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, the city 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 collectors to this day, and 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 quite 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 and carried them into the courtyard of the building where they poured gasoline on them and set them alight. The vast majority of the books, however, had by them already been saved thanks to the heroic efforts of a few librarians who smuggled hundreds of thousands of books out of the town.

The preservation project is now proceeding apace, funded by South Africa and various international foundations. However, many families are understandably reluctant to part with their books and so far only a fraction of the texts have been digitalized. It is only when this work 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 was the name of a city-state located on an island just off the southern coast of today’s Tanzania. Between the thirteenth- and the fifteenth-centuries CE a Muslim sultanate was established here. Kilwa was famous for its fort which served as a place of trade but also as a residence for the sultan. It 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.

Kilwa Kisiwani was just one of many trading ports along Africa’s east coast, but for a while it was the most powerful. In the fifteenth-century the sultanate controlled Malindi, Mombasa, Pemba, Zanzibar, Comoro and Sofala, as well as ports on the island of Madagascar. Ibn Battuta, who visited Kilwa Kisiwani in 1331, was highly impressed with the way the city was laid out and with the generosity, humility 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. A Greek manual for merchants, the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, 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 a cosmopolitan place where African cultures mixed with the cultures of traders coming from across the sea. The people of Oman always had a strong presence. Yet the sultanate of Kilwa Kisiwani itself was 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. 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 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, for example, 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 his power. In the competitive environment formed by the Yoruba city-states, wall/moat constructions may have been one of the ways in which an 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, but 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”

The “Bantu migration” is the name given to a massive movement of peoples which took place some time in the first millennium BCE. Leaving a region in what today is eastern Nigeria and Cameroon, people speaking Bantu languages began moving south- and eastward, eventually settling in much of central and southern Africa. This explains why many people here speak related languages today. There are some 450 Bantu languages and the Bantu speakers make up a third of Africa’s population. Because of this shared heritage, many Africans have similar myths, religious beliefs and social practices.

The migrations seem to have been spontaneous movements, not invasions, but exactly why they took place is less clear. Some scholars suggest that it was due to overpopulation while others cite disease or changes in the climate. The Bantu people knew how to work iron and this allowed them to make better tools and more deadly weapons. The iron tools, in turn, made it possible to cut down trees and open up new fields. The original populations of these parts of Africa were hunters and gatherers, not farmers, and they were either assimilated into the Bantu population or forced to eke out a living in more inhospitable places. [Read more:People of the forest“]

All Bantu people share a belief in a supreme God who usually is associated with the sky. The world was not created but it is eternal. What human beings do can easily upset the order of nature and god can easily show his displeasure with humans. In Bantu cultures veneration of the dead plays a prominent role. Spirits of dead people linger on in this world and can influence the lives of the living, at least as long as the dead still are remembered. Many Bantu folktales feature speaking animals — cunning hares, sneaky hyenas, patient turtles and powerful lions. “Ubuntu” is a shared political principle which African politicians occasionally invoke in their rhetoric. It is usually translated as “humanity,” or the notion that “I am because we are.” Ubuntu implies that we all belong together; that we ourselves are diminished when others are humiliated or oppressed.

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Before humans beings took up agriculture, some 12,000 years ago, we 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.

No prejudice is as persistent as the prejudice against foragers. All farmers think they live vastly superior lives. In the case of Africa this prejudice is often strongly expressed by Bantu peoples. [Read more:The Bantu migration“] Only farming communities have states, they argue, and only societies with states are “civilized.” Since hunters and gatherers are on the move, they rarely build permanent structures and there is consequently little for historians to study. In stateless societies, we are told, there is no “progress.”

Anthropological studies of hunters and gatherers reveal quite a different picture. These are egalitarian societies with few social distinctions or divisions between men and women. They eat better and more varied food, have fewer diseases and live longer. And life is actually quite abundant. Instead of constantly working, like their Bantu neighbors, the foragers spend much of their day socializing. When they want to find something to eat they go out into the jungle to find it much as a city-dweller might look for something in a refrigerator. Hunters and gatherers are rich because they have few desires and know how to live within their means. They have no history since they have a very small carbon footprint and do little damage to their environment.

This is a romanticized picture, no doubt, but it has given rise to 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 idea of the state and the very notion of history. Since a modern way of life is unsustainable, a catastrophe of some kind will one day occur. After that we must go back to the jungles of Africa and live like we did for over 95 percent of human history. The societies of hunters and gatherers who live there today are thus not remnants of some distant past as much as models of our future.

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Mancala is the oldest board game still widely played today. It is popular around the world but very much so in Africa. Mancala pieces have been found in Egyptian tombs, the Phoenicians played it in the sixth-century BCE, and so did the people of Axum in the first centuries CE. [Read more:The Ark of the Covenant“] The word itself comes from the Arabic naqala, meaning “to move.”

To be precise, there is no one game called “mancala.” Rather, it is a family of games which have been given different names in different places. Yet all mancala games consist of a board with indentations in which the players take turns placing — “planting” — small stones, beans or seeds. The object is to capture — “to harvest” — all or some of the opponents pieces. How this is done varies depending on local variations in the rules. In fact there are several hundreds of different versions of the game. Ali guli mane is commonly played in Southern India, bao is played in East Africa and congkak in Indonesia, Malaysia and southern Thailand.

One may wonder why similar games are played in such different places. One possibility is that they have originated independently of each other. This is not too difficult to imagine since the rules are pretty basic and related to a social practice — planting seeds and harvesting them — which is common to mankind. The other, more intriguing, possibility is that the game has spread from one society to the next. We can imagine that Buntu people played the game when they were not busy migrating. [Read more:The Bantu migration“] And we know that people on all sides of the Indian Ocean have traded with each other for over two thousand years. That the game is played in Central Asia can then easily be explained as a consequence of trade along the caravan routes. [Read more:Sogdian letters“] Even if people do not speak the same language they can still have fun playing mancala.

If this is the case, a map showing us the popularity of the game today would show us a map of early human interaction. It is worth noting, perhaps, that the game has not been commonly played in Europe. Today mancala is popular as a computer game and exists as apps both for Android and iPhones.

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