Upcoming Events

Global Houses of the Efik

Research Seminar – Louis Nelson, Shaheen Alikhan

  • 5 June 2024
  • 5:00 – 7:00 pm
  • This talk is part of a series entitled 'Out to Sea', which will focus on the influence of oceans and their coasts, in relation to Britain and its global empire, on visual and architectural imagination and production.
  • Paul Mellon Centre and Online

Much of the scholarship on the globalised house of the early modern period privileges colonisers creating a false impression that globalisation was unidirectional. A more responsible examination explores the ways colonised communities also engaged in acts of collection, reinscription and identity construction. Unlike many African communities, the Efik in Old Calabar (now modern Nigeria) never gave Europeans land rights to build the trading forts that slowly became the huge slave castles now dotting the West African coast. Forbidding European development allowed Africans far greater control over the landscapes of exchange along the waterline, where British ships’ captains would purchase enslaved Africans from Efik traders. Visitors’ descriptions include lavish accounts of the ways wealthy Efik traders donned British costume, swords, cocked hats and umbrellas. But even more surprising for many were the traders’ houses. These took the common form of a raised two-storey house with a gallery on all sides. Over generations, some of these trading families stockpiled extraordinary collections of English material goods including gilt pier glasses, sofas, marble sideboards, engravings, clocks and handsome dining tables. Years of negotiations while dining onboard with ships’ captains also meant that these traders could easily navigate both African and British dining practices. It was common practice for Efik traders to order not just objects but whole houses. This paper explores this practice and offers preliminary frames for interpretation.

Respondent: Shaheen Alikhan, PhD student in the Interdisciplinary Constructed Environment Doctoral Program at the University of Virginia School of Architecture.

Image caption: Carl Wadström, 'Design for a House in a Tropical Climate', from An Essay on Colonization (London, 1794).

About the speakers

  • Louis P. Nelson, Professor of Architectural History at the University of Virginia, is a specialist in the built environments of the early modern Atlantic world, with published work on the American South, the Caribbean and West Africa, and is a leading advocate for the reconstruction of place-based public history. Louis is an accomplished scholar, with two book-length monographs published by University of North Carolina Press and Yale University Press, three edited collections of essays, two terms as senior co-editor of Buildings and Landscapes – the leading English language venue for scholarship on vernacular architecture – and numerous other articles. His work focuses on the early American South, the Greater Caribbean and the Atlantic rim. Architecture and Empire in Jamaica (Yale, 2016) won three major book awards and was very positively reviewed in twelve different venues ranging from the popular Times Literary Supplement to the scholarly William and Mary Quarterly, Art Bulletin and Architectural History, many calling it a tour de force.

  • Shaheen Alikhan’s dissertation work, continuing from her MA thesis in architectural history on the construction of eighteenth-century slaving vessels, focuses on the reshaping and creation of waterfront spaces to facilitate the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans. These liminal spaces, essential but unique within the larger landscape of chattel slavery, represented concentrated areas in which enslaved and legally free Africans and members of the African diaspora took opportunities to learn, communicate, earn wages and build relationships and they have been largely overlooked. As an architectural historian, Shaheen has contributed to anthologies pertaining to the Caribbean world and reparative justice, and worked as a digital documentation specialist. She is currently in discussion with a publisher about her book Building a Floating Prison: Slave Ships Throughout the Long Eighteenth Century.