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John Thornton (historian)

John Thornton (historian)

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John K. Thornton is an American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 historian specializing in the history of Africa
History of Africa
The history of Africa begins with the prehistory of Africa and the emergence of Homo sapiens in East Africa, continuing into the present as a patchwork of diverse and politically developing nation states. Agriculture began about 10,000 BCE and metallurgy in about 4000 BCE. The history of early...

 and the African Diaspora. He is a professor in the history department at Boston University
Boston University
Boston University is a private research university located in Boston, Massachusetts. With more than 4,000 faculty members and more than 31,000 students, Boston University is one of the largest private universities in the United States and one of Boston's largest employers...


Early life and education

Thornton was born in 1949 into a military family and educated at the University of Michigan
University of Michigan
The University of Michigan is a public research university located in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the United States. It is the state's oldest university and the flagship campus of the University of Michigan...

 (1971) and UCLA (1972 and PhD 1979). His sister is novelist Betsy Thornton
Betsy Thornton
Betsy Thornton is a contemporary American writer of mystery fiction novels set in the Southwestern United States.-Biography:Thornton was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, the oldest of four children born to Mary Elizabeth Thornton, a professor of Classics at Miami University in Ohio and Colonel...



Thornton held various history faculty positions in the United States and Africa during the 1980s. He joined the faculty at Millersville University in 1986 and joined the Boston University
Boston University
Boston University is a private research university located in Boston, Massachusetts. With more than 4,000 faculty members and more than 31,000 students, Boston University is one of the largest private universities in the United States and one of Boston's largest employers...

 faculty in fall 2003.


Thornton focused initially on the history of the Kingdom of Kongo
Kingdom of Kongo
The Kingdom of Kongo was an African kingdom located in west central Africa in what are now northern Angola, Cabinda, the Republic of the Congo, and the western portion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo...

. From the start of this work, Thornton became convinced that the status of Kongo as a Christian country had not been fully recognized through his work on missionary baptismal statistics which he sought to show reflected large scale baptism and used this material to write a treatise on Kongo demography. His work on baptismal records resulted in the publication of the article "Demography and History in the Kingdom of Kongo" (1977), and a contribution on another baptismal document in the First Edinburgh Conference on African Historical Demography (1978).

Thornton's thesis, published as The Kingdom of Kongo: Civil War and Transition, 1641-1718 (Madison, 1983) advanced the idea that Kongo's centralization was the result of a massive build up of slave worked plantations in the vicinity of its capital during the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, and allowed kings of be overwhelmingly powerful. However, he argued, the persistent civil wars of the seventeenth century and the rise of a new population center in the coastal province of Soyo
Soyo is a city located in the province of Zaire in Angola. Soyo recently became the largest oil-producing region in the country, with an estimate of .-Early history:...

 led to the depopulation of São Salvador and the loss of its centralization. In addition to this larger theme, Thornton also tried to integrate a history from below description of daily life and culture in the country by mining carefully the extensive documentation of the Capuchin missionaries in the country. In this work, he deliberately ignored using either earlier or later materials and much of the ethnographic materials so as to determine continuity and change in the kingdom. Thornton would return to this theme in writing the biography of D Beatriz Kimpa Vita
Kimpa Vita
Beatriz Kimpa Vita , was a Congolese prophet and leader of her own Christian movement, known as Antonianism. Her teaching grew out of the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church in Kongo.-Early life:...

 in showing the daily life of Kongo in her times (1684–1706).

Thornton's second book, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1650 (Cambridge University Press, 1992, the second edition in 1998 extended its framework to 1800) was an examination of the Atlantic portions of Africa and their involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, as well as the impact of Africans in the American countries to which they were carried. In this work, Thornton sought to demonstrate that Africans had been more active participants in the trade that was previously believed, arguing controversially that African economic strength and power were sufficient to force Europeans to deal with them on their own terms.

At the same time, he also argued that Africans were not stripped of their culture in the Middle Passage
Middle Passage
The Middle Passage was the stage of the triangular trade in which millions of people from Africa were shipped to the New World, as part of the Atlantic slave trade...

 and retained most of it in the first generation of their captivity. He tried to show how African sensibilities continued to be dominant in the first generation of captives in art, music, and language. He also suggested that resistance in the form of revolts in particular had roots in African military systems, and this last point was pursued in detail in several studies of slave revolts and the Haitian Revolution
Haitian Revolution
The Haitian Revolution was a period of conflict in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, which culminated in the elimination of slavery there and the founding of the Haitian republic...


His studies of Africa in the slave trade led him, at the urging of English historian Jeremy Black
Jeremy Black
Jeremy Black may refer to:*Sir Jeremy Black , British admiral*Jeremy Black , drummer for Apollo Sunshine and Mouth Music*Jeremy Black , British military historian...

 to write a systematic study of African wars and military culture in the period of the slave trade, which appeared in 1999 as Warfare in Atlantic Africa, 1500-1800 (University College of London, 1999).

In 2007 he and his long time collaborator (and wife) Linda Heywood published Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585-1660 (Cambridge University Press). This work demonstrated that thanks to English and Dutch privateering on Portuguese vessels, virtually all the first generation of slaves brought to the colonies of these two countries came from Central Africa. They then went on to argue that the long contact between this region and Europe, the conversion of many of the people to Christianity, and the adaptation of various European items of culture, they could be considered "Atlantic Creole
Atlantic Creole
Atlantic Creole is a term used in North America to describe the Charter Generation of slaves during the European colonization of the Americas before 1660. These slaves had cultural roots in Africa, Europe and sometimes the Caribbean. They were of mixed race, primarily descended from European...

s" a term popularized by historian Ira Berlin. Basing themselves of many local archives in the United States, Bermuda, Barbados, England and the Netherlands, they went on to suggest that the Christian background of many early slaves may account for their high manumission rate and their role in cultural foundations of the Americas.


He shared the 2008 Herskovits Prize for his book (co-authored with Linda Heywood) Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585-1660.

Principal Publications


The Kingdom of Kongo: Civil War and Transition, 1641-1718 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983).

Africa and Africans in the Formation of the Atlantic World, 1400-1680 (New York and London: Cambridge University Press, 1992, second expanded edition, 1998). Portuguese translation: África e Africanos na Formação do Mundo Atlântico, 1400-1800 (Rio de Janeiro: Estampa, 2004); Italian translation, L’Africa e gli africani nella formazione del mondo atlantico, 1400-1800 (Bologna: Mulino, 2010).

The Kongolese Saint Anthony. Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684-1706 (Cambridge University Press, 1998)

Warfare in Atlantic Africa, 1500-1800 (University College of London Press/Routledge, 1999)

(with Linda Heywood), Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585-1660 (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

(ed. and trans.) Evangelical Missions to the Kingdom of Kongo by Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi da Montecuccolo, 1665. Translation published on internet, presently at http://centralafricanhistory.blogspot.com/.


"Demography and History in the Kingdom of Kongo, 1550-1750," Journal of African History 18 (1977): 507-30.

"An Eighteenth Century Baptismal Register and the Demographic History of Manguenzo" in C. Fyfe and D. McMaster (eds.) African Historical Demography (Edinburgh: Centre of African Studies, 1977): 405-16.

"The Slave Trade in Eighteenth Century Angola: Effects on Demographic Structures" Canadian Journal of African Studies 14 (1980): 417-28.

"Early Kongo-Portuguese Relations, 1483-1575: A New Interpretation" History in Africa 8 (1981): 183-204. French translation in Cahiers des Anneaux de la Mémoire 3 (2001)

"The Chronology and Causes of Lunda Expansion to the West, ca. 1700-1852," Zambia Journal of History 1 (1981): 1-13.

"The Demographic Effect of the Slave Trade on Western Africa, 1500-1850" in C. Fyfe and D. McMaster, African Historical Demography, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: Centre of African Studies, 1981): 691-720.

"The Kingdom of Kongo, ca. 1390-1678: History of an African Social Formation," Cahiers d'études africaines
Cahiers d'Études africaines
The Cahiers d'Études africaines is an international and interdisciplinary academic journal covering topics in the social sciences as relating to Africa, the West Indies, and Black Africa. The journal publishes miscellaneous issues and essays covering recent trends in research and field theory and...

22 (1982): 325-42.

"The Development of an African Catholic Church in the Kingdom of Kongo, 1483-1750," Journal of African History 25 (1984): 147-67.

(with Linda M. Heywood), "Demography, Production and Labor: Central Angola, 1890-1950," in Joel Gregory and Dennis Cordell (eds.), African Population and Capitalism (Boulder and London: Westview, 1987): 241-54.

"Tradition, Documents and the Ife-Benin Relationship" History in Africa 15 (1988): 351-62.

"On the Trail of Voodoo: African Christianity in Africa and the Americas," The Americas 44 (1988): 261-78.

(with Linda Heywood), "African Fiscal Systems as Demographic Sources: The Case of the Central Highlands of Angola, 1770-1900" Journal of African History 29 (1988): 213-28.

"The Art of War in Angola, 1575-1680," Comparative Studies in Society and History 30 (1988): 360-78.

"Ideology and Political Power in Central Africa: The Case of Queen Njinga (1624-1663),” Journal of African History 32 (1991): 25-40.

"African Dimensions of the Stono Rebellion," American Historical Review 96 (1991): 1101-13. Reprinted in: Darlene Clark Hine and Ernestine Jenkins, eds. A Question of Manhood: A Reader in US Black Men’s History and Masculinity (Indiana University Press, 1999), pp. 115-29 and Mark M Smith, Stono: Documenting and Interpreting a Southern Slave Revolt, (University of South Carolina Press, 2005) pp. 73-87

"Pre-Colonial African Industry and the Atlantic Trade, 1500-1800," and "The Historian and the Pre-Colonial African Economy: John Thornton Responds," in African Economic History Review 9 (1992), along with comments by four other historians.

"'I am the Subject of the King of Congo': African Ideology in the Haitian Revolution," Journal of World History 4 (1993): 181-214.

"African Soldiers in the Haitian Revolution," Journal of Caribbean History 25 (1993): -80. Reprinted in Laurent Dubois and Julius Scott, eds., Origins of the Black Atlantic: Rewriting Histories (Routledge, 2010), pp. 195-213.

"Central African Names and African American Naming Patterns," William and Mary Quarterly 3rd series, 50 (1993): 727-42.

“The African Experience of the ’20 and Odd Negroes” Arriving in Virginia in 1619,” William and Mary Quarterly 3d series, 55 (1998): 421-34.

“The Coromantees: An African Cultural Group in Colonial North America and the Caribbean,” Journal of Caribbean History 32/1-2 (1998): 161-78.

“War, the State, and Religious Norms in Coromantee Thought,” in Robert Blair St. George (ed.), Possible Pasts: Becoming Colonial in America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000), pp. 181-200.

“The Origins and Early History of the Kingdom of Kongo, c. 1350-1550,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 34/1 (2001): 1-31.

(with Paula Gershick-Ben Amos) "Civil War in the Kingdom of Benin, 1689-1722: Continuity or Political Change?" Journal of African History 42 (2001): 353-76.

“Religion and Cultural Life in the Kongo and Mbundu Areas, 1500-1800,” in Linda Heywood (ed.), Central Africans and Cultural Transformations in the American Diaspora (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 71-90.

"Cannibals, Witches and Slave Traders in the Atlantic World," William and Mary Quarterly 60/2 (2003): 273-94.

“Elite Women in the Kingdom of Kongo: Historical Perspectives on Women’s Political Power,” Journal of African History 47 (2006): 437-60.

(with Linda Heywood), “Central African Leadership and the Appropriation of European Culture,” in Peter Mancall, ed., The Atlantic World and Virginia, 1550-1624 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), pp. 194-224.

“Les États de l’Angola et la formation de Palmares (Brésil),” Annales: Histoire, Sciences sociales 63/4 (2008): 769-97.

(with Linda Heywood) “Kongo and Dahomey, 1660-1815: African Political Leadership in the Era of the Slave Trade and Its Impact on the Formation of African Identity in Brazil,” in Bernard Bailyn, ed. Soundings in Atlantic History: Latent Structures and Intellectual Currents, 1500-1825 (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), pp. 86-111.

“African Political Ethics and the Slave Trade,” in D. R. Peterson, ed. Abolitionism and Imperialism in Britain, Africa and the Atlantic. (Oxford, OH: Ohio University Press, 2009), pp. 58-93.