The purpose of this article is to promote the revival of African economic history. Poverty, the most pressing issue confronting the continent, has received world-wide publicity in recent years. Yet historians have continued to neglect the history of economic development, which is central to the study of poverty, in favour of themes that have their origins in the Western world rather than in Africa. However, there is now an exceptional opportunity to correct the balance. Unknown to most historians, economists have produced a new economic history of Africa in the course of the past decade. This article introduces and evaluates two of the most important contributions to the new literature: the thesis that Africa has suffered a ‘reversal of fortune’ during the last 500 years, and the proposition that ethnic fragmentation, which has deep historical roots, is a distinctive cause of Africa's economic backwardness. These arguments are criticized on both methodological and empirical grounds. But they are also welcomed for their boldness, their freshness and their potential for re-engaging historians in the study of Africa's economic past – not least because it is relevant to Africa's economic future.