Green doesn’t conjure a nostalgic vision of a “merrie Africa” before European contact. Rather, he shows that cultural and commercial ties connecting west Africa to the wider world existed and flourished long before the consolidation of a capitalist system dominated by Europe and its settler-colonies. What was lost in the acceleration of western capitalism was a more generous, expansive and flexible idea of equality. No one in particular “planned” the slave trade. What emerged from tens of thousands of transactions was a toxic industry that transformed world history, enriching Europe and impoverishing west Africa.
A Fistful of Shells is peppered with astonishing facts: that “archaeological digs undertaken in Benin in the Seventies showed that copper and its alloys had been used in casting and other artistic purposes from around the 13th century, that’s to say, for 200 years before the arrival of the Portuguese”. Or consider this statement from early on in the book: “Globalisation came early to Africa; one Chinese chronicle claims that ambassadors from Ethiopia went to the Chinese court around 150 BCE. Chinese porcelain from excavations in Kilwa confirms long-distance trade.”
Toby Green is uniquely qualified to evoke its breathtaking cultural diversity and the sophistication of its civilisations, having travelled extensively through the region over a period of two decades and immersed himself in its archives as well as its oral history and performance culture. The book sets out to answer what Green introduces as a great paradox of West Africa’s modern history: a region that once met the outside world on terms of equality today exists in a relationship of deep inequality and even dependence with the rest of the world.
...centuries of interaction and their long-term economic impact on Africa that are explored in unusual detail in Toby Green’s remarkable new book... What marks the book out as unusual is not the volume of sources but their range. The use of oral histories from an impressive array of African societies is particularly refreshing... Although not always the easiest text to follow – the thematic approach at times obscuring the sense of a developing narrative – this is a stunning work of research and argumentation. It has the potential to become a landmark in our understanding of the most misunderstood of continents.
Green previously worked as a journalist and a travel writer. Ten years ago he published a book about looking for mystics in West Africa, and since then he has been based at King’s College London, where he is now senior lecturer in lusophone African history and culture. This book combines both stages of his life, drawing on decades of first-hand experience, research in archives and discussions in seminar rooms.
All this makes for a rich and insightful work, but occasionally also an unhappy mix. Above all, do not judge this long, dense book by its introduction. Had I not been reviewing it, I might not have read past the beginning, which is often confusing, both in its statements and in its timeline, and I wish that Green had worked some magic on his text and that his editors had cleaned up some of its many repetitions. But I am glad I persevered, for there is much fascination to be had beyond the opening pages.