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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 1 .


Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World
John Thornton

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Second Edition.
340pp. Index. 50.00; ISBN 0-521-62217-4. Pb.: 16.95; 0-521-62724-9.



Between 1400 and 1680, west and central-west Africans were sent all over the Americas, from Brazil to Venezuela. Thornton reviews the polities of coastal Africa and the involvements of Europe there and also what he argues was the active creativity of Africans in building up New World societies. He tries to analyse how far 'aesthetic', 'religious' and some other cultural and social features were transmitted to, or transmuted in the - overwhelmingly enslaved - lives of Africans in the Americas. His command of Spanish and Portuguese - language sources enables a much broader story than even well-informed Anglophone students of Africa often know. Written simply, with a good narrative drive, the first edition of this scholarly monograph (1992) apparently became a popular US textbook. However, it stopped before the eighteenth century.

This second edition is changed only by an extra chapter looking at some issues in the period from 1680-1800. This structure and the book's changing audiences cause some problems - intending readers should be warned! Thornton's analysis of indigenous African slavery and the impact of whites' demands for slaves are more contested by scholars than he may suggest, while his definition of Christianity and African religions(s) as both 'revelatory' is fruitful but insufficient to explain African world-views or their survival in the New World. Importantly, one must not extrapolate any features recorded before 1680 and relate them to later conditions, whether in Africa or the Americas. This limits evaluation of change or 'survival', an issue reviewed somewhat in his new chapter. Readers of this review should beware of identifying cited ethnonyms in that way. African 'ethnicity' has been in constant re-definition: Robin Law, a historian of west Africa whom Thornton often cites, has shown too (in History in Africa 24, 1997) that some new, American identities could be fed back into Africa - often, though not always, later than 1800, as when former Brazilian slaves returned to West Africa. Ethnicity does not strongly concern Thornton, but his final chapter has examples of the new 'nations' which were formed in the Americas, usually via commonality of language, and mobilised for funerals, recreation and, quite often, for different attempts at escape (many runaway or 'maroon' communities subsisted in different regions, sometimes for a long time). He shows how complex the relationships between African rulers, European colonisers, slaves and indigenous Americans could be, while perhaps underplaying slaves' crucial insecurities and often desperation.


Elizabeth Tonkin, Queen's University of Belfast



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