The project ‘Inventing the People. Ideas of Community in Cross-Cultural Encounters Along the African Atlantic’ is funded by an NWO Veni Grant, for the years 2020-2024.

This project examines how competing ideas of community evolved in the late-medieval encounters between European and pagan peoples along the African Atlantic coast and the Canary Islands. By the fifteenth century, the African Atlantic was a thriving and plural region with myriad interactions, from trade and evangelization to war and domination. This specific historical context is relevant for the objectives of this research, as it gave rise to distinct understandings of what political communities are and, with it, new ways of understanding international relations.

In a world where the nation-state seems to be losing its centrality, thinking of different forms of human association and their implications for international politics is increasingly necessary. And yet, both International Relations (IR) scholars and historians have repeatedly encountered difficulties in conceptualizing communities beyond the nation. This project will broaden the current conceptual apparatus in a historically-informed way, by setting aside modernist assumptions and recovering alternative understandings of what it meant to live together before the nation-state became the dominant form of political organization.

In order to do this and avoid anachronism, I develop a methodological approach centered on four groups of practitioners who were involved in encounters along the African Atlantic: travelers, royal chroniclers, lawyers, and missionaries. Focusing on the texts and practices of these professionals, I seek to reconstruct how different understandings of political community underpinned their daily activity. By bringing to light these forgotten practitioners and how they built different views of what is a political community, this research will challenge conventional assumptions about the evolution of IR. Moving away from teleological narratives about the predominance of the sovereign nation-state, this project thinks anew about forms of political community that may be more relevant to our plural and globalized world.