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Reviews of The History of African Cities South of the Sahara: From the Origins to Colonization

“If asked to imagine Africa, most Americans will conjure images of National Geographic-style wildlife and rural exotica, or the horrific scenes of violence and despair that seem the extent of the press coverage. Few will think of Africa’s thriving cities, and fewer still of how long some have existed. Distinguished social historian Coquery-Vidrovitch offers a broad, accessible overview of African urban history to rectify such neglect, taking the pulse of ancient and more recent cities from Awdaghust to Great Zimbabwe. Readers are introducted to fabled centers of Islamic learning like Timbuktu in Mali, holy Christian cities like Axum in Ethiopia, storied royal capitals like Mbanza-Kongo in Angola, and dynamic ports like Kilwa in Tanzania that encouraged trade for millennia. The great cities of Ghana and Nigeria are presented in all their complexity, as are early European enclaves like Saint Louis and Gor’D’ee in Senegal. Architecture and built environments are considered, as are the impacts on African urbanism of trans-Atlantic and Indian Ocean slavery, Islam and trans-Saharan trade, European capitalism, and the rise of cultural synthesis. This excellent book belongs in every public, high school, and university library. Summing up: Essential. All levels.”

“Historians have previously largely ignored early African urban history, creating the misconception that cities did not exist prior to the European colonization of the continent in the nineteenth century, and that precolonial or ancient Africa was exclusively a rural, agricultural region of scattered villages. Urban centers in precolonial Africa were relatively rare and small in population, but their importance in politics, economics, and culture vastly outweighed those limitations.

“This book by Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch is an English translation of a work originally published in French in 1993 that synthesizes a considerable amount of material, cutting across time and space restrictions. It provides a valuable overview of the major urban centers in ancient Africa as well as addressing some of the major issues in urban history generally and African urban history specifically, and posing important questions for further research.

“Taking a general chronological approach, the book examines the major urban centers in all regions of precolonial Africa, including, among others, Meroe, the cities of the Western Sudanie empires, the Swahili city-states, Great Zimbabwe, and the ports of the transatlantic slave trade. Several common themes emerge from this disparate and dynamic group. African urban centers were demonstrably indigenous creations, although contact with Muslim Arab and later European traders contributed to the growth and transformation of cities. Metropoles emerged for military and security purposes, and as trade entrepots, indigenous markets, specialized craft production centers, and political and religious capitals. Rural economies supported the urban centers; the cities thus had to dominate the countryside for continued survival. Another commonality involves the dynamic response of cities to changing political, economic and religious influences, both internal and external which transformed, rather than created or disrupted these urban centers. Ultimately, urbanization was a long-term process, not a final product or result.

“Several sections are particularly noteworthy. Chapter four deals with Islam and African cities, especially in the Western Sudan and the Swahili city-states on the Indian Ocean. Muslim Arab traders, crossing the Sahara Desert or sailing down the East African coast, encountered already existing population centers based on politics, economics, and cultural dynamics. In addition to contributing to the growth and centralization of these sites, Muslim traders and travelers made some of them seats of Islamic concentration and learning.

“Chapter five, focusing on Atlantic ports from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, is divided into the early rise of the slave trade and the eighteenth century, the trade’s height. The confluence of African and European influences resulted in the development of a Creole culture, providing these cities with a distinctive character and organization. Given the recent spate of studies on the Atlantic slave trade and its impacts on Africa, this chapter offers a new perspective on the most visible remnants of African urban involvement in the trade, especially on their architecture.

“Chapter six, the lengthiest and most detailed section, deals with the early and mid-nineteenth century, which the author considers a revolutionary period for African urban development. Centers already had their distinct features prior to European colonization, which most previous historians have pointed to as the defining moment in African urbanization. Coquery-Vidrovitch convincingly argues that the industrial revolution’s impacts, especially increased contact and trade in many sorts of goods with Europeans, decisively fashioned these ports, although the dynamics differed radically between Western and Eastern Africa. In West Africa, urbanization took on a markedly mercantile and protocapitalist form. In East Africa, the continued Indian Ocean slave trade and the resultant local violence reinforced the military and political aspects of the ports.

“With the advent of colonialism, most of these cities were already shaped, and Europeans adapted to and expanded the existing natures, structures, and networks. The author demonstrates the antiquity, dynamism, diversity, and complexity of African urban civilization prior to colonization. Rather than the traditional focus on late nineteenth-century European colonization, historians should turn their attention to the revolutionary period for African cities, before approximately the 1880s. Likewise, scholars should not assume cities in Africa are a recent development in the continent’s history, or an import from the Arab, European, Asian, or Atlantic worlds; they have constituted an essential, if largely overlooked, component of African history since antiquity. An understanding of the intensive and accelerating urbanization of Africa today necessitates an understanding of its long-term development.

“The book contains an excellent and extensive bibliography, primarily of works published before 1994. It would serve well as a general or introductory text in undergraduate and graduate courses in urbanization, whether in African or global history.”
The American Historical Review

“Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch overcomes the prejudices dating back to the time of colonialism and tells the beautiful, real, but unknown stories comparatively and comprehensively … This is a book of hope.”
Le Monde

Today’s Books

“‘Every city is unique. Is there any point in generalizing about African cities…?’ This thought opens the concluding chapter of The History of African Cities South of the Sahara. Perhaps no one today is better qualified to answer the question than Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, the doyenne of African urban history, as no single researcher has visited more African cities than she. The resulting historical survey, first published in 1993, is now available in English translation. The text has been updated and the bibliography augmented to include major English titles: both fundamental sources and recent research.

“The author begins by addressing the perennially thorny issue of what constitutes a city, a question of importance to geographers, sociologists and archaeologists as well as to historians. Are archaeological sites the remains of rural or urban settlements? Which of the ‘villages’ and ‘camps’ encountered in African historical sources should be considered as towns and cities? Coquery-Vidrovitch argues that, with few exceptions, cities are part of all of Africa’s history: ‘There are forms of urbanization adapted to each era and every set of socioeconomic features.’ Moreover, the imposition of colonial rule in no way marks the great rupture postulated in classical Africanist historiography. With colonization, cities and urbanization changed, but Africans have never been ‘strangers to the city.’

“One of Coquery-Vidrovitch’s propositions, the use of the adjective ‘ancient’ to designate Africa’s pre-colonial cities, has significant repercussions for methodology and for the teaching of African history generally. While she does not make the argument explicitly, what is implied is that researchers approach historic African cities with the same methods used for the study of ancient cities elsewhere, in the classical world for instance, with due consideration given to archaeology and legends. In particular, based on an analysis of the terms used to designate urban settlements in various African languages, the author proposes that ancient African cities were polities; many of the terms designate at the same time the settlement, its citizens and/or the political system. All things considered, these conceptions approach that of the city-state, or polis, of ancient Greece. This new conception of the African political system is shared by a number of other researchers, Jean Schmitz and Tarikhu Farrar in particular.

“Theoretical issues aside, Coquery-Vidrovitch is at pains to emphasize the great complexity of the phenomenon under study. While the book is about cities, it is also about urbanization as process, a political, economic, social and cultural process. The author proposes a periodization of urbanization on the continent (ancient, Islamic contact, European contact, colonization), rather than a typology of cities. The nineteenth-century urban revolution, which is one of her own contributions to the field, is given great coverage. This may also be due in part to the proportionately larger number of textual sources for this period as compared to earlier ones.

“The organization of the book is not linear; within the broad periodization adopted, cities from one end of the continent to the other are invoked as needed. Case studies are used throughout in order to illustrate the issues under discussion. Population estimates of historic cities are given wherever available, with due consideration for the often uncertain nature of these figures.

“Both the political and economic contexts of urbanization are emphasized. Types of states and state structures are discussed and it is seen how pastoral as well as agrarian activities have sustained urban populations. Local craft production and trade routes are also seen as constants of urbanization across the continent. Moreover, this urbanization process is situated within a much wider global process, that of the transition from tributary systems to insertion within the mercantile capitalist system. This insertion, it is argued, occurred long before the imposition of colonial rule in the late nineteenth century, and it had already partially transformed cities and urbanization.

“Yet macro-level political economy is not the whole story. In Africa as elsewhere the city is seen as a ‘cultural mediator.’ The themes of cosmopolitanism, creolization, encounters, exchanges, synthesis, and the diffusion of ideas, know-how and modes of production run through the book. At the micro, or local, scale this is developed, among other ways, through a discussion of architecture, building materials and techniques, and urban design.

“Coquery-Vidrovitch’s historical survey of urbanization in Africa constitutes a welcome contribution to the urban history curriculum as up until now sub-Saharan Africa has rarely made an appearance. Indeed, the existence of cities in Africa south of the Sahara prior to colonization is mostly dismissed in the classic works on urban history by Mumford and Bairoch. Only recently, after a couple of conferences brought together several hundred researchers of the phenomenon, has Africa’s urban history been the object of academic publication in English. Significantly, it is Catherine Coquery-Vodrovitch who wrote the introduction to both of these edited volumes (Africa’s Urban Past, ed. Anderson and Rathbone, 2000; and African Urban Spaces in Historical Perspective, ed. Salm and Falola, 2005).”
World History Bulletin

“Coquery-Vidrovitch (U. of Paris, France) traces the history of African cities from antiquity to the present age. She describes their origins and the subsequent accumulation and interpenetration of Islamic, Mediterranean, and Asian influences and the convergence of contact from the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. She stresses the importance of economics and cultural mediation in the evolution of the cities and catalogues the different types of cities that have existed over Africa’s longue durée. Her hope is that the reader will come away from the work with an understanding of African urbanization as existing along a continuum, rather than as a process of ruptures.”
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