African Kings and Black Slaves

African Kings and Black Slaves
Sovereignty and Dispossession in the Early Modern Atlantic

Herman L. Bennett

240 pages | 6 x 9
Cloth Oct 2018 | ISBN 9780812250633 | $34.95s | Outside the Americas £26.99
Ebook editions are available from selected online vendors
A volume in the series Early Modern Americas
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"An immensely thought-provoking book. In his sophisticated reconsideration of late-medieval European characterizations of sub-Saharan Africans, Herman L. Bennett troubles the traditional account of the rise of the West."—David Wheat, Michigan State University

"Herman L. Bennett's indispensable study alerts us to the political and intellectual consequences of flattening the history of Europe's relations with Africa by overlooking the Iberian experience. He ably shows how recuperating the notion of African sovereignty, abundantly recognized in early exchanges, can fundamentally change our understanding of African polities and African subjects."—Barbara Fuchs, University of California, Los Angeles

"African Kings and Black Slaves centers the histories of peoples of African descent in the grand tale of imperial conquest and power and thereby challenges the dominant narrative that colonial slavery has timelessly been about freedom. Herman Bennett is especially sensitive to the multisited nature of the contests set in motion by colonial encounters."—Antoinette Burton, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

As early as 1441, and well before other European countries encountered Africa, small Portuguese and Spanish trading vessels were plying the coast of West Africa, where they conducted business with African kingdoms that possessed significant territory and power. In the process, Iberians developed an understanding of Africa's political landscape in which they recognized specific sovereigns, plotted the extent and nature of their polities, and grouped subjects according to their ruler.

In African Kings and Black Slaves, Herman L. Bennett mines the historical archives of Europe and Africa to reinterpret the first century of sustained African-European interaction. These encounters were not simple economic transactions. Rather, according to Bennett, they involved clashing understandings of diplomacy, sovereignty, and politics. Bennett unearths the ways in which Africa's kings required Iberian traders to participate in elaborate diplomatic rituals, establish treaties, and negotiate trade practices with autonomous territories. And he shows how Iberians based their interpretations of African sovereignty on medieval European political precepts grounded in Roman civil and canon law. In the eyes of Iberians, the extent to which Africa's polities conformed to these norms played a significant role in determining who was, and who was not, a sovereign people—a judgment that shaped who could legitimately be enslaved.

Through an examination of early modern African-European encounters, African Kings and Black Slaves offers a reappraisal of the dominant depiction of these exchanges as being solely mediated through the slave trade and racial difference. By asking in what manner did Europeans and Africans configure sovereignty, polities, and subject status, Bennett offers a new depiction of the diasporic identities that had implications for slaves' experiences in the Americas.

Herman L. Bennett is Professor of History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is author of Colonial Blackness: A History of Afro-Mexico and Africans in Colonial Mexico: Absolutism, Christianity and Afro-Creole Consciousness, 1570-1640.

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