The Slave Trade and Culture in the Bight of Biafra: An African Society in the Atlantic World

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The Slave Trade and Culture in the Bight of Biafra: An African Society in the Atlantic World. By G. Ugo Nwokeji. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xxiv, 279; map, tables, bibliography, index. $85.00.

Nwokeji's key ambition in this book is to interweave the history of an African region with the history of the Atlantic slave trade. While advances made in recent decades increasingly reveal the Atlantic system to be complicated and dynamic, the regions behind the coast remain less well understood. The hinterland of the Bight of Biafra certainly warrants attention (about 13 percent of the captives taken across the Atlantic shipped from here), but it has been poorly understood because the sources are sparse and difficult. Nwokeji's successes arise especially from carefully articulating the diverse material he has gathered through oral research and wide reading, including comparative and theoretical literature, amateur historians, and Nigerian university undergraduate theses. He also dissects the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (www.slavevoyages.org) for patterns in such qualities as the price, age, gender, and ethnicity of captives, and more intricate calculations such as rates of loading. The story he pieces together highlights the complexity and dynamism of Biafra within the Atlantic context, and offers a more finely tuned chronology and analysis than extant literature.

The focus here are the Aro- treated as both trade diaspora and ethnic group-who emerged inland in the early seventeenth century as slave exporters and flourished in the business from the second quarter of the eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century. They adapted to the slave trade in the context of Atlantic demand, but equally the Atlantic trade flourished here because of the very adaptive and efficient trade system they created. Pre-existing institutions such as the Ibiniukpabi oracle adjusted to new circumstances to facilitate trade. Ties to the homeland in Arochukwu held the system together, even as Aro in the diaspora expanded the system by adapting to local circumstances. This diaspora was in some ways unusual, for example in its ability to absorb outsiders and willingness to deploy violence. The Aro served the interests of the elite where they settled, bringing new economic opportunities as well as the capacity to dispose through export of unwanted people: political rivals, criminals, social outcastes. No simple characterization of slavery serves here. …