Academic journal article African Studies Review

Planting Rice and Harvesting Slaves: Transformations along the Guinea-Bissau Coast, 1400-1900

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Planting Rice and Harvesting Slaves: Transformations along the Guinea-Bissau Coast, 1400-1900

Article excerpt

Walter Hawthorne. Planting Rice and Harvesting Slaves: Transformations along the Guinea-Bissau Coast, 1400-1900. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2003. xvi + 258 pp. Maps. Photographs. Tables. Bibliography. Index. $24.95. Paper.

Planting Rice and Harvesting Slaves is a rich contribution to the history of stateless societies on the Upper Guinea coast and brings new energy to the extensive scholarship on the history of the slave trade in western Africa. In telling the story of Balanta communities between 1400 and 1900, Hawthorne argues that people in stateless societies were not passive victims, but actively engaged in slave raiding and slave trading in ways that allowed individual Balanta to protect their own families and communities. During this time, Hawthorne further asserts, Balanta communities underwent social transformations that led to increased authority among elder men who sought to control the labor of young men. The book is divided into two parts; the first half presents a broad overview of the Upper Guinea Coast during the period from 1400 to 1900, while the second half examines more closely the impact of this period on the social institutions of Balanta communities.

Hawthorne's assertion that the Balanta played an active role in the slave trade contradicts the idea that decentralized societies were always the raided and never the raiders. It also challenges the well-established arguments that the slave trade was the domain of aristocrats or wealthy merchant classes only, and that involvement in the slave trade always led toward political centralization. Balanta engagement in the slave trade revolved around one critical trade item: iron. While European-manufactured guns were of little value on the Upper Guinea coast, iron was highly desirable, both to produce weapons and to make better agricultural tools. Access to iron had been limited to the Balanta before the Atlantic trade; increased supplies meant that the Balanta could not only better defend themselves and better conduct slave raids, but they could also more effectively attack the hard mangrove branches in marshy areas and thus farm paddy rice.

The swampy mangroves provided a natural barrier against those seeking to enslave the Balanta. With access to iron tools and in a new environment, the Balanta began to focus heavily on paddy rice farming. …

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