Enslavement, commerce, and political formations in West Africa, c. 1550-1850

This information is for the 2022/23 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Jake Subryan Richards SAR 2.08 MT; TBC LT and ST


This course is available on the BA in History, BA in Social Anthropology, BSc in History and Politics, BSc in International Relations and History, BSc in Politics and History and BSc in Social Anthropology. 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.

Course content

What role did West Africa and West African people play in the Atlantic world? In this module, we will investigate how African political communities formed and changed from the rise of the transatlantic trade in enslaved African people 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 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.


20 hours of seminars in the MT. 20 hours of seminars in the LT.

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 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 (35%, 2500 words) and source analysis (20%) in the LT.
Essay (45%, 3500 words) in the ST.

Key facts

Department: International History

Total students 2021/22: 16

Average class size 2021/22: 16

Capped 2021/22: Yes (16)

Value: One Unit

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Personal development skills

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