Maritime Africa: African Canoemen

This begins a handful of episodes that will explore the maritime history of Africa. We begin with the fascinating story of African canoemen.


African indigenous seafaring canoemen operated as middlemen between European traders and the coastal estuaries, rivers and land of West Africa. The topography of the coast often necessitated their involvement in trade because it was variably rocky, broken by sandbars and shallow waters, or treacherous in other ways to large sailing ships. Canoemen allowed access to trade by using surfboats that could surmount the waves on the coast in ways European boats could not. They often were hired as navigators and pilots on European ships or worked as menial labourers or ordinary seamen on European ships. Canoemen also frequently came alongside European ships to board them and trade goods or enslaved people. As a result, when Europeans began to build trading entrepots, such as Elmina Castle in Ghana, Monrovia in Liberia, or Cap Verde in Senegal, they hired canoemen to contract out trade.


To find out more about this little-known aspect of African maritime history Dr Sam Willis spoke with Megan Cructcher, a PhD Student in the Nautical Archaeology Program at Texas A&M University who is looking into the roles, identities, and material culture of these canoemen in West African maritime history, especially during the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries.


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