This paper is aimed at critically reviewing Walter Hawthorne’s article, “Nourishing a Stateless Society during the Slave Trade: The Rise of Balanta Paddy-Rice Production in Guinea-Bissau.” Research studies on the history of the populations in the West African coast edge still remain an incomplete task. Most historical accounts lay emphasis on the relatively homogenous populations that controlled the savanna-woodland interior. The author’s thesis brings an understanding of West Africa’s sunken coastal zone by pointing out contradictions on the reported farming activities. Hawthorne questions how the Balanta territories of Guinea-Bissau could be paddy-rice growers as they were clearly surrounded by a society that was thriving on slave trade. Oral narratives in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries described the Balanta as subsistence maize and yam farmers. Overall slave trade was rife in the dense population and this should have severely limited their ability to produce food crops.
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The best explanation to the controversy is that in the sixteenth century, the Balanta produced yams and other crops that required small inputs of labor using stone and wood tools. This pattern of life changed when the Balanta people came under siege from slave trade in the seventeenth century. It is therefore controversial that the Balanta managed to maintain political independence and even adopt new farming methods.The author thoroughly examines the effect of Atlantic slave trade on the stateless societies with the Balanta population being the major focus (Hawthorne, 2001).
In summary, the Balanta occupied the territory between Northern bank of the Lower Rios Geba and the Lower Rio Casamance in the pre-colonial period. The Mandinga dominated states such as Kaabu expansion in the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries pushed Balanta to the coast and gradually spread from the Niger Basin toward the Atlantic. The movement was led by smiths and mercants who exchanged gold, iron and clothing for kola pepper and other items produced in the sunken coast. As a result, many Balanta were influenced and others absorbed by Kaabu leading to intermarriages and adoption of Mandinga cultural practices. The Balanta were however resistant to the cultural and political domination of the Mandinga therefore the Balanta oral narratives speak of strong opposition to Mandinga advances. The political structures of the Balanta society where men held power that was not concentrated in a ruling class made it difficult for any outsider to dominate them.
The Mandinga gained authority by marrying the ruling families and conquering others but since the Balanta were stateless in nature and had too many independent centers of powers, the Mandinga could not conquer them. The Balanta were also dispersed in the pre-colonial period due to insufficiency of resources in one area and unresolved intra-group disputes. As Kaabu traded captives in the eighteenth century, the Balanta met challenges of the new era by refashioning their social structures and agricultural practices. The Balanta settled in near mangrove swamps and established tabancas and highly sophisticated paddy-rice techniques due to raiding and increased iron circulation. The Balanta therefore lived in near a powerful slave trading state but they were also able to adopt new crops and methods of farming.
The author bases his or her arguments on scholarly articles and one is by renowned Historian Baubacar Barry. Baubacar also acknowledges that the pre-colonial history of the sunken coast between Saloum River and northern Liberia remains an unfulfilled task. He continues to reveal that Guinea-Bissau was just an area with decentralized populations that were decimated by the Kaabu who had powerful war machines. The other scholars that the author bases his arguments include George Brooks. Brooks elaborates the manner in which the Mande-language diffussed among the conquered groups. On the hand Lusophone scholars report on the interaction and intermarriage between the Balanta and Mandinga, a phenomenon they dubbed madingizacao.
Oral narratives and written sources dating back to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries have been used to argue out that the Balanta were initially yam and maize farmers long before the Europeans arrived. Hawthorne makes reference to oral narratives and confidently reports that the area was mainly occupied by the Balanta. He backs up his claim with European settler observations as they also reported that the Balanta territories were densely populated.
The author’s main objective was to examine the effect that Atlantic slave trade had on the societies that were stateless using the Balanta population in Guinea- Bissau as the case study. The author was able to explain the contradictions in the past literature that although the Balanta were maize farmers, they later refashioned to be paddy-rice farmers despite the thriving slave trade. According to Albert van Dantzig, slave trade has many disadvantages including population decrease, decay of agricultural activities and general insecurity. Therefore famine must have been common in the areas that failed to adopt the centralized system of government such as the Balanta.
However, the Balanta, despite being decentralized, did not have famine but instead produced and traded large quantities of paddy rice by organizing the workers into age grades. This is because as the patterns of life in the coastal Guinea-Bissau changed, the Balanta reorganized their social structures by establishing defensive villages and taking advantage of the increased iron circulation to develop sophisticated paddy-rice production techniques. The author was therefore successful in achieving his objective. He has demonstrated the manner in which the decentralized groups in slave trade areas managed to survive and even prosper in farming.