Toby Green, Senior Lecturer in Lusophone African History and Culture at King’s College London and a co-editor of the UW Press journal African Economic History, was recently awarded the British Academy’s 2019 Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for his book A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution (University of Chicago Press, 2019). The Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize honors a non-fiction book that promotes global cultural understanding.
A Fistful of Shells describes the relationship between West Africa and European colonial powers as it evolved through the growth of the slave trade. Prior to the fifteenth century, gold-rich African kingdoms and European economies had been on equal terms, but Green shows through six case studies how European merchants created an imbalance by importing large quantities of objects used as currency in African kingdoms, such as cowrie shells and copper rings, to exchange for gold and slave laborers. This influx of currency created inflation and lead to economic instability and social upheaval in West African societies. The book then traces political developments that led to a revolutionary nineteenth century in Africa.
In an interview on the British Academy’s blog, Green emphasizes the importance of fieldwork to his project and for anyone studying the history of West Africa. “The problem with using just written materials . . . is that in the end you will reproduce the perspectives of the authors. In this case, they were white male slave traders and that’s going to give you a very lopsided view – which is what traditionally has happened.” To avoid this pitfall, Green’s research supplemented written narratives with archival research, oral histories, art, archaeology, and letters. The book is the culmination of over twenty years of research.
To learn more about West African economic history, read an excerpt from the book, and browse the latest African Economic History, a special issue entitled “Colonial Economic History in West Africa” co-edited by Green and George M. Bob-Milliar.