African Ports

Ty M. Reese

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online April 2011 | | DOI:
African Ports

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  • History of the Americas
  • European History
  • African History
  • History
  • Regional and National History


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Starting in the 15th century, West Africa’s orientation started to change from being inward looking, to the trans-Saharan caravan routes, where powerful and centralized states emerged near the Sahara to control this trade to the coastal regions, to an outward-looking Atlantic focus. As European vessels sailed down the West African coastline, the coastal peoples interacted and traded with the newcomers as they sought to take advantage of the new opportunities presented to them. This initiated a process in which large sections of West Africa, from the Senegal and Gambia rivers (Senegambia) to the Kingdom of Kongo, became involved in Atlantic trade. While scholars once viewed West Africa’s participation in the Atlantic trade as entirely destructive, predominately because of the demographic consequences of the slave trade, coupled with a belief that the import of European and other global commodities destroyed indigenous manufacturing thereby creating dependency, recent scholarship stresses African agency and Africa’s coastal control over the Atlantic trade. The rise of Atlantic trade meant that those people with a coastal presence could establish themselves as middlemen between the Atlantic and the interior. This meant that many coastal towns, usually oriented toward fishing but often serving as market towns, quickly became important ports that connected the Atlantic trade to regional trade networks. The first example of this was Portugal’s construction of São Jorge da Mina Castle (Elmina) in 1482 after receiving the permission of the local elite. During this period of Atlantic trade, numerous coastal ports developed that played an important economic, social, political and cultural role in West Africa’s development, supplemented by a secondary coastal trading system that allowed trade where established ports did not exist. While these ports played an important role in this period, the number of individual histories of these ports remains quite small. Instead, much of the history of West Africa in this period involves regional histories—of Senegambia, the Gold Coast, the Slave Coast, the Bight of Benin and Biafra, the Kingdom of Kongo, and West Central Africa—that connect the ports with the larger regional economic systems and that, for many, attempt to explain the consequences of the region’s participation in Atlantic trade and the slave trade.

Article.  8913 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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