Review of History of the Upper Guinea Coast by Walter Rodney

WALTER RODNEY. History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800 (Oxford Studies in African Affairs)New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. Pp. ix, 283. $7.00.

History of the Upper Guinea Coast is the refurbished dissertation of the late Guyanese historian and political activist, Walter Rodney. Originally written in 1966 for a PhD in African History at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, the text is a chronological/conceptual history of a section of the West African coast (between the Gambia and Cape Mount) from its first contact with Hispano-Portuguese sailors in the mid-fifteenth century until approximately 1800. The book was a response to contemporary scholarship—which Rodney criticized as too scarce and projecting colonial boundaries onto the precolonial past—and a formative work in the “New Orthodoxy” of African History, dedicated to writing the history of Africa for its own merit, “not as an appendage to anything else.” As a work that traces a complex web of coastal African societies from pre-European contact through the early-modern era, History has no rival; it dispels popular misconceptions while offering a nuanced critique of both developing Afro-European commerce and inherent African social hierarchies.

Rodney focuses on a cultural and geographical region known as the “Rivers of Guinea.” This area is much like the Upper Guinea Coast described by John Thornton, except that it excludes the northern region of Senegambia. For sources, Rodney consults archival material in England, Portugal, Spain, and Italy. Although the Dutch and French were significant presences on the coast, Rodney presents them as secondary to Hispano-Portuguese and English activities. These activities are mainly derived from two archives—the Arquivo Histórico Ultramarino in Lisbon and the Public Record Office in London. Rodney combines these with charts [roteiros],registers [registros], and writings from a diverse cast of contemporary Europeans: admirals, explorers, traders, printers, physicians, and missionaries. Among these, Álvares de Almada, Lemos Coelho, Jean-Baptiste Labat, and Nicholas Owen are a few of the most cited.

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