John Thornton (historian)

John Thornton (historian)

John K. Thornton is an American historian specializing in the history of Africa and the African Diaspora. Born 1949 into a military family and educated at the University of Michigan (1971) and UCLA (1972 and PhD 1979) Thornton focused initially on the history of the Kingdom of Kongo. 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 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 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 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.

His studies of Africa in the slave trade led him, at the urging of English historian Jeremy Black to write a systematic study of African wars and military culture in the period of the slave trade, which appeared in 1998 as "Warfare in Atlantic Africa, 1500-1800" (University College of London, 1998).

After having taught at Millersville University since 1986, John Thornton joined the Boston University faculty in fall 2003.

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