Urbanism on West Africa’s Slave Coast
Archaeology sheds new light on cities in the era of the Atlantic slave trade
Until recently, sub-Saharan Africa was viewed as a place lacking a deeply rooted urban history. Because many African communities did not fit models of the city that scholars embraced in the early 20th century, the impressive scale of precolonial African towns was attributed to intrusive Middle Eastern or European influences in the second millennium A.D. Those models defined cities in terms of specific traits: large populations, monumental architecture and a literate class that fostered religion, the arts and government. African communities without these requisites were viewed as mere extensions of a rural countryside, part of a peasant way of life. African communities that had such traits were deemed beneficiaries of cultural stimulus from afar.
Despite the tenacious grip that this model held on our understanding of the sub-Saharan African past, archaeological evidence accumulated in recent decades is dispelling the myth of a cityless precolonial Africa. Research adopting a functional model of the city has forced us to see cities as more than a simple collection of traits. According to this model, urban centers are differentiated from, but closely integrated with, their rural communities. Cities are thus settlements that provide specialized services to a broader hinterland. The key issue, therefore, is not what a city is, but what a city does for rural communities within its sphere of influence.
This functional model has cast valuable light on the evolution of urban settlements across the continent. Research conducted in the 1980s and 1990s by Susan and Roderick McIntosh, of Rice University and Yale University respectively, has revealed that communities in the Inland Niger Delta region of Mali began to pass the urban threshold during the first millennium A.D., long before Near Eastern or European influence was a factor. Archaeological research on the Swahili and Zimbabwe civilizations of eastern and southern Africa respectively, has revealed cities that flowered in response to Indian Ocean commerce in the early second millennium A.D., yet had deep roots in indigenous settlement configurations. Archaeology thus plays an important role in rejecting the idea that Africa has never been more than a recipient of cultural stimulus from the outside world.
However, despite the antiquity of urban traditions across sub-Saharan Africa, this research has also demonstrated that global forces have had wide-reaching impacts on the way pre-existing urban communities were organized. The Atlantic Era, which spanned the 17th through 19th centuries, was a period of particularly intense global commercial integration. Beginning in the second half of the 17th century, as the trans-Atlantic slave trade began to dominate long-distance commerce, West African urban communities were transformed. Royal capitals expanded rapidly, towns emerged on the coast and in the interior, and people flocked to the European-controlled coastal fortresses. Slave raiding depopulated some regions entirely. In other areas, people fled conflict to fortified communities in mountainous regions. Overall, the period was marked by major demographic upheaval that had profound effects on the everyday lives of people across the region.
Archaeology is providing new perspectives on West African urban transformation during the Atlantic Era. Archaeologists have excavated sites across the coast and the interior to understand the important social and cultural roles that exotic trade goods played in the lives of West Africans. Increasingly, however, a landscape-archaeological perspective—grounded in regional surveys and targeted excavation—is helping researchers understand the relationship between long-distance trade and urban-rural dynamics in the Atlantic Era. Landscape archaeology rejects individual archaeological sites as the primary analytical unit. It examines broad patterns in the distribution of settlements and other cultural features across regions as a window into social, cultural and economic change in the past. The benefits of this approach are clear in the growing body of research on two West African kingdoms in particular —Hueda and Dahomey—whose fates were intimately connected. Both were zones of intense commercial activity and political upheaval in the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.