Reading the Wolfson History Prize 2020 – A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to The Age of Revolution by Toby Green

A Fistful of Shells - Cover

A Fistful of Shells by Toby Green gives us a scrap book of snapshots of a West Africa a lot of us have never been told existed. Certainly for me who, quite arrogantly I now know, presumed to have a fairly good grip of world history was surprised as I read about stories that contained a lot of long suppressed information.

Over the years with the spread of imperialism across the globe a myth about Africa became dominant in regards to its history. That before the Europeans landed and enslaved it’s people, Africa was without trade or any sort of societal structure. A Fistful of Shells is helping to dispelling this racist fairy tale. Using a combination of historical written sources and the spoken tales passed down through West African culture, Toby Green puts together a view of a thriving and bustling pre- colonial economic hotspot.

It was absolutely wonderful to delve into the world of West Africa. At school often we only learn about one part of the continent before The Atlantic Slave Trade begins and it is the world of Ancient Egypt. Green takes us on a journey that shows us the trade links pre-colonial West Africa had with North Africa and the Mediterranean. The reader travels through the history of continent but with a guide. That guide takes the form of the oral histories, songs, artifacts and art that tell the story of the people that created the society that inhabited different parts of West Africa. These were my favourite parts of the book as they gave the book’s content a vibrant life force that reminds the reader that history is not just about numbers and “whose flag flies where” but real people. I particularly liked the songs that were included as I think musical expression plays such a huge part when it comes to breathing humanity into history.

It seems very apt that A Fistful of Shells by Toby Green is a text being celebrated now as it is an incredibly powerful book that pulls the rug from beneath a plethora of long repeated lies that are so wrongly used by white supremacists to justify the horrors of the Slave trade. Overall, this is a wonderful text that is great starting place for searching for the truth behind history.

A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to The Age of Revolution by Toby Green is shortlisted for The Wolfson History Prize 2020. Click here for more information.

A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to The Age of Revolution by Toby Green is published by Penguin Books. Click here to grab a copy.

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