A Fistful of Shells: Structural Inequalities in an Era of Crisis

Toby Green

Winner in 2019 for A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution

Toby Green has worked widely with academics, musicians and writers across Africa, organising events in collaboration with institutions in Angola, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone and the Gambia. He has written a number of books, and his work has been translated into fourteen languages. Awarded a 2017 Philip Leverhulme Prize in History, he is Professor in Precolonial and Lusophone African History and Culture at King’s College London. His book, A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution, won the British Academy Book Prize in 2019.

Portrait of Toby Green
Image credit: Pete Dadds

I discovered that A Fistful of Shells had been awarded the British Academy book prize on 31 October 2019, when I was in the northern Mozambican city of Nampula. Appropriately enough, I was there as the recipient of funds from the British Academy Global South Writing Workshop scheme, having co-organised an event for early career scholars with colleagues from Universidade Lúrio, due to start the following day. Within four months, such an event would have been cancelled.

The two years since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic have certainly put the book in a stark context. A Fistful of Shells treats early modern globalisation from a West African perspective, and it is no coincidence that it was researched at the zenith of early twenty-first-century globalisation. This was a time when travel for those with resources had never been easier or quicker, and when new technologies connected scholars all over the world. It was a book made possible by the opportunity all this gave to engage globally with multiple perspectives. In other words, it is a book which was produced by as multi-sited an engagement as possible with its West African and global themes – but it is also a book that emerged from the breakdown of environmental and capital regulation which facilitated that research process, and that also then helped to produce the seeds of the pandemic which has since shattered that world.

In terms of thematic, A Fistful of Shells seems even more relevant now than when published in 2019. Shortly after the outbreak of the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd in the US led to the Black Lives Matter protests, and the open discussion in Western public fora of themes that were central to the book: the systematic inequality and racism faced by those of African descent in Western societies, and the failure to address the significance of African histories in any way in public discourse.

Boy Sitting On A Traditional African Fishing Boat. Image credit: Getty images

Beyond the growing public awareness of the importance of African history, I will focus here on two key elements which the last two years have brought into sharp focus: the question of inequalities of capital, and that of inequalities of power. While the core arguments of A Fistful of Shells relate to what we may call ‘the old politics of global inequality’, what we have seen in the past two years, writ large as never before, is the radical intensification of what we may call ‘the new politics of global inequality’ – and this has indeed become a major element of my current research.1

The enormous increases in inequality that have accompanied the response to the Coronavirus pandemic have been widely documented, and there is no need to expand on that here. What is significant is rather the structural connection between a moment of global crisis on the one hand, and the rapid expansion of global inequalities on the other. We have observed in real time how the emergence of a structural crisis is attended by certain tendencies in terms of political choices and outcomes: these have tended to safeguard the economic and physical health of the wealthier members of global societies, at the expense of the poorest.

In short, crisis favours inequality of outcomes and an accentuation of these inequalities. This has made me reflect on the period of time encompassed by A Fistful of Shells. While the early modern era is not usually framed as one of crisis, that is certainly what it was for the bulk of the world’s population, among those many who lived in West Africa. It was an era of climatic instability, political flux, the concentration of state power, and increasingly powerful military technologies used in proto-colonial wars linked to imperial campaigns. Living through one era of crisis helps to reflect on another – and on the nature of the inequalities produced by crises. In some ways, it helps to understand that every history of the past is also an analysis of the present.

Living through one era of crisis helps to reflect on another – and on the nature of the inequalities produced by crises.

Of course, these inequalities of capital are also related to inequalities of power. The way in which a gathering inequality of power took shape during the early modern period in West Africa was one of the major thematics of A Fistful of Shells. And again, we have seen over the past two years this thematic writ large, as the public health priorities of the world’s richest countries, with the longest life expectancies, have ridden roughshod over the world’s poor.

It has indeed been chastening to live through one period of the intensification of mass inequality, having spent over a decade researching a history that deals with precisely this thematic several centuries earlier in time. The structural frameworks which connect the two periods of history are as clear as never before – while also, perhaps, reminding us that there is nothing new under the sun.

1 As discussed in my book, The Covid Consensus: The New Politics of Global Inequality (London: C. Hurst & Co., 2021)

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