Demarginalizing West Africa in the Age of Revolutions

This post is a part of our “Race and Revolution” series.

By Bronwen Everill 

In 1789, the revolutionary Islamic reformer, Fatta, set up a new government in Moria, Guinea. He worked with a large maroon community based in the region, who had already burned the fields of rice intended for the slave trade. Together, they beheaded former political leaders and slave traders for their lack of observance of the tenets of Islam, including injunctions not to trade Muslims as slaves to non-Muslims. When Fatta’s revolution was ultimately crushed by a coalition of neighboring polities in 1791, the British governor of Sierra Leone, down the coast, commented that the revolution and its aftermath mirrored the events he saw happening in Europe.[1]

Map of West Africa highlighting jihad regions.

At the time of Fatta’s revolutionary government, the Imamate of Futa Toro, a state along the Senegal River, was undergoing its own revolution. This revolutionary “jihad,” led by the cleric ‘Abd al-Qadr Kane, put a stop to French slave trading in the Upper Senegal and unified the region while implementing a government based on religious principles.[2] To the east, in what is now northern Nigeria, in 1804, Uthman dan Fodio, a cleric and teacher in Gobir, launched his own jihadwhich ultimately resulted in the creation of the Sokoto Caliphate, the dominant revolutionary state of nineteenth century West Africa.[3]  Although the jihad was ultimately responsible for the expansion of slavery as an institution within West Africa, at least at the outset, dan Fodio wrote that one part of the justification for it was to end the practice of enslaving Muslims for the Atlantic trade.[4]

These were not unknown events outside of Africa. Numerous accounts had filtered back to Europe through travel writing and European traders’ letters. The French, forced to renegotiate their trading relationship with the revolutionary state of Futa Toro, and the British, keen to trade with the Imamate of Futa Jallon and the Sokoto Caliphate, were well aware of the political establishments and revolutionary creeds of these polities.[5]

Race played an important role in framing the historical understanding of the impact of these revolutions, as well as their origins and relationships to the wider Atlantic.

People like Thomas Clarkson, for instance, recorded for posterity their assumptions about the Christian and Enlightenment origins of the moral revolutions associated with the abolition of the slave trade.[6] If revolution and moral antislavery were supposedly distinctively modern phenomena, then it was assumed by nineteenth-century writers that they must be European in origin, and equally, needed to be carried to other parts of the world by Europeans and their descendants.

As historians began to account for the phenomenon of the Age of Revolutions, the focus, in works like R.R. Palmer’s Age of Democratic Revolution, was on this proliferation of European ideas of government emerging from the Enlightenment: revolutionary egalitarianism, and shifting centres of power and social mobility. Even after 1938, when C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins extended the story of the revolutionary Atlantic to include revolutionary Saint-Domingue, the impetus for revolution in his Black Atlantic was still European.[7]

Bringing these well-studied, but often historically marginalized, West African revolutions into the historiography of the wider Atlantic Age of Revolutions has started to change our understanding of the local and transnational influences on revolutionary actors. The Atlantic slave trade could be both an object of revolutionary concern and a tool for the spreading of ideas of warfare, resistance, and revolution around the Atlantic. Recent scholarship from people like Christina Mobley and Manuel Barcia has argued that other Western African political movements and revolutions inspired participants in slave resistance and rebellions in places like Cuba and Brazil, and the revolution in Saint-Domingue.[8] Paul Lovejoy argues that these West African revolutions were crucial in directing traders away from West Africa and towards West Central Africa as the major source of Atlantic slaves.[9]

Reincorporating West African revolutions has also begun to change our understanding of the wider processes that contributed to a global Age of Revolutions. Joseph Miller and I both use these revolutions, and others, to challenge the idea that the revolutions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century represent the spread of European values of democracy and enlightenment, looking instead to wider systemic developments in military-fiscalism, or the emergence of consumer revolutions, that affected the political and economic integration of the Atlantic world.[10]

It is true that the West African Age of Revolutions did not inspire specifically democratic change in the polities that were “revolutionized”, and that the revolutions’ relationships with the practices of the slave trade and slavery were complicated. But if not all of these revolutions were democratic, then maybe it wasn’t an age of democratic revolutions at all, which makes the particular cases of democratic revolution interesting in different ways. By incorporating these revolutions into arguments about the origins or implications of this period, it has been possible to see the causes and inspirations of individual polities’ economic, political, or moral revolutions in a new light, and to think differently about what might have been the systemic or global causes for this period of political change.

Bronwen Everill is the author of Abolition and Empire in Sierra Leone and Liberia (2013) and a fellow and lecturer in history at Gonville & Caius College, University of Cambridge. 

Title image: “Négre de la côte de Sénégal” in Costumes civils actuels de tous les peuples connus, dessinés d’après nature…gravés et coloriés accompagnés d’une notice historique sur les moeurs…de chaque peuple, Volume 1 (Paris, 1788), 30. 

Further readings:

Manuel Barcia, “An Atlantic Islamic Revolution: Dan Fodio’s Jihād and Slave Rebellion in Bahia and Cuba, 1804-844”, Journal of African Diaspora Archaeology and Heritage 2, no.1 (2013), 6-18.

Paul Lovejoy, Jihad in West Africa During the Age of Revolutions (Ohio, 2016).

Joseph Miller, “The Dynamics of History in Africa and the Atlantic ‘Age of Revolutions’,” in Sanjay Subrahmanyam and David Armitage, eds., The Age of Revolutions in Global Context, c. 176-1840 (Basingstoke, 2010).

Christina Mobley, “The Kongolese Atlantic: Central African Slave Culture from Mayombe to Haiti,” PhD Dissertation, Duke University (2015).


[1] Huntington Library, MSS MY 418 Macaulay’s Journal, 30 June 1793; 12 December 1793. Bruce Mouser, “Rebellion, Marronage and Jihad: Strategies of Resistance to Slavery on the Sierra Leone Coast, c. 1783-1796,” Journal of African History, 48 (2007), 38-39; Ismail Rashid, “Escape, Revolt, and Marronage in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Sierra Leone Hinterland,” Canadian Journal of African Studies, 34, 3 (2000), 666-670; Rashid, “ ‘A Devotion to the Idea of Liberty at Any Price’: Rebellion and Antislavery in the Upper Guinea Coast in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” in Sylviane A. Diouf, ed. Fighting the Slave Trade: West African Strategies (Ohio, 2003), 132-151; Walter Rodney, “Jihad and Social Revolution in Futa Djalon in the Eighteenth Century,” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, 4, 2 (1968), 283-284.

[2] Archives National du Senegal, Coutumes, AOF 13G1, 31 March 1785. H.F.C. Smith, “A Neglected Theme of West African History: The Islamic Revolutions of the 19th century, Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, 2, 2 (1961), 174-5.

[3] Paul Lovejoy, Jihad in West Africa During the Age of Revolutions (Ohio, 2016); David Robinson, Muslim Societies in African History (Cambridge, 2004).

[4] Ghislaine Lydon and Bruce S. Hall, “Excavating Arabic sources for the history of slavery in Western Africa,” in Alice Bellagamba, Sandra E. Greene, and Martin A. Klein, eds., African Voices on Slavery and the Slave Trade vol. 2 (Cambridge, 2016), 15-49; Lovejoy, Jihad in West Africa, 214-216.

[5] Thomas Winterbottom, An Account of the Native Africans in the Neighbourhood of Sierra Leone (London, 1803); Adam Afzelius, Sierra Leone Journal, 1795-1796, ed. Alexander Peter Kup (Studia Ethnographica Upsaliensia, 1967), 14; J. Matthews, A Voyage to the River Sierra Leone (London, 1788), 154-155.

[6] Thomas Clarkson, The history of the rise, progress, and accomplishment of the abolition of the African slave-trade by the British Parliament (London, 1808).

[7] R.R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution (Princeton, 1964); C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins (London, 1938).

[8] Christina Mobley, “The Kongolese Atlantic: Central African Slave Culture from Mayombe to Haiti,” PhD Dissertation, Duke University (2015); Manuel Barcia, “An Atlantic Islamic Revolution: Dan Fodio’s Jihād and Slave Rebellion in Bahia and Cuba, 1804-844”, Journal of African Diaspora Archaeology and Heritage 2, no.1 (2013), 6-18.

[9] Lovejoy, Jihad in West Africa, 32-33.

[10] Joseph Miller, “The Dynamics of History in Africa and the Atlantic ‘Age of Revolutions’,” in Sanjay Subrahmanyam and David Armitage, eds., The Age of Revolutions in Global Context, c. 176-1840 (Basingstoke, 2010); Bronwen Everill, “Ethical Consumers in West Africa,” , July 30, 2016.

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