Logo IMG


Urbanism on West Africa’s Slave Coast

Archaeology sheds new light on cities in the era of the Atlantic slave trade

J. Cameron Monroe

Seeing Below the Surface

2011-09MonroeF10.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageThe kingdoms of Allada, Hueda and Dahomey came to prominence on the Slave Coast in a period of dramatic economic opportunity—as well as potential instability—and figure large in discussions gauging the relative impact of Atlantic commercial expansion in West Africa. Allada and Hueda are often cited as political casualties of the slave trade, whereas Dahomey is typically characterized as the beneficiary of the opportunities the trade produced for West African kingdoms. Archaeological research conducted at a regional scale is shedding important light on how these phenomena were tied to broader political- economic processes that determined the relative stability of these polities in the wake of Atlantic commercial expansion. In both cases, a landscape-scale analysis provides key insights into the processes that framed everyday life.

Still, after three decades of concerted research in Southern Bénin, archaeologists are literally and figuratively just scratching the surface. We have begun to reconstruct the political and economic connections that bound rural communities to their urban counterparts, and we have made compelling arguments about how these processes were transformed in response to attempts by local elites to engage trans-Atlantic forces. But our understanding of the pre–Atlantic Era societies that gave rise to these urban communities is minimal. So is our understanding of how the commercial revolutions that characterized the Atlantic Era affected the everyday lives of the hundreds of thousands of people who lived across these urban landscapes.

Researchers are working to redress these issues, targeting precontact archaeological sites and rural communities that emerged in the shadows of the palace towns that dominated the political landscape. Some are examining the local systems of production and exchange that were transformed by Atlantic commercial encroachment. Just as a focus on cities on the Slave Coast has repositioned West Africa in the Atlantic era as a valuable source of insight into the nature of urbanism in global archaeology, these archaeological campaigns will orient us toward a better understanding of the cultural context in which Atlantic-Era polities emerged. They should also yield insight into the complexities of life under the onslaught of trans-Atlantic forces.


  • Adandé, A. B. A. 1987. Recherches à Togudo-Awute: le Grand Ardres retrouvé. Cahiers des Archives du Sol 1:13–56.
  • Akinjogbin, I. A. 1967. Dahomey and its Neighbours, 1708–1818. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bay, E. 1998. Wives of the Leopard: Gender, Politics, and Culture in the Kingdom of Dahomey. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.
  • Forbes, F. E. 1851. Dahomey and the Dahomans. London: Frank Cass and Company.
  • Kelly, K. 1997. The Archaeology of African-European interaction: investigating the social roles of trade, traders, and the use of space in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Hueda kingdom, Republic of Bénin. World Archaeology 28:351–369.
  • LaViolette, A., and J. Fleisher. 2005. The Archaeology of Sub-Saharan urbanism: Cities and their countrysides. In African Archaeology: A Critical Introduction. A.B. Stahl (ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Law, R. 1991. The Slave Coast of West Africa, 1550–1750: The Impact of the Atlantic Slave Trade on an African Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Manning, P. 1982. Slavery, Colonialism and Economic Growth in Dahomey, 1640–1960. 1982. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Monroe, J. C., and A. Ogundiran. 2012. Power and Landscape in Atlantic West Africa: Archaeological Perspectives. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Monroe, J. C. 2007. Continuity, revolution, or evolution on the slave coast of West Africa: Royal architecture and political order in precolonial Dahomey. Journal of African History 48:349–373.
  • Norman, N. 2009. Hueda (Whydah) country and town: Archaeological perspectives on the rise and collapse of an Atlantic countryside and entrepôt. International Journal of African Historical Studies 42:387–410.
  • Norris, R. 1789. Memoirs of the reign of Bossa Ahádee. London: Printed for W. Lowndes.
  • Randsborg, K., and I. Merkyte. 2009. Bénin Archaeology—The Ancient Kingdoms. Centre for World Archaeology Publications 7:1–2. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Thornton, J. K. 1998. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

comments powered by Disqus


Subscribe to American Scientist