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  • Published: 30 January 2020
  • ISBN: 9780141977669
  • Imprint: Penguin Press
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 656
  • RRP: $38.00

A Fistful of Shells

West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution

A ground-breaking history that revolutionizes our view of West Africa

By the time of the 'Scramble for Africa' in the late nineteenth century, Africa had already been globally connected for many centuries. Its gold had fuelled the economies of Europe and the Islamic world since around 1000 CE, and its sophisticated kingdoms had traded with Europeans along the coasts from Senegal down to Angola since the fifteenth century. Until at least 1650, this was a trade of equals, using a variety of currencies - most importantly shells: the cowrie shells imported from the Maldives, and the nzimbu shells imported from Brazil.

Toby Green's groundbreaking new book transforms our view of West and West-Central Africa. A Fistful of Shells draws not just on written histories, but on archival research in nine countries, on art, praise-singers, oral history, archaeology, letters and the author's personal experience to create a new perspective on the history of one of the world's most important regions.

  • Published: 30 January 2020
  • ISBN: 9780141977669
  • Imprint: Penguin Press
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 656
  • RRP: $38.00

Praise for A Fistful of Shells

A Fistful of Shells is the fruit of research conducted in the archives of nine nations and required the author to undertake fieldwork across eight West African states. It shows. [...] This is a stunning work of research and argumentation. It has the potential to become a landmark in our understanding of the most misunderstood of continents.

David Olusoga, New Statesman

Toby Green's A Fistful of Shells uses a global archive - in Africa, the Americas and Europe - to explore the complex, flourishing and connected economy of West Africa existing long before a European capitalist system established itself on the continent. Extraordinarily written and researched, the book paints a huge, complex canvas, filled with individual detail.

Julia Lovell, Observer Books of the Year 2019

A multifaceted history of West Africa which turns many old assumptions on their heads. Green utterly demolishes the tired Western view that Africa had no history before the arrival of the Europeans, and that they naively ceded power in the region to the newcomers by exchanging valuable goods for baubles. A magisterial, extensive and fresh account of the history of West Africa that rewrites the region and its peoples back into World History, where they belong.

Miranda Kaufmann, Author of BLACK TUDORS

Toby Green's book restores the rich African history which she had been denied for too long. Here the author reveals that Africa was never at the margins of global commerce but was in fact a decisive player with the prowess to negotiate and also the goods - ivory, gum, gold - to supply.

Hassoum Ceesay, National Museum, The Gambia

Toby Green's transformative book repositions West African history in an entirely new light. It brings into focus the region's fundamental place in shaping the modern world as well as the powerful and also difficult legacy of this today.

Paul Reid, Director, Black Cultural Archives

Very seldom do I pick up a history book and wish I had written it myself. Toby Green's A Fistful of Shells is one such book. Brilliantly conceptualized, beautifully written, it breaks with colonially configured regional boundaries - which work to re-create unintended silos of knowledge - to imagine a West and West Central African Atlantic history of money, power, religion, and inequality that is as rich as it is sound.

Professor Nwando Achebe, Michigan State University

A Fistful of Shells is exemplary: scholarly, sensitive, enlightening and often vivid. The author does much more than make Africa seem normal. He proclaims a daunting ambition: to explore the local and global implications of West Africa's economies during the age of slavery. He succeeds.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Wall Street Journal

Dismantles the racist myth of west African "backwardness" ... The 19th-century imperial vision of Africa as somehow outside of history continues to mark even "world" histories, which often privilege the global north. A Fistful of Shells is an antidote to these histories, and to the master narrative of Africa as historical object, rather than subject.

Padraic Scanlan, The Guardian

A work of staggering scholarship, drawing on previously untapped sources locked away in European vaults and historical records which, taken as a whole, contradict the age-old perceptions foisted on Africa ... peppered with astonishing facts ... polyphonic, detailed and vast.

Ben Okri, Daily Telegraph

This book represents an extraordinary and admirable archival and bibliographic undertaking.

Times Literary Supplement

This original and thoughtful work is based on detailed first-hand knowledge of and collaboration with the cultures and peoples it depicts ... For all its impressive scholarship A Fistful of Shells is notably readable, supported by great illustrations and a stunning cover - and, in the best sense, personal.

Times Higher Education

A rich and insightful work ... What emerges is a radically different view of the region from the one that has been generally available. Green concludes by pointing to the lack of history being taught in schools and universities in West Africa and elsewhere; if it is taught at all, it tends to focus on the slave trade. A Fistful of Shells shows that there was so much more, and of so much relevance when looking at the issues of our own time.


A sprawling and nuanced look at the steady depletion of a continent with a powerful lament about the lack of academic interest in Africa's precolonial eras.

New York Review of Books

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