In July 1324, Sultan Musa of Mali rocked up in Cairo, together with an entourage of over ten thousand slaves and retainers, staying as the guest of the city’s Mamluk governor as he passed through Egypt on the hajj. Fifty years later Cairenes were still talking about it. The Malian ruler flooded the city with gold. Sultan Musa left no Mamluk official or humble petitioner empty-handed, gifting and spending so lavishly that the price of gold collapsed on the Cairo market. His Mamluk host was left full of anecdotes from their conversations: of the magnificence of the Mali kingdom, so vast that it took three years to traverse by foot, and of the fantastic exploits of its royal house, which had sent vast armadas to cross the Atlantic. The brilliance of this African sovereign is thought to have led the Majorcan Jewish cartographers who made the Catalan Atlas in 1375 to place at the centre of the trade routes crossing the Sahara an image of a black king seated on a golden throne and holding up an enormous nugget of gold.
By the time of Musa’s visit, Cairo had been at the heart of a network of African diplomatic exchange for over half a millennium. Its Muslim governors had for a long time been obliged to deal with the continent’s great Christian sovereigns, and here relations could be testy. In 758, Egypt’s Abbasid governor sent a papyrus démarche to the neighbouring king of Nubia (in present-day Sudan), demanding that he respect the terms of their bilateral treaty, stop harassing travelling Egyptian merchants and send slaves of good quality in the annual tribute rather than the ‘handful of old men and one-eyed people’ he had dispatched to date. The Nubian sovereign’s reply has not survived, but we may suppose that he complied. For more than six centuries – as Islam was being carried from Egypt to China – this treaty shielded Christian Nubia from holy war.
Confronted by such episodes, it seems extraordinary that today there exist whole academic disciplines premised upon the idea that ‘international relations’ were a European creation which Africa entered into only in the mid-20th century, when decolonisation endowed it with the modern nation-state. The evidence of Africa’s sumptuous courts, protocol-obsessed courtiers and complex diplomatic engagements centuries before European contact, let alone colonisation, makes it difficult not to be ‘brought up short’, as Toby Green puts it incisively in A Fistful of Shells, by the almost total failure of historians to ‘take African kingdoms and their histories seriously when writing about the birth of the modern world’.
François-Xavier Fauvelle’s The Golden Rhinoceros brings the diplomacy of Africa’s ‘Middle Ages’ to life, while also illuminating such fields as commerce, warfare, faith and literary endeavour. The book could double as a primer in historical method and the use of sources. Each chapter revolves around a single text or archaeological find, and from these Fauvelle reconstructs tiny corners of a vast medieval world all too often lost to history. A memorandum written for Cairo’s Jewish court brings to light the story of a young Indian woman and her newborn son who were abandoned in December 1144 on a beach in Somaliland – ‘an unsavory back alley’ where men only went to acquire cat skins – and the scandal it caused in the Jewish community of the Red Sea port city of Aydhâb. At the same time, it opens a window onto the legal and moral universe of the cosmopolitan merchants trading with India in the mid-12th century. A business partnership agreement drawn up in the early 13th century captures five brothers from a well-known Arab trading family setting off in different directions across Morocco to create a commercial kinship network that would hug the caravan route, while also revealing early insurance and business strategies of the Arab commercial houses managing the long-distance Sahara trade. A hoard of parchments, Islamic fabrics and coins in the Ethiopian monastery of Debre Damo – discovered by a fugitive Italian colonial officer on the run from advancing British forces in 1940 – sheds light on the regular patterns of contact and commerce in 12th-century Abyssinia between the Coptic monks confined to their mountain fastness and their Muslim neighbours.
Fauvelle’s three dozen or so snapshots serve as a kind of historical pointillism, each tiny moment contributing to a panorama of an intricately connected Afro-Islamic world, spanning a period of some seven hundred years. When, at the end of the book, early 15th-century Portuguese explorers and traders appear advancing down the African coast, one cannot help being astonished at their claims to be ‘discovering’ peoples and kingdoms whose fortunes we’ve been following for centuries. It’s a powerful parting shot.
A Fistful of Shells picks up the story where Fauvelle leaves off, in West Africa on the eve of Europe’s ‘Age of Exploration’. West Africa probably ranks close to the bottom of most people’s bucket lists as a travel destination, but its initiates will insist upon its claim to be the most endlessly fascinating place in the world. Toby Green is uniquely qualified to evoke its breathtaking cultural diversity and the sophistication of its civilisations, having travelled extensively through the region over a period of two decades and immersed himself in its archives as well as its oral history and performance culture. The book sets out to answer what Green introduces as a great paradox of West Africa’s modern history: a region that once met the outside world on terms of equality today exists in a relationship of deep inequality and even dependence with the rest of the world. He points to the contrast – in the closest A Fistful of Shells ever gets to using comparative economic data – between the fact that a medieval Malian sultan was, according to a recent survey in Time magazine, the richest man of all time and the fact that the modern state of Mali is today one of the poorest countries in the world. Green leads us through a 300-year story of ‘decline and fall’, in which the terrible impact of the Atlantic slave trade and a range of other European interventions is constantly underlined.
If The Golden Rhinoceros reads at times like a museum catalogue, A Fistful of Shells is a hefty work of academic history – with all the faults of that genre in the present day. Readers who buy the book to uncover, as Green eloquently puts it, the ‘amazing, myriad [and] almost bewilderingly creative complexity’ of West Africa may be forgiven for baulking when they run into Thomas Piketty in its opening pages. There are also problems in seeking to overcome conceptual Eurocentrism in the study of Africa’s past by applying to it the socioeconomic theories of a certain well-known 19th-century German philosopher born well after the events in question took place, and by generally squeezing African historical experience into frameworks derived from the study of Western politics and societies.
The book does not wear its arguments lightly. Indeed, Green often seems to be operating Fauvelle’s historical method in reverse, wrenching artefacts from their local contexts in order to substantiate an ever more bewildering array of generalisations. Thus the intersection of social class and gender hierarchies in West Africa in the 18th century is proved with reference to a single (undated) oral history from the Kaabu kingdom, situated in what is now Guinea-Bissau. As evidence that the ‘rise of global capitalism’ involved a ‘conservative male retrenchment to bolster patriarchy’ in Africa, we are referred to a present-day southern Senegalese dance routine. The palace of the Asante monarch in Kumasi, in modern Ghana, built by a grateful British colonial administration in the 1920s to house the chiefs of its Asante allies, is served up as a site of ‘resistance’ to colonialism. By the end of the book, Green is heralding the rise of the Sokoto caliphate in northern Nigeria – the 19th century’s second-largest slave state – as evidence of reformist Islam’s egalitarianism and anti-slavery ideals, explaining away its vast slave plantations with the comment that slaves were mainly for use in local production rather than the export of ‘surplus value’, and then citing an isolated remark by an English abolitionist from the 1820s as evidence that to be enslaved by an Islamic ruler wasn’t really all that bad anyway (a rich historical literature would suggest otherwise). But by this point, one is left with the distinct impression that theory has completely overtaken Green’s senses.
The study of precolonial African history is today in depressing retreat in both British and African universities. Given that so few people know anything about Africa’s past, it’s hardly surprising that so many debates over its present-day problems involve sterile polemics attributing either all the continent’s ills or all its advances to European colonialism (the one African-related subject that does attract large numbers of students). The proud and stubbornly autonomous cultures and political organisations of precolonial Africa deserve better. We may hope that both these books provoke more people to seek them out.