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Book Review


David Northrup, Seven Myths of Africa in World History. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2017. Pp. xxiv + 162. Suggested Reading and Index. $19.00 (paper).


     In his entry in the Myths of History series, David Northrup sets out to "identify and correct some of the most pervasive" myths regarding "Africa's past and present" (xv). The book is organized around seven myths. In addressing them, Northrup succinctly covers thousands of years of history in a manner that, while necessarily not comprehensive, problematizes prevalent myths and whets the reader's appetite for further exploration of the book's themes.

     Chapter One challenges the myth that Africa is lacking history, a myth premised on assumptions like "true history is based on written records, especially records that focus on the deeds of great men," and "meaningful history began in urban civilizations" (1–2). While exploring early migrations, technological advancements, and linguistic changes that belie the myth, he suggests Africa's history is arguably the longest of any continent and introduces various types of evidence used in historical analysis. Northrup turns to Ethiopia in Chapter Two to dispel myths exaggerating Ethiopia's uniqueness. After discussing Ethiopia's connections to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, he examines two specific myths: the medieval empire of priest-king Prester John and the conception of an idyllic Ethiopia ruled by a divine emperor, Haile Selassie. He argues that the persistent myth of Prester John provided Medieval Europeans "hope of a pan-Christian unity that could stop the advance of the Muslim frontier into Europe" (38). In the 20th century, the African diaspora hopefully imagined Ethiopia as "a promised land in Africa where all the injustice of the Atlantic slave trade, enslavement, and inequality would be undone," despite the fact that circumstances in Ethiopia were actually often worse than in the diaspora (36).

     In the next chapter, Northrup takes on the linked myths that African trade with Europe differed significantly from earlier trade with other regions and amounted to little more than the slave trade. He details extensive trade connections in eastern and western Africa with other regions before 1500, as well as the varied trade with European traders before 1700, demonstrating that "[l]ong before the appearance of the first Europeans at their shores Africans already had extensive trading networks, powerful political systems, and efficient systems of production, which enabled them to deal with Europeans from positions of strength not weakness" (59). Northrup extends his examination of slave trade-related myths in Chapter Four. He specifically addresses the ideas that "it was not trade at all but theft," "inflated guesses about the volume of the Atlantic slave trade," and "the survival of African culture in the Americas" (62). He provides numerous examples of Africans participating in the trade not out of misinformation or weakness, but rather self-interest. He discusses how recent scholarship has shown the number of slaves taken from Africa to be closer to 10.7–12.5 million than the myth of 15 million. Finally, he suggests that while African culture was transmitted across the Atlantic, there were notable changes as "Culture is dynamic not static, especially in difficult circumstances" (83).

     Chapter Five continues the exploration of identity by examining the myth of "unchanging African identities" (102). Contrary to the "myth that there was once a peaceful, happy, and rather uniform Africa of small villages and small ethnic identities" (88), Northrup demonstrates that there was a wide variety in how people understood themselves and that the enlargement of identity–for example, assuming a national identity–"has been anything but a straight-line progression" (88). Drawing on the examples of the Igbo, Yoruba, Kikuyu, and Zulu in the 19th and 20th centuries, he argues these shifts occurred not only in response to administrative and political developments, but also social, cultural, economic, and technological changes. For example, missionaries' desire to provide scriptural and liturgical texts in African languages led to standardization of these languages, which in turn made people "more apt to identify with the larger language community," as opposed to just the communities sharing their dialect (97). A particularly strong Chapter Six addresses the myth that Islam is better suited for Africans than Christianity. Rather than examining the relative merits of either religion, Northrup counters the myth by presenting "factual errors about the histories of Christianity and Islam in Africa" (105). He succinctly chronicles the spread of both Islam and Christianity, demonstrating the historic appeal of each in context.

     Northrup examines the myths of "Africa rising" and "Africa falling" in Chapter Seven. By "Africa rising," he means the unrealistically high optimism for the continent's future during "the nationalist campaigns of mid-twentieth century Africa," while "Africa falling" refers to the subsequent disillusionment stemming from post-independence challenges (151). He recounts both challenges (e.g., coups) and positive developments (e.g., increases in life expectancy) in order "to suggest there is good news from Africa without denying that much of the news could be better" (151). The chapter's scope is particularly ambitious as he touches on the transition from colonial rule, political and economic trends in post-colonial Africa, demographic and public health trends, shifts in educational provision and attainment, and migration.

     The book's greatest strength is also its primary flaw: brevity. At its best, Seven Myths of Africa in World History is succinct, with Northrup countering myths concisely while enabling the reader to learn more through the extensive footnotes and Suggested Readings included at the end of the book. At its worst, the book's brevity, wide scope, and organization around seven myths occasionally lead to the unsatisfyingly short and uneven treatment of topics. For example, Northrup devotes only one paragraph to discussing and attempting to disprove "brain drain" in migration in Chapter Seven. However, he includes no citations, and the Suggested Readings for this chapter include only two sources total (other chapters offer between four and ten each), despite it being one of the widest-ranging. Presumably, the need to organize the book around seven myths to match the Myths of History series explains why this chapter could not be divided in two, even though that would have allowed for a more nuanced discussion.

     To his credit, Northrup explicitly acknowledges the limitations inherent in the book's format and subject matter. For example, he discusses Africa's diversity in both the preface and introduction, but concludes that for this book's purposes, "because most outside observers tend to see Africa as a place, it is right to take up the challenge so as to locate Africa in its rightful place in world history" (xiv). Similarly, he notes there are both more than seven myths relating to African history and a number of conflicting interpretations among historians for each of these myths.

     The author suggests the book's approach constitutes "an engaging way to explore important topics in African history," and in this effort, it succeeds brilliantly (xv). The chapters are effective in isolation; Chapter Four, for example, would be valuable resource for a course discussion of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Northrup's writing is highly accessible, yet rigorous on the whole, and the topics he presents are indeed important. The brief chapters may have limited material that is new to scholars already familiar with African history, but they provide an approachable introduction to the continent's history that would work well as one of several texts for a university-level course on world history or African history.

Brad Crofford is the legislative assistant at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. He earned his master's degree from the University of Oklahoma's David L. Boren College of International Studies. His academic book reviews have been published in African Studies Quarterly, Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies, and The Journal of Retracing Africa, among others. He can be reached at


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