Africa's Discovery of Europe: 1450-1850

David Northrup

Oxford University Press 2002
A book review by Danny Yee © 2008
In Africa's Discovery of Europe David Northrup explores African perspectives on contact with Europe and Europeans in the four centuries to 1850. This is done using life stories and personal accounts, though in many cases these are only known indirectly, through European texts.

Early encounters included official delegations from African states to Europe, Africans enslaved in Europe, and encounters with Europeans in Africa. With the latter, case studies include Europeans shipwrecked in Southeast Africa and the integration of the Portuguese into Kongo cosmology.

Religion and politics were hard to separate in African states, and motives for conversion by rulers were mixed: "sincerity" was not incompatible with efficacy, in either Iberian Catholicism or many traditional African religions.

When it came to commerce and sex, Africans had "a powerful role in forging and building relationships" with Europeans, and often felt they were getting the better deal. Northrup examines some specific areas here: the inland trade, textiles and metals, tobacco and spirits, and guns and their relationship with politics.

Turning to slavery, Northrup presents some narratives of capture and transport, but emphasizes the formation of new identities. Here he focuses on Sierra Leone, looking at processes of creolization and Africanization, at the adaptation to and reworking of European cultures and the creation of both "national" regional identities and in some cases of a broader "African" identity.

Finally Northrup presents some of the experiences of Africans in Europe, from 1650 to 1850. Most of the accounts are from educated individuals, many of them scholars or missionaries, but Ukawsaw Gronniosaw ended up as husband to a poor English weaver named Betty. Considering the extent to which racial prejudice was prevalent, Northrup suggests that in this period it had not yet acquired either the strength or the pervasiveness it was to have later.

Africa's Discovery of Europe is a slim but rewarding volume. Obviously no systematic treatment is possible in such limited space, but the use of relatively detailed case studies lifts it above boring generality. It does a good job countering stereotypes of Africans as victims, highlighting instead their resilience in the face of change and their adaptability, but it is not tendentious. It could be read by itself, or used as a complement to a more general history of Africa, by students or general readers.

January 2008

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%T Africa's Discovery of Europe: 1450-1850
%A Northrup, David
%I Oxford University Press
%D 2002
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN 0195140842
%P 200pp