A site on British historian and writer Toby Green
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A Fistful of Shells
Recent Book on African History
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A Fistful of Shells

A Fistful of Shells

Winner of the Historical Writers Association Non-Fiction Crown, the Jerry Bentley Prize in World History and the Nayef Al-Rohdan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding

Shortlisted for the Cundill History Prize, the Fage and Oliver Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History, the PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize, the Pius Adesanmi Memorial Award, and the Wolfson History Prize.

Book of the Year in History TodayObserverProspect, and The Wall Street Journal.

"Momentous...a work of staggering scholarship" Ben Okri, Daily Telegraph

"this is a stunning work of research and argumentation. It has the potential to become a landmark in our understanding of the most misunderstood of continents.” David Olusoga, New Statesman

"A very important book," Richard J. Evans, fivebooks.com

"A riveting new perspective on African history", Rana Mitter, BBC HIstory Magazine

Toby Green's book A Fistful of Shells: West Africa From the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution was published by Allen Lane and Chicago University Press in early 2019. Based on archival research in 9 countries, and fieldwork research in 8 West African countries, it offers a new perspective on West Africa's relationship to world history through the lens of money and inequality.

The book contains many photos of historical sites in West and West-Central Africa taken by Toby Green during research for the book. To see some examples, please scroll to the bottom of the page.

Press reviews:

“Fascinating…[a] monumental volume…a rich and insightful work… What emerges is a radically different view of the region from the one that has been generally available." Spectator, January 24th 2019


“Remarkable…Ranging far beyond economics, Green’s thesis becomes, ultimately, an almost philosophical meditation on the nature of value across differing cultures and societies during a long and under-examined era of early globalisation…this is a stunning work of research and argumentation. It has the potential to become a landmark in our understanding of the most misunderstood of continents.” David Olusoga, New Statesman, January 31st 2019


“Very rarely is an attempt at a more balanced picture of African history made within the mainstream of Western historiography. Toby Green, in A Fistful of Shells, has taken on that momentous task…His book is a work of staggering scholarship, drawing on previously untapped sources locked away in European vaults and historical records which, as a whole, contradict the age-old perceptions foisted on Africa…peppered with astonishing facts…polyphonic, detailed, vast”. Ben Okri, Daily Telegraph, February 9th 2019


“In A Fistful of Shells, the historian Toby Green dismantles the racist myth of west African “backwardness”…Europeans interpreted west African poverty and enslavement on both sides of the Atlantic as evidence of European economic and cultural supremacy – eternal, inevitable and right. The 19th-century imperial vision of Africa as somehow outside of history continues to mark even “world” histories, which often privilege the global north. A Fistful of Shells is an antidote to these histories, and to the master narrative of Africa as historical object, rather than subject.” Guardian, March 8th 2019


“A remarkable book…This original and thoughtful work is based on detailed first-hand knowledge of and collaboration with the cultures and peoples it depicts…Each page, even when the horrors are there too (Green doesn’t shy away from them), is full of interest and humanity. The detail, too long and complicated to delineate here, is fascinating. I urge you to read it for yourself…this really is a “groundbreaking” work.” Ruth Finnegan, Times Higher Education Supplement, April 4th 2019

“remarkable…A Fistful of Shells is principally an attempt to show how West Africa’s precolonial histories are central to an understanding of the dilemmas of the present and to highlight the active role of its peoples in history, thereby transforming our view of the region…this is a hugely important book” African Business, April 12th 2019 


Most books on world history seem barely aware of any pre-colonial African civilisations. Green’s contention is that, far from Africa having no history, the continent was one of the moulders of world history; that far from its history beginning with the encounter with Europe, that encounter was disastrous for it; that its history has been concealed not by its own darkness, but by the fog of European assumptions. A Fistful of Shells is a work of staggering scholarship, peppered with astonishing facts.” Daily Telegraph, Summer Books, June 1st 2019


‘Admirably complicates our understanding of Africa’s past and present … an extraordinary range of field research, archival material, and study of African oral traditions … One of its great strengths is that it reveals the often surprising success that Africans had throughout the first four hundred years of their encounter with Europe’ Howard W. French, New York Review of Books, June 27th 2019


“A book that shakes the received view of history”, Financial Times¸Summer Books, June 22nd 2019

“Comprehensive and meticulously researched…Green’s data show that Europeans “won” capitalism once they used Africans not only as commodities, but also as currency...the book is uniquely valuable…[and] represents an extraordinary and admirable archival and bibliographic undertaking”, Times Literary Supplement, July 19th 2019

"a groundbreaking book. He brings together almost everything known about the economic history of the West African empires and peoples until the beginning of the 19th century in a coherent vision.", De Volkskrandt, October 3rd 2019

"Extraordinarily written and researched, the book paints a huge, complex canvas crammed with individual detail", Wall Street Journal, December 14-15 2019

"Magnificent...explores the rich diversity of precolonial society", Prospect, December 18 2019

 "A Fistful of Shells is exemplary: scholarly, sensitive, enlightening and often vivid...[Green] proclaims a daunting ambition: to explore the local and global implications of West Africa’s economies during the age of slavery. He succeeds...The author’s most innovative contribution is to the problem of the “economic disempowerment of West and West-Central Africa...the author’s command of the evidence, depth of reflection and vigilance against error are astonishing for so big a book on so challenging a subject.” Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Wall Street Journal, February 19th 2020


Nwando Achebe, Jack and Margaret Sweet Endowed Professor of History, Michigan State University

“Very seldom do I pick up a history book and wish I had written it myself. Toby Green’s Fistful of Shells is one such book. Brilliantly conceptualized, beautifully written, Fistful of Shells breaks with colonially configured regional boundaries—which work to re-create unintended silos of knowledge—to imagine a West and West Central African Atlantic era history of money, power, religion, and inequality that is as rich as it is sound.”

Mariana Candido, University of Notre Dame

“This impressive and welcome book engages with the new wave of studies on African economic history and places African societies at the center of global events. Green interrogates and historicizes state failure, violence, corruption, military ideologies, commodification, and globalization, convincingly arguing that roots of many of the current political and economic problems in Africa lie in the past. It is timely, relevant, and necessary in today’s political and economic environment.”

Hassoum Ceesay National Museum, The Gambia

“Toby Green's book restores the rich African history which she had been denied for too long. Here the author reveals that Africa was never at the margins of global commerce but was in fact a decisive player with the prowess to negotiate and also the goods - ivory, gum, gold - to supply.”


Roquinaldo Ferreira, Henry Charles Lea Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania

“The range and depth of this book is simply stunning. By masterfully drawing on primary research and secondary sources in multiple languages, Green delivers a provocative book that is also a landmark of historical imagination and craftsmanship.”

Paul Reid, director, Black Cultural Archives

"Toby Green's transformative book repositions West African history in an entirely new light. It brings into focus the region's fundamental place in shaping the modern world as well as the powerful and also difficult legacy of this today."

Miranda Kaufmann Author of BLACK TUDORS“A multifaceted history of West Africa which turns many old assumptions on their heads. Green utterly demolishes the tired Western view that Africa had no history before the arrival of the Europeans, and that they naively ceded power in the region to the newcomers by exchanging valuable goods for baubles. A magisterial, extensive and fresh account of the history of West Africa that rewrites the region and its peoples back into World History, where they belong.”

Photos taken by Toby Green in A Fistful of Shells

Manhyia Palace, Kumasi, Ghana -- Photo, Toby Green. Available at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Manhyia_Palace_Museum,_Kumasi,_Ghana.jpg

Manhyia Palace, Kumasi, Ghana. Photo, Toby Green. Available at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Manhyia_Palace_Museum,_Kumasi,_Ghana.jpg

Elmina Castle, Western ramparts

Elmina Castle’s ramparts. Photo Toby Green. Available at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Elmina_Castle%E2%80%99s_ramparts_above_the_west_Gate_of_the_castle.jpg 

ruins of Luso-African settlements, Bintang, The Gambia

The ruins of the Luso-African settlement at Bintang, The Gambia. Photo, Toby Green. Available at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_ruins_of_the_Luso-African_settlement_at_Bintang,_The_Gambia.jpg

Maroon flag at St John's Maroon Church, Freetown

Maroon flag outside St John’s Church, Freetown. Photo, Toby Green. Available at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maroon_flag_outside_St_John%E2%80%99s_Church,_Freetown.jpg

Pier at Benguela

Ruins of the pier at Benguela, from which slave trade ships departed. Photo, Toby Green

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