placing them at the center of society and they were often used for military purposes (141). Taking a stance on the debate on the origins of race-based slavery Thornton argues that racial attitudes were not formative in the choice of Africans as slaves in the Americas. Instead, a pre-existing legal tradition made the status of African slaves and European servants fundamentally different (146-7). Still, Thornton adds that "in the end, it may well have been economic conditions rather than simply legal status that determined the choice of labor force. Wages and conditions in Europe went a long way toward determining who would be willing to undertake the task of settling" (147).

Chapter 6:Africans and Afro-Americans in the Atlantic World

Africans did not suffer "social death" when they were transported from Africa to the Americas. Though the Middle Passage was a shared traumatic experience, it did not result in "deculturation," but was, instead, "temporarily debilitating" (162). In the Americas, Thornton emphasizes that cultural "transmission" was largely dependent on slave conditions. "Some labor regimes tended to inhibit the kind of community that would allow the slaves a full cultural life, especially those that had high mortality, unbalanced sex rations, and high work loads" (163). Despite these barriers, however, slaves "managed to form communities that maintained and reproduced themselves and thus that could develop and transmit their culture" (163). Other estates had more favorable conditions to community creation. Skilled, urban and domestic slaves, meanwhile, tended to have more of an opportunity to lead their own lives and create voluntary communities.

Chapter 7: African cultural groups in the Atlantic World

While modern scholars have tended toward Mintz and Price's argument that there was a huge amount of cultural diversity along the African coast, resulting in the need to form a "new culture" in the Americas, Thornton argues that there were only three major cultural groups and seven subgroups: Upper Guinea (including speakers of the West Atlantic and Mande families), Lower Guinea (including the Akan and Aja linguistic groups) and Angola (speakers of the Western Bantu subgroup). Randomization of slaves did not occur during the Middle Passage and slaves were normally transported from one location directly to the Americas. Some "mixing up" occurred when slaves were sold in the Americas, but even when slaveowners aimed for a "mixed" cultural groups, it was nearly impossible to achieve this. As a result, slaves in the Americas tended to form national groups, reinforced by marriage. So while the "process of enslavement, sale, transfer, shipment, and relocation on a plantation was certainly disruptive to...personal and family lives...slaves...were nevertheless not in a cultural wilderness when they arrived in America" (204-205)

Chapter 8: Transformations of African culture in the Atlantic world

In this chapter, Thornton discusses the transformations of African languages, social structure and aesthetics in the Americas. He argues that "slaves were not militant cultural nationalists who sought to preserve everything African but rather showed great flexibility in adapting and changing their culture" (206). Atlantic creoles often developed on the African coast, but were only used as a native language in the Americas, which created the constant need for a lingua franca. African social structures were altered, but not fully disrupted and Africans may have been accustomed to the "kinship" of a household with slaves. The "ideology of the state" or religion could also "govern an organization of Africans without reference to kinship" (219). Aesthetics, meanwhile, proved to be the most stable cultural form.

Chapter 9: African religions and Christianity in the Atlantic world

African and European contact resulted in the "emergence of a new Afro-Atlantic religion that was often identified as Christian, especially in the New World, but was a type of Christianity that could satisfy both African and European understandings of religion" (235). This African Christianity was founded on common aspects of European and African religious traditions. The primacy of revelation was key, and Africans and Europeans could "co-interpret" revelations in a way that satisfied both sides. It was also important for European missionaries to point out that Africans "believed in a Supreme Being who ruled the other world, caused accidents, and determined the time of life and death" (237). Europeans came to accept the legitimacy of divine revelation in Africa, despite the absence of orthodox Christianity, illustrating the two-sided accommodation that took place. The absence of orthodoxy in Africa, Thornton attributes to the "lack of power of the priesthood" and the fact that "Africans received revelations continuously" (246). Missionaries could use these factors to co-interpret African revelations. Conversion, then, was actually a "process of exchanging and evaluating revelations" (255). In the Americas, Thornton suggests that "European Christianity may have performed the same functions for the development of an Afro-American Christianity as the European languages did for the formation of creole languages...Christianity provided a sort of lingua franca that joined various national religious traditions, though in this case not necessarily replacing them" (268).

Chapter 10: Resistance, runaways, and rebels

Though scholars agree that "newly arrived Africans were the most likely to run away or rebel, there is no agreement on the relative contribution of the African background to dissent" (273). Thornton suggests that scholars need to distinguish between three types of resistance in order to tackle this question. "Day-to-day resistance", including slow working and "petty holdups in the work process", and "petit marronnage," those who ran away or absented themselves for brief periods of time, had less to do with African background and more to do with "typical preindustrial work patterns." (he agrees with Eugene Genovese on this point). Neither day-to-day resistance nor petit marronnage was intended as an attempt to gain "freedom" or to set up an independent society (273-276). Both forms of resistance are comparable to contemporary strikes or work stoppages. They acted as "economic bargaining" chips (279). Slaves involved in grand marronnage, meanwhile, including both runaways who had no intention of returning and those who plotted mass rebellion within their own societies, used their African background to model national, military and political leadership and structure.

Chapter 11: Africans in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world

With the exception of North America, Africans continued to comprise the majority of the slave populations in the Americas for much of the 18th century, with 85% of the Africans coming from the area encompassing the Gold Coast to Angola. This was largely an effect of the Kongo civil wars, which provided European traders a huge quantity of slaves. More than half of the Africans transported to the Americas in the 18th century went to Caribbean and a third went to Brazil, while only 10% were shipped to Spanish American and 6% to North America. As a result of this mass importation, Thornton reminds us that "African culture was not surviving: it was arriving" (320). In the Americas, Africans formed nations, often linguistically based, which played a parallel role to the "social organization imposed by their master" (326). Particularly in North America, this "national identity also surrendered to the church community" (330). Eventually, "creole families, churches, and other organizations eventually replaced the nation as the primary slave-centered focus for community, although significant conflicts divided the African Americans from the creoles in the process" (334).

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