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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Essay Anthologies
  • State of Field Essays
  • Ecological Encounters
  • Politics at the Intersection
  • Female Encounters
  • Social Histories of Migration
  • Urban/Port Histories
  • Biographies and Micro-histories
  • Africa and Europe in the World
  • Archaeologies of Encounter
  • Selected Resources for the Classroom

Atlantic History Europe and Africa
Catherine Molineux
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0251


The 19th-century European scramble for Africa and the 20th-century decolonization movements have dominated the historiography of “Europe and Africa.” But historians of precolonial Africa, the African diaspora, the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and early modern Europe are developing a significant literature on earlier centuries of contact. The rise of oceanic histories has generated new interest in the intersection of maritime Europe and coastal African societies, yielding a growing number of studies of Europe and Africa, particularly on the slave trades, that are not intended to explain later eras of African state formation or European industrialization. This scholarship, which relies heavily on European written sources, initially privileged European agency and perspective. A deepening Africanist literature reverses this vantage point, seeking to “provincialize Europe,” to show how Africans participated in global events, and to relinquish colonialism as the inevitable endpoint of European-African relationships. Since the 1960s and 1970s, scholars of black Europe, the black Atlantic, and African diaspora have also drawn attention to forms of early modern contact far from the African coastlines and the decks of European ships. They have described African travelers, slaves, artists, writers, artisans, and ambassadors moving through and living in Europe and European colonies, helping to forge new communities, to resist or contribute to Atlantic slaving regimes, and to transform Atlantic racial and ethnic geographies. Scholars work to untangle the attitudes and prejudices that shaped these experiences, exploring the evolution of contemporary racial, ethnic, religious, and aesthetic categories of human difference. As it stands, the literature on pre-c. 1800 Africa and Europe is wide but not deep, except in Atlantic slave trade studies, and it lacks the flurry of recent synthetic accounts that have appeared in Atlantic African studies. This article is organized along dimensions of encounters between Europeans and Africans before 1800; it also provides selected overviews, essay anthologies, state of field essays, and primary sources useful for the classroom. It does not offer comprehensive coverage of the histories of early modern Europe, precolonial Africa, or the slave trade and slavery (see “The Atlantic Slave Trade”, “Atlantic Slavery”, and other relevant Oxford Bibliographies articles). Rather, it focuses on the variety of spaces and mediums of contact and the kinds of analyses those interactions have thus far generated. The revolutionary transformations of European empires and the labor networks that supported them in the late 18th and early 19th centuries form the endpoint of the article, except in cases in which a study of 19th-century European colonialism included a substantial precolonial section and the region of Europe or Africa was underrepresented in the existing bibliography.

General Overviews

Few comprehensive overviews exist for the specific topic of Africa and Europe prior to 1800. A number of useful historical overviews of Europe, Africa, and Atlantic or global commercial networks, however, can be patched together to provide coverage. Certain areas of study, notably trade, have received the bulk of scholarly efforts among these overviews, while other areas of study, especially gender or women’s history, remain in short supply. This distribution reflects the availability of extant source material, the driving economic force behind these early encounters, and the weight of socioeconomic analysis within history as a discipline. Readers new to the field or who want a text on Africa to include in an Atlantic world or European empires course could fruitfully begin with Northrup 2014, which offers an accessible account of early contact from a West African perspective. Getz 2013 and Austen 1987 map African experiences in the first wave of globalization and the integration of sub-Saharan African domestic economies into developing international markets. For a more advanced level of inquiry, Goodwin 2009 provides a synthesis of current secondary literature. Philips 2005 and Parker and Rathbone 2007 highlight the evidentiary challenges for reconstructing histories of contact. Studies of individual European interests in Africa or particular commercial networks would flesh out thematic emphases: for instance, Morgan 2008 offers an overview of British interests in Africa, while Postma 2003 and Wright 2007 explore, respectively, Atlantic and trans-Saharan trades in slaves.

  • Austen, Ralph. African Economic History: Internal Development and External Dependency. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1987.

    Overview of the economic consequences of Africa’s involvement in international trade. Evaluates, among other topics, the impact of trans-Saharan, Atlantic, and Indian Ocean trade on precolonial sub-Saharan Africa’s domestic economies.

  • Getz, Trevor R. Cosmopolitan Africa, c. 1700–1875. African World Histories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    Useful classroom text. Introduces students to the period before European colonialism. Explores, from a social and cultural perspective, such topics as daily life, trading networks, and how African societies imagined their place within a rapidly expanding world.

  • Goodwin, Stefan. Africa in Europe: Antiquity into the Age of Global Exploration. Vol. 1. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2009.

    Textbook of current scholarly literature. Argues for rethinking the relationship between Europe and Africa, moving beyond an emphasis on race and jettisoning divisions of “Europe and Africa” into sub-Saharan and northern histories.

  • Morgan, Kenneth. Slavery and the British Empire: From Africa to America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    Introductory overview of British involvement with African slavery and the slave trade. Exemplifies a single empire approach to European/African relationships in this period. Covers the distribution of slaves, European merchants, and abolition, among other topics.

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

    Exemplary of efforts to reverse perspective by privileging African rather than European experiences of transatlantic contact. Thematically organized to highlight first impressions, religion and politics, commerce and culture, imported goods and technology, the middle passage, and Africans in Europe. Argues that these interactions profoundly shaped precolonial Africa.

  • Parker, John, and Richard Rathbone. African History: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780192802484.001.0001

    Useful introductory overview to methodologies, sources, and major themes in African history. Covers a multitude of topics, including culture, religion, diaspora, slavery, and colonialism. Helpful place to start undergraduate or graduate students as they develop research topics.

  • Philips, John Edward, ed. Writing African History. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2005.

    Useful set of essays exploring the sources available for the writing of African history and methodologies for investigation. Covers archaeological, linguistic, biological, oral and documentary sources, and the various historical genres. A bit uneven across essays, but helpful for historians new to the study of the African past as well as for student researchers.

  • Postma, Johannes. The Atlantic Slave Trade. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2003.

    Clearly organized overview of the Atlantic slave trade from a historian of the Dutch Atlantic. Designed for advanced high school and undergraduate students. Explores historical contexts that gave rise to the trade, the path into slavery, and enslaved life. Provides a chronology of major events, extracts from thirteen documents, maps, glossary of terms, and short annotated bibliography.

  • Wright, John. The Trans-Saharan Slave Trade. London: Routledge, 2007.

    Overview of slave trade during which approximately 6–7 million people were transported across the Sahara Desert and into North Africa and the Middle East. Useful to understand the route of African slaves who came to live in Europe before the mid-16th century and early Mediterranean dependency on African labor.

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