BBC World Histories Magazine

The Conversation

“West African societies weren’t cut off from global developments – they were influenced by them and were influencing them”
“Slavery is a fundamental part of how African history evolved, but it needs to be put into its proper context”

Matt Elton: What myths commonly held in the west about the African continent and its people do we need to dismantle?

Toby Green: One of the myths that has arisen in the past couple of centuries is that Africa is somehow disconnected from history and played no part in the global historical process. It’s a curious myth, because we know that Africa was connected to parts of Asia at least 1,000 years ago. From AD 1200 onward, annual caravans of pilgrims from Africa travelled to Mecca, and west Africa was well known in Europe before the Portuguese began to sail down the Atlantic coast in the 15th century. Yet the idea that Africa was somehow cut away from global processes is an enduring one.

I think another factor influencing attitudes to Africa in the west is the history of slavery. Now, slavery is, of course, a fundamental aspect of the African past – as it is of many histories in the world. But the comparison I would draw is that if we were writing a history of Germany and focused only on the Nazis, without looking at some of the beautiful works of music and philosophy that Germany produced, we’d be missing out something quite important. Similarly, if we were to write a history of Africa and focus just on slavery, ignoring aspects of family life, daily life, music and art – which is what a lot of the history taught about Africa has done – we’d be missing out a huge amount.

In my book , I ask the question: “What were people thinking about on the Gold Coast [now Ghana] in the 17th century?” And, of course, they weren’t thinking just about slavery – they were thinking about what they were going to eat that night, what fashions were in, how their neighbours were doing their hair, and so on. Of course, slavery is a fundamental part of how African history evolved, but it needs to be put in its proper context,

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