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9African History to 1500Charlotte Miller 9.1 CHRONOLOGY

200,000 – 100,000 BP (Before Present)

First behaviorally modern human emerged in Africa

c. 7000 BCE Beginnings of the Agricultural Revolution in Africa c. 3000 BCE – 1500 CE The Bantu expansions 900s BCE Rule of Queen Makeda (Ethiopia) c. 800 BCE – 300 CE Kingdom of Da’amat (Ethiopia) c. 250 BCE Founding of Djenne-Jeno, one of Africa’s first cities (Western Sudan) c. 100 – 950 CE The Empire of Aksum c. 300 CE Ghana emerged as a state (Western Sudan) c. 325 – 350 CE The rule of King Ezana (Aksum/Ethiopia) c. 800 CE Ghana became an empire (Western Sudan) 1000 – 1500 CE Height of Swahili society (East Africa) 1200 – 1450 CE Height of Great Zimbabwe (southern Africa/ Zimbabwe Plateau) 1235 CE Sundiata Keita founded the Mali Empire (Western Sudan) 1324 – 1325 CE Mansa Musa performed the hajj (Western Sudan) Early 1400s CE Portuguese began to explore the Atlantic coast of West Africa; beginnings

of the Age of Exploration 1460s CE Sunni Ali built the Songhai Empire (Western Sudan) 1493 – 1528 CE Askia the Great ruled during the Golden Age of the Songhai Empire

(Western Sudan) Early 1500s CE The Portuguese built a Trading Post Empire in the Indian Ocean (East Africa) 1591 CE Moroccans invaded the Songhai Empire (Western Sudan) 1699 CE The Omanis (allied with some Swahili rulers) seized Swahili city-states

from the Portuguese (East Africa)

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9.2 INTRODUCTION Adventurously sailing the Indian Ocean in the early 1500s CE, Duarte Barbosa, a Portuguese naval

officer, was confident that he was helping to forge a new, enduring era of Portuguese dominance. As he passed through several Swahili city-states on the East African coast, Barbosa noted the brisk trade and the riches of these African settlements where he saw a “great plenty of gold” that would serve Portuguese interests.1 In his mind, God had destined these stashes of gold for the Portuguese and the local Swahili rulers acted unwisely and arrogantly to defend themselves. In the conflict that followed, the Portuguese plundered the Swahili city-states, burning buildings and enslaving African men and women. Barbosa boasted that when the Portuguese looted the settlements, they slaughtered many people and took a “great spoil of gold and silver and goods.”2 Barbosa’s description highlights the violence of Portuguese conquest and also his expectation that he and his countrymen were creating a new Portuguese empire that would make a lasting mark in East Africa and the wider Indian Ocean world. However, less than 100 years later, Portuguese influences were noticeably absent in most of East Africa and their power in the Indian Ocean was fading rapidly. Barbosa, himself, had traveled with his brother-in-law, Ferdinand Magellan, and met an untimely end (in his early 40s) in the Philippines.

Writing about the coast of East Africa, Barbosa paid little heed to the hundreds of years of Swahili history that preceded his visit. Therefore, his narrative gives us minimal information about Swahili civilization. This chapter will fill in some of the silences in the written historical record as it describes Africa’s major contributions to World History.

1 Quoted in “The East Coast of Africa: Duarte Barbosa,” Aspects of World Civilization, vol. 1, Ed. Perry M. Rogers, (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003): 376. 2 Ibid, p. 377.

Figure 9.1 | Kibo Summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro | Is this the image of Africa you have? The picture shows the famous snow-capped peak, Kibo summit, of Mt. Kilimanjaro, which is located in Tanzania (East Africa). The African continent has great geographic and climatic diversity. Author: Muhammad mahdi Karmi Source: Wikipedia License: GNU Free Documentation License (email author before using)

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Since information readily available in the U.S. tends to focus on issues like drought, famine, and war, Americans have many common misconceptions about Africa. In addition to associating Africa with extreme hardships, a plethora of western-made TV shows focus on wildlife and the rainforests. However, these popular images don’t give an accurate portrayal of the everyday expe- riences of most Africans or tell us much about the history of the continent.

One of the main points glossed over by these popular images is that the African continent is large and diverse. Africa is the second largest continent in the world. Today, it has over 50 inde- pendent countries. You can also find just about every imaginable environment, from savannahs, rainforests, and deserts, to glaciers and snow-capped mountains in Africa. Its over 1,000 languages (or about one-third of the world’s languages) also demonstrate the continent’s diversity.3 Africa is home to more than a billion people, who are living, working, and raising their families.

3 African Language Program, Department of African and African American Studies, “African Languages,” Harvard Uni- versity, http://aaas.fas.harvard.edu/greetings-director-african-language-program.

Map 9.1 | The True Size of Africa | The map above illustrates the true size of Africa. As you can see, the continent is larger than the USA, China, India, Japan, and all of Europe combined. The highly distorted nature of the predominantly used mapping projections (such as Mercator) contributes to the common misconception of the size of Africa. Author: Kai Krause Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC0 1.0

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Historically, Africans faced significant environmental challenges that limited population growth. There are exceptions, but overall, African soils are poor and rainfall has been unpredict- able. Soils are comparatively unfertile, due in part to the geologic age of the continent. Also, the more temperate climates in a number of regions slows the decomposition of organic materials in the soil, meaning that the soil in many regions has few minerals and nutrients. The areas that are exceptions, such as the highlands of Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Burundi, have seen much higher population concentrations. Rainfall also tends to be concentrated in just two or three months a year, while disease has been yet another challenge.

Considering the past 5,000 years of African history, malaria, yellow fever, and trypanoso- miasis (also known as sleeping sickness) have made the biggest impacts on population growth and settlement patterns. Even today, all three diseases affect the continent. Both malaria and yellow fever are spread to people by mosquitos. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), despite preventative measures and great efforts to extend the availability of treatments, malaria was responsible for almost 600,000 deaths in 2013. Children in Africa account for most of the fatalities, and the WHO estimates that currently one African child dies from malaria every minute of every day.4 Those who have suffered through malaria multiple times as adults will attest that malaria, with the exception of its most virulent strains like plas- modium falciparum, is usually more of a nuisance than an emergency for healthy adults. It causes symptoms like headaches, fever, and chills. Even though it does not usually constitute a medical emergency for adults, malaria does decrease productivity and has sig- nificant treatment costs. On the other hand, yellow fever has a high mortality rate—about 50%—even amongst healthy adult populations.5 While malaria and yellow fever have historically taken the

4 World Health Organization Media Centre, “Malaria: Fact Sheet,” http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs094/en 5 World Health Organization Media Centre, “Yellow Fever: Fact Sheet,” http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs100/en

Map 9.2 | Climatic Map of Africa | Here you can see the present-day climatic map of Africa. There is great variation from the Mediterranean climate of the north and southern tips (think: olives, grapes for wine, and citrus fruits), to the second largest desert in the world (the Sahara Desert), through the savannas, grasslands, and the more forested regions. Today, we see a general drying trend on the continent, leading to increasing conflict over things like water rights and pastureland. However, although there has been some contraction and expansion of rainforests over the past millennia, the continental climatic map has remained fairly stable for about 5,000 years. Author: Ville Koistinen Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 2.5

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largest toll on human populations, one of the main effects of trypanosomiasis (or sleeping sickness) has been to limit the practicality of keeping certain types of livestock in Africa. Horses and many breeds of cattle are especially susceptible to trypranosomiasis, which is spread by the tsetse fly and can lead to either chronic illness, characterized by weight loss, fever, anemia, cardiac lesions, and other symptoms in animals, or to a more immediate death. Until the past fifty years or so, in many parts of the continent, these noteworthy challenges with disease, alongside the low fertility of the soils and the unpredictable rainfalls, were significant constraints on human pop- ulation growth. Environmental challenges and disease also affected settlement patterns as, for example, people avoided more forested and wetter areas because of the prevalence of mosquitoes. Additionally, Africans continuously adapted their herding and farming techniques to overcome these challenges.


1. Describe the environments of Africa.

2. Which environmental challenges and diseases have historically limited population growth in Africa?

3. Discuss the methodological challenges of studying Ancient and Medieval African History.

4. Identify commonly used terms that are potentially problematic for scholars of Africa. Explain why these terms are potentially problematic.

5. What was distinctive about the agriculture of the Ethiopian Highlands?

6. Explain the legend of Queen Makeda and King Solomon and why it remains significant for Ethiopians.

7. How were the states in this region shaped by trade and inter-cultural relationships?

8. Describe the spread of Christianity into Aksum.

9. What characteristics were shared by the Western Sudanic States?

10. How did the location of the Western Sudanic states have an impact on their history?

11. Describe the relationship between the Western Sudanic States and the Islamic World.

12. How did nineteenth century European scholars depict the Bantu Migration? What factors influenced their view?

13. How have post-colonial scholars challenged nineteenth century depictions of the Bantu Migration?

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14. How did the ruling classes of Great Zimbabwe generate wealth and demonstrate their elite status?

15. How are oral traditions, such as the one recounted here about Kilwa Kisiwani, important to Swahili identity?

16. Describe the urban style of Swahili city-states.

17. Compare the trans-Atlantic and Indian Ocean slave trades.

18. How did the Portuguese impact the East African coast?


9.5 WRITING THE HISTORY OF ANCIENT AND MEDIEVAL AFRICA Scholars of Africa, particulary those working in the last two generations, have employed all

sorts of methods to describe the ancient African past. They have necessarily been on the forefront of methodological innovation because of the limited availability of written primary sources, meaning sources recorded by ancient Africans themselves. Therefore, scholars have turned to a wide range of materials to complement the available written records.

• African diaspora • Aksum • Bantu expansions • Bantu Migration • Catalan Atlas • Ghana • Great Zimbabwe • griots • Indian Ocean World • Kebra Nagast • Kingdom of Da’amat • King Ezana • malaria • Mali Empire • mansa • Mansa Musa

• monsoon winds • Queen Mekeda • Sahel • Songhai Empire • stelae • Sundiata Keita • Swahili city-states • syncretism • Timbuktu • Trading Post Empire • tribe • trypanosomiasis • Western Sudan • yellow fever • Zanj Rebellion

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Before about 1800 CE, many African societies kept their records orally, as opposed to in written form. These societies have rich, complex histories that some past historians, relying primarily on written records, ignored when they studied the African continent.

The professionalization of the study of history in the West (meaning primarily in Europe and the United States), which entailed the transition from writing about the past out of personal interest to writing about the past as a profession with established methodologies, mainly occurred in the 1800s. European and American views of Africans during that era were generally deroga- tory and prejudiced. These nineteenth century professional scholars tended to portray Africans as primitive, meaning unchanged from time immemorial. Western methodologies, with their reliance on written sources, backed up European views of Africans as unchanged. Two general results of the nineteenth century scholarship in the West were the assumptions that Africa, which was commonly referred to as “the dark continent,” lacked a history prior to European arrival on the continent and that any urban developments or complex state structures in Africa were the achievements of outsiders. For example, as you will see in this chapter, there were nineteenth century European scholars who credited people from Yemen with building the Axum trading empire and attributed the archaeological findings at Great Zimbabwe to Phoenicians. Especially since the 1960s, there has been a strong movement to reclaim these (and other) developments as African. As part of this effort, scholars employ new methodologies, including the study of oral sources, archaeology, climate change, linguistics (the study of languages), and paleoarchaobotany (the study of ancient plant materials), to gain more accurate, multi-faceted information about the African past.

Perhaps most contested and also potentially the most revealing are the available oral sources. Many ancient African societies had special people tasked with orally transmitting official histories and preserved traditions. For example, griots in parts of West Africa memorized chronologies, cultural traditions, and legal precedence to advise kings and state leaders. Griots also traveled and performed theater and praise-songs throughout empires to spread cultural values and communicate news from governments. Griots held honored places in their societies, reflecting their importance to both rulers and people’s everyday lives. Locally produced proverbs and oral teachings also played vital roles in many ancient African societies. Additionally, African commu- nities honored older generations for their knowledge of the past, leading Amadou Hampate Ba, a famous author from Mali, to write, “In Africa, when an old man dies, it’s a library burning.”6 These examples are just some of the ways that ancient peoples used oral traditions. Since the 1960s, scholars of Africa have recognized the importance of studying these oral sources as they convey a great deal of information about the past. Using oral sources is not without its challenges, but their inclusion has broadened the scholarly understanding of African societies.

9.5.1 Terminology

Especially due to nineteenth-century tendencies to portray Africans as inferior, current scholars of Africa have a whole host of stereotypes to correct. One of the main stereotypes they 6 Quoted in Ann Badkhen, Walking with Abel: Journeys with the Nomads of the African Savannah (New York: Riverhead Books, 2015): 20.

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encounter is the common perception that African societies are timeless, that they have not changed in hundreds or thousands of years. The movie The Gods Must Be Crazy encapsulates this stereotype. The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980) is a fictional account that follows the San people in the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa. The movie portrays the San as untouched by and unaware of the modern world until one member of their community finds a Coke bottle discarded from an airplane. In the movie, adventure ensues.

Movies, television shows, and other media often show us an Africa that is rural, a landscape dominated by wild animals, and a continent isolated from the rest of the modern world. However, these images do not accurately represent the continent in either our present time or the past. In 2010, one-third of Africa’s population lived in cities, and it is likely that one-half of Africa’s population will be urban dwelling by 2030.7 Lagos (Nigeria) is Africa’s largest city south of the Sahara Desert, with population experts estimating that it is home to 21 million people. With this estimate, Lagos is on a par size-wise with cities like Beijing, Cairo, and Mexico City. Urbanization on this scale is a fairly recent phenomena. However, this chapter will introduce you to some Medieval cities, including the famous city of Timbuktu, to discuss African urban cultures. We will also explore the trade routes that connected Africa to much of the world, emphasizing that Africa has been connected to the Arabian Peninsula, Asia, and Europe for millenia.

Even if we do not intend it to, some of the language that we use on an everyday basis can perpetuate assumptions that Africa is isolated or behind the rest of the world. One example of a potentially problematic term is “tribe.” As African historian Christopher Ehret has pointed out, the use of “tribe” in reference to Africans often carries the underlying judgement that the people who are “tribal” are exotic, wild, backwards, and potentially dangerous. In common useage, “tribesmen” are not modern citizens of nation-states, but instead remnants of the past. To highlight the descriminatory use of the term, Ehret asks us to consider why African wars are often referred to as “tribal” wars instead of as the civil wars they actually are, and,

…Why is Shaka, the famous nineteenth-century ruler, called the king of the Zulu “tribe” when he was actually the king of a centralized and military powerful state? Why are Africans in “traditional” dress said to be engaging in “tribal” dancing, when Europeans garbed similarly in the clothes of an earlier time are said to be performing “folk” dances?8

Ehret makes the case that the way that we commonly use “tribe” perpetuates a lot of the negative stereotypes Europeans had of Africa in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, many historians question the idea that African “tribes” even existed prior to European colonization of the continent one hundred and fifty years ago. Instead, scholars discuss much more fluid, adaptive, or inclusive ethnic identities and suggest that nineteenth century Europeans tried to harden divisions and create “tribes” to suit their own administrative purposes. Dismissing Africans as “tribal” also allowed European to legitimize the trans-Atlantic slave trade (in the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries) and colonizaton of the continent (in the nineteenth 7 “Growth Areas: the urbanisation of Africa,” Economist (Dec. 13, 2010), http://www.economist.com/blogs/daily- chart/2010/12/urbanisation_africa 8 Christopher Ehret, The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800 (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 2002): 7.

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century). Today, people often fall back on “tribe” and “tribal” instead of trying to understand the complexities of African politics and social organization.

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