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FEATURE ARTICLE

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.

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