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With Sharjah’s interest in all things African at the moment – it has been a driving force behind the International Publishers Association’s recent Africa conferences – the emirate will surely have registered the success of British historian Toby Green’s A Fistful of Shells (published in the UK by Penguin Random House imprint Allen Lane) his acclaimed piece of revisionist West Africa history which has just won the £25,000 Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding.

Green’s book sheds new light on the received narrative of West Africa, dispelling long-held myths that African history only began with the arrival of the Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries.  In a comprehensive study that draws on many years of research in nine countries, and on oral histories, maps, letters, artefacts and the author’s own experience of collecting material across eight West African states, Green presents a new perspective on pre-colonial Africa, one that is little known in the western world.

He argues that there is much more to the history of West Africa than the history of slavery and abolition. The coastal regions of West Africa were far from closed, sedentary and ‘backward’ prior to the 18th and 19th centuries. Instead they were composed of kingdoms that were cosmopolitan, economically advanced and culturally sophisticated, trading far and wide with the West and beyond in a variety of currencies – including the cowrie (sea snail) shells from which the book takes its name.

The winner’s cheque was presented at the Royal Academy in London to Green’s publisher at Penguin Press, Simon Winder.  Green himself was away teaching in Mozambique at the time.  Commenting on behalf of the judges, Professor Ash Amin said: “A Fistful of Shells is a treasure trove of a book. Truly ground-breaking, it draws on years of work to tell another story of pre-colonial West Africa, a continually ignored continent. It changed the way in which the jury thought about Africa and helped us to better understand not just Africa but the way in which the world is changing right now. Finally, a detailed history that few westerners know but all ought to. Quite simply, an eye-opener.”

The eponymous Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize takes its name after its Saudi philosopher and academic founder and established in 2013, ‘to reward and celebrate the best works of non-fiction that demonstrate rigour and originality, have contributed to global cultural understanding and illuminate the interconnections and divisions that shape cultural identity worldwide’.

Sarah Scarlett ([email protected]) at Penguin Random House in London is handling foreign rights.  So far the title has sold to Chicago University Press, and to Brazil and China.  Arabic rights and other territories are still available.