The kings of Dahomey were absolute rulers of a militaristic state which grew rich from the slave trade. When they received visitors they would always put on ostentatious displays. A large contingent of soldiers would show up, brandishing their weapons and waving flag-staves decorated with human skulls and with the jawbones of their enemies. But in addition, the kings of Dahomey would dance before the visitors, accompanied by drums and by singing soldiers. Afterwards the soldiers would fire their guns in a salute and the king would approach the visitors and shake hands with with them.

The kings of Dahomey had an elite guard made up entirely of women, known as the mino. They were established in the seventeenth-century CE, initially as a group of elephant hunters, but later they became the king’s body guard, equipped with muskets and regular uniforms. They also participated in slave raids. The mino underwent rigorous physical exercises, learned survival skills, how to storm defenses and execute prisoners. They were not allowed to have children or to marry. By the mid-19th century, there was between 1,000 and 6,000 of these female warriors, making up about a third of the Dahomeyan army.

The mino participated in the wars against France. The French soldiers had initially found it difficult to fight female adversaries, but before long they learned how to fight back. In a battle in 1890 many of the mino were killed after an intense hand-to-hand combat with the French. The female battalion was disbanded after Dahomey became a French colony in 1894. Interviews with former female soldiers conducted in the 1930s indicated that many of them had severe problems adapting to civilian life. The mino guard has recently been discovered by Hollywood and American popular culture. There is no doubt that they provide an image of female empowerment. Whether they really are appropriate role models for young black women today can be discussed.

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A codex, in the context of the history of the Americas, refers to a book put together before or right at the time of the European conquest. Both Mayas and Aztecs had a tradition of making such books. They describe their customs and rituals, the history of the respective empire, but also the encounter between them and the Europeans. Today there are at least 500 codices in existence in libraries around the world. They are our best source of information about life in pre-Columbian Mexico.

The most important example is the Dresden Codex, a work consisting of 78 pages, dating from the thirteenth- or the fourteenth-century CE. It was lost for many years but eventually rediscovered in a library in Germany, hence its name. The Dresden Codex was of great importance for scholars trying to decipher the Maya script.[Read more:Cracking the Maya code“] It contains astronomical information as well as the schedules for rituals such as the celebration of the Maya new year. The book suffered serious water damage during the allied bombings during the Second World War.

The Florentine Codex is the most important Aztec codex. It was compiled by a Spanish priest, Bernardino de Sahagún, with the help of his native students. The work has 2,400 pages and more than 2,000 images, organized into twelve books. It describes the culture of the Aztecs, their cosmology and rituals, but also social and economic conditions and the history of the Aztec people. Sahagún’s aim was to facilitate the conversion of the Aztecs to Christianity. We need information about the Aztecs, he argued, just as a doctor needs information about the illnesses of patients in order to cure them. The Florentine Codex was written in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, but has been translated into Spanish and English. It is today available online.

The Incas did not compile similar books, but an important primary source for their society and culture is the work of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, 1539-1616 CE. He was the son of a Spanish conquistador and an Inca noblewoman. His account was written when Garcilaso de la Vega had retired to Spain, but it provides a history of the Incas from a native point of view.

External links:

In Our Time, “The Aztecs”

History of the World in 100 Objects, “Double-headed serpent”

Slavery is indigenous to African societies and not something the Europeans brought to Africa. On the contrary, it is because there was slavery in Africa that it was easy for the Europeans to get slaves. The Europeans simply tapped into a trade in slaves, with slave markets, which already had existed for a long time. The Europeans became the best customers for the goods the Africans were selling.

As we have seen, both Benin and the Asante Confederacy owned and traded in slaves. Indeed slaves, together with gold, were the main sources of wealth for both empires. Land, by contrast, was not considered as a form of private property. Land had no value since there quite simply was far too much of it. Instead it was what the land produced, and those who could be forced to work on it, which were considered as property. Thus a man would count his wealth in the number of slaves he owned, and throughout West Africa taxes were levied on slaves and paid in terms of slaves. In addition, enslavement was a punishment which could be meted out against those who violated the law or were unable to settle their debts. Slaves were also given as tributary gifts by a subordinate state or by a neighboring state which sought to avoid occupation. In general there was a strong connection between warfare and slavery, and prisoners of war were usually enslaved. In a sense, slavery was a continuation of war by other means. By enslaving the people who had been defeated, their inferiority and humiliation were made manifest to all. But slaves were of course a commodity too, and it was as a commodity that they were traded across West Africa and along the caravan routes crossing the Sahara. The revenue derived from the slave trade across the Atlantic Ocean, which began in the sixteenth-century, was more than anything what helped make both Benin and the Asante into powerful empires. They did not suffer from the slave trade, that is, but on the contrary they benefited greatly from it.

How some 12 million people were traded.

Triangular trade.

Indeed, it was even possible to offer oneself as a slave, seeking the protection that a master could provide.

Interresting how it necessarily will mean something different in a society where no one works for a wage.

It all came to an end in 1807 when the slave trade was abolished within the British empire. The Asante state loses tax revenue and power. Traders along the coast start to engage with the British. The British Gold Coast is created and then the entire Astante kingdom is taken over.

The very meaning of “slave” in the African context is markedly different from popular conceptions, and to grasp the nature of slavery, you must erase images of shackles and disregard the notion of slave as a commodity lacking status. In this vein some Africanists have gone as far as to employ phrases such as “adopted dependent”, “captive”, or “surf” to distinguish African slavery from other types. Enslavement here was typically not perpetual, as the enslaved could often be ransomed back to their kin through a slave merchant, and the status of slave was not passed down from generation to generation. Customs also prohibited separating families of slaves, and it was not uncommon for subsequent generations of slaves to become free members of the kinship group they once served. Slaves enjoyed ownership of some of the crops they produced. In West Africa more broadly, records indicate that slaves worked in a variety of areas, mostly alongside their owners as administrators, soldiers, royal advisors, farmers, household guards, and trade assistants. Beyond this, slaves enjoyed free movement and were permitted to cultivate any open land. By and large slaves held a distinct social status within society – a class of loyal, dependent assistants.

Timbuktu was established as a center of Islamic learning during the Mali empire in the thirteenth-century CE but the town continued to flourish well into the seventeenth-century. Scholars, teachers and students assembled at the madrasah – the religious school – at the Sankore mosque. We might, if we like, call it a “university.” [Read more:Nalanda, a very old university“] In addition, Timbuktu was at the center of the book trade across the Sahara. Books were bought and sold here and many of the town’s inhabitants were avid book collectors. The books were written in Arabic, but also in a number of indigenous languages, using Arabic script. It is simply not true, as it sometimes is claimed, that Africa had no written languages before the Europeans turned up.

The inhabitants of Timbuktu have remained book lovers to this day. Many of the old families in the town are proud owners of large collections. It has been estimated that Timbuktu has some 700,000 books. However, since the manuscripts are fragile and often in a bad condition, the owners have been encouraged to deposit them in libraries where they can be better preserved but also digitalized and put on the Internet.

In April 2012, Timbuktu was captured by Tuareg rebels in collaboration with Al-Qaeda forces and declared the town a part of the independent country of Azawad. [Read more:Independence for Azawad“] They outlawed music, football, and destroyed a number of shrines dedicated to Sufi saints. They also began destroying ancient books. On January 25, 2013, the rebels entered one of Timbuktu’s libraries, swept manuscripts off the shelves, poured gasoline on them and set them alight. By then, however, the vast majority of the books had already been saved thanks to the heroic efforts of a few librarians who had smuggled hundreds of thousands of books out of the town.

The preservation and digitalization project is now proceeding apace, funded by South Africa and various international foundations. However, many families are understandably reluctant to part with their treasures. So far only a fraction of the texts have been put on the internet. It is only when the digitalization is completed that we can properly begin to understand the intellectual world of medieval West Africa.

External links:

In Our Time, “The Empire of Mali”

History of Philosophy without Any Gaps: “From here to Timbuktu”

Kilwa Kisiwani, just off the southern coast of today’s Tanzania, was one of many trading ports along Africa’s east coast, but for a while it was the most powerful. Between the thirteenth- and the fifteenth-centuries CE, a Muslim sultanate was established here, founded by a group of explorers coming from the city of Shiraz in today’s Iran. They established themselves as a ruling class and imposed their own culture and values on the community. In the fifteenth-century the sultanate controlled Malindi, Mombasa, Pemba, Zanzibar, Comoro and Sofala, as well as ports on the island of Madagascar. Kilwa Kisiwani was famous for its fort which served as a residence for the sultan but also as a place of trade. The residence had over one hundred individual rooms, reception halls, wide staircases and an octagonal swimming pool. Kilwa’s other main attraction was its mosque, constructed entirely out of coral stone. Ibn Battuta, who came here in 1331, was highly impressed with the way the city was laid out and with the generosity and religiosity of its ruler. [Read more:Ibn Battuta, the greatest traveler of all time“] He also describes how the sultan went on raids to capture slaves in the interior of Africa.

By the time of Ibn Battuta’s visit, Kilwa had already been engaged commerce for some thousand years. Already the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a Greek manual for merchants compiled in the first century CE, mentions the ports along the eastern coast of Africa as excellent places to buy ivory and tortoise shell. Coins minted in Kilwa have been found in Great Zimbabwe, Oman and even Australia. [Read more:Great Zimbabwe“] During excavations in the sultan’s palace, a small flask from the Yuan dynasty was discovered together with many shards of Chinese pottery. [Read more:Dividing it all up“] Kilwa was captured by the Portuguese in 1505, but recaptured by the Omanis in the 1690s. Today only ruins are left of the once powerful sultanate.

External links:

15 Minute History, “Indian Ocean Trade”

History of the World in 100 Objects: “Kilwa pot sherds”

The kingdom of Benin was one of the city-states in the delta created by the Niger river in today’s Nigeria. The people of Benin grew rich from trade, not least in slaves, which they were happy to sell to the Europeans who began arriving here in the sixteenth-century. The state of Benin was surrounded by an enormous set of walls and moats, known as iya, constructed between the ninth and the fifteenth-centuries CE. The walls could be as high as ten meters and the moats just as deep. They had a combined length of some 16,000 kilometers, making it one of the largest construction projects on earth. Other city-states embarked on similar constructions. In the kingdom of Ijebu, a noblewoman, Sungbo, commissioned a wall/moat construction which bears her name to this day. Archaeologists have compared the walls of Benin to the Great Wall of China and complained that the former construction has received none of the attention lavished on the latter. [Read more:The Great Wall of China does not exist“] It is not quite clear why the walls and moats were built. A project of this scale is difficult to explain as purely a military arrangement. Perhaps it was rather a question of politics – of establishing the oba’s claims to a land and demonstrating to others the extent of their power. In the competitive environment formed by the Yoruba city-states, wall/moat constructions may have been one of the ways in which the oba establish his status.

There is a remarkable collection of bronze sculptures and plaques – altogether some one thousand objects – cast in Benin from the thirteenth century onward. The metal was actually imported from Europe but they were made by local craftsmen using local techniques. The bronzes, which used to decorate the oba’s palace, show the life of the court and the opulent lifestyle of its rulers. They also portray European merchants – the Europeans appear as small figures in the background, wearing odd-looking hats. The bronzes were looted by the British when they occupied Benin in 1897 and were later sold to museums around the world. Many of them are now on display in the British Museum.

External links:

History of the World in 100 Objects, “Oba with Europeans”

History of the World in 100 Objects, “Ife head”

In order to learn about the past we need to find primary sources that can tell us about it. Many of these are texts. In the case of Africa, however, there are relatively few texts available from the time before colonization. Instead historians are forced to rely on archaeological evidence or on oral traditions. The lack of writing systems has been presented as evidence of how “primitive” people in Africa are. Yet, as so often, it is all a matter of politics. Systems of writing first developed in agricultural societies with powerful states. In fact, writing was independently invented in three separate locations – Mesoamerica, China and Mesopotamia. [Read more: Cracking the Maya code”] The Mesopotamian case is the best documented. Here writing, known as the cuneiform script, developed about 3,200 BCE.

The state needs writing in order to keep track of tax revenue, in order to communicate with its officials and to lay down the law. Besides, kings like their achievements to be remembered – how much land they have conquered and how many enemies they have slewed. From this perspective, writing is a means for the state to exercise power. People are subject to writing much as they are subject to other coercive institutions. It is consequently not surprising to find written records in parts of Africa where there have been powerful, agriculturally-based, states – in Egypt and Ethiopia. The Malian empire did not have writing, but they came close – they had official “recorders of speech,” djeli, charged with memorizing laws and the deeds of the king.

For people who do not live in agricultural societies, and who are not subject to states, oral traditions often serve better. After all, what we need to know in order to live successful lives is above all what people like ourselves have done who have found themselves in situations similar to our own. This information does not have to be written down. Ordinary people do not need a written history as much as they need myths. Myths are taught by the elders and kept alive by the community itself. To live subject to a myth is to live subject to a shared memory of which each member is the custodian.

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Before humans beings took up agriculture, we all gathered our food or we hunted it. There are small groups of hunters and gatherers throughout the world to this day – and many of them live in Africa. This includes some 900,000 Pygmies of the jungles of Central Africa, but also groups such as the San people of the Kalahari desert and the Hadza of Tanzania. The people of the forest are the remnants of the original inhabitants of central Africa who were displaced when the Bantu people arrived. [Read more:The Bantu migration“] There is still a lot of tension between the two groups. The Bantu people are farmers who live sedentary lives and the people of the forest rely on them for everything that nature does not provide. The Pygmies of Congo often live in the proximity of a village of farmers but as soon as new sources of food supply become available they disappear into the forest. The Bantu often think of them as unreliable. The Pygmies, for their part, often think of the Bantu farmers as overbearing and rather gullible.

Sedentary people always look down on people who move around in order to make a living, but they also romanticize their lives. The hunters and gatherers of Africa are no exception. One expression are the “paleolithic diets” which recently have become fashionable in Europe and North America. People who follow a paleolithic diet shun agricultural products like cereal and milk and eat only the kind of food that can be hunted or gathered. The presumption is that our bodies are better adjusted to the kind of food that we consumed during the 95 percent of human history. “Paleolithic diet” is one of Google’s most searched-for weight-loss methods.

Another expression is a brand of political activists known as “anarcho-primitivists.” Their ideal is a society organized as those of hunters and gatherers. Civilization, they argue, was a mistake, and so was the state and the very notion of history. Many anarcho-primitivists predict that a catastrophe of some kind one day will occur – perhaps as the result of a cataclysmic war or an environmental collapse. After that the humans who survive will have to return to Africa and to the only form of life which is sustainable in the long term. The societies of hunters and gatherers who live there today are thus not the remnants of some distant past but models of our future.

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