Review: A Fistful of Shells by Toby Green

Toby Green draws on a rich variety of sources to reveal how West Africa’s present dilemmas are intimately linked to its precolonial past. Review by Stephen Williams.


The concept that is still prevalent in the West – that African history only really began when Europeans arrived – is a concept that still needs debunking. And author Toby Green, through dint of travel to West Africa and diligent research of archives in nine nations, has done just that, writing a remarkable book in the process.

Central to the book’s thesis is the idea that West Africa’s rich economic history and linkages with the modern world predate the arrival of slavery and European colonialism.

“Africa was not a colonial setting until the nineteenth century, and from the thirteenth century on its peoples and rulers were active participants in shaping the modern world,” he explains.

Africa had formed global economic and political connections long before the arrival of Europeans.

Africans traded salt, gold, textiles, and other commodities like cowrie shells before the trade in enslaved people became preeminent.

This distant history tells us much about the difficulties and complexities of West Africa’s economies today.

“The focus [in the overwhelming number of universities where African history is taught]… is almost always as this relates to slavery, repeating an old trope of primitivism and oppression,” Green writes. 

“Yet African history is much more complex than this allows… and the root causes of many of the problems of the present lie precisely in this more distant past.”

For Green, the issue of capital accumulation is central for understanding how economic inequalities arose between Africa and the rest of the Western hemisphere. 

“For several centuries,” he writes, “Western African societies exported what we might call ‘hard currencies’, especially gold: these were currencies that retained their value over time.

“For the first two centuries of Atlantic trade, these societies also imported large amounts of goods that were used as currencies: cowries, copper, cloth iron.

“However, these were what we might call ‘soft’ currencies’, which were losing their relative value over time, as opposed to gold and silver.”

The wealth and capital of the European empires brought about by such systems of economic control was invested in the technologies of the Industrial Revolution, further enforcing the unequal relationship between a once powerful West Africa and the dominant European states.

“West and West-Central Africa were by the early nineteenth century very much disadvantaged in their access to the capital needed to finance investment and economic growth,” writes Green.

Green makes some interesting observations regarding the similarities between Europe and Africa regarding the rise of aristocracies and revolutionary movements.

“In West Africa, as in Europe, the rise of the ‘fiscal-military state’ grew in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and with it powerful aristocracies.

“In West Africa, as in Europe, popular forces led by the trading class came to challenge these aristocracies; in both regions, the 1780s and 1790s witnessed decisive revolutionary movements.”

For example, there was an attempted revolt by the many slaves of Funta Jaala in 1785, only four years before the revolution in France.

Green argues that this was not merely “coincidence”. He writes that the transnational connections of West Africa with the Americas, Europe and the Middle East contributed to events in all these world regions, and transformed the world.

“Yet the unequal economic foundations of this relationship,” Green observes, “meant that the consequences of these revolutions would be very different; and that these processes would pave the way for formal colonialism in the nineteenth century.”

Regrettably, neither slavery nor injustice was eradicated as a result of revolution in West Africa. During the nineteenth century, Green tells us, the reality was that the practice of slavery actually increased.

“With the shutting down of the Atlantic trade [following the abolition of the slave trade] captives were no longer exportable from the ports of West Africa, but the processes that created them did not vanish overnight,” he writes.

“Instead, coerced labour was used to increase agricultural output and the supply of produce to the European traders in the era of what is called ‘legitimate trade’.”

According to recent estimates, he tells us, the size of the slave population in West Africa was comparable to that of the Americas by 1850.

Between a quarter and a half of the population of Sokoto in northern Nigeria was enslaved by that time.

A new view of West Africa

A Fistful of Shells is principally an attempt to show how West Africa’s precolonial histories are central to an understanding of the dilemmas of the present and to highlight the active role of its peoples in history, thereby transforming our view of the region. 

In Green’s own words: “Africa has been so global for so long that its continued exclusion from world history speaks volumes about misconceptions that have arisen outside the continent over so many centuries.”

And yet, a nagging question remains. This is a hugely important book and offers much in terms of the continent’s rich history, but going forward, how can this knowledge be best utilised in formulating political and economic strategies to Africa’s benefit?

For while this book uncovers the roots of many of Africa’s problems, it provides little in the way of solutions.

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