A historian reconstructs our notion of West and West-Central Africa as a community of kingdoms that revolved around trade, diplomacy, complex religious beliefs, and the production of art. Green shows how the slave trade led to economic disparities that caused African kingdoms to lose relative political and economic power, bringing about a revolutionary 19th century in Africa that parallels the upheavals taking place in Europe and America
... remarkable ... Not an easy work to categorise, it is at its core an economic history in which the author poses a profoundly challenging question ... Passages from the author’s travels provide observations and anecdotes that usefully link the past to the present day and give voice to the lives and experiences of African themselves. Ranging far beyond economics, Green’s thesis becomes, ultimately, an almost philosophical meditation on the nature of value across differing cultures and societies during a long and under-examined era of early globalisation. What marks the book out as unusual is not the volume of sources but their range. The use of oral histories from an impressive array of African societies is particularly refreshing. In his introduction Green also brilliantly deploys fine art ... Although not always the easiest text to follow—the thematic approach at times obscuring the sense of a developing narrative—this is a stunning work of research and argumentation. It has the potential to become a landmark in our understanding of the most misunderstood of continents.
Mr. Green’s book abounds in arresting vignettes ... There is no education without entertainment, and Mr. Green uses colorful episodes to exemplify serious points ... The sources do impose limitations, and Mr. Green has to leave stretches of West Africa in the history-less state for which Trevor-Roper condemned it. He is also less than assured in allusions to maroon states in the Americas than on his African home-ground. Mr. Green’s quest for the origins of what he calls modernity is probably doomed. I wish he showed more interest in the cultural divergences that might explain differences among West African peoples’ responses to Islam, Christianity and European empires. He evinces no awareness of how energy shortages—such as the great global fat crisis of the 19th century—affected West Africa’s palm-oil producing regions. But the author’s command of the evidence, depth of reflection and vigilance against error are astonishing for so big a book on so challenging a subject.
In A Fistful of Shells, the historian Toby Green dismantles the racist myth of west African 'backwardness.' He shows that the inequalities that made the European 'scramble for Africa” possible grew out of a catastrophe, the path to which began in the 15th century ... A Fistful of Shells is an antidote to these histories, and to the master narrative of Africa as historical object, rather than subject.