West African History Books

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See also history books in French.

“There is a broad strain of thought that has long treated Africa as existing outside of history and progress […], but Africa has never lacked civilizations, nor has it ever been cut off from world events.”

―  Howard W. French

Some remarkable books on West African history bring this into vivid, scintillating light by excavating, as with the gloves of an archaeologist, historical, technological, ethnological artifacts and by delicately sifting through, brushing off, and closely examining early scholarly writings and the precious West African oral narratives that have been passed down through generations.

Books on West African History

We’ve arranged the best of our West African history books neither by preference or by accessibility, but alphabetically, like any good historical archivists! And, like archaeologists, we are always digging, so if there are other ‘finds’ that we should know about, we would love to see them in the comment section below.

(Note: If you would like to expand your own library of West African history books, purchasing through our affiliate links below would help support this website at no extra cost to you.)

African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa by Michael A. Gomez

Cover of the West African history book 'African Dominion' by Michael A. Gomez, featuring the great mosque of Djenné and the African continent.

By carefully extracting the threads of ancient Arab sources, oral traditions and archaeological studies, Michael Gomez weaves the early West African empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhay together and inextricably binds them to the rest of the world in a ground-breaking way. At interplay throughout the book are the criss-crossing fibers of religion, slavery, caste, ethnicity, race, and gender, the very conceptions of which were pliable over time, informing the shape of the underlying, ever-changing social web that is specific to this region.

Although it is accompanied by maps and written in a clear style, African Dominion is not an introduction to West African history and presupposes basic knowledge of the empires it covers, which can be quickly acquired by reading through our History of West Africa at a Glance article.

[ Amazon ]

Ancient Middle Niger: Urbanism and the Self-Organizing Landscape by Roderick McIntosh

Cover of the West African archaeology book 'Ancient Middle Niger' by Roderick McIntosh.

The question at the core of McIntosh’s book is how can any significant ancient city, such as West Africa’s Djenné-Djenno, have no citadel, no central seat of power? Through archaeological and historical study, McIntosh reveals the way urban settlements along the Middle Niger river naturally emerged in the first millennium B.C. and explains how these ancient cities could self-organize while sustaining a leaderless, equitable society, drawing comparisons to ancient urban landscapes as far away as Mesopotamia, the Nile Valley and northern China.

Archaeological studies might seem dry and intimidating, but McIntosh guides the reader through complex archaeological jargon with playful asides and explanations.

[ Amazon ]

Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History by Nehemia Levtzion and JFP Hopkins (eds.)

Cover of the West African history book 'Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History' by Nehemia Levtzion and JFP Hopkins.

Sifting through six centuries of Arabic writings, Levtzion and Hopkins created an invaluable resource: these 314 pages of carefully translated writings are the main source for West African history between the ninth and fifteen centuries. Much of it can be gleaned from the outsider perspective of Arab scholars: those observing the trails of black slaves or scholars coming out of West Africa, and those traveling themselves to the fabled lands of gold across the Sahara to report their findings.

Brief biographies of the writers as well as annotations, indexes, and glossaries aid with interpretation of the texts and words across time and language barriers. Basic knowledge of West African geography and history would be useful to fully appreciate this book.

The best, most revealing passages in this book are distilled in Medieval West Africa by Nehemia Levtzion and Jay Spalding, which is also available on Amazon.

[ Amazon ]

A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution by Toby Green

Cover of the West African history book 'A Fistful of Shells' by Toby Green.

Drawing on art, archaeology, letters, personal anecdotes, as well as oral and written histories collected from nine countries, Green reflects on the evolution of West African kingdoms and their trade over four centuries. A Fistful of Shells demonstrates how globally connected the region really was prior to the arrival of Europeans, how Africans often had surprising success in their dealings with Europeans prior to colonization and how, through both the slave trade and colonization, the prominent, sophisticated kingdoms gradually lost their grip on a growing global economy.

Complete with maps, illustrations, notes and a glossary, A Fistful of Shells is a complex history book, nevertheless written in a very accessible style.

[ Amazon ]

The Krio of West Africa: Islam, Culture, Creolization, and Colonialism in the Nineteenth Century by Gibril R. Cole

Cover of the history book 'The Krio of West Africa' by Gibril Cole.

By focusing on the Muslim Krio community in Sierra Leone, Gibril Cole deconstructs the long-held assumption that these descendants of freed slaves are essentially a Christian, Westernized group and examines how this unique Krio identity was forged, uniting a disparate group of people with different religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, during the post-abolition and colonial periods.

Some knowledge of West African geography and its various ethnic groups might be a useful prelude to this book, which is otherwise written in an accessible manner.

[ Amazon ]

Ouidah: The Social History of a West African Slaving Port, 1727–1892 by Robin Law

Cover of the West African history book 'Ouidah' by Robin Law.

The small size of the Beninese town of Ouidah belies its history as the second most important city of the Kingdom of Dahomey. For over two centuries, Ouidah was also the second most important slaving port on the entire African continent — having shipped more than a million human beings over seas. From its obscure origins to its Dahomean incorporation and to its French occupation, Robin Law examines the town’s regimes, commerce and people, particularly its merchant families, and the larger effects the slave trade had on the historical development of the societies involved on the African side.

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The Origins of Iron Metallurgy in Africa: New Light on Its Antiquity, West and Central Africa by Hamady Bocoum (ed.)

Cover of the book 'The Origins of Iron Metallurgy in Africa' by Hamady Bocoum

Historians, archaeologists, ethnologists, engineers and other researchers come together to trace the origins of iron and steel metallurgy in Africa, particularly in West Africa — proving that sub-Saharan Africa did not, in fact, receive the knowledge of iron forging from other cultures as previously thought, but invented and developed it independently as far back as the third millennium BC. They also examine the impact the discovery of this technology had on societies, on their economies and cultures.

Written with a scholarly audience in mind, this book delves deep into the collected data, at times, to make its arguments, which may not be easy for the casual reader to follow, but is well worth the effort.

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Slavery and Colonial Rule in French West Africa by Martin Klein

Cover of the history book 'Slavery and Colonial Rile in French West Africa' by Martin Klein.

Focusing on the local slavery within West Africa — in Senegal, Guinea and Mali, three former French colonies — during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Martin Klein examines the constant struggles between masters and slaves, as well as the impact of both the Atlantic slave trade and colonialism on the ancient systems of servility and their abolition. This study is based both on historical documents and on insightful interviews with descendants of masters and of slaves.

This book is written in a clear, easy-to-read style, accompanied by helpful maps and a few illustrations and appendices.

[ Amazon ]

Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali, Revised Edition by D. T. Niane

Cover of the book 'Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali' by D. T. Niane

The semi-historical, semi-legendary oral epic of Sundiata Keita has been told and sung by generation after generation of griots for centuries. Djeli Mamadou Kouyate’s rendition of Sundiata’s story — from his birth as a cripple to his exile from his homeland and to his eventual unification of the hunter societies of twelve kingdoms into the powerful Mali empire c. 1230 — has found its way to paper with D. T. Niane and G. D. Pickett’s translations into French and English respectively.

Complemented with contextual information, a glossary of places and a list of characters, the epic of Sundiata is a must-read for anyone interested in West African history or literature.

[ Amazon ]

Tarikh al Fattash, Timbuktu Chronicles 1493-1599 by Mahmud Kuti, translated by Christopher Wise

Cover of the West African history book 'Tarikh al Fattash, Timbuktu Chronicles 1493-1599' by Mahmud Kati and Christopher Wise

The Tarikh al Fattash is one of the most important sources for the history of medieval West Africa. Originally written in Arabic five hundred years ago by a West African scholar from Timbuktu, al hajj Mahmud Kuti, the chronicle provides a rare eyewitness account of the Songhai empire and the Askiya dynasty that ruled it, describing its rise and ultimate fall. Translated into English by Christopher Wise, it is accompanied by an introduction, notes and contextualizing information for the non-specialist.

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Themes in West Africa’s History by Emmanuel Akyeampong (ed.)

Cover of the West African history book 'Themes in West Africa's History' by Emmanuel Akyeampong

Themes in West Africa’s History presents a sweeping, yet intimate portrait of the region throughout the ages, tackling deep topics like prehistoric innovations, the external influences on the cultural and religious ecology, the divide between indigenous and European perceptions of history, the changing nature of slavery, of poverty, of disease, of urbanization. Through the lenses of very diverse disciplines, a clearer picture of West African history comes into focus.

[ Amazon ]

Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire: Al-Sa’Di’s Ta’Rikh Al-Sudan Down to 1613 and Other Contemporary Documents by John Hunwick

Cover of the West African history book 'Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire' which includes a translation of the Tarikh al-Sudan among other contemporary texts, by John Hunwick.

The Tarikh al Sudan, written by the seventeenth century scholar ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sa’di of Timbuktu is just as important a text as the above Tarikh al Fattash in describing the cities of Timbuktu and Djenne at the time of the Songhai Empire, as well as through and after its conquest by the Moroccan army. This translation from Arabic is accompanied by other contemporary accounts and letters pertaining to the conquest and a new English translation of Leo Africanus’ description of West Africa.

[ Amazon ]

Encyclopedias of African History

There is perhaps no better introduction to a topic, especially one as broad as African history, than an encyclopedia with contributions from experts in every field and area of study. West Africa, with its density of ancient kingdoms and empires as well as its participation in the trans-Saharan and, later, the Atlantic slave trades, features prominently in every encyclopedia of African history.

The Cambridge History of Africa

Cover of the first volume of the encyclopedia 'The Cambridge History of Africa'

The Cambridge History of Africa strikes the perfect balance between the detail of the information it provides and the accessibility of its writing. With entries organized in both a chronological and a geographical fashion, this encyclopedia describes every corner and facet of the continent from prehistory to 1975 over 8 volumes, covering political, social, economic, technological history among many other things. It is an essential resource for any scholar of African history, best appreciated, no doubt, by academics, but also of great interest to students and non-specialists.

[ Amazon ]

General History of Africa by UNESCO

Cover of the first volume in the 'General History of Africa' encyclopedia by UNESCO, featuring rock art.

This 8, soon-to-be 11, volume encyclopedia — the first of its kind — conceived over decades with contributions from experts in every area of African history, offers an in-depth, chronological view of not only historical, political events but also social dynamics such as population movements, social organization, technological innovations and the impacts of religion, slavery and colonization. Although much denser to read than the other encyclopedias mentioned here, this masterwork is rewarding to consult and made available in 13 languages by UNESCO for free.

[ Free PDF downloads on UNESCO’s website | Amazon ]

Encyclopedia of African History by Kevin Shillington (ed.)

Cover of the 'Encyclopedia of African History' by Kevin Shillington.

Kevin Shillington’s (ed.) Encyclopedia of African History in 3 volumes is organized alphabetically rather than chronologically, and presents an in depth view of the continent’s history as a whole, with further reading suggestions, maps and indexes, the latter of which are indispensable due to the fact that the organization and titles of entries can be slightly confusing. Students and nonspecialist readers will find that the entries vary quite a bit in tone and accessibility, but that overall, the reading experience is pleasantly informative.

[ Amazon ]

Encyclopedia of African History and Culture by Willie F. Page & R. Hunt Davis, Jr. (eds.)

Cover of the 'Encyclopedia of African History and Culture' by Willie F. Page and R. Hunt Davis, Jr.

The Encyclopedia of African History and Culture in 5 volumes by Willie F. Page & R. Hunt Davis, Jr. (eds.) is perhaps the most wide-ranging of all, showcasing not only kingdoms, empires and important historical figures, but also African religious and cultural concepts, geographical features, stories and legends, artistic techniques, etc. What it lacks in depth it makes up for in breadth and with useful timelines, illustrations and maps, which will satisfy both the high school student and the casual inquirer.

[ Amazon ]

Top image: Slide of a 1631 map of Africa by Hendrik Hondius, available at Wikimedia.

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