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Book Review


Kwasi Konadu, Transatlantic Africa, 14401888. Epilogue by Trevor Getz. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xxvii + 146. Index. $16.95 (paper).


     According to its introduction, Kwasi Konadu's Transatlantic Africa was written for teaching world and African history. The author and editor argue that Africentric interpretations of the Atlantic slave system and tracking the connections between memory of the trade and the past, are vital to grasping the systems as a whole, although these elements have rarely been the focus of prior scholarship. (I am using the term "Africentric" here to reflect that Konadu is insisting on incorporating the views of African participants to tell the history of the Atlantic slave system, which is a different response to Eurocentrism in the academy than "Afrocentrism," a political project that emphasizes the creativity and greatness of African and Pan-African culture.) The chapters cover a number of topics central to this effort, including definitions of human communities and identity, levels of unfreedom, African perceptions of modern economies, and the spatiality of the Atlantic slave system. The ambitions are large for such a slender book.

     Where does the book succeed as an educational tool? First, the text would work very well to help sophisticated undergraduates to understand the discipline of history as a process. Konadu sketches thumbnail histories of elements of the Atlantic slave system (geographic range, historians' attempts to unearth the numbers of humans ensnared, the evolution of African social responses, abolitionism), and introduces historiographic debates, showing students how scholarly arguments operate (79–83). Second, the author often lays bare the procedures of working with problematic sources. He traces how a particular document shows the limitations of documents themselves (5), discusses the shakiness of his own selected sources (14–16), and explains how to work though particular primary authors' biases (92).

     These explicit analyses of historians' labors echo the concerns of some of the series-editor Trevor Getz's recent scholarship, Abina and the Important Men and African Voices of the Global Past1 The numerous sources parsed in Transatlantic Africa cover a wide range of African places and societies and will be a useful guide for any teacher thinking about replacing overfamiliar slave narratives in the classroom. At times, Konadu's use of sources to leap across the continent or through centuries to make a singular argument about a characteristic of the system will leave some historians uneasy. In some ways, the East African sea voyage of the enslaved from Bagamoyo to Zanzibar was not really "comparable to the experiences of other Africans on the Atlantic circuit," (103) since that voyage only lasted one day.

     Konadu offers Africentric approaches that have been percolating in Africanist scholarship for years and that may be useful to world historians from outside the specialty: the idea of unfreedom (even if this particular term remains unused in the book), Africans as intellectuals and agents of history, Africans as global travelers, and the need for "emancipation" and "abolition" to reside inside quotation marks, although the dates specified in the title unintentionally undermine this argument. The book's angry responses to certain approaches to the Atlantic slave system reveal how important framing is to narrating history. For example, Konadu argues that the sub-discipline's longstanding focus on counting the victims of the trade has effectively, if inadvertently, silenced enslaved Africans' voices (xx).

     Where does Transatlantic Africa frustrate? Occasionally the author veers into an African exceptionalism that is reminiscent of sloppy Afrocentrism or tales from "Merrie Africa," the gentle fantasy Africa that pre-dated the arrival of outsiders. For instance, he makes the unconvincing claim that "roles performed by a range of individuals—father, mother, children, brother, sister, elderly ..., priest ... were not 'gendered' [in Africa]" (57). Konadu also invokes straw opponents to his project, complaining about the "limitations of interpreting retrospectively current preoccupations with cultural identity and gender" (58).

     While I appreciate how Konadu shifts the language from the "Atlantic slave trade" to the "Atlantic slave system," the book itself shows that the spatiality of the system still makes the phrase problematic—the phenomenon extends into the Indian Ocean. Konadu also abandons his early formulation of the systems' shape being a "hexagon [of] multidirectional roots and routes of the six major slaving zones" (xxiv). He introduces the "zones" of Europe, West Africa, West Central Africa, Southeast Africa, South Atlantic America, and North Atlantic America and then neglects them thereafter. This hexagonal conception erodes Konadu's argument for the fluidity of the system as a whole; perhaps "shifting polygonal" is a better replacement for the hoary notion of "triangular trade."

     Two of the book's three maps are deeply flawed. Map One, "Transatlantic Slave System, 1500–1867" (xviii), first does not reflect Konadu's hexagonal system, and indicates that the trade was unidirectional, an assumption challenged in the text of chapter three. Map One is also made almost entirely redundant by Map Two, "Volume and Direction of Transatlantic Slave" (3), a far more useful representation. (Map Two also includes trans-Saharan and trans-Indian Ocean slave trades, despite the label.) Map Three, "African Distrust and the Slave Trade" (123), is made unintelligible by the legend, wherein two undifferentiated black-and-white keys do nothing to discern the difference between which shades represent the "concentration of the slave trade" and which show the "level of [social] trust" in present-day Africa. (This survey is of dubious value, anyway, since its focus on a brief moment neglects all intervening history. Who is to say high levels of distrust didn't emerge in these areas during colonial or post-colonial dictatorships?)

     While Transatlantic Africa successfully privileges enslaved voices and "emphasize[s] the global context and multiplicity of African experiences" (xviii), I would find the whole text difficult to employ in an introductory world history survey. The density of the text and the author's concerns beyond producing Africentric recounting of the African slave system would make it unwieldy for the typical service course. Its strengths recommend it more for advanced African, Atlantic, or world history classes tackling approaches to the discipline. The epilogue, penned by the series editor, Trevor Getz, could serve as a separate reading for classes on memory, particularly one with a comparative regional approach, as this subsection explores the concepts of contested histories, heritage versus history, and the "time traveler" touring of the past. Instructors will find a wealth of primary source material to mine.

Michael McInneshin has been teaching world history for more than a decade, and is the current Psi Iota Teaching Fellow at Rowan University. He can be contacted at



1Trevor Getz and Liz Clarke, Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). Trevor Getz, ed., African Voices of the Global Past: 1500 to the Present (Boulder: Westview Press, 2014).



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