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Suggested Readings in African History for Non-specialists: An Annotated List

David Northrup
Boston College


For Beginners

Bohannan, Paul, and Phillip Curtin, Africa and Africans, 4th ed. (Waveland Press, 1995). An anthropologist and a historian provide a high quality introduction to Africa, African societies, and African history.

Curtin, Philip D. The Tropical Atlantic in the Age of the Slave Trade (American Historical Association, 1991). A 41-page summary of recent scholarship by the man who did most to shape it.

Gilbert, Erik, and Jonathan T. Reynolds, Africa in World History: From Prehistory to the Present (Prentice Hall, 2003). A chatty survey of Africa's history and historians from a broad geographical perspective.

Oliver, Roland, and Michael Crowder. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Africa. (Cambridge University Press, 1981).  Similar coverage to Africa and Africans, but more sophisticated and detailed, with better illustrations and pictures.

Shillington, Kevin. History of Africa, 2d ed. (St. Martin's Press, 1995). Lucid history of the continent from pre-historic times to the present with lots of maps and pictures.


Middle Level

Bovill, Edward William. The Golden Trade of the Moors. (Markus Wiener, 1995). Reprint of a classic work that draws heavily on primary sources about trans-Saharan trade and West African kingdoms from antiquity to about 1900.

Cooper, Frederick. Africa Since 1940: The Past of the Present. (Cambridge University Press, 2002). A thoughtful, up-to-date history of African nationalist movements and the triumphs and trials of independence.

Ehret, Christopher. The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800 (University Press of Virginia, 2002). This basic introduction to the latest evidence and understanding of early Africa effectively integrates North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Many illustrations and maps.

Eltis, David. The Rise of Slavery in the Americas (Cambridge University Press, 2000). Based on the latest scholarship, this volume reevaluates the reasons for and relationships in the rise of slavery in the Atlantic world.

Garlake, Peter. Early Art and Architecture of Africa (Oxford University Press, 2002). Splendidly illustrated survey of African sites before 1500.

Klein, Herbert. The Atlantic Slave Trade. (Cambridge University Press, 1999). A brief overview of recent scholarship that is full of surprises.

Northrup, David. Editor. The Atlantic Slave Trade. 2d edition (Houghton Mifflin, 2002). Historiographical approach, featuring competing viewpoints on important issues. 

Northrup, David. Africa's Discovery of Europe, 1450-1850 (Oxford University Press, 2002).

A broad survey, often told through the lives of individual Africans in their homelands as well as in Europe and the Middle Passage, of their cultural, economic, and sexual encounters with Europeans. Upsets textbook stereotypes.

Thompson, Leonard. A History of South Africa (Yale University Press, 1995). A very readable and authoritative summary of modern southern Africa by the dean of South African historians.



Hastings, Adrian. The Church in Africa, 1450-1950 (Oxford University Press, 1994) and A History of African Christianity, 1950-1975 (Cambridge University Press, 1979). Two spectacularly good books, far broader in scope than one might expect, that make the case for the central importance of religion in modern African history.

Howe, Stephen. Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes. (Verso, 1999). A fair-minded exposé of the historiographical roots and fallacies of the group of ideologies that have a strong hold on a segment of African-American visions of Africa.

Insoll, Timothy. The Archaeology of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa (Cambridge University Press, 2003). Good summary of interactions on the Islamic frontier, by no means confined to archaeological evidence.

Lapidus, Ira M. A History of Islamic Societies, 2d ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2002). The chapters on Islam in Africa are exemplary in their quality and clarity.

Mitchell, Peter. The Archaeology of Southern Africa (Cambridge University Press, 2002). Cambridge World Archaeology Series. A somewhat specialized volume, but a good digest of what of known in an area rich in early human remains, varied lifestyles, Great Zimbabwe, and a bit beyond.

Thornton, John K.  The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684-1706 (Cambridge University Press, 1998). This early modern African life, not of a slave but of a young woman in Angola who believed she was possessed by St. Anthony, illuminates Africa from within and draws the reader into a world not in the textbooks.

UNESCO. General History of Africa. 8 vols. (1981-1993).

Oliver, Roland, and John Fage. Editors. Cambridge History of Africa. 8 vols. (1978-1986). These two large, chronologically arranged collections offer essays by scholars on every aspect of African history.  The UNESCO volumes have many more African authors, more specialized topics, and stronger coverage of Islamic Africa; the Cambridge series contains more readable syntheses and is stronger on European contacts.



Burstein, Stanley. Editor. Ancient African Civilizations: Kush and Axum (Markus Wiener, 1998).
A useful collection of sources on ancient northeastern Africa with a lucid introduction.

Collins, Robert O. Editor. African History in Documents. 3 vols. (Markus Wiener, 1997).
Three regional collections (Western, Eastern, Southern); also available in one-volume condensed version.

Davidson, Basil. Editor. African Civilization Revisited. (Africa World Press, 1996). Rich collection to about 1900 with good introductions. Originally published as The African Past.

Hunwick, John, and Eve Troutt Powell. Editors. The African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam (Markus Wiener, 2002). Two brief introductory essays and a collection of readable primary sources illuminating the slave trade to Islamic lands.

Levtzion, N., and J. F. P. Hopkins. Editors. Corpus of Early African Sources for West African History. (Markus Wiener, 2000). More sophisticated and scholarly; also available in a simplified edition.

Richardson, Alan, and Debbie Lee. Editors. Olaudah Equiano, Mary Prince, and Others: Early Black British Writing (Houghton Mifflin, 2004). Better than its awkward title suggests, with good introductions, many sources, and excerpts from modern criticism.

Williams, John A. Editor. From the South African Past: Narratives, Documents, and Debates. (Houghton Mifflin, 1997). Advanced collection of sources about and by Africans.


Short Novels & Autobiographies Students Like and Learn from

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart (1958). Widely assigned; widely misinterpreted. A tragic tale of a hero who dies because he can't change and of a whole lot of others, whose lives show why the Igbo were so successful in reinventing themselves under colonial rule.

Emecheta, Buchi. The Joys of Motherhood. (1979). A novel of colonial Nigeria, spanning three generations, told largely through the eyes of a village woman who joins her husband in the capital. A rich cast of characters provides contrasts to her individual perceptions. 

Emecheta, Buchi. Head Above Water: An Autobiography. (1986). A Nigerian woman with five small children, abandoned by her husband in London, supports herself, earns university degrees, launches a career, and (on the side!) becomes a successful novelist.

Laye, Camara. The Dark Child [L'Enfant Noir]. (1954). In this autobiographical novel a young man moves from a Muslim village to the French schools of the capital of the French colony of Guinea and on to Paris. Low key but full of subtle detail.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Weep Not Child. (1964). A novel of late colonial Kenya, told through the eyes of a young man who does well in school and confronts the demands of the nationalist struggle.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o, The River Between. (1965). A novel of colonial Kenya, focused on the female circumcision controversy of the 1930s among the Kikuyu and its implications for their rapidly transforming society.

Paton, Alan. Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful. (1983). Rich and powerful depiction of the critical struggles for equality in South Africa in the 1950s and their suppression, told through a wide range of individual African, European, and Asian voices. This novel is more complex than the author's better known Cry, the Beloved Country yet easier for American students to grasp.

Saitoti, Tepilit Ole. The Worlds of a Maasai Warrior: An Autobiography (University of California Press, 1986). A youth moves from cattle camp to mission schools, employment as a game park guide, and flies to New York as a consultant for the National Geographic Society. A true story of coming of age in a globalizing world.


Biographical Note: David Northrup is professor of history at Boston College, where he teaches courses on sub-Saharan Africa, international migrations, and world history. He is the author of several distinguished books on African and world history, including most recently Africa's Discovery of Europe, 1450-1850 (2002). Dr. Northrup is also the current president of the World History Association.


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