before the Europeans
|There were many forms
of government in Africa before Europeans knew it, ranging from
powerful empires to decentralised groups of pastoralists and
hunters. In West Africa, archaeological excavations at Old Jenne
(modern Djenné, in Mali) have uncovered a sophisticated
urban settlement dating from the 3rd century BC. The ancient
kingdom of Ghana was based on the gold trade and flourished
from at least as early as the 8th century AD. In the Middle
Ages much of modern Senegal and Mali was governed by a confederation
of states known as the Mali empire.
West Africa in 1600
Precious Metals and Arab Traders
West Africans developed an extensive self-contained trading
system, based on skilled manufacture. From the 8th century
Muslim traders, from North Africa and Arab countries, began
to reach the region. Gradually, communities began to convert
to Islam. By the end of the 11th century some entire states,
and influential individuals in others, were Muslim. At the
same time, West African trade slowly expanded towards Egypt
and possibly India.
Arab traders were known to have taken West Africans as slaves
for many years. However, it was gold that really excited them.
Arabic texts mention that from the late 8th century Ghana
was considered 'the land of gold'. Mali also possessed great
wealth. In 1324-5, when Mansa Musa, its emperor, made a pilgrimage
to Mecca, he took so much gold with him that in Egypt, which
he also visited, the value of the metal was debased.
Early Travel Writers
the Elder wrote about Africa around AD 77. His accounts
of the region fascinated later travellers. These explorers
in turn wrote their own volumes about their travels to inform
the wider world about Africa and its riches. Accounts by African
writers such as Ibn Battuta also survive. According to the
historian John Iliffe, the narrative of the Arab geographer
Al-Bakri tells of the scene at the royal court of Ghana: 'Behind
the king stand ten pages holding shields and swords decorated
with gold, and on his right are the sons of the [vassal] kings
wearing splendid garments and their hair plaited with gold.'
Old Benin was the forest kingdom of the Edo-speaking people.
From the early 15th century, the Oba (ruler) of Benin, Ewuare,
built up a powerful standing army and expanded Benin towards
the Niger Delta and Lagos in the west. The Oba was head of
government and established a well-structured society. He collected
taxes and owned all the land in the country.
Oba Surrounded by Attendants
Ceremonial Oba Mask
|The people of Benin
were highly skilled in the art of making figurines and heads
of bronze, brass, copper and ivory, usually in honour of the
Oba. Masks played an important role in rituals to ensure the
well-being and prosperity of the Edo people.
The African Conquest of Europe
As early as the 8th century, contact between Africa and Europe
increased dramatically with the conquest of Spain and Portugal
by Muslim forces from North Africa (and also, later, from
Northwest Africa), called Moors
by the Spanish. Their leader was Tarik Ibn al-Walid, who also
gave his name to a rocky island off the southern tip of Spain
- 'Jabal [mount of] Tarik', or Gibraltar, as it is now known.
The Moors extended their influence via trade into northern
Europe. Their political power was centred at Córdoba,
which became one of the most important Islamic cultural centres.
They were scholars, engineers and also great builders (consequently,
Moorish architectural influence is visible in many parts of
Spain today). Islamic political power ended in 1492, however,
with the conquest of Granada by the Catholic monarchy.
Whilst our knowledge of ancient Africa is sparse, documents
uncovered in Portuguese archives have revealed maps of West
Africa made before the mass European enslavement of the people.
Portuguese explorers travelled along and plotted the West
African coast from the 14th century, although the picture
of the interior of the region at this time remains unclear.
References and Further Reading
Ade Ajayi, J. F. and Crowder, M. (eds), Historical Atlas
of Africa, Essex and Nigeria, 1985
Connah, G., African Civilizations: An Archaeological
Perspective, Cambridge, 2001
Iliffe, J., Africans: The History of a Continent,
Shillington, K., History of Africa, London, 1989