Toby Green is the 2020 winner of the Historical Writers’ Association Non-Fiction Crown Award for his ground-breaking book, A Fistful of Shells. Many years of detailed research culminated in this fascinating perspective on West Africa and its unique history, as he tells Richard Genet for Historia.
I catch up with Toby over Zoom after the awards ceremony and begin by asking him how he felt about winning. “The thing which was nice for me,” he says, “was how genuinely the jury felt touched by my book. That’s something that means a lot.”
He tells me that he thinks all the shortlisted works would have been worthy winners, and is extremely appreciative of the HWA award, particularly having spent such a significant amount of time researching and writing the book. When he began his career as a writer, he says, he couldn’t have ever imagined writing something that would be so well received as A Fistful of Shells has been.
As well as writing, Toby lectures at King’s College London, where he enjoys working alongside young people. The reciprocal relationship between student and lecturer allows him to learn as much from his students as they do from him. The other relationship that Toby enjoys, and wouldn’t want to go without, is with his readers, although he tells me that he does not always feel as well connected to them as he does with his students. Unlike the interplay between students and lecturers in the lecture theatre, I suspect that many authors often struggle to gauge their audience’s response to their work.
For a number of years, during his 20s and in the early stages of his career, Toby was a travel writer and journalist, and in 2001 he published his first travel guide. However, after finding writing to be a rather isolating endeavour, at the age of 28 he began a PhD in Philosophy in African Studies. He tells me that when he started working as a professional historian in 2010, he faced the challenge of being one of the few who actually concentrated on pre-colonial Africa.
Indeed, when it comes to his research, he has needed to be stubborn, but also, he says, very lucky, especially as he is researching history from a very long time ago. “I have read a lot of old documents,” he says.
The research for A Fistful of Shells took many years, some of it dating back to his PhD in 2002, although much can also be attributed to his archival research between 2010 and 2013 as well as his time spent in Africa. Along the way, he says, “I have found out a lot about human nature”. In total, it took until 2017 to research the book, before he spent a year writing it. For a historian, he says, the writing is the easy part.
I asked him what had first inspired the book. He tells me that it was in 1995, aged 21, when he first visited West Africa, travelling to three former European colonies: Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, and The Gambia. The realities that he experienced there were very different to what he had ever imagined. It was during this trip that he was struck by the disparities between neighbouring countries and the significant impact of a colonial past. Some of those differences can be traced back to the longstanding relationship held between Africa and Europeans. It was this disjunction in West Africa that led him to write A Fistful of Shells.
As a historian, Toby can be hard to shock, even when he discovers the horrors of the past. He says that “sometimes you do read really sad things in the archives and you can read some exhilarating things in the archives [too].”
A particular document that Toby read on a trip visiting Seville, called The Book of the Dead, listed slaves who were forced to make the Atlantic crossing from Guinea-Bissau to modern day Colombia in South America. Each of the enlaved people were listed solely for economic purposes, with their owners’ branding mark next to them. This list, rather bleakly, also recorded whose ‘property’ had died crossing the Atlantic, and which of the ‘owners’ were owed compensation.
The title for the book, ‘A Fistful of Shells’, was inspired by Clint Eastwood’s 1964 film A Fistful of Dollars, and Toby wanted the title to hopefully convey the enormous financial greed that has influenced West African history. In the region, cowrie shells were used as one of the main forms of currency for many years and so the title became A Fistful of Shells.
Toby believes that “the economic relationships between Africa and the rest of the world can tell a broader narrative of the African past.”
He also hopes that his readers will reflect on the ways in which Africa has been portrayed in both our lives and how our preconceptions of the region have been constructed through the media. The region has for centuries been obscured and written out of most cultural representations. He aims to remind people that Africa did not suddenly emerge onto the pages of our history books during the colonial era, rather, it has always been a very powerful presence over several millennia. West Africa and its history, he reminds me, are not always at the top of the cultural agenda. However, after the events of the Black Lives Matter movement during 2020, he believes that there is now a more receptive audience for books like his.
His new book, publishing in April, is called The Covid Consensus: The New Politics of Global Inequality. Although it is set in a very different time period from A Fistful of Shells, it investigates similar themes, discussing the ways in which Western and European media have excluded Africa, South America, and India throughout the pandemic. These exclusions, he tells me, have made him very angry for a long time.
I very much look forward to reading Toby’s next book this spring. If it is anything like A Fistful of Shells, we are going to be in for a fascinating and eye-opening treat.
A Fistful of Shells by Toby Green was published on 30 January, 2020. The Covid Consensus: The New Politics of Global Inequality is out on 22 April, 2021.
About Richard Genet: I have always loved reading historical books, especially Michael Morpurgo when I was younger. Now that I am studying journalism at university I get to explore the world around me through my writing, which I hope will allow me to travel throughout my career.
Richard is the fourth and final student from Bath Spa University who has worked as a guest journalist with Historia to cover the 2020 HWA Crown Awards. The other three are Imogen Deacon, Harriet Stevens and Poppy Evans. We’d like to thank all of them for their enthusiasm, initiative and dedication and wish them well in their future careers.
The HWA Crown Awards for 2021 are open for submissions until 30 April. For full details and entry forms, go to the HWA website.
Read more about the 2020 Crown Awards winners.
Negroland and Guinea with the European Settlements, Explaining what belongs to England, Holland, Denmark, etc by Herman Moll, 1727: via Wikimedia