My specialty in the history of Africa has led me, in both my teaching and research, to explore how Africans participated in the major currents of world history since about 1700. My first book Soldiers, Traders, and Slaves: State Formation and Economic Transformation in the Greater Nile Valley, 1700-1885 uses oral traditions as well as written sources to reconstruct how people in a dangerous frontier zone responded to predatory empires, commercial capitalism, slave raiding, and militant Islam. The book, as well as several articles, analyzes not only how people constructed a small kingdom but also how they continually reconstructed their memories of that kingdom.
Following the paths of slaves from the Nile valley led me to the shores of the Indian Ocean and beyond. I have now embarked on a second major project, "Motley Crews: Indian and African Seafarers on English Vessels in the Indian Ocean, c. 1600-1900." The project analyzes two forms of labor control--indentures and slavery--in a maritime setting. Not only Africans, but also Asians and Europeans, are the main actors; center stage is the Indian Ocean bounded by the crescent of shore from Bombay through the Arabian coast to the African Swahili coast; the action takes place in the tumultuous centuries, especially after 1750, when a system of slavery rose and fell; Asian and African autonomy gave way to European dominance; and steam engines replaced sailing vessels on the ocean.