In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Africa and the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Bibliographies
  • Atlases and Encyclopedias
  • Journals
  • Anthologies
  • Morocco, Islam, and the Trans-Saharan Trade
  • Senegambia and Upper Guinea
  • Sierra Leone and Liberia
  • Gold Coast and Slave Coast
  • Niger Delta and Bight of Biafra
  • Central and Southern Africa
  • Africans in Europe

Atlantic History Africa and the Atlantic World
David Northrup
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0002


Africa from Morocco to the Cape of Good Hope experienced new contacts with Europeans during the four centuries before 1850. Growing Atlantic exports and imports from the 1400s affected coastal societies most and also impacted inland areas. Africans sought a variety of manufactured goods, of which cloth and metals were the most important, and exported gold, ivory, forest products, and slaves. Due to demand in the Americas, the volume of the trade expanded, with human captives becoming the principal export from the 1680s. Following the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, Africans expanded their exports of ivory and vegetable oil. Because the Atlantic slave trade is the subject of a separate Oxford Bibliography Online, this bibliography is primarily focused on the larger importance of Atlantic connections for Africa. There is much greater consensus on the importance of Africa for the development of the Americas than there is on the Atlantic’s importance for Africa before 1850. Moving away from a paradigm that projected the victimization of enslaved Africans onto the continent as a whole, most scholars now emphasize that African traders and rulers generally engaged the Atlantic from positions of military, diplomatic, and commercial strength. Little territory was lost to outsiders, and the volume of the Atlantic trade was modest compared with internal inter-African trade and continuing trade with the Islamic world. While significant in African ports, European languages, education, and religious beliefs did not spread far inland.

General Overviews

The multivolume histories prepared by Cambridge University Press (Fage and Oliver 1975–1986) and UNESCO 1981–1993 provide excellent overviews of every part and period of African history and include full bibliographies. Austen 1987 and Hopkins 1973 are outstanding comparative overviews of the importance of internal, Atlantic, and Islamic trades for the continent’s development. Thornton 1998 is a survey of early transatlantic relations that has been influential in reframing the early history of transatlantic connections to pay more attention to African agency, while Northrup 2014 explores the first four centuries of African interactions with Europeans with a similar emphasis on African perspectives and actions. Thornton 1999 also provides a pioneering introduction to the Atlantic’s importance in African military history.

  • Austen, Ralph A. African Economic History: Internal Development and External Dependency. London: James Currey, 1987.

    This masterful overview of Africans’ adaptation to their continent’s environments and the development of regional marketing networks goes on to describe the growing external involvements via the Sahara, the Indian Ocean, and the Atlantic and the resulting consequences.

  • Fage, J. D., and Roland Oliver, eds. The Cambridge History of Africa. 8 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1975–1986.

    These volumes are divided chronologically, and their chapters are subdivided geographically and thematically. Written by the leading experts, this is meant to be a definitive guide to the history of the continent from antiquity to the early independence period. It is still extremely useful.

  • Hopkins, Anthony G. An Economic History of West Africa. New York: Columbia University Press, 1973.

    This groundbreaking examination of West Africans’ international and internal economic relations first with the Islamic states to the north and then with Europeans in the Atlantic stresses that Africans were rational decision makers.

  • Northrup, David. Africa’s Discovery of Europe, 1450–1850. 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    This readable, innovative survey of sub-Saharan African cultural and economic relations with Europeans before the colonial era is heavily based on African perspectives.

  • Thornton, John. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511800276

    This groundbreaking study argues that Africans in and out of slavery were active participants in creating the Atlantic world. Coverage is confined to the period before 1680 except for one chapter on Africans in the 18th-century Atlantic.

  • Thornton, John K. Warfare in Atlantic Africa, 1500–1800. London: UCL, 1999.

    This well-written scholarly survey of African warfare, military technology, and weaponry argues that African states had great military strengths and that older, exaggerated assertions of the powerful impact of the Atlantic on African societies in this period needs to be reassessed.

  • UNESCO. General History of Africa. 8 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981–1993.

    Written by scholars from Africa and other continents, these volumes are chronologically arranged and contain chapters on many subjects. The quality of this UNESCO history is more uneven than Fage and Oliver 1975–1986 and is more focused on internal developments.

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