All human beings are Africans. It was in today’s Ethiopia, some 200,000 years ago, that the first settlements of homo sapiens were established and from this origin we gradually came to migrate to every corner on the planet. Africa is an enormous continent, occupying a fifth of the world’s landmass, and it includes a number of radically different climates and environments: from dense jungles to extensive grasslands, and it includes the Sahara too, a desert the size of Europe. Africa is actually larger than we think since the Mercator projection used for most world maps under-represents the true size of territories around the equator — and Africa straddles the equator. In addition, Africa has at least a thousand languages and many more ethnic groups. In order to talk sensibly about this diversity, we have to divide the continent into regions . The most commonly made distinction is between “North Africa” and “Sub-Saharan Africa,” with the Saharan desert dividing the two.
North Africa has a coastline along the Mediterranean Sea and from the very beginning people here have interacted with people in the Middle East and Europe. Pharaonic Egypt, one of the world’s oldest civilizations, dating back to 3,000 BCE, is located in North Africa and so is Carthage, in today’s Tunisia, which for hundreds of years was Rome’s main adversary. [Read more: “Black Athena“] Northern Africa was one of the first parts of the world to convert to Christianity, with an important center of scholarship in Alexandria, Egypt. The kings of today’s Ethiopia converted to Christianity already in the fourth century CE, and Saint Augustine, 354-430 CE, one of the leading Church fathers, was born and lived his life in Hippo, in today’s Algeria. Later, in the seventh-century, North Africa was overrun by Muslim armies and the Berber kingdoms in today’s Morocco became important center of trade and civilization.
South of the Sahara — in Sub-Saharan or “Black” Africa — most people speak Bantu languages. The Bantu speakers originated in western and central parts of the continent but started moving east- and southward already in the first millennium BCE, spreading their language and cultural practices together with agricultural techniques and crafts such as iron-making. The political organization of Sub-Saharan Africa was strongly influenced by nature and by the climate. Human beings can make themselves more or less independent of the climate — nature is not fate after all — but as long as economic resources are limited this is difficult to do. In North Africa the boundary between desert and pasture often moved and desertification would lay waste to large cities; and in Sub-Saharan Africa there was a great difference between the kinds of societies that could be established in the rainforest and on the savanna.
Along much of the coast of Sub-Saharan African there are rainforests that can stretch up to 300 kilometers inland, and in addition there is jungle in a continuous band around the equator — in what today is Congo. In the rainforest the climate is hot and humid, vegetation is dense and light is often blocked by trees that can grow to be up to fifty meters tall. The jungle is a generous environment, despite the presence of scourges such as the tsetse fly, and there are plenty of animals that could be hunted and plants that could be gathered. And that is exactly what the people who originally lived here did — they were hunters and gatherers. But the communities were not very large, certainly not larger than a thousand people, and they had little by means of political institutions. Instead the communities were structured around family and kin and held together by social ties rather than by political coercion. Since the people living in the jungle moved around in response to the seasonal variation in game and plants, they were not tied to any particular location. Occasionally they would come into conflict with other groups over access to economic resources such hunting grounds, but these conflicts are better described as raids than as wars.
Away from the coastal regions and the jungles around the equator, there is savanna, less dense woodlands and in eastern Africa also high mountains. The savanna with its grass is an ideal environment in which to raise animals and throughout much of Africa cattle herding has been a chief occupation. On the savanna it is also a lot easier to grow things and here people would often settle down to become farmers. As a result, far larger societies could be established, comprising many tens of thousands of people who were not united by ties of kinship. These societies had a far more elaborate division of labor, meaning that people could take up specialized tasks and professions. Services and goods which they could not provide for themselves, they could buy from others. Trade flourished both within each state and along trade routes that often extended across the length and breath of the entire continent.
In addition the savanna-states had more elaborate political institutions. Savanna-states that grew rich from trade and manufacturing were able to tax the people subject to them and they built flourishing capitals administered by public bureaucracies and ruled by laws. The savanna-states had kings with courts which became centers of learning and the arts. In many cases, the savanna-states expanded their power over their neighbors, either by outright occupation or by tying them together in networks of allies and tribute-bearers. Here regular wars were fought involving large armies. In this way a number of empires were created — including Nubia in today’s Sudan; Benin, Mali, Songhai and the Asante in West Africa; Ethiopia, Bunyoro and Buganda in east Africa; and Zimbabwe in the south.
The Nile river valley
The Nile is the longest river in the world. It takes the rain that falls in the jungles of tropical Africa northward, passing through eleven countries and the deserts of the Sahara on the way, before it eventually flows into the Mediterranean. Despite the harsh climate, the Nile made it possible to make a living in north-eastern Africa from the earliest times. In fact, since the water of the Nile periodically flooded the river banks, thereby irrigating and fertilizing the surrounding fields, the valley provided an excellent environment for agriculture. The Nile river valley is one of the first locations in which human beings settled as farmers and where the first states were established some time 6,000 years BCE.
It was here that Pharaonic Egypt emerged around 3,000 BCE, quickly growing into one of the mightiest kingdoms of the ancient world. The Pharaohs built pyramids and temples and elaborate irrigation systems; they developed a writing system, and are famous for their funeral rites, not least for their embalmed mummies. The pyramids at Giza, built in the middle of the third millennium BCE, with their iconic sphinx, were considered by the Greeks as one of the “seven wonders of the world.” Indeed, the Greeks were much impressed with everything Egyptian and this ancient African civilization had a profound influence on the subsequent development of Greek culture. [Read more: “Black Athena“]
If we in Pharaonic times had followed the Nile southward we would have arrived in the kingdom of Nubia in today’s Sudan. From ancient times there were important cities here — Dongola, Nabta Playa, Napata, Meroë and others. There are engravings in rocks in the Nubian desert, dating from 5,000 BCE, which show cattle, indicating that the people living here were pastoralists, possibly with the cow playing a part in their religious rites. At roughly the same time, the people living at Nabta Playa built stone constructions which may have served as astronomical observatories. It is not clear exactly how they were used, but archeo-astronomers have argued that the stones line up with particular stars and perhaps were indicating the time of summer and winter solstice.
Around 3,500 BCE the kingdom of Nubia was established here. The Nubians made money by selling gold, ebony, ivory, exotic animals and other goods from tropical Africa to the Egyptians. Their culture had much in common with Pharaonic Egypt, but Nubia was an independent kingdom, with its own pyramids and system of writing. The Nubians were periodically invaded by the Egyptians who tried to control the lucrative trade, but the Nubians also invaded Egypt, and around one thousand years BCE there was a Pharaonic dynasty run by Nubians. The Nubians were later conquered by the Romans and by the sands of the Saharan desert. Today there are still monumental walls to be seen in their former capitals, structures built by mud bricks and the remnants of elaborate irrigation systems with tunnels that transported water deep under the desert.
In Khartoum, the capital of today’s Sudan, the Nile divides into two separate rivers — known as the Blue and the White Nile. The Blue Nile takes you further south into the jungles of Central Africa and the source of the river in Lake Victoria. The While Nile, on the other hand, takes you into the mountains of Ethiopia. Today Ethiopia is a landlocked country which has suffered badly both from droughts and political instability, but two thousand years ago there was a powerful kingdom here, with Aksum as its capital. The Aksumite kingdom, 100-940 CE, had close connections with Yemen in the Arabian peninsula, across the Red Sea. Yemen at the time was dominated by Jewish culture and Jewish culture spread to Ethiopia too. Indeed, Ethiopians insist that the Queen of Sheba came from here. [Read more: “Jews of Ethiopia“]
What is more certain is that the Aksumite kingdom was heavily involved in trade both with the Arabian peninsula and with the world beyond. They were for example famous exporters of frankincense and myrrh, which together with gold were the presents said to have been given to Jesus after his birth. The Aksumites were trading across the Indian Ocean too, and they are referred to as ivory merchants in Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a guidebook and merchant’s manual dating from the first century CE. Located at the intersection of these shipping lanes, the Aksumite kingdom became a major player in the trade which connected India and the Roman empire. The Aksumite kings minted their own coins in order to facilitate trade, and they erected steles, enormous stone slabs, in order to commemorate their achievements. Many of these steles can still be seen today.
The Aksumite king converted to Christianity in 325 CE — after the king of Armenia, in the Caucasus, but a hundred years before the Roman emperor — and from this time onward the symbol of the cross appears on their coins. Today at least half of the population of Ethiopia are Christians. The Ethiopian church follows the Coptic liturgy, first developed in Alexandria in Egypt in the first century CE. Yet links to the Arabian peninsula have remained strong. In the sixteenth-century, Ethiopia exported coffee to Yemen from where it was sent on to the fashionable coffee shops which were springing up all over the Ottoman Empire. [Read more: “Coffee and croissants“]
Ethiopia was never colonized by any European power and when the country was invaded by Italy in the 1930s, the emperor, Haile Selassie, made a personal appearance at the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, asking for help. [Read more: “Countries that never were colonized“] This established his reputation world-wide and many black people in the Americas were amazed to hear about this African emperor who claimed to be the descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. In Jamaica, of all places, Haile Selassie became something of a god in the Rastafari religion practiced by some locals. [Read more: “The ark of the covenant“]
In the seventh-century, North Africa was overrun by the armies of the expanding Umayyad caliphate. [Read more: “The Umayyads and the Abbasids“] In 640 CE the Arabs conquered Egypt and continued westward. The North African terrain was easy to move across since the population was sparse and there were few proper towns. The people the Arabs ran into here were in many respects similar to themselves. A majority were Berbers, and many of them were nomads too, including the Tuaregs of the Saharan desert, which is a Berber tribe. Instead of putting up a fight, however, the nomads of the desert simply moved away from the path of the invaders, while the Berbers who lived along the Mediterranean coast gradually came to be assimilated into the new elite. To this day we tend to think of the people of North Africa as “Arabs” but many of them would prefer to be known as “Berbers,” and at least some still regard the Arabs as invaders and dream of establishing an independent country for themselves. [Read more: “Independence for Azawad“]
Yet the Berbers would soon reassert themselves. In the early eighth century, when the Arab armies continued their expansion into the Iberian peninsula, many Berbers went with them, and together they established a capital in Córdoba in the province they were to call Al-Andalus. Some groups of Berbers also went southward on a mission to convert pagans living in what today is Mauritania and Ghana. In general, the Berbers seem to have taken Islam very seriously indeed, and in the eleventh- and twelfth-centuries two revivalist movements arose among them led by leaders who declared themselves disgusted by the lack of religious zeal among their fellow Muslims. [Read more: “The Arabs in Spain“]
The first of these movements, the Almoravids, was led by Abdallah ibn Yasin, a preacher who formed an army made up of nomadic tribes living in the Sahara. Yet they soon left the desert and began moving northward. In 1054 CE the Almoravids captured the city of Sijilmasa, the western terminus of the caravan routes which crossed the Sahara and one of the largest market towns in all of Africa at the time. When Ibn Yasin died in 1059, he was succeeded by one of his generals, Yusuf ibn Tashfin, who was to rule the Almoravids for the next fifty years. In 1062, ibn Tashfin built a new capital for himself in the city of Marrakesh, on the northern side of the Atlas Mountains. It was during Ibn Tashfin’s rule that the Almoravids created an empire which included all of today’s Morocco but also vast areas of the deserts to the south and a broad strip of land along the Mediterranean coast into today’s Algeria. The Almoravids proceeded to impose sharia laws on the territories they had occupied, banning the sale of alcohol and pork and, unusually for Muslim rulers, they sought to convert the members of other religion by force.
Before long the Berbers had occupied Spain too. By the middle of the eleventh-century, the political power of the Caliphate of Córdoba had disintegrated and a number of smaller Muslim kingdoms, known as the taifa, had made themselves independent of any central power. The taifa kingdoms were often at war with each other and with the Christian kingdoms in the north of Spain. In 1086, as a way to restore peace and unity on the peninsula, the Almoravid were invited to Al-Andalus by the taifa kings. This is how they came to expand their African empire into Europe. Much as in North Africa, the Almoravids were appalled by the low standard of morality among the local elite and before long they had imposed strict Islamic laws in Spain too.
In the end the Almoravids were unable to maintain the purity of their faith. When Ibn Tashfin died in 1106, he was succeeded by rulers who had far less interest in religious and military matters. Instead they seem mainly to have cared about architecture and engaged in a number of costly building projects. With the help of architects imported from Muslim Spain, the new Almoravid rulers turned Marrakesh into a fortified city filled with sumptuous palaces and mosques. Clearly, they were now city-dwellers, not nomads, although they continued to wear the distinctive headgear, the tagelmust, typical of the men of the desert.
This was when the second revivalist movement, the Almohads, began gathering in opposition to them. The Almohads were not from the desert but from the high Atlas mountains of Morocco, but they were if anything even more serious about their religion than the Almoravids originally had been. Their leader was a man called Ibn Tumart, who regarded himself as a mahdi, a savior who would rid the world of evil and prepare the way for the return of the Messiah. From their mountain stronghold they undertook increasingly successful military campaigns and in 1147 they captured Marrakesh. This was the end of the Almoravid regime. The military expansion continued and in 1159 the Almohads had conquered all of North Africa and in 1172 all of Al-Andalus. They made Sevilla into their second capital, although they regarded Spain as little more than an outpost of their empire. The Almohads too proceeded to impose strict Islamic laws on the lands they controlled and this had severe consequences for the cosmopolitan culture of cities like Córdoba. Many Christians fled northwards, and many Jews went eastwards to Cairo, ruled by the Fatimid Caliphate, a far more liberal and accommodating regime. [Read more: “Mosheh ben Maimon“]
Yet the Almohads too mellowed with time, and they too became more interested in architectural projects than in imperial expansion. This was when the city of Fez was turned into a center of religious learning and scholarship. In fact, during Almohad rule, Fez with its population of some 200,000 people must have been one of the largest cities in the world. The medina of Fez — the market quarters of the city — were particularly famous. What sometimes is regarded as the oldest university in the world, the University of Al Quaraouiyine, was founded by a woman, Fatima al-Fihri, in Fez already in 859. [Read more: “Nalanda, a very old university“] The Alhomads proceeded to turn the city of Rabat, on the Atlantic coast, into a major port and a fortified naval base. Yet their empire began crumbling already in the first part of the thirteenth-century. In 1212, only forty years after the initial occupation, the Almohads in Spain were defeated by an alliance of Christian rulers. Córdoba fell to the invaders from the north in 1236 and Sevilla in 1248. After that assorted provincial governors in North Africa too started asserting themselves and by 1269 it was all over for the Almohads.
When the historian Ibn Khaldun sat down to write a history of the Berber people, he started reflecting on the nature of politics and on the curious way in which powers tend to rise and fall. [Read more: “Ibn Khaldun and the role of asabiyyah“] It was what he called asabiyyah — “group solidarity” — which made all the difference, Ibn Khaldun concluded. The Berbers had initially had a lot of asabiyyah — they had grown strong in the harsh conditions of the desert since they had to stay united in order to survive. But once they had come to power they moved into the cities and begun indulging in luxuries. Soon they grew weak and started fighting with each other. Ibn Khaldun saw a general principle here. After five generations, he concluded, each new regime is ready to be overthrown by a successor. Ibn Khaldun’s account of Berber history and the nature of politics, known as the Muqaddimah, written in Cairo in 1377, is sometimes considered as the world’s first work on political sociology.
The inland delta of the Niger river
The Saharan desert is certainly a harsh environment in which to survive, but nomadic peoples have made a living here since the earliest times, and the desert did not for that reason constitute an impenetrable divide. In some ways it operated more like a bridge which connected different parts of Africa than as a wall which separated them. This is why the common division between “North Africa” and “Sub-Saharan Africa” should be questioned.
The Berbers, we said, traded across the Saharan desert, and their partners were often the people of the empire of Mali, founded in the thirteenth-century CE. Since much of Mali then as now consists of sand, agriculture should really have been impossible here and we would consequently not expect there to be many settled communities. Yet the presence of the river Niger changes that calculation. Much of the rain that falls in the highlands of today’s Guinea, a country on Africa’s Atlantic coast, flows not westward into the Atlantic but instead north and eastward, straight into the Sahara. Here the water runs through today’s Mali and Niger, and eventually into the Atlantic in Nigeria, where it forms a vast delta. Curiously, the Niger river forms another delta — an inland delta, right in the deserts of Mali. In this delta landscape there has been enough water to make settled agriculture possible. Planting rice at the beginning of the rainy season in June and July, the farmers of Mali would harvest the crop in December by means of canoes.
It is here that the cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Djenné are located, and it was more than anything with these cities that the Berbers conducted their trade. Two commodities were more important than all others — gold and salt, although ivory, copper and slaves were traded too. Salt was used for preserving food and it was almost as valuable as gold. Much of it was hacked out of the rocks at Targhaza, a desolate salt mine in the middle of the desert. As far as gold was concerned, it was traded by a rather mysterious guild of merchants known as the Wangarans. Although the Wangarans were reluctant to reveal the exact source of their supply, it is clear that it originated in the south, in the region of today’s Ghana. This was the gold which, thanks to the trans-Saharan trade, eventually ended up in the Middle East and Europe. During this time, in the late Middle Ages, something like half of all gold in the world came from Africa.
As one would expect, the rulers of Mali were quick to take their cut of this lucrative trade. Indeed, in the first part of the thirteenth-century a powerful empire was established here, funded above all by taxes on commerce. The Mali Empire had a well-trained army, comprising some 100,000 soldiers staffed and supplied by the emperor’s subjects. Before long the rulers of Mali had conquered a large area stretching from the Niger river westward to the Atlantic Ocean. In the thirteenth-century Mali was the second largest empire in the world — only the Mongol empire was larger.
The founder of the empire, Sundiata Keita, was not only a ruthless military leader but also by all accounts a wise politician. In 1235, at a meeting of notables, a constitution was adopted, known as the Kouroukan fouga, which gave the empire a legal system and a decentralized, federal, political structure. Women were protected by law and were given a role in politics, and guilds of craftsmen were granted monopolies on crafts such as the smelting of metals, woodworking and tanning. There were guilds of djeli too, “masters of speech,” who were responsible for recording the history of the empire.
At the time, Mali may have been the richest country in the world, at least if judged by the wealth of its rulers. The most famous of these was Mansa Musa. After having conquered some 24 cities and expanded the empire to three times its original size, the story has it, Mansa Musa went on a hajj, a pilgrimage, to Mecca in 1324-25. People in the Arab world were astonished to see his procession which included camels, elephants, slave girls, and no fewer than 60,00 men and 12,00 slaves carrying gold bars. Along the way, gold nuggets were handed out to local dignitaries and gold dust to beggars. In Cairo, Mansa Musa’s lavish gifts were sufficient to cause an inflation which was said to have lasted for twelve years. Yet Mansa Musa really was a devout Muslim. When he returned to Mali, he rebuilt Timbuktu and established the city of as a center of Muslim scholarship and learning. It was more than anything as a result of Mansa Musa’s largess and his subsequent building program that Timbuktu became known as a city of mystery and wonder. [Read more: “The libraries of Timbuktu“]
Yet it was not during the rulers of the Songhai empire in the fifteenth- and sixteeenth-centuries that Timbuktu really thrived. Also Songhai had the inland delta of the Niger river as its center, and Gao, in today’s Mali, was its capital. Much as the kings of Mali before them, the Songhai rulers grew rich from the trade in gold and they emulated Mansa Musa’s example in going on pilgrimages to Mecca when they gave away gold as gifts to princes and beggars alike. The armies of the Songhai empire had a cavalry of horsemen and a navy made up of canoes which navigated the marshes of the delta. Gao and other town had guilds of craftsmen and slave labor played a prominent role in the economy. In addition to gold, the Songhai exported kola nuts and slaves and they imported textiles, horses, salt and assorted luxury goods. A traveler from Muslim Spain, Leo Africanus, who visited Gao in 1510 and 1513, was amazed at the poverty of the lower classes but also at the great wealth of its rulers.
The position of Songhai came to an end in 1591 when the Moroccans invaded. They plundered the salt mines at Taghaza and sacked Gao, Timbuktu and Djenné. Yet it was difficult to maintain control of territories on the other side of the Sahara, and the Moroccans did not stay long. And by this time, in the seventeenth-century, international trade had already found different routes. [Read more: “A commercial world economy“]
The kingdoms of West Africa
The other delta of the Niger river, the one where the water runs into the Atlantic, is today the center of the Nigerian petroleum industry. This is where the Yoruba people live, which, together with the Igbo and the Hausa, is the largest of Nigeria’s more than 500 ethnic groups. It was here in the Niger Delta, some nine hundred years ago, that a number of flourishing city-states came to be established. There were at least 16 large such cities — including Ife, Ijebu, Katunga and Ibadan — and many smaller ones besides. Between the twelfth- and the eighteenth-centuries this must have been the most highly urbanized part of Africa and one of the most urbanized parts of the world. Katunga was a very large city indeed, with some 100,000 inhabitants.
The Yoruba city-states were all organized in much the same manner. They were built like fortresses, with high walls and moats surrounding them and gates that could be closed to visitors or to approaching armies. In case of the larger city-states, these wall and moat constructions could become very extensive indeed, reaching several thousands of kilometers in length. [Read more: “Kingdom of Benin, walls and bronzes“] All Yoruba city-states had an elaborate structure of associations and professional guilds and there were many social clubs, religious sects and secret societies. Each city-state had a leader, the oba, who lived in a large palace in the center of the city with a market place, the king’s market, in front of it. The obas were elected from an often quite extensive pool of royal princes. Some of them ended up as autocratic rulers but others were restrained by the power of their councilors and some city-states were in effect more like republics. In Egba, a gerontocratic council — a council of elders — controlled the oba and in Oyo the oba was handed a parrot’s egg in a covered calabash bowl when the councilors had decided it was time for him to resign.
The political, administrative and architectural structure was similar in the neighboring city-state of Benin, which, despite its name, was located in today’s Nigeria, not in today’s Benin. In the fifteenth-century the obas of Benin grew particularly powerful, and during Oba Ewuare the Great, 1440-1473 CE, the city-state expanded into a full-fledged empire. Oba Ewaure taxed trade and established a military force which included a navy made up of canoes that operated in the waterways of the Niger Delta. The Benin army was also skilled in the art of siege warfare which was crucial in this world of fortified cities. The enemies who were captured in these wars were turned into slaves who were employed in various construction projects, of which the very extensive system of moats and walls was the most remarkable. The court of the oba of Benin is vividly depicted in a series of remarkable plaques and statues, known as the “Benin bronzes.”[Read more: “Kingdom of Benin, walls and bronzes“]
Further west, in what today is Ghana and the Ivory Coast, we find the Akan people. The Akans lived in the rainforest which they, through painstaking labor, managed to control. In order to cut down the enormous trees they too relied on slave labor and the slaves were bought in gold. Akan territory was gold country, and thereby the ultimate source of much of the wealth of all of West Africa, including the Mali and the Songhai empires. The gold that existed here must have been the largest known deposits in the world at the time. Yet gold did not only pay for slaves but also for soldiers and in the year 1701 CE, the Akan established an empire of their own, known as the Asante. The Asante was a confederacy of assorted rivaling groups skillfully united by Osei Tutu, 1660-1717 CE, the first Asante ruler. The Asante Confederacy had Kumasi, in today’s Ghana, as its capital. Yet the alliance was more than anything held together by symbolic means. Osei Tutu took a stool made of gold as a symbol of the unity of the country, and the occupant of the golden stool was to be the ruler of the confederacy. [Read more: “Golden stool of the Asante“]
In general the Asante kings surrounded themselves with much pomp and circumstance and they were often carried around in public procession wearing their gilded paraphernalia. A bit less symbolically, the empire was held together by drums. Although drums are common all over Africa, the drumming of the Asante is particularly famous. Asante drums were talking drums. That is, they were not only beating out a rhythm but conveying entire messages which, with their help, quickly could be transmitted from one part of the empire to the other. In the jungle, where mobility is blocked and visibility is limited, nothing travels as quickly as sound.
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 too much of it. Instead it was what the land produced, and those who could be forced to work on it, which was valuable. 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 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, with the Americas, 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 trans-Atlantic slave trade, that is, but on the contrary they benefited greatly from it. [Read more: “Dancing kings and female warriors of Dahomey“]
East Africa and the Indian Ocean
It is the so called Bantu migration which will take us from West Africa to the south and the east of the continent. The Bantu migration accounts for the fact that people in much of the rest of Africa speak related languages and share a number of cultural practices. People speaking Bantu languages seem originally to have lived in today’s Nigeria and Cameron and it was from here that they started migrating sometime in the first millennium BCE. These migrations seem to have been spontaneous movements but exactly why they took place is less clear and an issue debated among scholars. [Read more: “The Bantu migration“]
In East Africa the migrants eventually arrived at the shores of the Indian Ocean and here they came across people and influences from entirely different parts of the world — the Middle East and the Arabian peninsula, Persia, India and beyond. Communications across the Indian Ocean were greatly facilitated by the monsoon winds — the “trade winds” — which regularly turn with the seasons and thereby can take travelers in an eastward direction in the summer and a westward direction in the winter. [Read more: “Indianization“] It was by trading in products indigenous to Africa — ivory, rhinoceros horns and gold, in particular — that the inner parts of the continent came to be connected to all the countries around the Indian Ocean.
Arab traders had traveled up and down this coast at least since the first millennium CE and they established trade in places like Lamu, Mombasa and Zanzibar. Merchants from Oman played an important role in this trade, and they transported their goods on ships, known as dhows. This is how Malindi, in today’s Kenya, came to interact with the Indian subcontinent and it was from here that a giraffe in 1414 traveled first to Bengal and then all the way to China. [Read more: “A giraffe in Beijing“] This is not to say that the trading ports on the coast were Arabic in origin. They were originally African, a majority of the population remained African, and besides there were many African merchants too. Rather, the trading ports were cosmopolitan hubs with a culture, and a way of life, which was uniquely its own.
In the tenth-century, explorers from the Persian city of Shiraz arrived on this coast and set up a sultanate in the town of Kilwa Kisiwani, in today’s Tanzania. [Read more: “The great mosque at Kilwa Kisiwani“] Ibn Battuta, the great Moroccan traveler, visited Kilwa in 1331 and he commented on the splendors of the sultan’s palace and on the mosque which was made entirely out of corals. [Read more: “Ibn Battuta, the greatest traveler of all time“] On the beaches of Kilwa one can still regularly find shards of pottery originating in India or China.
The main language spoken along this coast today, and in all of East Africa, is Swahili which is a Bantu language mixed with loanwords from Arabic, Hindi and assorted European languages. In fact, Swahili was not originally anyone’s native tongue but was instead used by merchants or assorted ethnic groups as a means of communicating. Its vocabulary was also originally limited to the kinds of words you need in order to trade. To this day Swahili has no more than perhaps 15 million native speakers while it is understood by ten times as many people.
A state which benefited greatly from the trade conducted across the Indian Ocean was the kingdom of Zimbabwe, 1220—1450 CE. Although its capital, Great Zimbabwe, was located inland, on the savanna, it was connected to the sea through well-traveled trade routes and also by the Limpopo river which flows from today’s Botswana to Mozambique. [Read more: “Great Zimbabwe“] There are some two hundred trading-posts — smaller “zimbabwes” — scattered between Great Zimbabwe and the coast which all feature the same kind architecture. Not all that much is known about the Zimbabwe kingdom, but the ruins of the capital leave no doubt regarding its power and wealth. Here too there are abundant indications of a flourishing world trade — Chinese ceramics, coins from Arabia and glass beads from India.
Further north, in the mountains of what today is Uganda, we find Bunyoro and Buganda, two kingdoms which were rivals from the thirteenth-century CE well into the nineteenth. The traditional economy here revolved around big game hunting but they were making money from trade too. Just as in West Africa, salt was a key commodity. To this day both Bunyoro and Buganda have royal families which take court ceremony very seriously indeed and still are revered by the general public. [Read more: “Bunyoro and Buganda“]
An African international system?
The question is whether it is possible to talk about a distinct African international system and, if so, what its characteristics might be. There are good reasons why there would not be such a system. After all, in many parts of Africa geography and the climate put up obstacles to the formation of the kinds of political structures which we associate with a state. In the rainforest, the vegetation was too dense to clear and no large communities could be formed, and further inland, on the savanna, people were often pastoralists and difficult to organize politically. If there are no states, there can be no inter-state system. Yet one’s ecological niche is not one’s fate, and Africa has been full of mighty empires, elaborate political structures and unimaginably wealthy kings, and even the most remote locations have been connected to international trading networks.
Two separate waves of expansions have more than anything served to bring the dispersed communities together — the Arab invasion of North Africa and the Bantu migration throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. The Arab invasion connected North Africa to the caliphates in the Middle East and thereby to prosperous centers of civilization. Moreover, Islam united people behind one god and one set of beliefs. Likewise, the Bantu migration spread kindred languages throughout the continent together with cultural practices and crucial technical know-how such as metallurgy.
Yet it was trade which more than anything brought the continent together while at the same time connecting it to the outside world. The trade in gold, salt and slaves was particularly brisk and it was the profits derived from these key commodities that convinced Berber merchants to cross the Sahara, that took Arab sailing vessels, known as dhows, down the Swahili coast. This is also what eventually brought European explorers and merchants to Africa. It was by taxing this trade that city-states grew rich and expanded into kingdoms and empires. It was also trade which more than anything allowed people to escape their ecological niches. Trade made cities spring up in the desert and gave the people of the jungles the resources they needed to cut down even the tallest of trees.
This is not to say that Africa did not have its fair share of wars. The bands of people living in the rainforest often conducted raids on each other, and the powerful states on the savanna relied on powerful armies which could subjugate and enslave their enemies. Yet wars in Africa were different from many wars elsewhere. Since land was an abundant resource, it was not worth fighting over, and while a salt or a gold mine would constitute a precious catch, there was no point in territorial expansion as such. The only proper exception to this rule are the Yoruba city-states in the Niger Delta which were very concerned indeed about their territorial boundaries. For the most part, however, political leaders were content to raze the capital of their enemies, humiliate them, and then to include them as a subordinate partner in an alliance. That is, diplomacy would soon come to replace overt acts of warfare. By means of diplomacy the subordinate state would become a tribute bearer who was forced to visit the suzerain state on regular occasions bearing lavish gift, including slaves. This arrangement had the additional advantage that the subordinate state could maintain a measure of independence. This, in the end, is how the empires of Africa were constituted.
Often these political relations were expressed in the language of kinship. The powerful state was the “father,” while the subordinate states were “children” or other, more distant, relatives. By tracing their genealogy back to a common ancestor, the unity of the alliance could be assured. This was also how empires would expand. If a group of people established a community at a new location, they would link their ancestry back to the original state. Thus, while the original state was broken up as a result, the result was an expanding alliance of related states. This seems to have been how the Bantu speaking people migrated across the continent. Alternatively, states which shared no political genealogy might make one up in order to cement their common bonds.
Similar ties of genealogy and friendship helped protect the trade routes. In Central Africa long-distance traders often declared each other “brothers” and insisted on the right of safe passage and on political protection. States that traded with each other could be declared friends and relatives too and thereby exempt from acts of war. In many cases, trade continued even between enemies and even during times of war. Trade was simply more important than whatever benefits a war might bring.
This does not, to be sure, amount to one, all-encompassing, “African international system.” The continent is too vast and relations between its various parts not strong enough to be described as integrated. Although trade connected west and east with north and south, no political relations were equally extensive. Besides the trade routes did not only link various African locations with each other, but Africa with the rest of the world.