In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section African Ports

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies and Journals
  • St. Louis, Gorée Island, and James Island
  • Sierra Leone
  • Bight of Benin (Slave Coast)
  • Ports of the Slave Coast
  • Bight of Biafra
  • West Central Africa
  • Tourism and Remembrance

Atlantic History African Ports
Ty M. Reese
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0087


Starting in the 15th century, West Africa’s orientation started to change from being inward looking, to the trans-Saharan caravan routes, where powerful and centralized states emerged near the Sahara to control this trade to the coastal regions, to an outward-looking Atlantic focus. As European vessels sailed down the West African coastline, the coastal peoples interacted and traded with the newcomers as they sought to take advantage of the new opportunities presented to them. This initiated a process in which large sections of West Africa, from the Senegal and Gambia rivers (Senegambia) to the Kingdom of Kongo, became involved in Atlantic trade. While scholars once viewed West Africa’s participation in the Atlantic trade as entirely destructive, predominately because of the demographic consequences of the slave trade, coupled with a belief that the import of European and other global commodities destroyed indigenous manufacturing thereby creating dependency, recent scholarship stresses African agency and Africa’s coastal control over the Atlantic trade. The rise of Atlantic trade meant that those people with a coastal presence could establish themselves as middlemen between the Atlantic and the interior. This meant that many coastal towns, usually oriented toward fishing but often serving as market towns, quickly became important ports that connected the Atlantic trade to regional trade networks. The first example of this was Portugal’s construction of São Jorge da Mina Castle (Elmina) in 1482 after receiving the permission of the local elite. During this period of Atlantic trade, numerous coastal ports developed that played an important economic, social, political and cultural role in West Africa’s development, supplemented by a secondary coastal trading system that allowed trade where established ports did not exist. While these ports played an important role in this period, the number of individual histories of these ports remains quite small. Instead, much of the history of West Africa in this period involves regional histories—of Senegambia, the Gold Coast, the Slave Coast, the Bight of Benin and Biafra, the Kingdom of Kongo, and West Central Africa—that connect the ports with the larger regional economic systems and that, for many, attempt to explain the consequences of the region’s participation in Atlantic trade and the slave trade.

General Overviews

There is one general study, Law 1999, that deals with African ports, but there are numerous studies that allow for a conceptualization of African ports or that clearly demonstrate the need for specific studies on African ports. The edited volume Knight and Liss 1991 completely ignores Africa, while Anderson and Rathbone 2000 broadly examines Africa’s urban areas. Other studies, including the pioneering but now revised work of Karl Polanyi (Polanyi 1968), concerning “ports of trade” and the “archaic” economies of Africa, and Curtin 1984, an examination of “trade diasporas,” have worked to create an overall understanding of how West Africa changed during its engagement with Atlantic trade. As West Africa’s role within the slave trade became better understood, along with the numbers of Africans being removed from West Africa, historians have worked to understand how these Atlantic connections, which often occurred through ports, changed West African regions and societies. Two recent attempts to synthesize this knowledge, Thornton 1998 and Northrup 2008, have made the history of West Africa in this period more accessible to non-Africanists. The collection of essays found in Falola 2003 celebrates the career of the African scholar Abu Boahen and thus broadly deals with Ghana while providing specific essays on slavery and the slave trade.

  • Anderson, David M., and Richard Rathbone, eds. Africa’s Urban Past. Papers presented at a conference held on June 1996 at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2000.

    A collection of eighteen essays from a 1996 conference at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Topical divisions are “Urban Archaeologies,” “Pre-Colonial Towns in Transition,” “Urban Economies,” “Becoming Urban,” and “The Politics of Urban Order.” Includes articles on Mbanza Kongo, Ouidah, and two on the Gold Coast.

  • Curtin, Philip D. Cross-Cultural Trade in World History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511661198

    An examination of the importance of the “trade diasporas” that allowed cross-cultural trade to occur. The book focuses upon examples where outsiders were allowed to establish themselves, in often very different ways, within a community to facilitate trade. Examines multiple trade diasporas, including those in Africa.

  • Falola, Toyin, ed. Ghana in Africa and the World: Essays in Honor of Adu Boahen. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2003.

    A collection of thirty-six essays, broadly structured around Ghana, with articles by Paul Lovejoy, Robin Law, and Joseph Inikori, dealing with West Africa and its Atlantic and slave trades.

  • Knight, Franklin W., and Peggy K. Liss, eds. Atlantic Port Cities: Economy, Culture, and Society in the Atlantic World, 1650–1850. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991.

    A collection of ten essays, with Africa, and its ports that sent millions of forced laborers to the Americas, being noticeably absent.

  • Law, Robin, and Silke Strickrodt, eds. Ports of the Slave Trade (Bights of Benin and Biafra). Papers presented at a conference of the Centre of Commonwealth Studies, University of Stirling, in June 1998. Stirling, UK: Centre of Commonwealth Studies, University of Stirling, 1999.

    A collection of twelve essays stemming from a conference concerning the UNESCO Slave Trade of the Nigerian Hinterland project. The papers include both broad and specific examinations of various African ports, including Ouidah, Old Calabar, and Douala, and the important role that they played in the transatlantic slave trade.

  • Northrup, David. Africa’s Discovery of Europe, 1450–1850. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    An accessible book that views West Africa’s interaction with the Atlantic and Europe through an African rather than European viewpoint. Provides a thorough and stimulating synthesis of the Africanist literature concerning West Africa’s involvement in Atlantic trade.

  • Polanyi, Karl Primitive, Archaic, and Modern Economies: Essays of Karl Polanyi. Edited by George Dalton. Boston: Beacon, 1968.

    A collection of Polanyi’s important essays that argued that an archaic and administered economic system existed in Africa and explored the role of “ports of trade” in the intersection of market and nonmarket economies. Numerous scholars have challenged and revised Polanyi’s work.

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

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511800276

    An important work that explains the role of West Africans and West Africa in Atlantic trade, and in the slave trade, with a stress throughout on African agency. The work redefined the place of Africans in the Atlantic World and stresses the control that Africans possessed over the coastal slave trade.

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