The Texture of Change: Cloth, Commerce and History in Western Africa, 1700-1850

Jody Benjamin
UC Riverside

The Texture of Change re-examines historical change of the 18th and early 19th centuries across a broad region of western Africa—from Saint Louis, Senegal to Freetown, Sierra Leone—through the history of textile commerce, consumption and dress. Textiles constituted a major trade that linked African producers and consumers to exchange networks that were effectively global in scale. Much of the historiography for the 18th century has been focused on the Atlantic slave trade and its impact, but this study follows the circulation of cloth to account for the broad extent and multiple modes of western Africa’s engagement with regions overseas in Europe, Asia and the Americas. This study explores questions about commerce, consumption and dress as a means to engage with complex social dynamics in western Africa such as those around social status, respectability, gender, ethnicity and race. It highlights the roles of a diverse range of historical actors only glossed in core-periphery or Atlantic-centered framings and argues that their choices within a set of ecological, political and economic constraints structured networks connecting the Atlantic and Indian ocean perimeters.