History of International Relations Textbook


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. 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. It includes a number of radically different climates and environments: from dense jungles to extensive grasslands, and it includes the Sahara, 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. 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 3000 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 in the fourth century. Later, in the seventh century, North Africa was overrun by Muslim armies and in the eleventh-century the Berber kingdoms in today’s Morocco invaded Spain.

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 in the first millennium BCE, spreading their language, cultural practices and crafts. The political organization of Sub-Saharan Africa has been strongly influenced by nature and by the climate. Along much of the coast of Sub-Saharan African there are rainforests that can stretch up to 300 kilometers inland, and around the equator – in today’s Congo – there is a continuous band of jungle. 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 50 meters tall. The jungle is a generous environment which provides well for its inhabitants, despite the presence of scourges such as the tsetse fly. But the communities created here were not large and they had little by means of political institutions.

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 often it was possible to plants crops. Far larger societies could be established here than in the rainforest. These societies had a more elaborate division of labor, meaning that people could take up specialized tasks and professions. States on the savanna grew rich from trade and manufacturing; they taxed the people subject to them and they built flourishing capitals administered by public bureaucracies and ruled by laws. In many cases, the savanna-states expanded their power over their neighbors, either by outright occupation or by tying them together into networks of allies and tribute bearers. In this way a number of powerful states were created – including Nubia in today’s Sudan; Benin, Mali, Songhai and the Asante in western Africa; Ethiopia, Bunyoro and Buganda in eastern 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, before it eventually flows into the Mediterranean. Despite the harsh climate, the Nile made it possible to make a living here from the earliest times. 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.

It was here that Pharaonic Egypt emerged around 3000 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 too, and are famous for their funeral rites, and 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. 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 5000 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. Perhaps they indicated the time of the summer and winter solstice.

Around 3500 BCE the Kingdom of Nubia was established here. The Nubians made money by selling goods from tropical Africa to the Egyptians, gold and ivory in particular. 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. 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 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 to the source of the river in Lake Victoria. The White 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, 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. The Aksumites were 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. They are referred to as ivory merchants in Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a Greek merchant’s manual dating from the first century of the Common Era. 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, on which they commemorated their achievements. Many of the steles are preserved to this day.

The Aksumite king converted to Christianity in 325 – after Armenia, in the Caucasus, but a hundred years before the Roman emperors – 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 of the Common Era. 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 fashionable coffee shops all over the Ottoman Empire. [Read more:Coffee and croissants”]

Ethiopia was never colonized by a 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 worldwide and many black people in the Americas in particular 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 of the locals. [Read more:The Ark of the Covenant”]

North Africa

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 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. Yet 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. Instead of putting up a fight, 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.At least some still regard the Arabs as invaders and dream of establishing an independent country.[Read more: “Independence for Azawad”]

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. Together they established a capital in Córdoba in the province they were to call al-Andalus. [Read more:The Arabs in Spain”] 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. 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. The first of these movements, the Almoravids, was led by Abdallah ibn Yasin, a preacher who formed an army made up of Saharan tribes. Yet they soon left the desert and began moving northward. In 1054 the Almoravids captured the city of Sijilmasa, the western terminus of the caravan routes and one of the largest market towns in Africa at the time. When Ibn Yasin died in 1059, he was succeeded by one of his generals, Yusuf ibn Tashfin, 1061-1106, 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. The Almoravids proceeded to impose sharia laws on the territories they occupied, banning the sale of alcohol and pork and, unusually for Muslim rulers, they tried to convert the members of other religions 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.[Read more:The Arabs in Spain”] The taifa kingdoms were often at war with each other and with the Christian kingdoms in the north of the peninsula. In 1086, as a way to restore peace and unity, the Almoravids 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 elites and before long they had imposed strict Islamic laws in Spain too. Yet 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 matters. With the help of architects imported from Muslim Spain, the Almoravid rulers turned Marrakesh into a fortified city filled with sumptuous palaces and mosques.

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. From their mountain stronghold they undertook increasingly successful military campaigns and in 1147 they captured Marrakesh. In 1159 they 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 people they had conquered. This had severe consequences for the cosmopolitan culture of cities like Córdoba. Many Christians fled northwards, and many Jews fled eastwards to Cairo.[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. The medina of Fez – the market quarters of the city – was 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 in 859.[Read more:Nalanda, a very old university”] The Almohads also turned 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 and by 1269 it was all over for the Almohads.

The kingdoms of West Africa

The Saharan desert is certainly a harsh environment, but nomadic peoples have made a living here since the earliest times. In some ways the desert served more like a bridge which connected different parts of Africa than as a wall which separated them. This is why the division commonly made between “North Africa” and “Sub-Saharan Africa” should be questioned. The Berbers were one of the peoples who traded across the Sahara. Their partners on the other side were often located in the empire of Mali. Since much of Mali then as now consists of sand, agriculture should really have been impossible here and we would not expect to find 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. Yet, the Niger river forms another delta too – an inland delta, right in the deserts of Mali. Here there has been enough water to make settled agriculture possible.

This is where we find cities like Timbuktu, Gao and Djenné. 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 trade. 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. 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. Guilds of craftsmen were granted monopolies on crafts such as the smelting of metals, woodworking and tanning; women were protected by law and given a role in politics. [Read more: “The origin of writing”]

The trade in gold and salt made the emperors of Mali enormously wealthy. The most famous of these emperors was Mansa Musa. After having conquered some twenty-four cities and expanded the empire to three times its original size, the story has it, Mansa Musa went on a hajj to Mecca in 1324. People in the Arab world were astonished to see his procession which included camels, elephants and no fewer than 60,000 men and some 12,000 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. When he returned to Mali, Mansa Musa rebuilt Timbuktu and established the city of as a center of Muslim scholarship and learning. It was more than anything as a result of his largess and his subsequent building program that Timbuktu became known as a city of exotic wonders.[Read more:The libraries of Timbuktu”]

Yet it was during the rulers of the Songhai Empire in the fifteenth and sixteenth 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 gold trade and they emulated Mansa Musa’s example in going on ostentatious pilgrimages. The armies of the Songhai Empire had a cavalry of horsemen and a navy made up of canoes which navigated the marshes of the inland Niger delta. Gao and other towns 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 the early sixteenth century, 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.

The other delta of the Niger river, the one where the water runs into the Atlantic Ocean, 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, some 900 years ago, that a number of flourishing city-states came to be established. There were at least sixteen large such cities – including Ife, Ijebu, Katunga and Ibadan – and many smaller ones besides. Between the twelfth and the eighteenth centuries this was one of the most highly urbanized parts of the world. The largest cities among them may have had some 100,000 inhabitants. The Yoruba city-states were all organized in much the same way. 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 could become very extensive indeed, reaching several thousands of kilometers in length.[Read more: “Walls and bronzes of Benin”] All Yoruba city-states had an elaborate structure of 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 marketplace in front of it. The obas were elected from the often quite extensive pool of royal princes. Some of the obas ended up as autocratic rulers but others were restrained by the power of their councilors. Some city-states were in effect more like republics.

In the fifteenth century the obas of Benin grew particularly rich and powerful. During Ewuare the Great, 1440-1473, Benin expanded to a full-fledged empire. Ewuare taxed trade and established a military force which included a navy made up of canoes. 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 plaques and statues, known as the “Benin bronzes.” [Read more: “Walls and bronzes of Benin”]

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 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. Yet gold did not only pay for slaves but also for soldiers, and in the year 1701, the Akan established an empire of their own, known as the Asante. The Asante was a confederacy of assorted rivaling groups skillfully unified by Osei Tutu, 1675-1717. 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 confederation. The occupant of the golden stool was to be the ruler of them all.[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. They were not only beating out a rhythm but conveying entire messages which, with their help, quickly were transmitted from one part of the empire to the other. In the rainforest, where mobility is blocked and visibility is limited, nothing travels as quickly as sound.

As we ave 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 little 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 were 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. 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. The revenue derived from the transcontinental 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. [Read more: “Dancing kings and female warriors of Dahomey”]

East Africa and the Indian Ocean

It is the Bantu migration which will take us from West Africa to the other side of the continent. 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. The migration was a spontaneous movement, not an invasion, but exactly why it 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 remote places.[Read more:People of the forest]

The Bantu migration explains why many people in Africa speak related languages. There are today some 450 Bantu languages and the Bantu speakers make up a third of Africa’s population. All Bantu people share a belief in a supreme god who usually is associated with the sky. The world was not created, they say, but it is eternal. The spirits of people who have died 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 and powerful lions. “Ubuntu” is a shared political principle which African politicians still occasionally invoke in their rhetoric. It is usually translated as “humanity,” or the notion that “I am because we are.”

When the Bantu migrants eventually arrived on the shores of the Indian Ocean, they came across people and influences from entirely different parts of the world – the Arabian peninsula, Persia, India and beyond. Arab traders had traveled up and down this coast at least since the first millennium of the Common Era and they had established themselves in places like Lamu, Mombasa and Zanzibar. Merchants from Oman played an important role in this trade too. They transported their goods on ships, known as dhows. [Read more:A giraffe in Beijing”] This is not to say that the trading ports on the coast were Arabic. Rather, they were cosmopolitan hubs with a culture, and a way of life, which was uniquely their own. The main language spoken here today is Swahili which is a Bantu language mixed with loan-words from Arabic, Hindi and assorted European languages. In fact, Swahili was not originally anyone’s native tongue but was instead a lingua franca used by merchants. In the tenth century, a sultanate was established in Kilwa Kisiwani, in today’s Tanzania. [Read more:Kilwa Kisiwani”] On the beaches of Kilwa one can still find shards of pottery originating in India and China.

A state which benefited greatly from the trade conducted across the Indian Ocean was the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, 1220-1450. 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. 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. Archaeologists have found Chinese ceramics in the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, but also 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 well into the nineteenth. The traditional economy here revolved around big game hunting but they were making money from trade too. And 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. [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 to conclude that there is no such system. After all, in many parts of Africa geography and the climate have put up obstacles to the formation of the kinds of political structures which we think of as states. In the rainforest, the vegetation was too dense to clear and no large communities could be formed, and further inland people were often pastoralists and not that easy 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 served to united the African continent – the Arab invasion and the Bantu migration. 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 religious practices. Likewise, the Bantu migration spread kindred languages throughout the continent together with cultural practices and technical know-how. Yet it was trade which more than anything brought the continent together. 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 and that took Arab 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.

But relations were not always peaceful. The bands of people living in the rainforest often conducted raids on each other, and the states on the savanna relied on powerful armies which could subjugate and enslave their enemies. Yet wars in Africa were different from many wars fought 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 little 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 territorial boundaries. For the most part, however, political leaders were content to raze the capital of the enemies they had defeated, humiliate them and 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 brought gifts to the suzerain state. This 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 was strengthened. This was also how the empires expanded. If a group of people established a community at a new location, they would link their ancestry back to the original state. Thus, even while the original state was broken up, the result was an expanding alliance of related states. Alternatively, states which shared no political genealogy might make one up in order to cement their common bonds. Similar ties helped protect the trading 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 warfare.

But this does not amount to one, all-encompassing African international system. The continent is too vast and relations between its assorted regions not nearly 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. Northern Africa had close links to the Middle East and Europe; Eastern and southern Africa traded across the Indian Ocean; and West Africa, from the sixteenth century onward, was a partner in the trade cross the Atlantic Ocean.

Read more:

  • Davidson, Basil. West Africa before the Colonial Era: A History to 1850. London: Routledge, 1998.
  • Diop, Cheikh Anta. The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1989.
  • Kane, Ousmane Oumar. Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016.
  • Kusimba, Chapurukha M. The Rise and Fall of Swahili States. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 1999.
  • McCaskie, T. C. State and Society in Pre-Colonial Asante. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Mudimbe, V. Y.The Idea of Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
  • Oliver, Roland and Anthony Atmore. Medieval Africa, 1250-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Pella, John A. Africa and the Expansion of International Society: Surrendering the Savannah. London: Routledge, 2016.
  • Pikirayi, Innocent. The Zimbabwe Culture: Origins and Decline in Southern Zambezian States. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 2001.
  • Smith, Robert S. Warfare and Diplomacy in Pre-Colonial West Africa. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.


  • 3500 BCE. Kingdom of Nubia.
  • 3000 BCE. Pharaonic Egypt is established in the Nile river valley.
  • 1000 BCE. Beginnings of the Bantu migration.
  • 325. The king of the Axsumite kingdom converts to Christianity.
  • 859. Al Quaraouiyine, a university, is founded in Fez by Fatima al-Fihri.
  • 960. The Kilwa Sultanate is founded by settlers from Shiraz, Persia.
  • 1054. The Almoravids capture Sijilmasa.
  • 1086. The Almoravids are invited into Spain by the taifa kings.
  • 1172. The Almohads conquer al-Andalus.
  • 1220-1450. The Kingdom of Zimbabwe.
  • 1235. The emperor of Mali, Sundiata Keita, calls a meeting which establishes a constitution for the empire.
  • 1324. Mansa Musa, the richest man in the world, goes on a hajj to Mecca.
  • 1440. Ewuare the Great comes to power in Benin and greatly expands the empire.
  • 1591. Moroccan troups invade the Songhai Empire.
  • 1675. Osei Tutu unites the Asante Confederacy, with Kumasi as its capital.

Short dictionary

  • dhow, Arabic. Generic name for sailing vessels, especially those used in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.
  • hajj, Arabic. Pilgrimage to Mecca. A religious duty for all Muslims.
  • iya, Edo language. “Wall.” Used for the earthwork constructions making up the walls of Benin.
  • lingua franca, Latin. Literally, “the Frankish tongue.” Third language, such as Swahili, used for communication between people who do not share a native language.
  • madrasa, Arabic. “Educational institution,” traditionally school teaching the Quran, theology and Islamic law.
  • mahdi, Arabic. Literally, “the guided one.” Messianic ruler who will appear before the Day of Judgement and rid the world of evil.
  • mino, Fon language. Literally “our mothers.” The all female body-guard of the king of Dahomey who also served as soldiers in the army.
  • oba, Edo language. “Ruler.” Title of the rulers of the Yuruba city-states in the Niger delta of today’s Nigeria.
  • taifa, Arabic. The small, Muslim, kingdoms that were formed all over southern Spain after the fall of the Caliphate of Córdoba in 1031.