Long Term Drought as a Forcing Element in Political Destabilization and International Migration in West Africa in the Early Nineteenth Century

Saturday, January 5, 2013: 3:10 PM
Conti Room (Roosevelt New Orleans)
Joshua Souliere, Florida International University
This project examines the importance of climate in triggering large-scale migration of enslaved persons from West Africa into the Trans-Atlantic slave trade during the early nineteenth century. Relying upon recent studies of historical climatology and El Niño cycles, this study hypothesizes that climate-induced extended drought created a domino effect, creating demographic pressure throughout West Africa and instigating political crises.

This research addresses several historiographical deficiencies in the areas of Hausa and Senegambian political and environmental history. Notably, this project will be the first historical study to link environmental forces to specific political and religious developments in these West African regions. I hypothesize that a series of droughts beginning in the 1730s weakened states across the Western Sudan. More acute short-term droughts punctuated this long-term drying trend, especially in the 1750s for Senegambia, and the first decade of the nineteenth century for Hausaland. According to data, these acute droughts correlate with El Niño/La Niña climate cycles, which typically produce stronger than usual droughts in subtropical regions like the Western Sudan. These acute dry spells destabilized existing regimes, which, through poor responses to these disasters, delegitimized and eventually destroyed themselves. The successor regimes, though part of a larger Muslim revivalist movement, began exporting individuals deemed insufficiently Muslim as a way to confront the new demographic realities. Thus, this paper will link the arrival of enslaved Muslims in the Americas to discrete and identifiable environmental and political phenomena in West Africa, a novel approach given the existing literature.

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