Africa: A Biography of the Continent
Africa, the “mother of humankind,” provided the backdrop for the evolution of humanity, and Note 8 gives a detailed summary of the highlights. To start her “biography” we will begin with the first farmers to sow and reap on the continent.*
* The history of North Africa is connected to that of SW Asia and is excluded here.
The Growth of Agriculture
To live by hunting was not original; if man had confined himself to that, he would have been just another carnivore. He began to be human when out of the uncertain hunt he developed the greater security and continuity of the pastoral life. As desiccation came to the African Sahel† around 4000 B.C.E. more or less permanent cultures developed along the upper Nile Valley and the West African savannahs. Pastoralism too arose prior to agriculture in eastern and southern Africa. The Khoisan of southern Africa were herding cattle, sheep, and goats by 500 B.C.E.
† This word is cognate to the Arabic swahili.
Meanwhile woman was making the greatest economic discovery of all—the bounty of the soil. While man hunted (and then herded) she grubbed about the tent or hut for whatever edible things lay ready to her hand on the ground. She developed agriculture near the camp, and those busy arts of the home that were to become the most important industries of later days. Scholars categorize four key hubs in sub-Saharan Africa where agriculture evolved: Ethiopia, West Africa, East Africa, and central Africa. At each location, agriculture developed autonomously beginning about 5000 B.C.E. in Ethiopia where they domesticated millet, sorghum, teff (a local grain), noog (an oil plant), and ensete (a banana-type plant).* About 3000 B.C.E. on the grasslands of West Africa, farmers grew millet, sorghum, African peanuts, African rice, and cotton. In East Africa, growers also cultivated strains of sorghum and millet. Plants that derived from the forest regions of central Africa included yams, oil palm, and kola nuts. Bananas were imported from Southeast Asia in the first millennium B.C.E., and to quote Rupert Hopkins they:
were used as a source of cattle feed and this practice still continues in some parts of the world. In Jamaica the banana tree is an integral part of the landscape and its roots stem all the way back to the African continent. With the introduction and propagation of the banana tree, herdsmen were able to expand their herds of cattle because they had access to a regular supply of cattle feed.
Early farmers in Uganda realized that certain flowers after blossoming produced small fruit instead of buds. Through cross fertilization experiments which took place over a number of successive generations, these ancient farmers developed and produced the cooking plantain which today is a staple food within African and African-Caribbean culture.
After 1492, Africans introduced corn and cassava from the Western hemisphere and these have subsequently developed into essential food crops.
The growth of agriculture had a vast significance. Better and more dependable sources of food promoted population growth. Technological advances, such as the making and usage of metal implements, created and complemented the growth and proliferation of agriculture. One example was ironworking, which has an extensive history in Africa. Archaeologists have unearthed iron articles in Nigeria that the Nok culture made about 2500 years ago. Agricultural implements constructed of iron helped in the cultivation of more land and simultaneously quickened the progress of agricultural experimentation.
Agriculture resulted in the formation of permanent communities. Africans who lived in small villages controlled farming throughout the continent. The villagers customarily identified themselves as the children of a prominent ancestor, usually the head of a migration. The village cultures were egalitarian, though they believed elders who were wise and knowledgeable to be first amongst equals. Nevertheless, the elders sought the assistance of others in governing; collectively they conferred about their mutual problems and pursued utilitarian solutions. Like America through most of the twentieth century, their constant aim was peace and prosperity. Like Russia through much of the same century, everybody in the society shared the wealth and the difficulties of their communal life.
Since human skills and natural resources are diversely and unequally distributed, a people may be enabled, by the development of specific talents or by its proximity to needed materials, to produce certain articles more cheaply than its neighbors can. Of such articles it makes more than it consumes, and offers its surplus to other peoples in exchange for their own; this is the origin of trade. Such tribal arrangements of specialization and exchange grew and a minor chiefdom/state frequently arose to regulate this activity.
* Coffee, that indispensable bean of modern civilization, came into use among the Muslims in the fourteenth century; we hear of it first in Ethiopia; thence it appears to have passed into Arabia. The Muslims turned it into a beverage and, we are told, used it originally to keep themselves awake during religious services. We find no mention of it by a European writer till 1592.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s original civilizations arose along the bountiful floodplains of the Nile Valley where flourishing agricultural villages developed into small states. The greatest of these developed in Nubia where the Kushite civilization with its capital of Meroë arose sometime after 1000 B.C.E. It maintained friendly relations with Egypt, and its writing, way of life, and architecture both bore a similarity to and varied from that of the Egyptian. Periodically, Egypt spread its rule over Kush and Kush returned the favor once. It finally deteriorated owing to environmental devastation, dwindling trade, and rivalry from neighbors, one of which was an Ethiopian civilization called Aksum.
Between the second and fifth centuries C.E., Aksum developed on a lush plateau that was easily defended from invasion. About 350 C.E., Aksum conquered Kush and caused a collapse of its ancient culture. The fertile agricultural resources of its territory and its hegemony over the trade routes on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden formed the basis of Aksum’s civilization. Other states in Africa lacked these widespread commercial ties until much later.
Ethiopia and Nubia were amongst the first hubs of Christianity in Africa. Christianity, nevertheless, did not extend to sub-Saharan Africa till the end of the fifteenth century when missionaries brought it from Europe. Historians believe it was brought to Ethiopia from Egypt in the fourth century. Ezana (333?-356), the king of Aksum, adopted it about 333 and founded it as the state religion; only in Ethiopia did it persist as the authorized state religion of the bulk of the population. Aksum started to decay in the seventh century owing to environmental degradation and economic rivalry from Muslim merchants.
The Spread of Islam
The growth of Islam had a deep influence on African history. In Sudan, it expanded down the Nile from Egypt and via commerce with Arab Muslims across the Red Sea. In Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, Arab and Persian Muslims founded coastal communities between the eighth to the tenth centuries that served as a base for expansion. In eastern Africa, Arab immigration in the late eighth century promoted the spread of Islam, and intermarriage amongst Arab immigrants and local Africans ultimately created Swahili civilization. In ninth century West Africa, the Berbers established it via trade routes that spanned the Sahara. The religion pleased sub-Saharan potentates and increased its adherents throughout Ghana, Mali, Songhai, and farther south, although these rulers maintained a deference to the beliefs and ethnic practices of those non-Muslims who nevertheless lived in their states.
Islam bolstered Africa’s connections with the rest of the world, and Africa developed into a significant part of the Islamic Empire. Likewise, Islam changed African cultural traditions, beliefs, and ideals, and facilitated global trade by providing a mutual culture and language over much of the continent for many African Muslims learned Arabic to enable them to read the Qur’an. Eventually, Arabic developed into a key language in West Africa for the conduct of government, commerce, and learning.
From City-State to Empire
Traders from the Muslim world rapidly realized the tremendous economic potential the African continent presented. In East Africa through the twelfth century, they colonized cities that had started as already existing settlements on the coast; some of the Arab/Persian traders permanently inhabited them. This multicultural contact occasioned the formation of a new language, Swahili,† which overlaid an extensive Arabic vocabulary onto a Bantu grammar base. The Swahili city-states flourished for centuries because of a thriving commerce of resources deriving from the African interior to traders disembarking from the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, India, Indonesia, and China. The Swahili cities traded gold, copper, iron, ivory, grain, timber, and other goods in exchange for cotton cloth, silk, glass, and porcelain.
By 1000, the Swahili city-states controlled commercial activity down the East African coast. The greatest of these included Mogadishu, Mombasa, Pate, Manda, Zanzibar, and Kilwa. They were each self-governing, but competition occasionally led to disputes and then war. Additionally, Europeans first showed up on the African coast at the end of the fifteenth century when advances in the technology of ocean travel allowed the possibility of long voyages. The Portuguese, trying to achieve domination over the Indian Ocean commercial activity, attacked Zanzibar in 1503 and obliterated Kilwa in 1505. These European attacks started the decay of Swahili civilization—a recurrent theme in African history.
Additional states and kingdoms arose in southern and central Africa. Gold, excavated in present-day Zimbabwe, principally attracted Arab traders to the Swahili coast. In Zimbabwe a sizable kingdom developed that regulated its shipment. Immense stone ruins identified as “Great Zimbabwe” are the remains of a city constructed beginning about the twelfth century on the fertile plains by one of its dynasties. This state grew wealthy by mining its gold, copper, iron, tin, and granite and using these to construct the impressive walls and structures of the capital as well as numerous lesser regional sites. Zimbabwe attained its pinnacle in the fifteenth century, and then deteriorated owing to overpopulation, environmental degradation, and a fall in commercial activity. The Kongo kingdom was among a string of states that became established in central Africa in the fifteenth century. It had a consolidated government with a capital at Mbanza-Kongo, in the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kongo was one of the first African states in the area to interact with Europeans. As the Portuguese started to survey the west coast, they became covetous of Africa’s gold. By the end of the century, Portugal had founded trading forts at Sao Jorge da Mina in present-day Ghana and in the Kongo kingdom. Portuguese traders gradually began trading in slaves instead of gold. The results of the slave trade, domestic conflicts, and foreign wars destabilized the kingdom and caused its ultimate downfall in the early eighteenth century.
A succession of important trading empires appeared in West Africa in or adjacent to the Niger River valley, the region’s primary waterway, during the ninth century. These empires grew prosperous by gathering taxes on trade. Around the year 300, the Soninke people established the Ghana Empire in present-day southeastern Mauritania and western Mali with its capital at Koumbi Saleh. Soninke farming and iron-producing villages increasingly spread their political hegemony over adjacent states and unified them into an empire. They exchanged grain and iron with gold-producing states farther south in the valleys of the Senegal and Niger Rivers. Camel caravans completed regular trans-Sahara trade expeditions. This principally revolved around the trade of North African salt (a scarce resource in West Africa), manufactured luxury goods, copper, and horses to West Africa in exchange for gold (a scarce resource anywhere), slaves, ivory, and grain. This rapidly developed into the foremost source of gold for both the Arab world and Europe. The Ghana Empire declined about 1000 owing to confrontations with foreign adversaries, domestic rebellions, and climate change.
Mali, about 1000, ascended as the neighboring Ghana Empire deteriorated. By the thirteenth century, it was the greatest, richest empire in Africa. The capital, Niani, was at the main crossroads of trade. Timbuktu, Mali’s chief city, boasted a population of roughly one hundred thousand by 1450. It grew into a significant epicenter of Islamic scholarship and civilization containing three great mosques and a prominent university employing many of the city’s twenty-five thousand scholars (several of whom were Meccan or Egyptian educated). Mali started to deteriorate in the fifteenth century owing to political struggles and incursions from foreign enemies. By the early seventeenth century, the empire was no more.
Songhai developed from a portion of the Mali Empire. It ascended in importance in the fourteenth century as Mali weakened. Its capital, Gao, was a key commercial city on the Niger River. At its peak in the sixteenth century, trade and scholarship boomed. An attack from Morocco in 1591, though, significantly destabilized the empire. By the early seventeenth century, Songhai and the former illustrious empires of West Africa had all but vanished.
† An Arabic word that means coast.
The Greatest Crime in History
The apprehension, sale, and exploitation of slaves in Africa is ancient. Black slaves brought from sub-Saharan Africa were sold all over North Africa, the Near East, and the Greco-Roman world from ancient times through the coming of the Muslims. Native Africans who marauded nearby peoples obtained most slaves, but others became slaves because of their criminal sentences or insolvency (often someone else’s). African traders and their leaders were enthusiastically involved in trafficking slaves. The trade in gold and slaves created prosperity and power for some African kingdoms such as the Ashanti in present-day Ghana. Hence, the Europeans who arrived in Africa perpetuated a well-founded practice of buying and selling enslaved humans.
Shortly following the Portuguese arrival in western Africa, they started to transport humans to Europe as slaves commencing the “Atlantic slave trade.” After the growth of huge sugar, cotton, and tobacco plantations in the Americas, it reached an enormous scope surpassing anything in the annals of slavery that had come before it. The Portuguese were the most active slave trading Europeans during the sixteenth century even taking them as far as Brazil. However, in West Africa the Dutch, French, and British founded forts to compete with the Portuguese and ultimately drove them out. Spain introduced African slaves into its American territories early in the sixteenth century, and in 1619 the British began shipping them to North America.
African societies that had not taken part in the slave trade before the European arrival started to participate. Minor African states that were close to the coast operated as providers to the Europeans and grew into large empires due to their new affluence and power. Examples are the Ashanti and Oyo Empires in West Africa. Both provided European traders with slaves that they had acquired via warfare with neighboring nations. The Oyo even worked slaves at their capital to operate their increasing bureaucracy, and on large estates to generate the surplus food required for its upkeep. The Oyo state collapsed in the early nineteenth century partially because a slave rebellion had disrupted it.
In 1807, the British government proclaimed the slave trade unlawful and ordered British merchants to cease and desist. African states that had traded slaves to the British were compelled to obtain other means of sustaining themselves; the Ashanti, for instance, began trading kola nuts to its northern neighbors. Some African societies forced slaves who would have been sold across the Atlantic to toil in occupations such as mining gold, and growing millet, sesame, palm oil, and peanuts. Others continued the traffic in slaves with Europeans who did not agree with Britain’s declaration. However, the British navy guarded the West African coast throughout the first part of the nineteenth century to implement their prohibition. Slave brokers moved their activities farther south; some slaves from East Africa even ended up in the Americas. In numerous areas, slavery remained until the Europeans established colonies at the end of the nineteenth century. Before that, Europeans were unable to stop domestic African slavery since they lacked authority or sway beyond the coastal areas.
The consequences of the Atlantic slave trade were calamitous. Many scholars identify it as the greatest coerced relocation in history. Westerners kidnapped and transported to the West more than twelve million people between the late fifteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. Additionally, declining populations due to slave raiding and war interrupted economic growth in much of the continent. Slavery also furthered the development of racist stereotypes, which Europeans used to validate the subsequent colonization of Africa.
The Scramble for Africa
European awareness of Africa started increasing during the fifteenth century as they developed the military and technical capabilities for ocean expeditions and conquest. Commercial enterprises were the first Europeans to arrive who then opened up the way for explorers and missionaries.* Early in the sixteenth century, Portugal founded trading bases on both coasts. Dutch vessels started visiting West Africa near the close of the sixteenth century. The Dutch then outmuscled Portugal for the traffic in slaves, gold, ivory, et al. In 1652, the Dutch East India Company established a post at the Cape of Good Hope, which was to provision Dutch vessels on their round trip journeys to Asia, and it rapidly became the colony of Cape Town. Colonists from the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe, later known as Afrikaners or Boers, settled there. Meanwhile, in 1787 Great Britain made its colonial presence felt by founding the colony of Granville Town in Sierra Leone. They also appropriated the Cape from Dutch control in 1814. In the years 1867-86, the discovery in South Africa of diamonds and gold heightened the conflict between the Afrikaners and British colonists. Earlier that century, the British founded a protectorate in Zanzibar. A lucrative business in ivory and spices drew in British traders; also, the British government aspired to eradicate the slave trade between East Africa and Asia. The French in 1638 founded a commercial base at the mouth of the Senegal River, and seized the Dutch slave mart on the island of Gorée in 1677. In East Africa, they focused their colonization activities on the islands of Mauritius and Réunion where they founded large estates that exploited slave labor. Until the mid-nineteenth century, though, European settlers were restricted to Dutch and British colonizers in South Africa.
* Ed. Note: This, of course, was summarized by the pithy phrase “for God, gold, and glory!”
European involvement climaxed in the late nineteenth century with active colonial subjugations. The finding of diamonds in South Africa and the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869 heightened an awareness of the continent’s long-term economic importance. As commercial ties linking Africa and Europe grew, European traders asked their governments to institute administrative control in the areas where the traders were active. By the 1880s, the “scramble for Africa” had begun; European countries powerfully competed for colonization rights everywhere.
However, the Europeans wished to steal Africa like gentlemen so in 1884 they organized the Berlin Conference. This meeting agreed to some stipulations: it decreed that a nation had to inhabit and govern the lands of which it claimed possession; also that a country presently colonizing the coastline would have the initial rights to the inland. The boundaries they created paid little or no consideration to prior territorial, ancestral, and religious frontiers.
Africans reacted to foreign occupation via several means. In places, Europeans and African chiefs came to agreements vis-à-vis joint rule over the land. This was crucial to Europeans since they often required the acquiescence of those African civil authorities who sought a benefit for themselves. Elsewhere Europeans employed military might to capture land, but Africans resisted foreign conquest. They rose up in fierce revolts in Nigeria and Ghana versus the British, in western Africa versus the French, and in Tanzania and Namibia versus the Germans; the Ethiopians even beat the Italians to preserve their autonomy. However, by the onset of World War I, Great Britain, France, Portugal, Belgium, Germany,* Italy, and Spain had apportioned nearly all Africa between themselves. The exceptions were Ethiopia and Liberia, which was created early in the nineteenth century as a homeland for emancipated American slaves.
The Europeans exerted almost no effort to economically develop their colonies, except as regions where they could obtain natural resources and as foreign markets for their industrial goods. The overlords mostly barred Africans from involvement in the decision-making that influenced their own lives. Using colonial bureaucrats who could wield armed force, settlers appropriated the finest fertile lands with comparatively temperate climates and frequently drove natives away.
The European colonization of Africa caused a substantial loss in African lives. Historians estimate that the vicious administration of the Congo Free State (the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo) by King Leopold II of Belgium brought about the deaths of millions of Africans. Millions more were slaughtered in wars of occupation and secondarily via the demands inflicted upon them while working on large colonial estates. To put it simply: African lives were expendable.
The nineteenth century was an epoch of radical change. The era of colonization saw social modifications that increased the size of cities, expanded learning, and changed religious practices. New cities arose and Africans generated novel varieties of social interaction and leisure activities. Additionally, under colonial regimes the Christian population increased.
Christian missionaries started arriving in Africa late in the nineteenth century. They focused on West, Central, and southern Africa—regions that ancient Christianity had never touched. Many African civil leaders promoted the missionary activities since they transmitted new skills to the people and these skills were coming into importance as interaction with Europe grew. Regrettably, many missionaries sustained colonial agendas that considerably profited Europeans over Africans. However, numerous Africans educated by the missionaries resisted colonialism and insisted on obtaining a higher education at home or abroad.
Southern Africa similarly experienced a phase of turmoil between 1819 and 1838 called the Mfecane. A particular focus of the struggle was in the present-day KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. Competition between Africans for water, grazing land, and the proceeds of trade resulted in the advent of numerous warring kingdoms. Attacks by European colonists and an upsurge in the trafficking of slaves and ivory intensified the fight for resources and compelled natives to seek the security that local African military rulers provided. The civil disturbances led to the growth of the Zulu empire.
By Any Means Necessary
With the turn of the twentieth century, organized movements in various African colonies commenced their demands for self-government. Decolonization was among the dramatic changes resulting as European nations that formerly looked so firmly implanted lessened their grips after being destabilized by World War II. The result was the inability to oppose the uprising of African nationalism. Certain nations attained autonomy largely through peaceful means, generally wherever Europeans had operated primarily as colonial administrators or just ran businesses and had not founded long-term settlements. Otherwise, Africans achieved freedom only after prolonged armed conflicts, usually in nations where great numbers of Europeans had established homes and lived for many years.
The handover of power in nearly all the British and French colonies was to well-educated Africans who had worked in the colonial governments. Typically, missionaries had schooled them in their homelands and subsequently they had attended European universities. An underground group in Kenya, called Mau Mau, started an uprising opposing British control in 1952. While it was unsuccessful, the uprising furthered the country’s ultimate decolonization in 1963. In 1957 the Gold Coast, renamed Ghana, did secure its independence and became the first western African colony to do so when they gained it from Great Britain. Guinea obtained its independence from France in 1958. By the mid-1960s, Great Britain, France, and Belgium, had set free the majority of their colonies. The exception in western Africa was Guinea-Bissau where Africans pursued an armed struggle versus the Portuguese till independence in 1974.
The goriest battles for national liberation were waged in southern Africa. Portugal expended much blood and treasure in Angola and Mozambique till 1975 when it conferred freedom on both nations. Africans in Rhodesia waged war for years opposing the white-minority regime. An African majority government at last came to power in 1979. The next year Great Britain acknowledged Rhodesia’s sovereignty and it was renamed Zimbabwe. South Africa’s rule over Namibia developed into a global issue and by 1966 it spawned a guerilla war. Namibia achieved its independence in 1990. Lastly, South Africa completed the changeover from an apartheid administration to a democracy by holding a multiracial multiparty election, the first in its history, in 1994. Nelson Mandela, an ex-political prisoner, was elected president and the nation came under African-majority rule. Colonialism on the continent was finally dead.
Free at Last
After achieving freedom the specter of underdevelopment haunted almost all African economies. In the 1960s and early 1970s, different nations followed diverse strategies to pursue economic development. However, whatever economic growth had occurred ended late that decade as values for African commodities tumbled in global markets and national debts soared. When faced with the fork in the road, some nations chose free market capitalism but the majority followed the Soviet Union as an example for economic and political advancement. Most became single-party dictatorships and developed robust ties to the Soviet Union, from which several obtained economic and military aid. Consequently, these states nationalized their economies; Ethiopia and Tanzania serve as radical instances. Both collectivized their agricultural sectors, which turned out to be disastrous. A civil war devastated the entire economy of Ethiopia and its tyrannical government was ultimately deposed. Eritrea, the northern-most province, asserted its sovereignty in 1993, and from 1998 to 2000 both countries fought a border war. The conflict damaged their already straining economies. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, many African countries had to forego their main source of funding. They attacked socialism, started looking to the West for assistance, and initiated market processes to revive collapsed economies.
The yearning for democracy throughout the 1990s deepened, and the bulk of African countries achieved it or made progress towards it. However, the march of democratization was irregular. The success of numerous states in encouraging good government and stopping corruption lingered as a concern. Racial or religious allegiances in some places frequently conflicted with national allegiances.
Further tests to African stability included the prevalence of disease and social unrest. Beginning in the 1980s the AIDS outbreak reached devastating levels in many areas. Social unrest led to Benin’s socialist government collapsing in 1991, to Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda suffering a loss for reelection the same year, to long-term despot Hastings Banda of Malawi losing his grip on power in 1994, and to Kenya’s Daniel arap Moi losing his office in 2002.
Nevertheless, the scourge of war was worse. Military officers deposed civilian governments in many places; in some countries, dictatorships were the result. War broke out almost everywhere. One example was the Democratic Republic of the Congo where the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was toppled in 1997, and fighting erupted the next year encompassing numerous other countries. Even following this war’s end in 2003 racial conflicts persisted. The struggle took in excess of five million lives principally due to disease and malnutrition. The Soviet Union’s downfall meant that African nations, or rebel armies operating within their borders, lacked armaments. Soviet expansionism had long meant that the Soviet Union would compensate any expenditure related to “wars of liberation” in such locations as Angola and Mozambique. Much of the time, the United States had sponsored the opposition—the revocation of Soviet funding meant the withdrawal of American aid for this opposition. On the horn of Africa, Somalia collapsed into lawlessness as each faction attacked every other faction for power. The UN in 1992 undertook to land troops, reestablish stability, and feed thousands of hungry inhabitants. With divisive warfare still ongoing, the remaining UN troops departed in 1995. Civil war also haunted Nigeria, Angola, the Republic of the Congo, Chad, Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, and Rwanda where in 1994 Hutu militias slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Tutsi and moderate Hutu.*
One solution to some of these divisive wars is regional and continental integration. In the 1990s, regional economic alliances, including the Economic Community of West African States and the Southern African Development Community, were strengthened. For the continent as a whole, the African Union (AU), an organization of African nations, supplanted the Organization of African Unity in 2002. It functions to further economic and political collaboration between member states. It has numerous administrative organizations, one of which is the Pan-African Parliament and another the Peace and Security Council, which were established to advocate for peace, justice, and good governance. The AU will help in deciding how successfully Africa will compete in the global economy. Recent developments have provided Africans the confidence that they can effectively conquer the challenges that confront them.
The mother of continents is poised to achieve greatness once again.
* Interested readers should peruse Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda.