Enslavement, commerce, and political formations in West Africa, c. 1550-1836

This information is for the 2020/21 session.

Teacher responsible

Jake Richards


This course is available on the BA in History, BSc in International Relations and History and BSc in Politics and History. This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit. This course is available to General Course students.

HY333 is available to General Course students starting from the Michaelmas Term ONLY in 2020/21.

Course content

What role did West Africa and West Africans play in the Atlantic world? In this module, we will investigate how African political communities formed and changed from the rise of the transatlantic slave trade to the age of revolutions. Between c. 1550 and 1800, empires rose and fell, trading patterns were transformed, and social and cultural practices changed in the regions that became known as the Gold Coast, Bight of Benin, and West Central Africa. African empires that had expanded were threatened by revolutionary political rivals. Slaving, which had begun as a marginal enterprise, became the primary export activity, generating widespread warfare and demographic distortion. And ideas and practices regarding gods, gender, and land changed to makes sense of problems such as inequality, the abuse of political power, and the interference of outsiders. We will discover how Africans participated in commerce, diplomacy, and cultural production on equal terms with white Europeans between c. 1550 and 1700. We will trace how those relationships changed with growing commercial dependence on the transatlantic slave trade, along with its devastating effects on military conflict, spiritual beliefs, and political stability. Through various themes such as kinship, trade, spirituality, and political power, this course investigates how West Africans were participants in the Atlantic world, rather than its one-dimensional victims.


Students will engage with class content in large and small group meetings. Learning engagement includes recorded content, live sessions, small group meetings, asynchronous Moodle posts, and short presentations. There will be a reading week in week 6 of the Michaelmas and the Lent Terms.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 1 essay and 1 exercise in the MT.

Indicative reading

Gwyn Campbell, Suzanne Miers, and Joseph C. Miller, eds., Women and slavery. 2 volumes (Athens, Ohio, 2007).

Mariana Candido, An African Slaving Port and the Atlantic World: Benguela and its Hinterland (Cambridge, 2013).

Toby Green, A fistful of shells: West Africa from the rise of the slave trade to the age of revolution (London, 2019).

Linda Heywood, Njinga of Angola: Africa’s warrior queen (Cambridge, MA, 2017).

Jan S. Hogendorn and Marion Johnson, The shell money of the slave trade (Cambridge; New York, 2003).

Robin Law, The Oyo Empire, c.1600-c.1836: A West African imperialism in the era of the Atlantic slave trade (Aldershot, Hampshire, England; Brookfield, Vt., USA, 1991).

T. C. McCaskie, State and society in pre-colonial Asante (Cambridge, 2002).

John K. Thornton, Africa and Africans in the making of the Atlantic world, 1400-1680 (Cambridge; New York, 1992).

Jan Vansina, Paths in the rainforests: toward a history of political tradition in equatorial Africa (London, 1990).

Ivor Wilks, Forests of gold: essays on the Akan and the Kingdom of Asante (Athens, 1997).


Essay (80%, 5000 words) in the ST.
Source analysis (20%) in the LT.

Important information in response to COVID-19

Please note that during 2020/21 academic year some variation to teaching and learning activities may be required to respond to changes in public health advice and/or to account for the situation of students in attendance on campus and those studying online during the early part of the academic year. For assessment, this may involve changes to mode of delivery and/or the format or weighting of assessments. Changes will only be made if required and students will be notified about any changes to teaching or assessment plans at the earliest opportunity.

Key facts

Department: International History

Total students 2019/20: Unavailable

Average class size 2019/20: Unavailable

Capped 2019/20: No

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Leadership
  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Application of information skills
  • Communication
  • Specialist skills