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The History Of Africa


new internationalist
issue 208 - June 1990

The History of Africa

Traditional history teaching gave a monopoly of 'greatness' to Western societies. But long before Europeans pillaged Africa the continent produced an imposing array of civilizations. This history is the bedrock upon which Africa must build its future.

1. The human cradle 2 million years ago
Africa was the
birthplace of tool-making humans. Two million years ago they ran, hunted, made love, fashioned tools, gathered plants and died in north-western Tanzania. Among the many implements that they bequeathed us are pointed stones probably used to sharpen the tips of digging implements. A million years later our forebears emerged whose repertoire of stone tools now included hand-axes. By around 50,000 years ago our ancestors had learned to make fire and were setting up house in caves. And around 15,000 BC, Africa had begun to be populated by human beings with the same variety of racial characteristics as today.


2. Promise of the Nile 4000 BC
Out of Africa
a new group of people tramped northwards to the land of Egypt. To stay or not to stay? Food was the problem. With pioneering ingenuity they solved the puzzle by becoming the world's first farmers around 4,000 BC. They split the land into two states - Upper and Lower Egypt - and after 3,200 BC one Pharaoh took charge. A stunning civilization sprang up. The elite had a strong central government which lasted for 3,000 years and perfected its techniques of extracting wealth and labour from its subjects. With this they built splendid temples and pyramids stocked with tomb-furniture so that the Pharaohs could live out their after-lives in comfort. There was brilliant development - Aristotle described Egypt as the 'cradle of mathematics' - and little disruption until a series of invasions precipitated its decline.


3. The land of Kush 500 BC
Beyond southern Egypt
lay the land of Kush. It was later forgotten because the Greeks, who rarely (if ever) visited it, sweepingly referred to its inhabitants as Ethiopians - meaning all Africans. Herodotus described the place from hearsay: 'Here gold is found in great abundance and huge elephants and ebony, and all sorts of trees growing wild. The men too, are the tallest in the world, the best-looking and the longest lived.' The southern city of Meroe became one of the greatest iron-founding centres of the ancient world after 500 BC. Its inhabitants - who apparently had a better geographical sense than the Greeks - developed a roaring trade with India and China, while building temples and manufacturing metals. And by 250 BC the region had a large and powerful empire which lasted until the fourth century AD.


4. The Ethiopians 500 BC
While Kush was
growing, another civilization was flowering in north-eastern Ethiopia. This Ethiopian culture borrowed its language and gods from the southern Arabians or Sabeans (the Queen of Sheba's people) with whom they originally traded. The city of Adulis blossomed as a centre of world trade and soon after AD 50, the Ethiopian capital, Axum, produced a new line of kings. They had the same weakness for self-aggrandizement as some modern heads of state and competed to erect ever-bigger monuments. Finally in AD 500 and after centuries of trading, King Ezana of Axum decided that he had been provoked beyond endurance and marched his armies into Meroe. Meroe's downfall was complete.


5. The lords of Ghana 600 AD
Ghana - whose markets
had supplied the Berbers since ancient times - grew into a big and powerful empire, built on the North African hunger for gold and ivory and the West African hunger for salt. Gradually it began trading in more things: copper, cotton, fine tools and swords from Arabian workshops; horses from Barbary and Egypt; ivory, kola nuts and slaves from the south. The lords of Ghana raked in massive sums by taxing both production and the import-export trade. They behaved like modern-day pop stars, squandering the money on lavish banquets for thousands of guests at a time. Their extravagance became renowned, peaking around 1067. It attracted Berber invaders who stole the wealth and forced many inhabitants to become Muslims. Weakened by these raids, the empire finally fell to an invading people from the north of Senegal, the Tekrur.


6. Mali and Songhay 1200
Ghana split into
several states, as oppressed groups freed themselves. Among these groups were the Mandinka who inhabited the state of Kangaba on the banks of the Upper Niger. They were excellent traders and cultivators whose leaders fought vigorously to build the empire of Mali, which rose in the thirteenth century and lasted for nearly 200 years. By the end, the empire sprawled from the shores of the Atlantic to the borders of modern Nigeria. Mali's schools of theology and law were famous as far away as Muslim Asia. And its heyday was revered as a golden age - until 1375, when the Songhay rulers of the city-state of Gao rebelled. From 1464 the Songhay set about conquering Mali. They succeeded and set up their own empire which grew for another century, stretching across the vast region of the Middle Niger.


7. Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe 1400
By 1400, the
Iron Age was shaping people's consciousness all across sub-Saharan Africa. States rose and fell. The Swahili peoples had long conducted trade between Africans from the interior and ships from China and India; their buildings expressed the Arab-African influence. Further south was the kingdom between the Limpopo and the Zambezi called Great Zimbabwe. The ambitious Mutota, king of the Karanga, conquered this gold-rich plateau in around 1440 and a new civilization emerged. As well as large buildings the people made beautiful gold objects and fine hand-turned pots. But the empire was torn by internal rivalries, and fell to the Portuguese in the early seventeenth century.


8. Military might 1500
By now Europeans
were trading up and down the coast of West Africa. They influenced the coastal people who must have been amazed by their seemingly insatiable desire for gold. But the African states were too strong to be invaded. The Wolof empire in Senegal commanded a cavalry of 10,000 and an army of 100,000. The powerful empire of Benin was growing famous for its ivory and bronze sculptures. Mali was still respected. And inland states continued developing undisturbed. For example the Yoruba of Oyo became a formidable force after their Alafin or king was exiled by a neighbouring state. When the Yoruba returned they organized a cavalry-based army which made them unconquerable in the region for nearly 200 years. But the real African genius lay not in military strength or empires but in its system of decentralized societies run by village chiefs and elders. All across Africa from the Ibo in the West to the Kikuyu in the East and the Xhosa in the South, this was the way societies operated.


9. Slaves 1650
Traditionally in Africa
, prisoners of war and convicts could be made into slaves, so fortune-seeking African rulers had no qualms about selling a few slaves to the Portuguese in exchange for cotton, woollens or brass. But the discovery of America caused a labour hunger among Europeans that could not be satisfied by a mere human trickle. Africans were kidnapped on a massive scale and transported to the Americas for work on plantations or down mines. African slaves were prized because of their skills in tropical farming and metal working and by 1780 around 100,000 were being shipped across the Atlantic every year. So many died in the process that entire slave populations had to be replaced every few years. And many African communities were decimated. Their industries and fine cities, beautiful temples and skilful works of art, all bled to death as young men and women, the most productive and creative of their citizens, were dragged away.


10. Conquest and colonialism 1700
Europeans began thoroughly
exploring Africa after 1795. Invasions followed between 1880 and 1900. The conquering powers divided up their spoils. They imposed colonial boundaries which split some ethnic groups and locked others together. They disrupted traditional systems of government by imposing taxes and appointing subjected chiefs to administrate for them. They flooded Africa with cheap industrial goods like cottons, metalwares and firearms - inhibiting local production and industrial expansion. They traded drink which brought alcoholism. And they discouraged local food production by promoting cash crops like peanuts, cocoa and bananas, while cultivating markets for imported foods such as sugar. Africa was ensnared in the web of exploitation which still confines it.

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New Internationalist issue 208 magazine cover This article is from the June 1990 issue of New Internationalist.
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