“For a Fistful of Seashells” by Toby Green: Understanding Africa’s Past
How did Africa fall into the traps of the Atlantic slave trade? It’s not that orthodox accounts suggest that slavery began one morning on January 1 in the distant, untraceable past, but they rarely trace the root causes or brush them aside in favor of a simplistic narrative that features abolitionism. in terms of a well-intentioned gift. Europeans.
Toby Green’s A handful of seashells is a solid attempt to tackle the critique of political economy that led, among other stories, to the Atlantic slave trade and its dialectical opposite, the revolutions that brought down the infamous institution (not the Anglo-American abolitionism) at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. Most enslaving African politics eventually descended into colonialism, and the postcolonial present bears many lasting traces, if not resemblances, to the era of slavery.
Green’s book changes that. To support his assertions, the author starts from the beginning: the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th century, that is to say well before geographical explorations and the search by the Portuguese for an alternative to break the monopoly of Ottomans on internal trade with India and the Far East.
Readers find that the central argument of Africa’s vulnerability to multiple forms of predation, not just the trade in captives, is particularly lengthy. From the 14th century, African polities such as the Mali and Songhay empires were known to exchange considerable amounts of gold for less formidable commodities such as fabrics and iron bars or second-rate currencies such than cowries/shells. Given the current reliance on gold as a standard of value, Green points out that almost everyone who has traded with or come into contact with Africans has ended up “cheating” them out of gold. . When the Portuguese appeared on the coasts of West and West-Central Africa in the early 15th century, they simply wanted to surpass the Ottomans’ and Arabs’ access to gold for services and royalties with African caravans.
While seeking access to sub-Saharan Africa, we read that the Arabs, Ottomans and Europeans wanted to get their hands on the source of the most prized of metals. And when their supply of gold ran out, African kingdoms and states had to export human captives to maintain the same lifestyle they enjoyed when gold was in abundance.
Likewise, we read how revolutions have broken out because of the enslavement of Africans. Just as the heads of Charles I of England and Louis XVI rolled in the wake of bloody reversals of fortune in Europe, several African states and aristocracies such as the empires of Sokoto, Benin and Oyo were wiped from the menu. Yet the damage has already been done, and the revolutionary orders that emerged from slave economies in the late 18th and early 19th centuries find the rules of global trade circumventing them. The rapid proliferation of credit decided the fate of the remaining African states at the end of the 19th century through colonialism.
Green’s thesis is also ambitious because the assertion of predation by non-Africans on Africans highlights an undue reliance on the financial economy. Finance inaugurated complex credit networks from Lisbon and later from London. History would have taken a different course if these economies had remained faithful to barter exchanges.
The book consists of eleven chapters stretching between two parts, respectively entitled “Causes” and “Consequences”. Five chapters form the first part and six in the second. The fact that causality shapes a long-term historical approach is reminiscent of the Hegelian method: intensity, measure, as well as quantity metamorphosing into quantity. The method saves readers from the stupidity of dubious accounts of slavery; those who only note what is visible, neglecting the underlying dynamics at play over time. For when you engage with A handful of seashells, the reader will do without the simplistic tales of mismanagement, distrust of authority, endemic corruption or embezzlement that plague most African politics today. Only by recording centuries of betrayal and slavery will the reader understand the current scourges.
Trusting Green’s thesis implies that medieval Africans were at the heart of world trade. They simply did not wait for the colonialism of the late 19th century to be introduced into history. Indeed, Africa’s gold and the value generated by bonded labor were accelerators for complex international trade networks that made possible the rise of capitalism. We find that the Ottomans could not take Constantinople in 1453 and Cairo in 1517 without an eye on these West African caravans bringing huge reserves of gold. Green’s references to states, kingdoms, and empires as markers of civilization taint the book’s radical method because states, as evidence gathered in the volume suggests, enslave structures by default, not by accident.
In this respect, access to rent money, whether it be cowries, bundles of cloth, iron bars or gold, signifies a descent into slavery, an undue reliance on the most -relative value. Contrary to common sense perception, money is never a neutral unit of measurement and exchange. Through his capacity for commodification, Karl Marx specifies that no one, however powerful, possesses money. It is money that owns and eats people. Therefore, it becomes a methodological problem to claim that Africans have been defrauded of hard currencies such as gold. Exchange value as an organizing principle hides not only the commodification of exchanges but also the commodification of human beings, thus falling into the traps of the slave trade.
Readers discover in Green’s valuable account that as the gold supply dries up, kings and princes not only had no qualms about selling their own people, but these state structures become solipsistic entities. and psycho-frenetic. Green argues with little evidence, however, that not all of the African exchanges studied in the book were barter economies. It becomes evident that because the sum of human labor determines the equality of exchanges, these economies become vulnerable. This could not have been the case with barter economies. For a quantity of labor to be measured and judged equal, one cannot dispense with the abstraction of what characterizes commodities, their quality. Slowly and unconsciously, the reign of quantity takes precedence over quality – a course, once taken, automates enslavement since humans and human labor only become valued when quantifiable.
It remains to be remembered that even when cowries and rolls of cloth or even iron bars were standardized as means of exchange, Africans from the 14th and 15th centuries (under the empires of Mali or Songhay) were not yet fully inscribed in the principle of commodification understood a little later (from the 16th century). We find that the cowries were used more as gifts (tokens of gratitude, love and precious memories outside the principle of commodification) for simple daily necessities or in rituals. Therefore, the reason why the green thesis pushes on modernity or the preparation of Africans for globalization before contact with Arabia or Europe leads nowhere.
In the meantime, the thesis that he does not articulate but whose masterly presentation nevertheless pushes, that of the revolutionary movements which spread towards the abolition of the slave aristocracies, is not only interesting but radically upsets the static perceptions of Africans as as peoples living outside of space and time. It should be emphasized that these Africans, like other peoples, are endowed with a logos (capacity for reasoning and action) to undo the contradiction of their slave status. This radical logos triggered the dialectical game that specifies the historical necessity of reversing the valorization of their devalorization as commodities, as slaves.
But long-distance trade explains the fall of Africans from plenitude, their alienation from the primordial order, and the slowness with which they become actors in the commodification of space and time. Access to credit corresponds to the anticipation of future added value, but this future added value is quantified in the present thanks to the possibility of credit. Hence the cheating of time by taking advantage of its simple passage/chronological passage. This is why long-distance trade cannot only indicate the access of Africans to modernity! Long-distance trade underscores the shift from fixed surplus value to relative surplus value, a situation that slowly but surely led to the crystallization of the need for revolution to resolve the contradiction. Green’s precious account ignores how, whether on mainland Africa, on American plantations, or on the intervening islands, enslaved Africans opposed their forced commodification, a catastrophe precipitated by long-distance trade.
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