Perceptions of the earliest stages of interaction between European nations and the indigenous peoples of Africa, from the beginnings of European maritime expansion in the fifteenth century to the nineteenth century, are easily clouded by consciousness of the subsequent imposition of European rule over almost the entire African continent. There has, arguably, been a tendency to read back into earlier periods the military and political dominance which became manifest in the European Partition of Africa at the end of the nineteenth century. The temptation is, perhaps, especially strong in relation to the history of the Atlantic slave trade, which appears so obviously damaging to the African societies involved that it is readily assumed that their participation in it must have been somehow coerced. Although strongest in popular perceptions, this tendency has been reflected in the work of some academic historians also: perhaps most emphatically in the general survey of Afro-European commercial relations by the late Walter Rodney, which remains probably the most widely read book on African history. There we are told, for example, that ‘From the beginning, Europe assumed the power to make decisions within the international trading system […] Above all, European decision-making power was exercised in selecting what Africa should export – in accordance with European needs.’ Primarily, according to Rodney, this was a question of disparity of economic power; but ‘as a last resort’ armed force could be used ‘to ensure the pursuit of favourable policies in the dependent areas’.
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