HIST2F90: Money & Power in the Atlantic World

Early Modern Africa

This week's big question

What, if anything, can we learn about early modern Africa from European sources?

Video Introduction

Learning outcomes

At the end of this week you should be able to:

Questions to consider, and learning activity

For this week read one of the secondary sources before you read the primary documents or look at the images. Both Northrop and Thornton are some of the world's leading historians of early modern Africa and these text situate the subject nicely in the Atlantic world! Either chapter will provide you with some context to help you interpret the primary sources.


There are several reasons why African history is extraordinarily complex. The first relates to its interrelationship with Europeans. Much of the surviving written and artistic primary sources about the early modern African world were created by Europeans. Maps are a good example. To get a quick sense of the changing knowledge and understanding of Africa that Europeans had from about 1500 to 1900, see the gallery of maps that The Guardian has compiled, and examine William Blaeu's map above.

Second, Africa, like Europe, is highly regional. What’s true in Scotland, may not be true in Italy, or in Poland; what's true in West Africa may not be true on the Mediterranean north, or on the Indian Ocean coast. In this course on the Atlantic World, we’ll only look at central West Africa. This is where the most complete integration into the Atlantic World took place; it's where most of the slave shipments to the Americas occurred; and it's where the impacts of the trade were most powerfully felt. Slavery wasn't invented when European traders began to appear in the 15th century. It has an ancient history in Africa, as it does in much of the world.  But the arrival of European slave ships in ever increasing numbers in the years after 1500 marked a sharp rise in the trade. Our examination this week looks at West Africa in that early period of expansion. Thus, our examination of "Africa" really means West Africa, the region most affected by the emergence of Atlantic World economies.

What we’ll see is a much messier story of expansion than one might have imagined.  While no doubt smaller and less organized than European states, West African states were well-developed and could be quite powerful.  Several small empires rose and fell in this period, some building their strength very much on local African resources and conflicts, others emerging from the opportunities afforded by increased trade with Europeans.  West Africa’s history in this period was still very much driven by African issues.  That would change over the next centuries, as some states were increasingly drawn to depend on the slave trade. But even then one cannot simply understand the history of Africa as an adjunct to European expansion. The primary sources available to us, however, may help explain why Europeans often view Africa as supplementary to their own histories. West Africa was a pre-literate society and thus most of the sources available to us are of European origin. As you’ll see, there are some exceptions, but not many, and thus most of our views are by outsiders – travellers, merchants, adventurers, many of whom were acute observers, but still not of the societies they observed.

Early modern West Africa had a rich and sophisticated economy​, and much of that was based on trade. Slaves were, in some places and some times, part of that trade, but it was not until the arrival of Portuguese and then other European traders that slaves came to form such a major component.  Our readings this week are directed at understanding something of the nature of society and trade in early modern West Africa, and in particular at understanding the importance of slavery.  Indeed, some of the documents point us to understandings of West African "civil society" – that is, society that is neither of the public world of the state and trade, nor of the private world of the family, but of the worlds of associational life, social relations, and local politics of family, kin, and tribe. It is here that we best understand West Africa on the eve of its integration into the Atlantic World.


Because our focus for this Lesson is what, if anything, we can learn about early modern Africa from European sources, it is appropriate that we revisit the historical thinking skills that we practiced last week: the analysis of primary source evidence, and the careful attention to people's perspectives in the past. Please pay special attention to those links. Note that the text below in this Toolbox section is largely the same as last week's. Review is always important, and these skills are crucial for you to master.

In your Forum entries for this week's Lesson, you will continue to practice the analysis of primary sources. Pay particular attention to the perspectives in each document. Just as historians have different interpretations of the same questions, so too did people in the past have different interpretations of their worlds. You can consider questions such as:

You can probably think of other general questions that will help you to think about the perspective in any source. These are questions that are related to the skills of "sourcing" that you learned about in Module 1. To find our more about the general kinds of questions you should always have in mind when you consider a source's perspective, see the two Historical Thinking worksheets available through the link.

Primary sources

Read the following excerpts, but remember to note the author of each selection.  They come from a larger edited volume, so Worger, Clark, and Alpers are NOT the authors! Read the sources carefully, and address each author appropriately!

Documents from William H. Worger, Nancy L. Clark, and Edward A. Alpers, eds., Africa and the West: A Documentary History, volume 1 (New York, Oxford University Press, 2010).  12pp.
    No. 4, Pereira’s description of the west coast of Africa (1508);
    No. 5, Spain regulates importation of slaves (1518);
    No. 6, Alfonso of São Tomé attempts to regulate trade (1526);
    No. 7, British attempts to break Portuguese monopoly (1564);
    No. 8, A Jesuit justifies the slave trade (1610);
    No. 9, Dutch efforts to break Portuguese monopoly (1654).

Secondary source

John K. Thornton, A Cultural History of the Atlantic World, 1250-1820 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, of 2012), 74-99.

OR  (your choice, but please indicate which source you chose in your forum posts)

Northrup, David. Africa's Discovery of Europe, 1450-1850 Chapter Three (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 54-82.

Supplementary materials

The Walters Museum​ used to gave a beautiful online exhibit on the theme of Africans in early modern European Renaissance art. Unfortunately, that exhibit no longer seems to be accessible, but this link leads you to an overview and a few highlights from that exhibit (http://ultimatehistoryproject.com/curating-african-presence.html). You may also be able to view some of the catalogue from the exhibit at this site. Feel free to bring the discussion of European Renaissance art into our forum discussion if you wish. What can they tell us about how Europeans saw Africans? What can they tell us about Africa itself?


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