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Transatlantic Threads of Meaning: West African Textile Entrepreneurship in Salvador da Bahia, 1770–1870

by Mary E. Hicks

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This article details the factors that enabled the creation and maintenance of a transatlantic trade in West African textiles (panos da costa). At the end of the eighteenth century, the transformation of slave and textile trading routes in the Bight of Benin, the granting of trading privileges as compensation for enslaved and freed African mariners who labored aboard slaving ships, and the emergence of a commercial infrastructure in Bahia based on a network of African and Afro-Brazilian shopkeepers and mobile vendors who provisioned Salvador’s residents collectively generated this uniquely African commodity exchange. Through the purposeful circulation and consumption of West African textiles, enslaved and freed Africans in the city forged communal and cultural ties and inscribed their bodies with new meanings and social identities through dress, making these imported material goods a crucial site of black intellectual production in the early modern diaspora.

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