History of Africa

History of Africa
Pre-Colonial African States
Obelisk at temple of Luxor, Egypt. c. 1200 BCE.
African knight of Baguirmi in full padded armour suit.

The history of Africa begins with the prehistory of Africa and the emergence of Homo sapiens in East Africa, continuing into the present as a patchwork of diverse and politically developing nation states. Agriculture began about 10,000 BCE and metallurgy in about 4000 BCE. The history of early civilization arose in Egypt and later in the Maghreb and the Horn of Africa. During the Middle Ages, Islam spread through the regions. Crossing the Maghreb and the Sahel, a major centre of Muslim culture was at Timbuktu. States and polities subsequently formed throughout the continent.

From the late 15th century, Europeans and Arabs were sold slaves from West, Central and Southeast Africa by native tribes in the African slave trade.[1] European colonization of Africa developed rapidly in the Scramble for Africa of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Following independence and struggles in many parts of the continent, decolonization took place after the Second World War.

Africa's history has been challenging for researchers in the field of African studies because of the scarcity of written sources in large parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Scholarly techniques such as the recording of oral history, historical linguistics, archaeology and genetics have been crucial.




The first hominids evolved in Africa. According to paleontology, the early hominids' skull anatomy was similar to the gorilla and chimpanzee, great apes that also evolved in Africa, but the hominids had adopted a bipedal locomotion and freed their hands. This gave them a crucial advantage, enabling them to live in both forested areas and on the open savanna at a time when Africa was drying up and the savanna was encroaching on forested areas. This occurred 10 to 5 million years ago.[2]

By 3 million years ago, several australopithecine hominid species had developed throughout southern, eastern and central Africa. They were tool users, not makers of tools. They scavenged for meat and were omnivores.[3]

By approximately 2.3 million years ago, primitive stone tools were first used to scavenge kills made by other predators and to harvest carrion and marrow for their bones. In hunting, Homo habilis was probably not capable of competing with large predators and was still more prey than hunter. H. habilis probably did steal eggs from nests and may have been able to catch small game and weakened larger prey (cubs and older animals). The tools were classed as Oldowan.[4]

Around 1.8 million years ago Homo ergaster first appeared in the fossil record in Africa. From Homo ergaster, Homo erectus evolved 1.5 million years ago. Some of the earlier representatives of this species were still fairly small-brained and used primitive stone tools, much like H. habilis. The brain later grew in size, and H. erectus eventually developed a more complex stone tool technology called the Acheulean. Possibly the first hunters, H. erectus mastered the art of making fire and was the first hominid to leave Africa, colonizing most of the Old World and perhaps later giving rise to Homo floresiensis. Although some recent writers suggest that Homo georgicus was the first and most primitive hominid to ever live outside Africa, many scientists consider H. georgicus to be an early and primitive member of the H. erectus species.[5][6]

African biface artifact (spear point) dated in Late Stone Age period.

The fossil record shows Homo sapiens living in southern and eastern Africa at least 100,000 and possibly 150,000 years ago. Around 40,000 years ago, the species' expansion out of Africa launched the colonization of the planet by modern human beings. By 10,000 BCE, Homo sapiens had spread to all corners of the old world. Their migration is traced by linguistic, cultural and genetic evidence.[4][7][8]

Emergence of agriculture

Around 16,000 BCE, from the Red Sea hills to the northern Ethiopian Highlands, nuts, grasses and tubers were being collected for food. By 13,000 to 11,000 BCE, people began collecting wild grains. This spread to Western Asia, which domesticated its wild grains, wheat and barley. Between 10,000 and 8000 BCE, northeast Africa was cultivating wheat and barley and raising sheep and cattle from southwest Asia. A wet climatic phase in Africa turned the Ethiopian Highlands into a mountain forest. Omotic speakers domesticated enset around 6500-5500 BCE. Around 7000 BCE, the settlers of the Ethiopian highlands domesticated donkeys, and by 4000 BCE domesticated donkeys had spread to southwest Asia. Cushitic speakers, partially turning away from cattle herding, domesticated teff and finger millet between 5500 and 3500 BCE.[9][10]

In the steppes and savannahs of the Sahara and Sahel, the Nilo-Saharan speakers started to collect and domesticate wild millet and sorghum between 8000 and 6000 BCE. Later, gourds, watermelons, castor beans, and cotton were also collected and domesticated. The people started capturing wild cattle and holding them in circular thorn hedges, resulting in domestication.[11] They also started making pottery. Fishing, using bone tipped harpoons, became a major activity in the numerous streams and lakes formed from the increased rains.

In West Africa, the wet phase ushered in expanding rainforest and wooded savannah from Senegal to Cameroon. Between 9000 and 5000 BCE, Niger–Congo speakers domesticated the oil palm and raffia palm. Two seed plants, black-eyed peas and voandzeia (African groundnuts) were domesticated, followed by okra and kola nuts. Since most of the plants grew in the forest, the Niger–Congo speakers invented polished stone axes for clearing forest.[12]

Most of southern Africa was occupied by pygmy peoples and Khoisan who engaged in hunting and gathering. Some of the oldest rock art was produced by them.[13]

Just prior to Saharan desertification, the communities that developed south of Egypt in what is now modern day Sudan were full participants in the Neolithic revolution and lived a settled to semi-nomadic lifestyle, with domesticated plants and animals.[14] It has been suggested that megaliths found at Nabta Playa are examples of the world's first known archaeoastronomical devices, predating Stonehenge by some 1,000 years.[15] The sociocultural complexity observed at Nabta Playa and expressed by different levels of authority within the society there has been suggested as forming the basis for the structure of both the Neolithic society at Nabta and the Old Kingdom of Egypt.[16]

By 5000 BCE, Africa entered a dry phase, and the climate of the Sahara region gradually became drier. The population trekked out of the Sahara region in all directions, including towards the Nile Valley below the Second Cataract, where they made permanent or semipermanent settlements. A major climatic recession occurred, lessening the heavy and persistent rains in central and eastern Africa. Since then, dry conditions have prevailed in eastern Africa.


The first metals to be smelted in Africa were lead, copper, and bronze in the fourth millennium BCE.[17]

Copper was smelted in Egypt during the predynastic period, and bronze came into use not long after 3000 BCE at the latest[18] in Egypt and Nubia. Nubia was a major source of copper as well as gold.[19] The use of gold and silver in Egypt dates back to the predynastic period.[20][21]

In the Aïr Mountains, present-day Niger, copper was smelted independently of developments in the Nile valley between 3000 and 2500 BCE. The process used was not well developed, indicating that it was not brought from outside the region; it became more mature by about 1500 BCE.[21]

By the 1st millennium BCE, iron working had been introduced in northwestern Africa, Egypt, and Nubia.[22] In 670 BCE, Nubians were pushed out of Egypt by Assyrians using iron weapons, after which the use of iron in the Nile valley became widespread.

The theory of iron spreading to sub-Saharan Africa via the Nubian city of Meroe is no longer widely accepted. Metalworking in West Africa has been dated as early as 2500 BCE at Egaro west of the Termit in Niger, and iron working was practiced there by 1500 BCE.[23] Iron smelting was developed in the area between Lake Chad and the African Great Lakes between 1000 and 600 BCE, long before it reached Egypt. Before 500 BCE, the Nok culture in the Jos Plateau was already smelting iron.[24][25]


The ancient history of North Africa is inextricably linked to that of the Ancient Near East. This is particularly true of Ancient Egypt, Nubia and Ethiopia (Axumite Kingdom).

Phoenician cities such as Carthage were part of the Mediterranean Iron Age and Classical Antiquity.

Sub-Saharan Africa developed more or less independently in those times.

Ancient Egypt

Map of Ancient Egypt and nomes

After the desertification of the Sahara, settlement became concentrated in the Nile Valley, where numerous sacral chiefdoms appeared. The regions with the largest population pressure were in the delta region of Lower Egypt, in Upper Egypt, and also along the second and third cataracts of the Dongola reach of the Nile in Nubia. This population pressure and growth was brought about by the cultivation of southwest Asian crops, including wheat and barley, and the raising of sheep, goats, and cattle. Population growth led to competition for farm land and the need to regulate farming. Regulation was established by the formation of bureaucracies among sacral chiefdoms. The first and most powerful of the chiefdoms was Ta-Seti, founded around 3500 BCE. The idea of sacral chiefdom spread throughout upper and lower Egypt.[26]

The pyramids of Giza, symbols of the civilization of ancient Egypt.

Later consolidation of the chiefdoms into broader political entities began to occur in upper and lower Egypt, culminating into the unification of Egypt into one political entity by Narmer (Menes) in 3100 BCE. Instead being viewed as a sacral chief, he became a divine king. The henotheism, or worship of a single god within a polytheistic system, practiced in the sacral chiefdoms along upper and lower Egypt, became the polytheistic religion of ancient Egypt. Bureaucracies became more centralized under the pharaohs, run by viziers, governors, tax collectors, generals, artists, and technicians. They engaged in tax collecting, organizing of labor for major public works, and building irrigation systems, pyramids, temples, and canals. During the Fourth Dynasty (2620-2480 BCE), long distance trade was developed, with the Levant for timber, with Nubia for gold and skins, with Punt for frankincense, and also with the western Libyan territories. For most of the Old Kingdom, Egypt developed her fundamental systems, institutions and culture, always through the central bureaucracy and by the divinity of the Pharaoh.[27]

After the third millennium BCE, Egypt started to extend direct military and political control over her southern and western neighbors. By 2200 BCE, the Old Kingdom's stability was undermined by rivalry among the governors of the nomes who challenged the power of pharaohs and by invasions of Asiatics into the delta. The First Intermediate Period had begun, a time of political division and uncertainty.[28]

By 2130, the period of stagnation was ended by Mentuhotep, the first Pharaoh of the 11th dynasty, and the emergence of the Middle Kingdom. Pyramid building resumed, long-distance trade re-emerged, and the center of power moved from Memphis to Thebes. Connections with the southern regions of Kush, Wawat and Irthet at the second cataract were made stronger. Then came the Second Intermediate Period, with the invasion of the Hyksos on horse-drawn chariots and utilizing bronze weapons, a technology heretofore unseen in Egypt. Horse-drawn chariots soon spread to the west in the inhabitable Sahara and North Africa. The Hyksos failed to hold on to their Egyptian territories and were absorbed by Egyptian society. This eventually led to one of Egypt's most powerful phases, the New Kingdom (1580–1080 BCE), with the Eighteenth Dynasty. Egypt became a superpower controlling Nubia and Palestine while exerting political influence on the Libyans to the West and on the Mediterranean.[28]

As before, the New Kingdom ended with invasion from the west by Libyan princes, leading to the Third Intermediate Period. Beginning with Shoshenq I, the Twenty-second Dynasty was established. It ruled for two centuries.[28]

To the south, Nubian independence and strength was being reasserted. This reassertion led to the conquest of Egypt by Nubia, begun by Kashta and completed by Piye (Pianhky, 751-730 BCE) and Shabaka (716-695 BCE). This was the birth of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty of Egypt. The Nubians tried to re-establish Egyptian traditions and customs. They ruled Egypt for a hundred years. This was ended by an Assyrian invasion, with Taharqa experiencing the full might of Assyrian iron weapons. The Nubian pharaoh Tantamani was the last of the Twenty-fifth dynasty.[28]

When the Assyrians and Nubians left, a new Twenty-sixth Dynasty emerged from Sais. It lasted until 525 BCE, when Egypt was invaded by the Persians. Unlike the Assyrians, the Persians stayed. In 332, Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great. This was the beginning of the Ptolemaic dynasty, which ended with Roman conquest in 30 BCE. Pharaonic Egypt had come to an end.[28]

Ancient Greek influence

Greeks founded the city of Cyrene in Ancient Libya around 631 BC. Cyrenaica became a flourishing colony, though being hemmed in on all sides by absolute desert it had little or no influence on inner Africa. The Greeks, however, exerted a powerful influence in Egypt. To Alexander the Great the city of Alexandria owes its foundation (332 BC), and under the Hellenistic dynasty of the Ptolemies attempts were made to penetrate southward, and in this way was obtained some knowledge of Ethiopia.


Nubian Empire at its greatest extent

Around 3500 BCE, one of the first sacral kingdoms to arise in the Nile was Ta-Seti, located in northern Nubia. Ta-Seti was a powerful sacral kingdom in the Nile Valley at the 1st and 2nd cataracts that exerted an influence over nearby chiefdoms. Based on its pictorial representation, it claimed to have ruled over Upper Egypt. Ta-Seti traded as far as Syro-Palestine, as well as with Egypt. Ta-Seti exported gold, copper, ostrich feathers, ebony and ivory to the Old Kingdom. By the 32nd century BCE, Ta-Seti was in decline. After the unification of Egypt by Narmer in 3100 BCE, Ta-Seti was invaded by the Pharaoh Hor-Aha of the First Dynasty, destroying the final remnants of the kingdom. Ta-Seti is affiliated with A-Group culture known to archaeology.[29]

Nubian Temple of Apedemak, Naqa

Small sacral kingdoms continued to dot the Nubian portion of the Nile for centuries after 3000 BCE. Around the latter part of the third millennium, there was further consolidation of the sacral kingdoms. Two kingdoms in particular emerged: the Sai kingdom, immediately south of Egypt, and Kingdom of Kerma at the third cataract. Sometime around the 18th century BCE, the Kingdom of Kerma conquered the Kingdom of Sai, becoming a serious rival to Egypt. Kerma occupied a territory from the first cataract to the confluences of the Blue Nile, White Nile, and River Atbara. About 1575 to 1550 BCE, during the latter part of the Seventeenth Dynasty, the Kingdom of Kerma invaded Egypt.[30] The Kingdom of Kerma allied itself with the Hyksos invasion of Egypt.[31]

Egypt eventually re-energized under the Eighteenth Dynasty and conquered the Kingdom of Kerma or Kush, ruling it for almost 500 years. The Kushites were Egyptianized during this period. By 1100 BCE, the Egyptians had withdrawn from Kush. The region regained independence and reasserted its culture. Kush built a new religion around Amun and made Napata its spiritual center. In 730 BCE, the Kingdom of Kush invaded Egypt, taking over Thebes and beginning the Nubian Empire. The empire extended from Palestine to the confluences of the Blue Nile, the White Nile, and River Atbara.[32]

In 760 BCE, the Kushites were expelled from Egypt by iron-wielding Assyrians. Later, the administrative capital was moved from Napata to Meröe, developing into a new Nubian culture. Initially Meroites were highly Egyptianized, but they subsequently began to take on distinctive features. Nubia became a center of iron-making and cotton cloth manufacturing. Egyptian writing was replaced by the Meroitic alphabet. The lion god Apedemak was added to the Egyptian pantheon of gods. Trade links to the Red Sea increased, linking Nubia with Mediterranean Greece. Its architecture and art became more unique, with pictures of lions, ostriches, giraffes, and elephants. Eventually with the rise of Aksum, Nubia's trade links were broken and it suffered environmental degradation from the tree cutting required for iron production. In 350 CE, the Aksumite king Ezana brought Meröe to an end.[33]


Carthaginian Empire

The Egyptians referred to the people west of the Nile, ancestral to the Berbers, as Libyans. The Libyans were agriculturalists like the Mauri of Morocco and the Numidians of central and eastern Algeria and Tunis. They were also nomadic, having the horse, and occupied the arid pastures and desert, like the Gaetuli. Berber desert nomads were typically in conflict with Berber coastal agriculturalists.[34]

The Phoenicians were seamen of the Mediterranean. They were in constant search for valuable metals like copper, gold, tin, and lead. Soon they began to populate the North African coast with settlements, trading and mixing with the native Berber population. In 814 BCE, Phoenicians from Tyre established the city of Carthage. By 600 BCE, Carthage had become a major trading entity and power in the Mediterranean, largely through trade with tropical Africa. Carthage's prosperity fostered the growth of the Berber kingdoms, Numidia and Mauretania. Around 500 BCE, Carthage provided a strong impetus for trade with sub-Saharan Africa. Berber middlemen, who had maintained contacts with sub-Saharan Africa since the desert had desiccated, utilized pack animals to transfer products from oasis to oasis. Danger lurked from the Garamantes of Fez, who raided caravans. Salt and metal goods were traded for gold, slaves, beads, and ivory.[35]

Ruins of Carthage

The Carthaginians were rivals to the Greeks and Romans. Carthage fought three wars with Rome: the First Punic War (264 to 241 BCE), over Sicily; the Second Punic War (218 to 201 BCE), in which Hannibal invaded Europe; and the Third Punic War (149 to 146 BCE). Carthage lost the first two wars, and in the third it was destroyed, becoming the Roman province of Africa, with the Berber Kingdom of Numidia assisting Rome. The Roman province of Africa became a major agricultural supplier of wheat, olives, and olive oil to imperial Rome via exorbitant taxation. Two centuries later, Rome brought the Berber kingdoms of Numidia and Mauretania under its authority. In the 420s CE, Vandals invaded North Africa and Rome lost her territories. The Berber kingdoms subsequently regained their independence.[36]

Christianity gained a foothold in Africa at Alexandria in the 1st century CE and spread to northwest Africa. By 313 CE, with the Edict of Milan, all of Roman North Africa was Christian. Egyptians adopted Monophysite Christianity and formed the independent Coptic Church. Berbers adopted Donatist Christianity. Both groups refused to accept the authority of the Roman Church.

Role of the Berbers

As Carthaginian power grew; its impact on the indigenous population increased dramatically. Berber civilization was already at a stage in which agriculture, manufacturing, trade, and political organization supported several states. Trade links between Carthage and the Berbers in the interior grew, but territorial expansion also resulted in the enslavement or military recruitment of some Berbers and in the extraction of tribute from others. By the early 4th century BC, Berbers formed one of the largest element, with Gauls, of the Carthaginian army. In the Revolt of the Mercenaries, Berber soldiers participated from 241 to 238 BC after being unpaid following the defeat of Carthage in the First Punic War. Berbers succeeded in obtaining control of much of Carthage's North African territory, and they minted coins bearing the name Libyan, used in Greek to describe natives of North Africa. The Carthaginian state declined because of successive defeats by the Romans in the Punic Wars; in 146 BC the city of Carthage was destroyed. As Carthaginian power waned, the influence of Berber leaders in the hinterland grew. By the 2nd century BC, several large but loosely administered Berber kingdoms had emerged. Two of them were established in Numidia, behind the coastal areas controlled by Carthage. West of Numidia lay Mauretania, which extended across the Moulouya River in Morocco to the Atlantic Ocean. The high point of Berber civilization, unequaled until the coming of the Almohads and Almoravids more than a millennium later, was reached during the reign of Masinissa in the 2nd century BC. After Masinissa's death in 148 BC, the Berber kingdoms were divided and reunited several times. Masinissa's line survived until AD 24, when the remaining Berber territory was annexed to the Roman Empire.


Ruins of Qa'ableh, an early center of Somali civilization.

The ancestors of the Somali people were an important link in the Horn of Africa connecting the region's commerce with the rest of the ancient world. Somali sailors and merchants were the main suppliers of frankincense, myrrh and spices, all of which were valuable luxuries to the Ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Mycenaeans and Babylonians.[37][38]

In the classical era, several flourishing Somali city-states such as Opone, Mosyllon and Malao competed with the Sabaeans, Parthians and Axumites for the rich Indo-Greco-Roman trade.[39]

Roman North Africa

Northern Africa under Roman rule.

Increases in urbanization and in the area under cultivation during Roman rule caused wholesale dislocations of the Berber society. Nomad tribes were forced to settle or move from traditional rangelands. Sedentary tribes lost their autonomy and connection with the land. Berber opposition to the Roman presence was nearly constant. The Roman emperor Trajan established a frontier in the south by encircling the Aurès and Nemencha mountains and building a line of forts from Vescera (modern Biskra) to Ad Majores (Hennchir Besseriani, southeast of Biskra). The defensive line extended at least as far as Castellum Dimmidi (modern Messaad, southwest of Biskra), Roman Algeria's southernmost fort. Romans settled and developed the area around Sitifis (modern Sétif) in the 2nd century, but farther west the influence of Rome did not extend beyond the coast and principal military roads until much later.

The Roman military presence of North Africa was relatively small, consisting of about 28,000 troops and auxiliaries in Numidia and the two Mauretanian provinces. Starting in the 2nd century AD, these garrisons were manned mostly by local inhabitants.

Aside from Carthage, urbanization in North Africa came in part with the establishment of settlements of veterans under the Roman emperors Claudius, Nerva, and Trajan. In Algeria such settlements included Tipasa, Cuicul or Curculum (modern Djemila, northeast of Sétif), Thamugadi (modern Timgad, southeast of Sétif), and Sitifis (modern Setif). The prosperity of most towns depended on agriculture. Called the "granary of the empire," North Africa was one of the largest exporters of grain in the empire, which was exported to the provinces which did not produce cereals, like Italy and Greece. Other crops included fruit, figs, grapes, and beans. By the 2nd century AD, olive oil rivaled cereals as an export item.

The beginnings of the decline was less serious in North Africa than elsewhere. There were uprisings, however. In AD 238, landowners rebelled unsuccessfully against the emperor's fiscal policies. Sporadic tribal revolts in the Mauretanian mountains followed from 253 to 288. The towns also suffered economic difficulties, and building activity almost ceased.

The towns of Roman North Africa had a substantial Jewish population. Some Jews had been deported from Judea or Palestine in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD for rebelling against Roman rule; others had come earlier with Punic settlers. In addition, a number of Berber tribes had converted to Judaism.

Christianity arrived in the 2nd century and soon gained converts in the towns and among slaves. More than eighty bishops, some from distant frontier regions of Numidia, attended the Council of Carthage in 256. By the end of the 4th century, the settled areas had become Christianized, and some Berber tribes had converted en masse.

A division in the church that came to be known as the Donatist controversy began in 313 among Christians in North Africa. The Donatists stressed the holiness of the church and refused to accept the authority to administer the sacraments of those who had surrendered the scriptures when they were forbidden under the Emperor Diocletian. The Donatists also opposed the involvement of Emperor Constantine in church affairs in contrast to the majority of Christians who welcomed official imperial recognition.

The occasionally violent controversy has been characterized as a struggle between opponents and supporters of the Roman system. The most articulate North African critic of the Donatist position, which came to be called a heresy, was Augustine, bishop of Hippo Regius. Augustine maintained that the unworthiness of a minister did not affect the validity of the sacraments because their true minister was Christ. In his sermons and books Augustine, who is considered a leading exponent of Christian dogma, evolved a theory of the right of orthodox Christian rulers to use force against schismatics and heretics. Although the dispute was resolved by a decision of an imperial commission in Carthage in 411, Donatist communities continued to exist as late as the 6th century.

The decline in trade weakened Roman control. Independent kingdoms emerged in mountainous and desert areas, towns were overrun, and Berbers, who had previously been pushed to the edges of the Roman Empire, returned.

Belisarius, general of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I based in Constantinople, landed in North Africa in 533 with 16,000 men and within a year destroyed the Vandal kingdom. Local opposition delayed full Byzantine control of the region for twelve years, however, and when imperial control came, it was but a shadow of the control exercised by Rome. Although an impressive series of fortifications were built, Byzantine rule was compromised by official corruption, incompetence, military weakness, and lack of concern in Constantinople for African affairs, which made it an easy target for the Arabs during for Muslim Conquests . As a result, many rural areas reverted to Berber rule.


Aksumite Empire
Aksum Obelisk, symbol of the Aksumite civilization.

The earliest state in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia was D'mt, dated around the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. D'mt traded through the Red Sea with Egypt and the Mediterranean, providing frankincense. By the fifth and 3rd centuries, D'mt had declined, and several successor states took its place. Later there was greater trade with southern Arabia, mainly with the port of Saba. Adulis became an important commercial center in the Ethiopian highlands. The interaction of the peoples in the two regions, the southern Arabia Sabaeans and the northern Ethiopians, resulted in the Ge'ez culture and language and eventual development of the Ge'ez script. Trade links increased and expanded from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, with Egypt, Greece, and Rome, to the Black Sea, and to Persia, India, and China. Aksum was known throughout those lands. By the 5th century BCE, the region was very prosperous, exporting ivory, hippopotamus hides, gold dust, spices, and live elephants. It imported silver, gold, olive oil, and wine. Aksum manufactured glass crystal, brass, and copper for export. A powerful Aksum emerged, unifying parts of eastern Sudan, northern Ethiopia (Tigre), and Eritrea. Its kings built stone palatial buildings and were buried under megalithic monuments. By 300 CE, Aksum was minting its own coins in silver and gold.[40]

In 331 CE, King Ezana (320–350 CE) was converted to Monophysite Christianity supposedly by Frumentius and Aedesius, who were stranded on the Red Sea coast. Some scholars believed the process was more complex and gradual than a simple conversion. Around 350, the time Ezana sacked Meroe, the Syrian monastic tradition took root within the Ethiopian church.[41]

In the 6th century, Aksum was powerful enough to add Saba on the Arabian peninsula to her empire. At the end of the 6th century, the Persians pushed Aksum out of peninsula. With the spread of Islam through western Asia and northern Africa, Aksum's trading networks in the Mediterranean were closed. The Red Sea trade diminished as it was diverted to the Persian Gulf and dominated by Arabs, causing Aksum to decline. By 800 CE, the capital was moved south into the interior highlands, and Aksum was much diminished.[42]

West Africa

In the western Sahel, the rise of settled communities was largely the result of domestication of millet and sorghum. Archaeology points to sizable urban populations in West Africa beginning in the 2nd millennium BCE. Symbiotic trade relations developed before the trans-Saharan trade, in response to the opportunities afforded by north-south diversity in ecosystems across deserts, grasslands, and forests. The agriculturists received salt from the desert nomads. The desert nomads acquired meat and other foods from pastoralists and farmers of the grasslands and from fishermen on the Niger River. The forest dwellers provided furs and meat.[43]

Nok sculpture, terracotta, Louvre

Tichit (Dhar Tichitt) and Oualata were prominent among the early urban centers, dated to 2000 BCE, in present day Mauritania. About 500 stone settlements litter the region in the former savannah of the Sahara. Its inhabitants fished and grew millet. It has been found that the Soninke of the Mandé peoples were responsible for constructing such settlements. Around 300 BCE, the region became more desiccated and the settlements began to decline, most likely relocating to Koumbi Saleh. From the type of architecture and pottery, it is believed that Tichit was related to the subsequent Ghana Empire. Old Jenne (Djenne) began to be settled around 300 BCE, producing iron and with sizable population, evidenced in crowded cemeteries. Living structures were made of sun-dried mud. By 250 BCE, Jenne was a large, thriving market town.[44][45]

Farther south, in central Nigeria, around 1000 BCE, the Nok culture developed on the Jos Plateau. It was a highly centralized community. The Nok people produced miniature lifelike representations in terracotta, including human heads, elephants, and other animals. By 500 BCE, they were smelting iron. By 200 CE, the Nok culture had vanished. Based on stylistic similarities with Nok terracottas, the bronze figurines of Ife and Benin are believed to be continuation of the tradition.[46]

Bantu expansion

1 = 3000 - 1500 BCE origin
2 = c. 1500 BCE first migrations
     2.a = Eastern Bantu,  2.b = Western Bantu
3 = 1000 - 500 BCE Urewe nucleus of Eastern Bantu
4 - 7 = southward advance
9 = 500 BCE - 0 Congo nucleus
10 = 0 - 1000 CE last phase[47]

The Bantu expansion was a critical movement of people in African history and the settling of the continent. People speaking Bantu languages (a branch of the Niger–Congo family) began in the second millennium BCE to spread from Cameroon eastward to the Great Lakes region. In the first millennium BCE, Bantu languages spread from the Great Lakes to southern and east Africa. An early expansion was south to the upper Zambezi valley in the 2nd century BCE. Then, Bantu speakers pushed westward to the savannahs of present-day Angola and eastward into Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe in the 1st century CE. The second thrust from the Great Lakes was eastward, 2,000 years ago, expanding to the Indian Ocean coast and Tanzania. The eastern group eventually met the southern migrants from the Great Lakes in Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Both groups continued southward, with eastern groups continuing to Mozambique and reaching Maputo in the 2nd century CE, and expanding as far as Durban. By the later first millennium CE, the expansion had reached the Great Kei River of South Africa. Sorghum, a major Bantu crop, could not thrive under the winter rainfall of Namibia and the western Cape. Khoisan people inhabited the remaining parts of southern Africa.[48]

500 to 1800

North Africa

Maghreb (the West)

Almohad Empire, c. 1200.
The Great Mosque of Kairouan (also known as the Mosque of Uqba), first built in 670 by the Umayyad general Uqba Ibn Nafi, is the oldest and most prestigious mosque in the Maghreb and North Africa,[49] located in the city of Kairouan, Tunisia.

By 711 CE Arab Muslims had conquered all of North Africa. By the 10th century, the majority of the population of North Africa was Muslim.[50]

By the 9th century CE, the unity brought about by the Islamic conquest of North Africa and the expansion of Islamic culture came to an end. Conflict arose as to who should be the successor of the prophet. The Umayyads had initially taken control of the Caliphate, with their capital at Damascus. Later, the Abbasids had taken control, moving the capital to Baghdad. The Berber people, being independent in spirit and hostile to outside interference in their affairs and to Arab exclusivity in orthodox Islam, adopted Shi'ite and Kharijite Islam, both considered unorthodox and hostile to the authority of the Abbasid Caliphate. Numerous Kharijite kingdoms came and fell during the 8th and 9th centuries, asserting their independence from Baghdad. In the early 10th century, Shi'ite groups from Syria, claiming descent from Muhammad's daughter Fatima, founded the Fatimid Dynasty in the Maghreb. By 950, they had conquered all of the Maghreb and by 969 all of Egypt. They had immediately broken away from Baghdad.[51]

In an attempt to bring about a purer form of Islam among the Sanhaja Berbers, Abdallah ibn Yasin founded the Almoravid movement in present-day Mauritania and Western Sahara. The Sanhaja Berbers, like the Soninke, practiced an indigenous religion along side Islam. Abdallah ibn Yasin found ready converts in the Lamtuna Sanhaja, who were dominated by the Soninke in the south and the Zenata Berbers in the north. By the 1040s, all of the Lamtuna was converted to the Almoravid movement. With the help of Yahya ibn Umar and his brother Abu Bakr ibn Umar, the sons of the Lamtuna chief, the Almoravids created an empire extending from the Sahel to the Mediterranean. After the death of Abdallah ibn Yassin and Yahya ibn Umar, Abu Bakr split the empire in half, between himself and Yusuf ibn Tashfin, because it was too big to be ruled by one individual. Abu Bakr took the south to continue fighting the Soninke, and Yusuf ibn Tashfin took the north, expanding it to southern Spain. The death of Abu Bakr in 1087 saw a breakdown of unity and increase military dissension in the south. This caused a re-expansion of the Soninke. The Almoravids were once held responsible for bringing down the Ghana Empire in 1076, but this view is no longer credited.[52]

The Almohad minaret in Safi

During the 10th through 13th centuries, there was a large-scale movement of bedouins out of the Arabian Peninsula. About 1050, a quarter of a million Arab nomads from Egypt moved into the Maghreb. Those following the northern coast were referred to as Banu Hilal. Those going south of the Atlas Mountains were the Banu Sulaym. This movement spread the use of the Arabic language and hastened the decline of the Berber language and the Arabisation of North Africa. Later an Arabised Berber group, the Hawwara, went south to Nubia via Egypt.[53]

In the 1140s, Abd al-Mu'min declared jihad on the Almoravids, charging them with decadence and corruption. He united the northern Berbers against the Almoravids, overthrowing them and forming the Almohad Empire. During this period, the Maghreb became thoroughly Islamised and saw the spread of literacy, the development of algebra, and the use of the number zero and decimals. By the 13th century, the Almohad states had split into three rival states. Muslim states were largely extinguished in Spain by the Christian kingdoms of Castile, Aragon, and Portugal. Around 1415, Portugal engaged in a reconquista of North Africa by capturing Ceuta, and in later centuries Spain and Portugal acquired other ports on the North African coast. In 1492, Spain defeated Muslims in Granada, effectively ending eight centuries of Muslim domination in southern Iberia.[54]

Portugal and Spain took the ports of Tangiers, Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis. This put them in direct competition with the Ottoman Empire, which re-took the ports using Turkish corsairs (pirates and privateers). The Turkish corsairs would use the ports for raiding Christian ships, a major source of booty for the towns. Technically, North Africa was under the control of the Ottoman Empire, but only the coastal towns were fully under Istanbul's control. Tripoli benefited from trade with Borno. The pashas of Tripoli traded horses, firearms, and armor via Fez with the sultans of the Bornu Empire for slaves.[55]

In the 16th century, an Arab nomad tribe that claimed descent from Muhammad's daughter, the Saadis, conquered and united Morocco. They prevented the Ottoman Empire from reaching to the Atlantic and expelled Portugal from Morocco's western coast. Ahmad al-Mansur brought the state to the height of its power. He invaded Songhay in 1591, to control the gold trade, which had been diverted to the western coast of Africa for European ships and to the east, to Tunis. Morocco's hold on Songhay diminished in the 17th century. In 1603, after Ahmad's death, the kingdom split into the two sultanates of Fes and Marrakesh. Later it was reunited by Moulay al-Rashid, founder of the Alaouite Dynasty (1672–1727). His brother and successor, Ismail ibn Sharif(1672–1727), strengthen the unity of the country by importing slaves from the Sudan to build up the military.[56]


Fatimid Caliphate

In 642 CE, Arab Muslims conquered Byzantine Egypt.[50]

Egypt under the Fatimid Caliphate was prosperous. Dams and canals were repaired, and wheat, barley, flax, and cotton production increased. Egypt became a major producer of linen and cotton cloth. Its Mediterranean and Red Sea trade increased. Egypt also minted a gold currency called the Fatimid dinar, which was used for international trade. The bulk of revenues came from taxing the fellahin (peasant farmers), and taxes were high. Tax collecting was leased to Berber overlords, who were soldiers who had taken part in the Fatimid conquest in 969 CE. The overlords paid a share to the caliphs and retained what was left. Eventually, they became landlords and constituted a settled land aristocracy.[57]

To fill the military ranks, Mamluk Turkish slave cavalry and Sudanese slave infantry were used. Berber freemen were also recruited. In 1150s, tax revenues from farms diminished. The soldiers revolted and wreaked havoc in the countryside, slowed trade, and diminished the power and authority of the Fatimid caliphs.[58]

During the 1160s, Fatimid Egypt came under threat from European crusaders. Out of this threat, a Kurdish general named Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb (Saladin), with a small band of professional soldiers, emerged as an outstanding Muslim defender. Saladin defeated the Christian crusaders at Egypt's borders and recaptured Jerusalem in 1187. On the death of the Fatimid caliph in 1171, Saladin became the ruler of Egypt, ushering in the Ayyubid Dynasty. Under his rule, Egypt returned to Sunni Islam, Cairo became an important center of Arab Islamic learning, and Mamluk slaves were increasingly recruited from Turkey and southern Russia for military service. Support for the military was tied to the iqta, a form of land taxation in which soldiers were given ownership in return for military service.[59]

Over time, Mamluk slave soldiers became a very powerful landed aristocracy, to the point of getting rid of the Ayyubid dynasty in 1250 and establishing a Mamluk dynasty. The more powerful Mamluks were referred to as amirs. For 250 years, Mamluks controlled all of Egypt under a military dictatorship. Egypt extended her territories to Syria and Palestine, thwarted the crusaders, and halted a Mongol invasion in 1260 at the Battle of Ain Jalut. Mamluk Egypt came to be viewed as a protector of Islam, and of Medina and Mecca. Eventually the iqta system declined and proved unreliable for providing an adequate military. The Mamluks started viewing their iqta as hereditary and became attuned to urban living. Farm production declined, and dams and canals lapsed into disrepair. Mamluk military skill and technology did not keep pace with new technology of handguns and cannons.[60]

With the rise of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt was easily defeated. In 1517, Egypt became part of the Ottoman Empire. Istanbul revived the iqta system. Trade was reestablished in the Red Sea, but it could not completely connect with Indian Ocean trade because of growing Portuguese presence. During the 17th and 18th centuries, hereditary Mamluks regained power. The leading Mamluks were referred to as beys. Pashas, or viceroys, represented the Istanbul government in name only, operating independently. During the 18th century, dynasties of pashas became established. The government was weak and corrupt.[61]

In 1798, Napoleon invaded Egypt. The local forces had little ability to resist the French conquest. However, Britain and the Ottoman Empire were able to remove French occupation in 1801. These events marked the beginning of 19th-century Anglo-Franco rivalry over Egypt.[62]

Horn of Africa


The Citadel of Gondershe, Somalia was an important city in the medieval Somali Ajuuraan Empire.

The birth of Islam opposite Somalia's Red Sea coast meant that Somali merchants and sailors living on the Arabian Peninsula gradually came under the influence of the new religion through their converted Arab Muslim trading partners. With the migration of Muslim families from the Islamic world to Somalia in the early centuries of Islam, and the peaceful conversion of the Somali population by Somali Muslim scholars in the following centuries, the ancient city-states eventually transformed into Islamic Mogadishu, Berbera, Zeila, Barawa and Merka, which were part of the Berber (the medieval Arab term for the ancestors of the modern Somalis) civilization.[63][64] The city of Mogadishu came to be known as the City of Islam[65] and controlled the East African gold trade for several centuries.[66]

During this period, the sultanates and republics of Merca, Mogadishu, Barawa, Hobyo and their respective ports flourished and had a lucrative foreign commerce with ships sailing to and coming from Arabia, India, Venice,[67] Persia, Egypt, Portugal and as far away as China. Vasco da Gama, who passed by Mogadishu in the 15th century, noted that it was a large city with houses four or five stories high and big palaces in its centre, in addition to many mosques with cylindrical minarets.[68]

In the 16th century, Duarte Barbosa noted that many ships from the Kingdom of Cambaya in modern-day India sailed to Mogadishu with cloth and spices, for which they in return received gold, wax, and ivory. Barbosa also highlighted the abundance of meat, wheat, barley, horses, and fruit in the coastal markets, which generated enormous wealth for the merchants.[69] Mogadishu, the center of a thriving weaving industry known as toob benadir (specialized for the markets in Egypt and Syria),[70] together with Merca and Barawa, served as a transit stop for Swahili merchants from Mombasa and Malindi and for the gold trade from Kilwa.[71] Jewish merchants from the Strait of Hormuz brought their Indian textiles and fruit to the Somali coast to exchange for grain and wood.[72]

Trading relations were established with Malacca in the 15th century,[73] with cloth, ambergris, and porcelain being the main commodities of the trade.[74] Giraffes, zebras, and incense were exported to the Ming Empire of China, which established Somali merchants as leaders in the commerce between the Asia and Africa[75] and influenced the Chinese language with borrowings from the Somali language in the process. Hindu merchants from Surat and southeast African merchants from Pate, seeking to bypass both the Portuguese blockade and Omani meddling, used the Somali ports of Merca and Barawa (which were out of the two powers' jurisdiction) to conduct their trade in safety and without interference.[76]


The Zagwe dynasty ruled many parts of modern Ethiopia and Eritrea from approximately 1137 to 1270. The name of the dynasty comes from the Cushitic speaking Agaw people of northern Ethiopia. From 1270 CE on for many centuries, Solomonic dynasty ruled the Ethiopian Empire.

In the early 15th century Ethiopia sought to make diplomatic contact with European kingdoms for the first time since Aksumite times. A letter from King Henry IV of England to the Emperor of Abyssinia survives.[77] In 1428, the Emperor Yeshaq sent two emissaries to Alfonso V of Aragon, who sent return emissaries who failed to complete the return trip.[78]

The first continuous relations with a European country began in 1508 with Portugal under Emperor Lebna Dengel, who had just inherited the throne from his father.[79] This proved to be an important development, for when the empire was subjected to the attacks of the Adal general and imam, Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi (called "Grañ", or "the Left-handed"), Portugal assisted the Ethiopian emperor by sending weapons and four hundred men, who helped his son Gelawdewos defeat Ahmad and re-establish his rule.[80] This Ethiopian–Adal War was also one of the first proxy wars in the region as the Ottoman Empire, and Portugal took sides in the conflict.

When Emperor Susenyos converted to Roman Catholicism in 1624, years of revolt and civil unrest followed resulting in thousands of deaths.[81] The Jesuit missionaries had offended the Orthodox faith of the local Ethiopians, and on June 25, 1632, Susenyos's son, Emperor Fasilides, declared the state religion to again be Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity and expelled the Jesuit missionaries and other Europeans.[82][83]

East Africa

Christian and Islamic Nubia

Christian Nubia and the Nile cataracts

After Ezana of Aksum sacked Meroe, people associated with the site of Ballana moved into Nubia from the southwest and founded three kingdoms: Makuria, Nobatia, and Alodia. They would rule for 200 years. Makuria was above the third cataract, along the Dongola Reach with its capital at Dongola. Nobadia was to the north with its capital at Faras, and Alodia was to the south with its capital at Soba. Makuria eventually absorbed Nobadia. The people of the region converted to Monophysite Christianity around 500 to 600 CE. The church initially started writing in Coptic, then in Greek, and finally in Old Nubian, a Nilo-Saharan language. The church was aligned with the Egyptian Coptic Church.[84][85]

By 641, Egypt was conquered by Muslim Arabs. This effectively blocked Christian Nubia and Aksum from Mediterranean Christendom. In 651-652, Arabs from Egypt invaded Christian Nubia. Nubian archers soundly defeated the invaders. The Baqt (or Bakt) Treaty was drawn, recognizing Christian Nubia and regulating trade. The treaty controlled relations between Christian Nubia and Islamic Egypt for almost six hundred years.[86]

By the 13th century, Christian Nubia began its decline. The authority of the monarchy was diminished by the church and nobility. Arab bedouin tribes began to infiltrate Nubia, causing further havoc. Fakirs (holy men) practicing Sufism introduced Islam into Nubia. By 1366, Nubia had become divided into petty fiefdoms when she was invaded by Mamelukes. During the 15th century, Nubia was open to Arab immigration. Arab nomads intermingled with the population and introduced the Arabic culture and language. By the 16th century, Makuria and Nobadia had been Islamized. During the 16th century, Abdallah Jamma headed an Arab confederation that destroyed Soba, capital of Alodia, the last holdout of Christian Nubian. Later Alodia would fall under the Funj Sultanate.[87]

During the 15th century, Funj herders migrated north to Alodia and occupied it. Between 1504 and 1505, the kingdom expanded, reaching its peak and establishing its capital at Sennar under Badi II Abu Daqn (c. 1644–1680). By end of the 16th century, the Funj had converted to Islam. They pushed their empire westward to Kordofan. They expanded eastward, but were halted by Ethiopia. They controlled Nubia down to the 3rd Cataract. The economy depended on captured enemies to fill the army and on merchants travelling through Sennar. Under Badi IV (1724–1762), the army turned on the king, making him nothing but a figurehead. In 1821, the Funj were conquered by Muhammad Ali (1805–1849), Pasha of Egypt.[88][89]

Swahili Coast

A traditional Zanzibari-style Swahili coast door in Zanzibar.

Historically, the Swahili people could be found as far north as northern Kenya and as far south as the Ruvuma River in Mozambique. Arab geographers referred to the Swahili coast as the land of the zanj (blacks).[90]

Although once believed to be the descendants of Persian colonists, the ancient Swahili are now recognized by most historians, historical linguists, and archaeologists as a Bantu people who had sustained and important interactions with Muslim merchants, beginning in the late 7th and early 8th centuries CE.

Medieval Swahili kingdoms are known to have had island trade ports, described by Greek historians as "metropolises", and to have established regular trade routes[91] with the Islamic world and Asia.[92] Ports such as Mombasa, Zanzibar, and Kilwa[93] were known to Chinese sailors under Zheng He and medieval Islamic geographers such as the Berber traveller Abu Abdullah ibn Battuta.[94] The main Swahili exports were ivory, slaves, and gold. They traded with Arabia, India, Persia, and China.

The Portuguese arrived in 1498. On a mission to economically control and Christianize the Swahili coast, the Portuguese attacked Kilwa first in 1505 and other cities later. Because of Swahili resistance, the Portuguese attempt at establishing commercial control was never successful. By the late 17th century, Portuguese authority on the Swahili coast began to diminish. With the help of Omani Arabs, by 1729 the Portuguese presence had been removed. The Swahili coast eventually became part of the Sultanate of Oman. Trade recovered, but it did not regain the levels of the past.[95]

Madagascar and Merina

Madagascar was apparently first settled by Austronesian speakers from southeast Asia before the 6th century CE and subsequently by Bantu speakers from the east African mainland in the sixth or 7th century, according to archaeological and linguistic data. The Austronesians introduced banana and rice cultivation, and the Bantu speakers introduced cattle and other farming practices. About 1000, Arab and Indian trade settlement were started in northern Madagascar to exploit the Indian Ocean trade.[96] By the 14th century, Islam was introduced on the island by traders. Madagascar functioned in the East African medieval period as a contact port for the other Swahili seaport city-states such as Sofala, Kilwa, Mombasa, and Zanzibar.

Several kingdoms emerged after the 15th century: the Sakalava Kingdom (16th century) on the west coast, Tsitambala Kingdom (17th century) on the east coast, and Merina (15th century) in the central highlands. By the 19th century, Merina controlled the whole island. In 1500, the Portuguese were the first Europeans on the island, raiding the trading settlements.[97]

The British and later the French arrived. During the latter part of the 17th century, Madagascar was a popular transit point for pirates. Radama I (1810–1828) invited Christian missionaries in the early 19th century. Queen Ranavalona I "the Cruel" (1828–61) banned the practice of Christianity in the kingdom, and an estimated 150,000 Christians perished. Under Radama II (1861–1863), Madagascar took a French orientation, with great commercial concession given to the French. In 1895, in the second Franco-Hova War, the French invaded Madagascar, taking over Antsiranana (Diego Suarez) and declaring Madagascar a protectorate.[97]

Lake Plateau states and empires

Kitara and Bunyoro
Lake Plateau states

By 1000 CE, numerous states had arisen on the Lake Plateau among the Great Lakes of East Africa. Cattle herding, cereal growing, and banana cultivation were the economic mainstays of these states. The Ntusi and Bigo earthworks are representative of one of the first states, the Bunyoro kingdom, which oral tradition stipulates was part of the Empire of Kitara that dominated the whole lakes region. A Luo ethnic elite, from the Bito clan, ruled over the Bantu-speaking Nyoro people. The society was essentially Nyoro in its culture, based on the evidence from pottery, settlement patterns, and economic specialization.[98]

The Bito clan claimed legitimacy by being descended from the Bachwezi clan, who were said to have ruled the Empire of Kitara. However, very little is known about Kitara; some scholars even question its historical existence. Most founding leaders of the various polities in the lake region seem to have claimed descent from the Bachwezi.[98] They now 13 million Tara who are part the second African loss,(Nafi and Uma are two losses).


The Buganda kingdom was founded by the Ganda or Baganda people around the 14th century CE. The ancestors of the Ganda may have migrated to the northwest of Lake Victoria as early as 1000 BCE. Buganda was ruled by the kabaka with a bataka composed of the clan heads. Over time, the kabakas diluted the authority of the bataka, with Buganda becoming a centralized monarchy. By the 16th century, Buganda was engaged in expansion but had a serious rival in Bunyoro. By the 1870s, Buganda was a wealthy nation-state. The kabaka ruled with his Lukiko (council of minister). Buganda had a naval fleet of a hundred vessels, each manned by thirty men. Buganda supplanted Bunyoro as the most important state in the region. However, by the early 20th century, Buganda became a province of the British Uganda Protectorate.[99]


Southeast of Bunyoro, near Lake Kivu at the bottom of the western rift, the Kingdom of Rwanda was founded, perhaps during the 17th century. Tutsi (BaTutsi) pastoralists formed the elite, with a king called the mwami. The Hutu (BaHutu) were farmers. Both groups spoke the same language, but there were strict social norms against marrying each other and interaction. According to oral tradition, the Kingdom of Rwanda was founded by Mwami Ruganzu II (Ruganzu Ndori) (c. 1600–1624), with his capital near Kigali. It took 200 years to attain a truly centralized kingdom under Mwami Kigeli IV (Kigeri Rwabugiri) (1840–1895). Subjugation of the Hutu proved more difficult than subduing the Tutsi. The last Tutsi chief gave up to Mwami Mutara II (Mutara Rwogera) (1802–1853) in 1852, but the last Hutu holdout was conquered in the 1920s by Mwami Yuhi V (Yuli Musinga) (1896–1931).[100]


South of the Kingdom of Rwanda was the Kingdom of Burundi. It was founded by the Tutsi chief Ntare Rushatsi (c. 1657–1705). Like Rwanda, Burundi was built on cattle raised by Tutsi pastoralists, crops from Hutu farmers, conquest, and political innovations. Under Mwami Ntari Rugaamba (c. 1795–1852), Burundi pursued an aggressive expansionist policy, one based more on diplomacy than force.[101]

West Africa

Sahelian empires & states

Ghana at its greatest extent

The Ghana Empire may have been an established kingdom as early as the 4th century CE, founded among the Soninke by Dinge Cisse. Ghana was first mentioned by Arab geographer Al-Farazi in the late 8th century. Ghana was inhabited by urban dwellers and rural farmers. The urban dwellers were the administrators of the empire, who were Muslims, and the Ghana (king), who practiced traditional religion. Two towns existed, one where the Muslim administrators and Berber-Arabs lived, which was connected by a stone-paved road to the king's residence. The rural dwellers lived in villages, which joined together into broader polities that pledged loyalty to the Ghana. The Ghana was viewed as divine, and his physical well-being reflected on the whole society. Ghana converted to Islam around 1050, after conquering Aoudaghost.[102]

The Ghana Empire grew wealthy by taxing the trans-Saharan trade that linked Tiaret and Sijilmasa to Aoudaghost. Ghana controlled access to the goldfields of Bambouk, southeast of Koumbi Saleh. A percentage of salt and gold going through its territory was taken. The empire was not involved in production.[103]

By the 11th century, Ghana was in decline. It was once thought that the sacking of Koumbi Saleh by Berbers under the Almoravid dynasty in 1076 was the cause. This is no longer accepted. Several alternative explanations are cited. One important reason is the transfer of the gold trade east to the Niger River and the Taghaza Trail, and Ghana's consequent economic decline. Another reason cited is political instability through rivalry among the different hereditary polities.[104] The empire came to an end in 1230, when Takrur in northern Senegal took over the capital.[105][106]

Mali Empire at its greatest extent

The Mali Empire began in the 13th century CE, when a Mande (Mandingo) leader, Sundiata (Lord Lion) of the Keita clan, defeated Soumaoro Kanté, king of the Sosso or southern Soninke, at the Battle of Kirina in c. 1235. Sundiata continued his conquest from the fertile forests and Niger Valley, east to the Niger Bend, north into the Sahara, and west to the Atlantic Ocean, absorbing the remains of the Ghana Empire. Sundiata took on the title of mansa. He established the capital of his empire at Niani.[107]

Although the salt and gold trade continued to be important to the Mali Empire, agriculture and pastoralism was also critical. The growing of sorghum, millet, and rice was a vital function. On the northern borders of the Sahel, grazing cattle, sheep, goats, and camels were major activities. Mande society was organize around the village and land. A cluster of villages was called a kafu, ruled by a farma. The farma paid tribute to the mansa. A dedicated army of elite cavalry and infantry maintained order, commanded by the royal court. A formidable force could be raised from tributary regions, if necessary.[108]

Conversion to Islam was a gradual process. The power of the mansa depended on upholding traditional beliefs and a spiritual foundation of power. Sundiata initially kept Islam at bay. Later mansas were devout Muslims but still acknowledged traditional deities and took part in traditional rituals and festivals, which were important to the Mande. Islam became a court religion under Sundiata's son Uli I (1225–1270). Mansa Uli made a pilgrimage to Mecca, becoming recognized within the Muslim world. The court was staffed with literate Muslims as secretaries and accountants. Muslim traveller Ibn Battuta left vivid descriptions of the empire.[108]

Mali reached the peak of its power and extent in the 14th century, when Mansa Musa (1312–1337) made his famous hajj to Mecca with 500 slaves, each holding a bar of gold worth 500 mitqals.[109] Mansa Musa's hajj devalued gold in Mamluk Egypt for a decade. He made a great impression on the minds of the Muslim and European world. He invited scholars and architects like Ishal al-Tuedjin (al-Sahili) to further integrate Mali into the Islamic world.[108]

The Mali Empire saw an expansion of learning and literacy. In 1285, Sakura, a freed slave, usurped the throne. This mansa drove the Tuareg out of Timbuktu and established it as a center of learning and commerce. The book trade increased, and book copying became a very respectable and profitable profession. Timbuktu and Djenné became important centers of learning within the Muslim world.[110]

After the reign of Mansa Suleyman (1341–1360), Mali began its spiral downward. Mossi cavalry raided the exposed southern border. Tuareg harassed the northern border in order to retake Timbuktu. Fulani (Fulbe) eroded Mali's authority in the west by establing the independent Kingdom of Fouta Tooro, a successor to the kingdom of Takrur. Serer and Wolof alliances were broken. In 1545 to 1546, the Songhai Empire took Niani. After 1599, the empire lost the Bambouk goldfields and disintegrated into petty polities.[108]

The Songhai Empire, c. 1500

The Songhai people are descended from fishermen on the Middle Niger River. They established their capital at Kukiya in the 9th century CE and at Gao in 12th century. The Songhai speak a Nilo-Saharan language.[111]

Sonni Ali, a Songhai, began his conquest by capturing Timbuktu in 1468 from the Tuareg. He extended the empire to the north, deep into the desert, pushed the Mossi further south of the Niger, and expanded southwest to Djenne. His army consisted of cavalry and a fleet of canoes. Sonni Ali was not a Muslim, and he was portrayed negatively by Berber-Arab scholars, especially for attacking Muslim Timbuktu. After his death in 1492, his heirs were deposed by General Muhammad Ture, a Muslim of Soninke origins.[112]

Muhammad Ture (1493–1528) founded the Askiya Dynasty, askiya being the title of the king. He consolidated the conquests of Sonni Ali. Islam was used to extend his authority by declaring jihad on the Mossi, reviving the trans-Saharan trade, and having the Abbasid "shadow" caliph in Cairo declare him as caliph of Sudan. He established Timbuktu as a great center of Islamic learning. Muhammad Ture expanded the empire by pushing the Tuareg north, capturing Aïr in the east, and capturing salt-producing Taghaza. He brought the Hausa states into the Songhay trading network. He further centralized the administration of the empire by selecting administrators from loyal servants and families and assigning them to conquered territories. They were responsible for raising local militias. Centralization made Songhay very stable, even during dynastic disputes. Leo Africanus left vivid descriptions of the empire under Askiya Muhammad. Askiya Muhammad was deposed by his son in 1528. After much rivalry, Muhammad Ture's last son Askiya Daoud (1529–1582) assumed the throne.[113]

In 1591, Morocco invaded the Songhai Empire under Ahmad al-Mansur of the Saadi Dynasty in order to secure the goldfields of the Sahel. At the Battle of Tondibi, the Songhai army was defeated. The Moroccans captured Djenne, Gao, and Timbuktu, but they were unable to secure the whole region. Askiya Nuhu and the Songhay army regrouped at Dendi in the heart of Songhai territory where a spirited guerrilla resistance sapped the resources of the Moroccans, who were dependent upon constant resupply from Morocco. Songhai split into several states during the 17th century.

Morocco found its venture unprofitable. The gold trade had been diverted to Europeans on the coast. Most of the trans-Saharan trade was now diverted east to Bornu. Expensive equipment purchased with gold had to be sent across the Sahara, an unsustainable scenario. The Moroccans who remained married into the population and were referred to as Arma or Ruma. They established themselves at Timbuktu as a military caste with various fiefs, independent from Morocco. Amid the chaos, other groups began to assert themselves, including the Fulani of Futa Tooro who encroached from the west. The Bambara Empire, one of the states that broke from Songhai, sacked Gao. In 1737, the Tuareg massacred the Arma.[114][115]

Kanem-Bornu (Kanembu)
The farthest extent of the medieval Kanem-Bornu state.

Around the 9th century CE, the central Sudanic Empire of Kanem, with its capital at Njimi, was founded by the Kanuri-speaking nomads. Kanem arose by engaging in the trans-Saharan trade. It exchanged slaves captured by raiding the south for horses from North Africa, which in turn aided in the acquisition of slaves. By the late 11th century, the Islamic Sayfawa (Saifawa) dynasty was founded by Humai (Hummay) ibn Salamna. The Sayfawa Dynasty ruled for 771 years, making it one of the longest-lasting dynasties in human history.[114] In addition to trade, taxation of local farms around Kanem became a source of state income. Kanem reached its peak under Mai (king) Dunama Dibalemi ibn Salma (1210–1248). The empire reportedly was able to field 40,000 cavalry, and it extended from Fezzan in the north to the Sao state in the south. Islam became firmly entrenched in the empire. Pilgrimages to Mecca were common; Cairo had hostels set aside specifically for pilgrims from Kanem.[116][117]

Around 1400, the Sayfawa Dynasty moved its capital to Bornu, a tributary state southwest of Lake Chad with a new capital Birni Ngarzagamu. Overgrazing had caused the pastures of Kanem to become too dry. In addition, political rivalry from the Bilala clan was becoming intense. Moving to Bornu better situated the empire to exploit the trans-Saharan trade and to widen its network in that trade. Links to the Hausa states were also established, providing horses and salt from Bilma for Akan gold.[118] Mai Ali Gazi ibn Dunama (c. 1475–1503) defeated the Bilala, reestablishing complete control of Kanem.[119]

During the early 16th century, the Sayfawa Dynasty solidified its hold on the Bornu population after much rebellion. In the latter half of the 16th century, Mai Idris Alooma modernized its military, in contrast to the Songhai Empire. Turkish mercenaries were used to train the military. The Sayfawa Dynasty were the first monarchs south of the Sahara to import firearms.[119] The empire controlled all of the Sahel from the borders of Darfur in the east to Hausaland to the west. Friendly relationship was established with the Ottoman Empire via Tripoli. The Mai exchanged gifts with the Ottoman sultan.[120]

During the 17th and 18th centuries, not much is known about Bornu. During the 18th century, it became a center of Islamic learning. However, Bornu's army became outdated by not importing new arms,[118] and Kamembu had also begun its decline. The power of the mai was undermined by droughts and famine that were becoming more intense, internal rebellion in the pastoralist north, growing Hausa power, and the importation of firearms which made warfare more bloody. By 1841, the last mai was deposed, bringing to an end the long-lived Sayfawa Dynasty.[119]

Sokoto Caliphate

The Fulani were migratory people. They moved from Mauritania and settled in Futa Tooro, Futa Djallon, and subsequently throughout the rest of West Africa. By the 14th century CE, they had converted to Islam. During the 16th century, they established themselves at Macina in southern Mali. During the 1670s, they declared jihads on non-Muslims. Several states were formed from these jihadist wars, at Futa Toro, Futa Djallon, Macina, Oualia, and Bundu. The most important of these states was the Sokoto Caliphate or Fulani Empire.

In the city of Gobir, Usman dan Fodio (1754–1817) accused the Hausa leadership of practicing an impure version of Islam and of being morally corrupt. In 1804, he launched the Fulani War as a jihad among a population that was restless about high taxes and discontented with its leaders. Jihad fever swept northern Nigeria, with strong support among both the Fulani and the Hausa. Usman created an empire that included parts of northern Nigeria, Benin, and Cameroon, with Sokoto as its capital. He retired to teach and write and handed the empire to his son Muhammed Bello. The Sokoto Caliphate lasted until 1903 when the British conquered northern Nigeria.[121]

Forest empires and states

Akan Kingdoms and emergence of Asante Empire
Ashanti Kente cloth patterns

The Akan speak a Kwa Language. The speakers of Kwa languages are believed to have come from East/Central Africa, before settling in the Sahel.[122] By the 12th century, the Akan Kingdom of Bonoman(Bono State) was established. During the 13th century, when the gold mines in modern day Mali started to dry up, Bonoman and later other Akan states began to rise to promince as the major players in the Gold trade. It was Bonoman and other Akan kingdoms like Denkyira, Akyem, Akwamu which were the predecessors to what became the all-powerful Empire of Ashanti. When and how the Ashante got to their present location is debatable. What is known is that by the 17th century an Akan people were identified as living in a state called Kwaaman. The location of the state was north of Lake Bosomtwe. The state's revenue was mainly derived from trading in gold and kola nuts and clearing forest to plant yams. They built towns between the Pra and Ofin rivers. They formed alliances for defense and paid tribute to Denkyira one of the more powerful Akan states at that time along with Adansi and Akwamu. During the 16th century, Ashante society experienced sudden changes, including population growth because of cultivation of New World plants such as cassava and maize and an increase in the gold trade between the coast and the north.[123]

By the 17th century, Osei Kofi Tutu I (c. 1695–1717), with help of Okomfo Anokye, unified what became the Ashante into a confederation with the Golden Stool as a symbol of their unity and spirit. Osei Tutu engaged in a massive territorial expansion. He built up the Ashante army based on the Akan state of Akwamu, introducing new organization and turning a disciplined militia into an effective fighting machine. In 1701, the Ashante conquered Denkyira, giving them access to the coastal trade with Europeans, especially the Dutch. Opoku Ware I (1720–1745) engaged in further expansion, adding other southern Akan states to the growing empire. He turned north adding Techiman, Banda, Gyaaman, and Gonja, states on the Black Volta. Between 1744 and 1745, Asantehene Opoku attacked the powerful northern state of Dagomba, gaining control of the important middle Niger trade routes. Kusi Obodom (1750–1764) succeeded Opoku. He solidified all the newly won territories. Osei Kwadwo (1777–1803) imposed administrative reforms that allowed the empire to be governed effectively and to continue its military expansion. Osei Kwame Panyin (1777–1803), Osei Tutu Kwame (1804–1807), and Osei Bonsu (1807–1824) continued territorial comsolidation and expansion. The Ashante Empire included all of present-day Ghana and large parts of Ivory Coast.[124]

The ashantehene inherited his position from his mother. He was assisted at the capital, Kumasi, by a civil service of men talented in trade, diplomacy, and the military, with a head called the Gyaasehene. Men from Arabia, Sudan, and Europe were employed in the civil service, all of them appointed by the ashantehene. At the capital and in other towns, the ankobia or special police were used as bodyguards to the ashantehene, as sources of intelligence, and to suppress rebellion. Communication throughout the empire was maintained via a network of well-kept roads from the coast to the middle Niger and linking together other trade cities.[125][126]

For most of the 19th century, the Ashante Empire remained powerful. It was later destroyed in 1900 by British superior weaponry and organization following the four Anglo-Ashanti wars.[127]

Dahomey Amazons, an all-women fighting unit.

The Dahomey Kingdom was founded in the early 17th century CE when the Aja people of the Allada kingdom moved northward and settled among the Fon. They began to assert their power a few years later. In so doing they established the Kingdom of Dahomey, with its capital at Agbome. King Houegbadja (c. 1645–1685) organized Dahomey into a powerful centralized state. He declared all lands to be owned of the king and subject to taxation. Primogeniture in the kingship was established, neutralizing all input from village chiefs. A "cult of kingship" was established. A captive slave would be sacrificed annually to honor the royal ancestors. During the 1720s, the slave-trading states of Whydah and Allada were taken, giving Dahomey direct access to the slave coast and trade with Europeans. King Agadja (1708–1740) attempted to end the slave trade by keeping the slaves on plantations producing palm oil, but the European profits on slaves and Dahomey's dependency on firearms were too great. In 1730, under king Agaja, Dahomey was conquered by the Oyo Empire, and Dahomey had to pay tribute. Taxes on slaves were mostly paid in cowrie shells. During the 19th century, palm oil was the main trading commodity.[128] France conquered Dahomey during the Second Franco-Dahomean War (1892–1894) and established a colonial government there. Most of the troops who fought against Dahomey were native Africans.

Oyo Empire and surrounding states, c. 1625.

Traditionally, the Yoruba people viewed themselves as the inhabitants of a united empire, in contrast to the situation today, in which "Yoruba" is the cultural-linguistic designation for speakers of a language in the Niger–Congo family. The name comes from a Hausa word to refer to the Oyo Empire. The first Yoruba state was Ile-Ife, said to have been founded around 1000 CE by a supernatural figure, the first oni Oduduwa. Oduduwa's sons would be the founders of the different city-states of the Yoruba, and his daughters would become the mothers of the various Yoruba obas, or kings. Yoruba city-states were usually governed by an oba and a iwarefa, a council of chiefs who advised the oba. By the 18th century, the Yoruba city-states formed a loose confederation, with the Oni of Ife as the head and Ife as the capital. As time went on, the individual city-states became more powerful with their obas assuming more powerful spiritual positions and diluting the authority of the Oni of Ife. Rivalry became intense among the city-states.[129]

The Oyo Empire rose in the 16th century. The Oyo state had been conquered in 1550 by the kingdom of Nupe, which was in possession of cavalry, an important tactical advantage. The alafin (king) of Oyo was sent into exile. After returning, Alafin Orompoto (c. 1560–1580) built up an army based on heavily armed cavalry and long-service troops. This made them invincible in combat on the northern grasslands and in the thinly wooded forests. By the end of the 16th century, Oyo had added the western region of the Niger to the hills of Togo, the Yoruba of Ketu, Dahomey, and the Fon nation.

A governing council served the empire, with clear executive divisions. Each acquired region was assigned a local administrator. Families served in king-making capacities. Oyo, as a northern Yoruba kingdom, served as middle-man in the north-south trade and connecting the eastern forest of Guinea with the western and central Sudan, the Sahara, and North Africa. The Yoruba manufactured cloth, ironware, and pottery, which were exchanged for salt, leather, and most importantly horses from the Sudan to maintain the cavalry. Oyo remained strong for two hundred years.[130][131] It became a protectorate of Great Britain in 1888, before further fragmenting into warring factions. The Oyo state ceased to exist as any sort of power in 1896.[132]

"Benin Bronze"(brass)

The Kwa Niger–Congo speaking Edo people. By the mid 15th century, the Benin Empire was engaged in political expansion and consolidation. Under Oba (king) Ewuare (c. 1450–1480 CE), the state was organized for conquest. He solidified central authority and initiated 30 years of war with his neighbors. At his death, the Benin Empire extended to Dahomey in the west, to the Niger Delta in the east, along the west African coast, and to the Yoruba towns in the north.

Ewuare's grandson Oba Esigie (1504–1550) eroded the power of the uzama (state council) and increase contact and trade with Europeans, especially with the Portuguese who provided a new source of copper for court art. The oba ruled with the advice from the uzama, a council consisting of chiefs of powerful families and town chiefs of different guilds. Later its authority was diminished by the establishment of administrative dignitaries. Women wielded power. The queen mother who produced the future oba wielded immense influence.[133]

Benin was never a significant exporter of slaves, as Alan Ryder's book Benin and the Europeans showed. By the early 1700s, it was wrecked with dynastic disputes and civil wars. However, it regained much of its former power in the reigns of Oba Eresoyen and Oba Akengbuda. After the 16th century, Benin mainly exported pepper, ivory, gum, and cotton cloth to the Portuguese and Dutch who resold it to other African societies on the coast. In 1897, the British sacked the city.[134]

Niger Delta and Igbo

The Niger Delta comprised numerous city-states with numerous forms of government. These city-states were protected by the waterways and thick vegetation of the delta. The region was transformed by trade in the 17th century CE. The delta's city-states were comparable to those of the Swahili people in East Africa. Some, like Bonny, Kalabari, and Warri, had kings. Others, like Brass, were republics with small senates, and those at Cross River and Old Calabar were ruled by merchants of the ekpe society. The ekpe society regulated trade and made rules for members known as house systems. Some of these houses, like the Pepples of Bonny, were well known in the Americas and Europe.[137]

The Igbo lived east of the delta (but with the Anioma on the west of the Niger River). The Kingdom of Nri rose in the 9th century CE, with the Eze Nri being its leader. It was a political entity composed of villages, and each village was autonomous and independent with its own territory and name, each recognized by its neighbors. Villages were democratic with all males and sometimes females a part of the decision-making process. Graves at Igbo-Ukwu (800 CE) contained brass artifacts of local manufacture and glass beads from Egypt or India, indicative of extraregional trade.[138][139]

Central Africa

Around 1000 BCE, Bantu migrants had reached the Great Lakes of East Africa. Halfway through the first millennium BCE, the Bantu had also settled as far south as what is now Angola.

Luba Empire

Central African states
Luba pottery

Sometime between 1300 to 1400 CE, Kongolo Mwamba (Nkongolo) from the Balopwe clan unified the various Luba peoples, near Lake Kisale. He founded the Kongolo Dynasty, which was later ousted by Kalala Ilunga. Kalala expanded the kingdom west of Lake Kisale. A new centralized political system of spiritual kings (balopwe) with a court council of head governors and sub-heads all the way to village heads. The balopwe was the direct communicator with the ancestral spirits and chosen by them. Conquered states were integrated into the system and represented in the court, with their titles. The authority of the balopwe resided in his spiritual power rather than his military authority. The army was relatively small. The Luba was able to control regional trade and collect tribute for redistribution. Numerous offshoot states were formed with founders claiming descent from the Luba. The Luba political system spread throughout Central Africa, southern Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and the western Congo. Two major major empires claiming Luba descent were the Lunda Empire and Maravi Empire. The Bemba people of northern Zambia were descended from Luba migrants who arrived in Zambia during the 17th century.[140][141]

Lunda Empire

Lunda town and dwelling

In the 1450s, a Luba from the royal family Ilunga Tshibinda married Lunda queen Rweej and united all Lunda peoples. Their son mulopwe Luseeng expanded the kingdom. His son Naweej expanded the empire further and is known as the first Lunda emperor, with the title mwato yamvo (mwaant yaav, mwant yav), the Lord of Vipers. The Luba political system was retained, and conquered peoples were integrated into the system. The mwato yamvo assigned a cilool or kilolo (royal adviser) and tax collector to each state conquered.[142][143]

Numerous states claimed descent from the Lunda. The Imbangala of inland Angola claimed descent from a founder, Kinguri, brother of Queen Rweej, who could not tolerate the rule of mulopwe Tshibunda. Kinguri became the title of kings of states founded by Queen Rweej's brother. The Luena (Lwena) and Lozi (Luyani) in Zambia also claim descent from Kinguri. During the 17th century, a Lunda chief and warrior called Mwata Kazembe set up an Eastern Lunda kingdom in the valley of the Luapula River. The Lunda's western expansion also saw claims of descent by the Yaka and the Pende. The Lunda linked middle Africa with the western coast trade. The kingdom of Lunda came to an end in the 19th century when it was invaded by the Chokwe, who were armed with guns.[143][144]

Maravi (Malawi)

Maravi Kingdom

The Maravi claimed descent from Karonga (kalonga), who took that title as king. The Maravi connected middle Africa to the east coastal trade, with Swahili Kilwa. By the 17th century, the Maravi Empire encompassed all the area between Lake Malawi and the mouth of the Zambezi River. The karonga was Mzura, who did much to extend the empire. Mzura made a pact with the Portuguese to establish a 4,000-man army to attack the Shona in return for aid in defeating his rival Lundi, a chief of the Zimba. In 1623, he turned on the Portuguese and assisted the Shona. In 1640, he welcome back the Portuguese for trade. The Maravi Empire did not long survive the death of Mzura. By the 18th century, it had broken into its previous polities.[145]

Kingdom of Kongo

Kongo in 1711

By the 15th century CE, the farming Bakongo people (ba being the plural prefix) were unified as the Kingdom of Kongo under a ruler called the manikongo, residing in the fertile Pool Malebo area on the lower Congo River. The capital was M'banza-Kongo. With superior organization, they were able to conquer their neighbors and extract tribute. They were experts in metalwork, pottery, and weaving raffia cloth. They stimulated interregional trade via a tribute system controlled by the manikongo. Later, maize (corn) and cassava (manioc) would be introduced to the region via trade with the Portuguese at their ports at Luanda and Benguela. The maize and cassava would result in population growth in the region and other parts of Africa, replacing millet as a main staple.

By the 16th century, the manikongo held authority from the Atlantic in the west to the Kwango River in the east. Each territory was assigned a mani-mpembe (provincial governor) by the manikongo. In 1506, Afonso I (1506–1542), a Christian, took over the throne. Slave trading increased with Afonso's wars of conquest. About 1568 to 1569, the Jaga invaded Kongo, laying waste to the kingdom and forcing the manikongo into exile. In 1574, Manikongo Álvaro I was reinstated with the help of Portuguese mercenaries. During the latter part of the 1660s, the Portuguese tried to gain control of Kongo. Manikongo António I (1661–1665), with a Kongolese army of 5,000, was destroyed by an army of Afro-Portuguese at the Battle of Mbwila. The empire dissolved into petty polities, fighting among each other for war captives to sell into slavery.[146][147][148]

Kongo gained captives from the Kingdom of Ndongo in wars of conquest. Ndongo was ruled by the ngola. Ndongo would also engage in slave trading with the Portuguese, with São Tomé being a transit point to Brazil. The kingdom was not as welcoming as Kongo; it viewed the Portuguese with great suspicion and as an enemy. The Portuguese in the latter part of the 16th century tried to gain control of Ndongo but were defeated by the Mbundu. Ndongo experienced depopulation from slave raiding. The leaders established another state at Matamba, affiliated with Queen Nzinga, who put up a strong resistance to the Portuguese until coming to terms with them. The Portuguese settled along the coast as trade dealers, not venturing on conquest of the interior. Slavery wreaked havoc in the interior, with states initiating wars of conquest for captives. The Imbangala formed the slave-raiding state of Kasanje, a major source of slaves during the 17th and 18th centuries.[149][150]

Southern Africa

Settlements of Bantu-speaking peoples who were iron-using agriculturists and herdsmen were present south of the Limpopo River by the 4th or 5th century CE, displacing and absorbing the original Khoisan speakers. They slowly moved south, and the earliest ironworks in modern-day KwaZulu-Natal Province are believed to date from around 1050. The southernmost group was the Xhosa people, whose language incorporates certain linguistic traits from the earlier Khoi-San people, reaching the Great Fish River in today's Eastern Cape Province.

Great Zimbabwe and Mapungubwe

Great Zimbabwe

The Kingdom of Mapungubwe was the first state in Southern Africa, with its capital at Mapungubwe. The state arose in the 12th century CE. Its wealth came from controlling the trade in ivory from the Limpopo Valley, copper from the mountains of northern Transvaal, and gold from the Zimbabwe Plateau between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers, with the Swahili merchants at Chibuene. By the mid 13th century, Mapungubwe was abandoned.[151]

After the decline of Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe rose on the Zimbabwe Plateau. Zimbabwe means stone building. Great Zimbabwe was the first city in Southern Africa and was the center of an empire, consolidating lesser Shona polities. Stone building was inherited from Mapungubwe. These building techniques were enhanced and came into maturity at Great Zimbabwe, represented by the wall of the Great Enclosure. The dry-stack stone masonry technology was also used to build smaller compounds in the area. Great Zimbabwe flourished by trading with Swahili Kilwa and Sofala. The rise of Great Zimbabwe parallels the rise of Kilwa. Great Zimbabwe was a major source of gold. Its royal court lived in luxury, wore Indian cotton, surrounded themselves with copper and gold ornaments, and ate on plates from as far away as Persia and China. Around the 1420s and 1430s, Great Zimbabwe was on the decline. The city was abandoned by 1450. Some have attributed the decline to the rise of the trading town Ingombe Ilede.[152][153]

A new chapter of Shona history ensued. Mutota, a northern Shona king of the Karanga,, engaged in conquest. He and his son Mutope conquered the Zimbabwe Plateau, going through Mozambique to the east coast, linking the empire to the coastal trade. They called their empire Wilayatu 'l Mu'anamutapah or mwanamutapa (Lord of the Plundered Lands), or the Kingdom of Mutapa. Monomotapa was the Portuguese corruption. They did not build stone structures; the northern Shonas had no traditions of building in stone. After the death of Matope in 1480, the empire split into two small empires: Torwa in the south and Mutapa in the north. The split occurred over rivalry from two Shona lords, Changa and Togwa, with the mwanamutapa line. Changa was able to acquire the south, forming the Kingdom of Butua with its capital at Khami.[153][154]

The Mutapa Empire continued in the north under the mwanamutapa line. During the 16th century the Portuguese were able to establish permanent markets up the Zambezi River in an attempt to gain political and military control of Mutapa. They were partially successful. In 1628, a decisive battle allowed them to put a puppet mwanamutapa named Mavura, who signed treaties that gave favorable mineral export rights to the Portuguese. The Portuguese were successful in destroying the mwanamutapa system of government and undermining trade. By 1667, Mutapa was in decay. Chiefs would not allow digging for gold because of fear of Portuguese theft, and the population declined.[155]

The Kingdom of Butua was ruled by a changamire, a title derived from the founder, Changa. Later it became the Rozwi Empire. The Portuguese tried to gain a foothold but were thrown out of the region in 1693, by Changamire Dombo. The 17th century was a period of peace and prosperity. The Rozwi Empire fell into ruins in the 1830s from invading Nguni from Natal.[154]


Herero and Nama Territories

By 1500 CE, most of southern Africa had established states. In northwestern Namibia, the Ovambo engaged in farming and the Herero engaged in herding. As cattle numbers increased, the Herero moved southward to central Namibia for grazing land. A related group, the Mbanderu, expanded to Ghanzi in northwestern Botswana. The Nama, a Khoi-speaking, sheep-raising group, moved northward and came into contact with the Herero; this would set the stage for much conflict between the two groups. The expanding Lozi states pushed the Mbukushu, Subiya, and Yei to Botei, Okavango, and Chobe in northern Botswana.[156]

South Africa and Botswana

South African ethnic groups

The development of Sotho–Tswana states based on the highveld, south of the Limpopo River, began around 1000 CE. The chief's power rested on cattle and his connection to the ancestor. This can be seen in the Toutswemogala Hill settlements with stone foundations and stone walls, north of the highveld and south of the Vaal River. Northwest of the Vaal River developed early Tswana states centered around towns of thousands of people. When disagreements or rivalry arose, different groups moved to form their own states.[157]

The Nguni People

Southeast of the Drakensberg mountains lived Nguni-speaking peoples (Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi, and Ndebele). They too engaged in state building, with new states developing from rivalry, disagreements, and population pressure causing movement into new regions. This nineteenth century process of warfare, state building and migration later became known as the Mfecane (Nguni) or Difaqane (Sotho). Its major catalyst was the consolidation of the Zulu state.[158] They were metalworkers, cultivators of millet, and cattle herders.[157]

Khoisan and Afrikaaner
Political map of Southern Africa in 1885

The Khoisan lived in the southwestern Cape Province, where winter rainfall is plentiful. Earlier Khoisan populations were absorbed by Bantu peoples, such as the Sotho and Nguni, but the Bantu expansion stopped at the region with winter rainfall. Some Bantu languages have incorporated the click characteristic of the Khoisan languages. The Khoisan traded with their Bantu neighbors, providing cattle, sheep, and hunted items. In return, their Bantu speaking neighbors traded copper, iron, and tobacco.[157]

By the 16th century, the Dutch East India Company established a replenishing station at Table Bay for restocking water and purchasing meat from the Khoikhoi. The Khoikhoi received copper, iron, tobacco, and beads in exchange. In order to control the price of meat and stock and make service more consistent, the Dutch established a permanent settlement at Table Bay in 1652. They grew fresh fruit and vegetables and established a hospital for sick sailors. To increase produce, the Dutch decided to increase the number of farms at Table Bay by encouraging freeburgher boers (farmers) on lands worked initially by slaves from West Africa. The land was taken from Khoikhoi grazing land, triggering the first Khoikhoi-Dutch war in 1659. No victors emerged, but the Dutch assumed a "right of conquest" by which they claimed all of the cape. In a series of wars pitting the Khoikhoi against each other, the Boers assumed all Khoikhoi land and claimed all their cattle. The second Khoikoi-Dutch war (1673–1677) was a cattle raid. The Khoikhoi also died in thousands from European diseases.[159]

By the 18th century, the cape colony had grown, with slaves coming from Madagascar, Mozambique, and Indonesia. The settlement also started to expand northward, but Khoikhoi resistance, raids, and guerrilla warfare slowed the expansion during the 18th century. Boers who started to practice pastoralism were known as trekboers. A common source of trekboer labor was orphan children who were captured during raids and whose parents had been killed.[160]

19th century

Southern Africa

By the 1850s, British and German missionaries and traders had penetrated Namibia. Herero and Nama competed for guns and ammunition, providing cattle, ivory, and ostrich feathers. The Germans were more firmly established than the British in the region. By 1884, the Germans declared the coastal region from the Orange River to the Kunene River a German protectorate. They pursued an aggressive policy of land expansion for white settlements. They exploited rivalry between the Nama and Herero.[161]

The Herero entered into an alliance with the Germans, thinking they could get an upper hand on the Nama. The Germans set up a garrison at the Herero capital and started allocating Herero land for white settlements, including the best grazing land in the central plateau, and made tax and labor demands. The Herero and Mbanderu rebelled, but the rebellion was crushed and leaders were executed. Between 1896 and 1897, rinderpest crippled the economic backbone of the Herero and Nama economy and slowed white expansion. The Germans continued the policy of making Namibia a white settlement by seizing land and cattle, and even trying to export Herero labor to South Africa.[162]

In 1904, the Herero rebelled. German General Lothar von Trotha implemented an extermination policy at the Battle of Waterberg, which drove the Herero west of the Kalahari Desert. At the end of 1905, only 16,000 Herero were alive, out of a previous population of 80,000. Nama resistance was crushed in 1907. All Nama and Herero cattle and land were confiscated from the very diminished population, with remaining Nama and Herero assuming a subordinate position. Labor had to be imported from among the Ovambo.[163]


A moment of great disorder in southern Africa was the Mfecane, "the crushing." It was started by the northern Nguni kingdoms of Mthethwa, Ndwandwe, and Swaziland over scarce resource and famine. When Dingiswayo of Mthethwa died, Shaka of the Zulu people took over. He established the Zulu Kingdom, asserting authority over the Ndwandwe and pushing the Swazi north. The scattering Ndwandwe and Swazi caused the Mfecane to spread. During the 1820s, Shaka expanded the empire all along the Drakensberg foothills, with tribute being paid as far south as the Tugela and Umzimkulu rivers. He replaced the chiefs of conquered polities with indunas, responsible to him. He introduced a centralized, dedicated, and disciplined military force not seen in the region, with a new weapon in the short stabbing-spear.[164]

In 1828, Shaka was assassinated by his half brother Dingane, who lacked the military genius and leadership skills of Shaka. Voortrekkers tried to occupy Zulu land in 1838. In the early months they were defeated, but the survivors regrouped at the Ncome River and soundly defeated the Zulu. However, the Voortrekkers dared not settle Zulu land. Dingane was killed in 1840 during a civil war. His brother Mpande took over and strengthened Zulu territories to the north. In 1879 the Zulu Kingdom was invaded by Britain in a quest to control all of South Africa. The Zulu Kingdom was victorious at the Battle of Isandlwana but was defeated at the Battle of Ulundi.[165][166]

One of the major states to emerge from the Mfecane was the Sotho Kingdom founded at Thaba Bosiu by Moshoeshoe I around 1821 to 1822. It was a confederation different polities that accepted the absolute authority of Moshoeshoe. During the 1830s, the kingdom invited missionaries as a strategic means of acquiring guns and horses from the Cape. Orange Free State slowly diminished the kingdom but never completely defeated it. In 1868, Moshoeshoe asked that the Sotho Kingdom be annexed by Britain, to save the remnant. It became the British protectorate of Basutoland.[167]


By the 19th century, most Khoikhoi territory was under Boer control. The Khoikhoi had lost economic and political independence and had been absorbed into Boer society. The Boers spoke Afrikaans, a language or dialect derived from Dutch, and no longer called themselves Boers but Afrikaner. Some Khoikhoi were used as commandos in raids against other Khoikhoi and later Xhosa. A mixed Khoi, slave, and European population called the Cape Coloureds, who were outcasts within colonial society, also arose. Khoikhoi who lived far on the frontier included the Kora, Oorlams, and Griqua. In 1795, the British took over the cape colony from the Dutch.[168]

In the 1830s, Boers embarked on a journey of expansion, east of the Great Fish River into the Zuurveld. They were referred to as Voortrekkers. They founded republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State, mostly in areas of sparse population that had been diminished by the Mfecane/Difaqane. Unlike the Khoisan, the Bantu states were not conquered by the Afrikaners, because of population density and greater unity. Additionally, they began to arm themselves with guns acquired through trade at the cape. In some cases, as in the Xhosa/Boer Wars, Boers were removed from Xhosa lands. It required a dedicated imperial military force to subdue the Bantu-speaking states. In 1901, the Boer republics were defeated by Britain in the Second Boer War. The defeat however consummated many Afrikaners' ambition: South Africa would be under white rule. The British placed all power—legislative, executive, administrative—in English and Afrikaner hands.[169][170]

European trade, exploration and conquest

1895 .303 tripod mounted Maxim machine gun

Between 1878 and 1898, European states partitioned and conquered most of Africa. For 400 years, European nations had mainly limited their involvement to trading stations on the African coast. Few dared venture inland from the coast; those that did, like the Portuguese, often met defeats and had to retreat to the coast. Several technological innovations helped to overcome this 400-year pattern. One was the development of repeating rifles, which were easier and quicker to load than muskets. Artillery was being used increasingly. In 1885, Hiram S. Maxim developed the maxim gun, the model of the modern-day machine gun. European states kept these weapons largely among themselves by refusing to sell these weapons to African leaders.[171]

African germs took numerous European lives and deterred permanent settlements. Diseases such as yellow fever, sleeping sickness, yaws, and leprosy made Africa a very inhospitable place for Europeans. The deadliest disease was malaria, endemic throughout tropical Africa. In 1854, the discovery of quinine and other medical innovations helped to make conquest and colonization in Africa possible.[172]

Strong motives for conquest of Africa were at play. Raw materials were needed for European factories. Europe in the early part of the 19th century was undergoing its Industrial Revolution. Nationalist rivalries and prestige were at play. Acquiring African colonies would show rivals that a nation was powerful and significant. These factors culminated in the Scramble for Africa.[173]

David Livingstone, early explorer of the interior of Africa.

Knowledge of Africa increased. Numerous European explorers began to explore the continent. Mungo Park traversed the Niger River. James Bruce travelled through Ethiopia and located the source of the Blue Nile. Richard Francis Burton was the first European at Lake Tanganyika. Samuel White Baker explored the Upper Nile. John Hanning Speke located a source of the Nile at Lake Victoria. Other significant European explorers included Heinrich Barth, Henry Morton Stanley, Silva Porto, Alexandre de Serpa Pinto, Rene Caille, Gerhard Rolfs, Gustav Nachtigal, George Schweinfurth, and Joseph Thomson. The most famous of the explorers was David Livingstone, who explored southern Africa and traversed the continent from the Atlantic at Luanda to the Indian Ocean at Quelimane. European explorers made use of African guides and servants, and established long-distance trading routes were used.[174][175]

Missionaries attempting to spread Christianity also increased European knowledge of Africa.[175] Between 1884 and 1885, European nations met at the Berlin West Africa Conference to discuss the partitioning of Africa. It was agreed that European claims to parts of Africa would only be recognised if Europeans provided effective occupation. In a series of treaties in 1890–1891, colonial boundaries were completely drawn. All of sub saharan Africa was claimed by European powers, except for Ethiopia (Abyssinia) and Liberia.

The European powers set up a variety of different administrations in Africa, reflecting different ambitions and degrees of power. In some areas, such as parts of British West Africa, colonial control was tenuous and intended for simple economic extraction, strategic power, or as part of a long term development plan. In other areas, Europeans were encouraged to settle, creating settler states in which a European minority dominated. Settlers only came to a few colonies in sufficient numbers to have a strong impact. British settler colonies included British East Africa (now Kenya), Northern and Southern Rhodesia, (Zambia and Zimbabwe, respectively), and South Africa, which already had a significant population of European settlers, the Boers. France planned to settle Algeria and eventually incorporate it into the French state on an equal basis with the European provinces. Algeria's proximity across the Mediterranean allowed plans of this scale.

In most areas colonial administrations did not have the manpower or resources to fully administer the territory and had to rely on local power structures to help them. Various factions and groups within the societies exploited this European requirement for their own purposes, attempting to gain positions of power within their own communities by cooperating with Europeans. One aspect of this struggle included what Terence Ranger has termed the "invention of tradition." In order to legitimize their own claims to power in the eyes of both the colonial administrators and their own people, native elites would essentially manufacture "traditional" claims to power, or ceremonies. As a result, many societies were thrown into disarray by the new order.

European colonial territories


Areas controlled by European colonial powers on the African continent in 1914



Italy Italian North Africa (now Libya)



United Kingdom

Independent states

20th century

During this era a sense of local patriotism or nationalism took deeper root among African intellectuals and politicians. Some of the inspiration for this movement came from the First World War in which European countries had relied on colonial troops for their own defense. Many in Africa realized their own strength with regard to the colonizer for the first time. At the same time, some of the mystique of the "invincible" European was shattered by the barbarities of the war. However, in most areas European control remained relatively strong during this period.

After World War I the formerly German colonies in Africa were taken over by France, Belgium, and the United Kingdom. Italy, under the government of Benito Mussolini, invaded Ethiopia, the last independent African nation, in 1935 and occupied the country until 1941.

Second half of 20th century: decolonization

Dates of independence of African countries.

The decolonization of Africa started with Libya in 1951. (Although Liberia, South Africa, Egypt and Ethiopia were already independent.) Many countries followed in the 1950s and 1960s, with a peak in 1960 with independence of a large part of French West Africa. Most of the remaining countries gained independence throughout the 1960s, although some colonizers (Portugal in particular) were reluctant to relinquish sovereignty, resulting in bitter wars of independence which lasted for a decade or more. The last African countries to gain formal independence were Guinea-Bissau (1974), Mozambique (1975) and Angola (1975) from Portugal; Djibouti from France in 1977; Zimbabwe from United Kingdom in 1980; and Namibia from South Africa in 1990. Eritrea later split off from Ethiopia in 1993. Because many cities were founded, enlarged and renamed by the Europeans, after independence many place names were renamed.

East Africa

The Mau Mau Rebellion took place in Kenya from 1952 until 1956 but was put down by British and local forces. A State of Emergency remained in place until 1960. Kenya became independent in 1963, and Jomo Kenyatta served as its first president.

The early 1990s also signaled the start of major clashes between the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi. In 1994 this culminated in the Rwandan Genocide, a conflict in which over 800,000 people were murdered.

North Africa

Moroccan nationalism developed during the 1930s; the Istiqal Party was formed, pushing for independence. In 1953 sultan Muhammad V called for independence. On March 2, 1956, Morocco became independent of France. Spain relinquished the territories of Ceuta, Tangiers, and Melilla. Muhammad V became ruler of independent Morocco.

In 1954, Algeria formed the National Liberation Front (FLN) as it split from France. The French responded brutally but negotiated independence in 1962. Muhammad Ahmed Ben Bella was elected president. All French citizens left the country, crippling the economy.

In 1934, the "Neo-Destour" (New Constitution) party was founded by Habib Bourguiba pushing for independence in Tunisia. Tunisia became independent in 1955. Its bey was disposed and Habib Bourguiba elected.[177]

In 1954, Gamal Abdel Nasser deposed the monarchy of Egypt and came to power. Muammar al-Gaddafi led a coup in Libya in 1969 and remained in power until he was killed in 2011.

Egypt was involved in several wars against Israel and was allied with other Arab countries. The first was right after the state of Israel was founded, in 1948. Egypt went to war again in 1967 and lost the Sinai Peninsula to Israel. They went to war yet again in 1973. In 1979, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin signed the Camp David Accords, which gave back the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in exchange for the recognition of Israel. The accords are still in effect today. In 1981, Sadat was assassinated by an Islamist for signing the accords.

Southern Africa

In 1948 the apartheid laws were started in South Africa by the dominant National Party. These were largely a continuation of existing policies; the difference was the policy of "separate development." Where previous policies had only been disparate efforts to economically exploit the African majority, apartheid represented an entire philosophy of separate racial goals, leading to both the divisive laws of 'petty apartheid,' and the grander scheme of African homelands.[178]

In 1994, the South African government abolished apartheid. South Africans elected Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress in the country's first multiracial presidential election.

West Africa

Following World War II, nationalist movements arose across West Africa, most notably in Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah. In 1957, Ghana became the first sub-Saharan colony to achieve its independence, followed the next year by France's colonies; by 1974, West Africa's nations were entirely autonomous. Since independence, many West African nations have been plagued by corruption and instability, with notable civil wars in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Côte d'Ivoire, and a succession of military coups in Ghana and Burkina Faso. Many states have failed to develop their economies despite enviable natural resources, and political instability is often accompanied by undemocratic government.

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Further reading

  • Cheikh Anta Diop (1987). Precolonial Black Africa. Chicago Review Press.
  • Clark, J. Desmond (1970). The Prehistory of Africa. Thames and Hudson
  • Davidson, Basil (1964). The African Past. Penguin, Harmondsworth
  • Freund, Bill (1998). The Making of Contemporary Africa, Lynne Rienner, Boulder (including a substantial "Annotated Bibliography" pp. 269–316).
  • Reader, John (1997). Africa: A Biography of the Continent. Hamish Hamilton. ISBN 0-241-13047-6
  • Shillington, Kevin (1989). History of Africa, New York: St. Martin's.
  • UNESCO (1980–1994). General History of Africa. 8 volumes.
  • Théophile Obenga (1980). Pour une Nouvelle Histoire Présence Africaine, Paris
  • Worden, Nigel (1995). The Making of Modern South Africa, Oxford UK, Cambridge USA: Blackwell.
  • Cambridge History of Africa, Volume 1-5.
  • Falola, Toyin. Africa, Volume 1-5.
  • July, Robert (1998). A History of the African People, Longrove, Il.: Waveland Press, 1998.
  • O'Meara, Dan (1996). Forty Lost Years: The Apartheid State and the Politics of the National Party, 1948-1994, Athens: Ohio University Press; Randburg, Raven Press.

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