History of Africa

Trade in Africa between 300 – 1500

History of Africa between 300 to 1500

There are all kinds of silences and each of them means a different thing. There is the silence that comes with morning in a forest, and this is different from the silence of a sleeping city. There is silence after a rainstorm, and silence before a rainstorm, and these are not the same. There is the silence of emptiness, the silence of fear, the silence of doubt. There is a certain silence that can emanate from a lifeless object as from a chair lately used, or from a piano with old dust upon its keys, or from anything that has answered to the need of a man, for pleasure or work. This kind of silence can speak. Its voice may be melancholy, but it is not always so; for the chair may have been left by a laughing child or the last notes of the piano may have been raucous and gay. Whatever the mood or the circumstance, the essence of its quality may linger in the silence that follows. It is a soundless echo. – Beryl Markham, West with the Night (1942)

Image of the physical features and geography of Africa

The physical geography of Africa as it affects its economic value, future prospect and civilization.

“The country north of the Equator presents a great similarly to the country south of it, although the features to the north are on a much grander scale.  North of the Equator is the greater Lake Chad, south of it the smaller Lake Ngami (in modern day Botswana).  North of Lake Chad is the great desert of Sahara.  South of Lake Ngami is the smaller Kalahari Desert.  North of Sahara on the Mediterranean and north of Kalahari on the Indian Ocean are fertile tracts of limited extent where rainfall is abundant and foliage flourishes.  The greater of the territory between the Mediterranean and Sudan and between Atlantic and the Red Sea and a considerable part south of the Zambezi, making up nearly one half of Africa, is practically Sahara;  that is a wasteland or desert. The Sahara is a plateau of diversified structure, with hills and numerous dried up water courses, regions of dunes and steps overgrown with alpha alternating with sandy waste.  At sunset, the temperatures fall quickly, causing a difference of 100 Degrees F between day and night.  Scattered through Sahara are about 4000 different oasis where the date palm flourishes.  In many places, wells have been dug and great caravans follow the lines of these oasis and wells.  Although Africa is about 5000 miles long and 4500 miles wide in the broadest part and stretching over 70 Degrees of latitude, about two third of its area lies within the tropics; the vertical sun twice a year giving it the hottest climate in the world.” 

Early History of Trade in Africa

Often overlooked is that trade in Africa was prevailing before the renaissance of Europe that had sparked one of the greatest intellectual awakenings in human history.  No one knows how old trade in Africa is, and there are even less ideas on the extent of its wisdom.  But the old view that trade in Africa was pioneered, engineered and prospered by outsiders is to be quickly dispelled.  The truth is, this trade can be traced back to the African empire of the Phoenicians, based in Carthage.  And it is the Tarikh es Soudan and the Tarikh el Fettach, dating back to the 8th Century, which take earliest note of the trade, as a well-organized and thriving institution.  The ancient trade sought to organize everyone in society; and this it did very well.  It had efficient trade routes, tariffs, tax systems and currency.  Yet, its organization to this early realization, in the age of strong and dynamic African empires and dynasties, dates even further, as early as 300 AD. 

In general, citizens were native to the numerous city-states in West Africa, such as Gao, Timbuktu, Tripoli and Djenne.  Foreigners included Arabs from North Africa, Egypt, and Persia, as well as, Europeans, especially from Spain.  All were subject to the control of the emperors of Ghana and subsequently to the eminent Empires of Mali and Songhai.

The Great Empires of Africa

The Empire of Ghana, more proper the Empire of Wagadou, one of the earliest in Africa, had been founded at least 500 years before the Carolingian Empire and showed all telltale signs of a great society. Indeed its vast wealth and firmly its army of two hundred thousand warriors, forty thousand of these archers, were renowned as far as Bagdad.  Its political, social, and economic machinery was indubitably strong.  The Emperor of Ghana, seated upon a platform of red gold, daily treated the people of his capital to ten thousand meals. The city’s demographic at the turn of the ninth century was organized into 7,077 villages. Then, at the height of its prosperity, the Empire of Ghana was overtaken by the Empire of Mali, in 1230, which, hitherto, had existed only as a small kingdom.  The rise of the Empire of Mali, by 1255, extended from Gao to the Atlantic, and from the tropical sub-Sudan region through the entire expanse of the Sahara.  The most influential emperor during Mali’s period of glory was the great Mansa Musa, who had a godlike status.  And Mansa’s ostentatious flamboyance usually spelled awe.  When he made his pilgrimage visit to Mecca, in 1324, Mansa Musa made a most spectacular appearance.  Accompanies by a cortege of 80,000 (+) loyalists, carrying two tons of gold and gold dust, he had distributed it all out. 

After Mansa Musa’s death, in 1332, the Empire of Mali gradually gave way to the prospective city-states dominated by the Dia Dynasty and their Empire of Songhai. Centered in Gao, the Empire of Songhai begun to expand its frontiers and control the other city-states by the end of the fourteenth century.  In 1495, on a pilgrimage to Mecca, its ruler, Askia Muhammad, in a bid to better Mansa turned up for the books, with stupendous gold and an even larger entourage. It was under these three spheres of powerful empires that trade was organized.  The cities in the Western Sudan also grew, many as urban networks of thriving merchandising, long before the Islamic expansion in the eighth century.  By the time of the Islamic expansion across Africa, the cities on the trade routes were already a part of a flourishing commerce.  Scholars, explorers, and professionals created the grandeur reputation of the trade in Africa.  They got more and more enthusiastic until, these trade routes became the means for the beginnings of the fateful European expansion into Africa.  It was a quest for gold, pepper, and eventually slaves that caused the first wave of European traders into Africa.  Of course, the trade had flourished for many centuries before the invasion, because it, after all, was ground in on a weighty history of local mastery and adroitness. 

At the last, one of its great centers of learning and the best-known of its classic cities, Timbuktu, had been established under Mansa Musa’s reign.  And there had never been a city like it.  There would never be a city of its repute again.  Its reputation as a scholarly centre, that exponentially grew Islam, overshadows its reputation as one of the greatest trade terminus in Africa.  Spectacularly named the “Gift of the Nile”, it linked Morocco, sub-Saharan Sudan and Egypt, where caravans from far and wide, scholars, devout pilgrims and wealthy merchants of every race met and communicated.  Rather more importantly, it was a key link and central point to the triad of prospering cities and power centers – Djenne (Mali), Walata, and Gao – found on the old route from Ghana through to Egypt. Trade in Africa, if we can call it that, was by no means an inside-Africa affair.  Everyone was there; although limited in extent.  Besides trading cities such as Timbuktu, Djenne and Gao, Muslim merchants controlled the Mediterranean and its trade as early as eleventh century.  This was not exclusive either.  Many merchants sold their goods in Europe and along the blooming Barbary Coast.    

Between the 300’s and the late 1500’s, in the grasslands regions of West Africa rose at least three successive empires founded on trade – Ghana, Mali, and Songhai.  These three empires acumulated their wealth on the north-south trans-Saharan trade.  Camel caravans carried such goods as salt, cloth, and metalware south from North Africa, and gold, ivory, nuts, and slaves north from the tropical rainforest kingdoms.  Along with the trade goods from North Africa came Arab merchants and finally the Muslim warriors.  

History of Trans-Saharan Trade – 1100 to 1500

The trans-Saharan trade is the oldest in Africa. In the opinion of historians, it dates back between 1100 and 1500 AD.  Except no one really knows when the trade was begun.  It crossed the Sahara Desert between North and West Africa.  It also linked the Sudan with North Africa: A two-way exchange between sub-Saharan regions and North Africa. One of its four routes, surprisingly, started from Sijimasa in Morocco through the desert towns of Taghaza to Audaghost in Western Sudan.  The scale of the trade was rather extraordinary in extent and even more remarkable the adage towns it grew – Timbuktu and Walata both flourishing from the trade.  Another route ran from Tripoli to Bornu.  Those active in the trade were people of Western Sudan, the Tuaregs of the Sahara, the Berbers, and the Arabs of the north.  The Arabs and the Berbers financed the caravans while the nomadic Tuaregs provided guides and guarded the caravans.

Major routes of the Trans-Saharan trade of West, East and North Africa
Major routes of the Trans-Saharan trade of West, East and North Africa

The Tuaregs also protected and maintained the oasis where caravans rested and watered their animals in the desert.  This was their forte! Water hunting in the Sahara!  In turn, the traders from Western Sudan regulated and controlled the amount of gold reserves in the economy.  Western Sudan exported gold, slaves, ivory and nuts.  Most of the gold traversed the Sahara in the form of dust and was then minted into dobras, in North Africa.  A dobra was a double dinar, and it would vary in value depending on the city that minted it.  It was the massive amounts of Sudanese gold that appear to have first drawn the nations of Europe to West Africa.  From North Africa came salt, copper, beads, silk, firearms, and dried fruits.  Lifting up another with trade, Islam and Islamic culture grew and their types of education bloomed with many schools, universities and libraries. 

The goods traded between merchants sells one on the logical deduction that the trans-Saharan links to North Africa allowed West African products to be traded expansively in Europe.  The Zibaldone da Canal, written about 1320, seems to imply that the trade had been thriving for some time between Italy and North Africa. Numerous other accounts exist to further this existence of continental trade.  Included in this wealth of information is a list of “ships in the harbour of Marseilles in 1248″.  In any case, Arab merchants arriving in Western Europe with gold and tales of gold of abounding quantities was affirmed by the tales of Timbuktu’s gold, largely promoted by Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca and Askia Muhammad’s journey 150 years later.  At this, every historian agrees that, Prince Henry of Portugal, famously titled Henry the Navigator, initially sought to “discover” the African continent in search of the legendary gold of Timbuktu.

History of Trans-Atlantic Trade – 1400 to 1800

In the years before the turn of the 20th Century, the most important change in Africa was the scramble by the nations of Europe seeking new outlets for trade and possible resettlement.  But, only a little important now was the slave trade.  Until the early part of the 19th Century, for three and a half centuries (1444 to 1807), slave trade was the core enterprise.  It had changed Africa, as you might expect, and it had brought with it other important changes and visitors as well.  For instance, in the case of Kenya, the Portuguese wanted to gain knowledge and expatiate on their economic enterprise there as early as the 16th Century. This they did by sending explorers around the coast of Africa and by visiting the developed coastal strips.  Their favorite salutation, by far, was to take over the thriving trade posts with no other reason other than that of military might.  They visited these trade posts on a scouting mission, then returned to them one at a time, toppling any system of leadership and governance.  Portugal would be the first nation of Europe to be effectually involved in Africa, marshaled by the indomitable Prince Harry the Navigator.  Portugal had begun its exploration of Africa in 1420, in the north.  This qualifies the beginnings of European contact with Africa as being in the fifteenth century with Prince Henry the Navigator and his obsession with the origins of the fabled ‘African gold of Timbuktu City’. 

Monument of Discovery in Lisbon, Portugal - also known as Henry the Navigator Statue
Monument of Discovery in Lisbon, Portugal / Henry the Navigator Statue

Thereupon, in 1482, the much-publicized milepost was achieved, when Portugal discovered the mouth of River Congo; known then as Zaire. And considering their prowess in building caravels – large sailing boats with huge masts – their arrival in 1487 at Cape of Good Hope, in the southern coast of Africa, was an inevitable conclusion. Even so, most nation involved in short continental trade didn’t think much of the Portuguese’s achievement or their fortune-telling of Africa thereof. For it’s worth, they were simply filled with awe at Portugal’s mastery of exploration.  The outside world, excepting early explorers, scholars and adventurers, had only the vaguest idea what Africa was, and it had never been heard to produce any demanded produce. Withal, a lot was heard about it nevertheless.  It was known, for instance, that lucrative Indian Ocean trade had existed for hundreds of years.  In 1498, the Portuguese voyage led by Vasco da Gama finally the rounded the almost mythical Cape of Good Hope – a rocky headland on the Atlantic coast of the Cape Peninsula in South Africa – and visited some towns in Mozambique and in East Africa on his voyage to India.  The Portuguese would be the first make useful trade relations in Africa, in 1441, settling in Arguin Island in West Africa.  Slaves, ivory and gold were among the useful things they found here.  As they were the only outsider nation interested in Africa at the time, it was only a matter of effort until they expanded south to Angola and then East Africa.  There had been a lot of talk about the exploits of Portugal in Africa, yet, it was the sole nation of Europe trading in West Africa for the better part of four decades.  She maintained a windfall trade, with little input until 1492, when Spain set sights on trade in Africa for a share of the fair. 

Africa and America had been discovered about the same time, the one by Portugal and the other by Spain.  Even with the prospect of expanding her enterprise, Spain was only half-footed in developing trading links in Africa, concentrating her efforts with America.  That same year, there would be an extra surveyor in West Africa.  France had been persuaded to give this new prospect a chance.  At first, they only traded in spices like pepper but later in gold and slaves.  Although gold was the best known commodity from West Africa, found in the trade with the world before 1500, salt was worth its weight in gold in Western Sudan.  Another important commodity continually found on the merchandise lists as an African import was pepper, which was even more profitable than gold in Europe in the 1450’s.  Among some of the more minor but lucrative products of the trans-Atlantic trade were ivory, kola nuts, musk, civet, horns and leather.  In the decades following, France quickly developed her trade links in West Africa and would grow her trade to rival that of Spain.  Britain hesitated to join the West Africa trade until 1554, and she would in trading gold and pepper, before getting involved in the thriving slave trade.  Britain, whose trading terms were imperial and not national, was slow to catch on and keep up with the momentum and did not raise any eyebrows.  Her trade, operated by private companies, was not much bigger than that of France, operated by merchants.  Portugal retained her lighthouse trading status for a while longer, however, her dominance would be ousted by a more formidable institution.  The Dutch West Indies Company had the last laugh in the West Africa Trade.  It was created in 1621 to expedite Dutch’s international interests. 

Artist impression of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in West Africa.  Photo Courtesy
Artist impression of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Photo Courtesy

History of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

Ultimately, the trans-Atlantic trade would become notorious for slave trading. Slavery, the chief tender, was by no means newfangled.  It was a warily inching concept with a long history.  The Roman Empire had generally captured slaves in battle and sent them back to Rome to be auctioned.  Slavery had also existed widely in Medieval England and northern Europe.  Barbary pirates, sometimes called Ottoman Corsairs, were pirates and privateers that operated from North Africa – the Barbary Coast.  They operated out of Tunis, Tripoli, Algiers and ports in Morocco, and were experts in slave trade.  The humble beginnings of the trans-Atlantic slave trade had little indications, if any, that it would end up as the largest ever depopulation of a continent for the commercial well-being of others.  At first, the Portuguese only took slaves to Europe to work as domestic workers. From 1444-1492, the migration was unsullied, modest and unpopular. 

The discovery of America in 1492 was the resounding crack, and then came the creation of new colonies that increased a thousand fold the demand for slaves needed to engender ambitious economic enterprises.  The increased demand for cotton, sugar and tobacco in Europe led to the growth of plantations in the America’s.  Labourers were urgently needed to replace the natives who were unwilling to work these fields.  By the times the 1550’s came around, European ships had exponentially increased numbers of African slaves to Brazil, the Caribbean and North America. By the 1700’s, Britain was one of the leading slave-traders in Europe, in company with France, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain.  The trans-Atlantic trade thence gained its unwelcome notoriety as the ‘triangular-trade’ because it linked Africa, Europe and the Americas.  Slaves worked in the plantations of Brazil, Cuba and Jamaica, and in the mines and plantations of North and South America.  In turn, these industries supplied cotton, sugar, tobacco, rice, gold, silver and timber to the nations of Europe. 

Conservative estimates show that almost 12 million Africans were traded across the triangular-trade.  Tales tell of special ships dexterously fitted-out in top-tier ports such as Liverpool and Bristol to maximize cargo space.  Merchants would invest time and money in preparing a ship for a long voyage, sometimes taking several months to ready.  They would also buy large quantities of products, such as, salt, knives, blankets, wool, brass pots, beads and alcohol to trade for slaves.  These ships then sailed to slave collection points on the West Coast of Africa.  Traders would buy the slaves from teeming traders or agents.  These often had slave forts to keep the slaves under control and to defend against raids from people trying to seize the slaves.  Many of these flourishing African cartels also brought slaves they had captured to the coast to sell to the nations of Europe.  Much to their disadvantage at the time, African societies were by and large primitively simple, tight knit and widely spaced out, making their capture easy and their resistance easier to overcome.  Slaves were usually bartered for the goods the Africans slave merchants wanted, like salt and the highly-sought manufactured goods like cloth and guns.  Slaves were items, not people.  To keep it so, they were stripped-off native names and forced to adopt new ones.

It was very common in several of the islands, particularly in the St Kitts, for the slaves to be branded with the initial letters of their master’s name, and a load of heavy iron hooks hung around their necks…I have seen a negro beaten till some of his bones were broken, for only letting a pot boil over. Olauda Equiano, 1789.

Towards Abolition of Slave Trade

For all the mounting opposition to slave trade, starting as early as 1700, the participants were late to warm up to its voidance.  The earliest indication that anything resembling a serious political movement against slavery was been looked into came in the early 1800’s, when a bill for the abolition of the slave trade was passed in England in 1807 and implemented in 1808.  By then, over 100 petitions from all over Britain demanding the abolition of the slave trade had been handed to Parliament, most notably by prominent members of the Society of Friends or Quakers who kept up pressure to abolish slavery itself and the trading in slaves.  The implementation of the Abolition Act of 1807 – toward freeing of slaves and prohibiting the ferrying of slaves – took time to work out.  Still and all, the wheels of slave trade kept turning, now taking on a barbaric and sinister character and twists of the most horrendous human suffering that spooked the entire world beyond the wildest imagination of the worst kind of suffering.  Thomas Clarkson, a prominent abolitionist, had been part of a co-ordinated, branded campaign that created a type of anti-slavery marketing logo represented by a deeply-moving image of a kneeling African in chains, with the words “Am I not a man and a brother?”  Finally, in 1833, the Emancipation Act – an Act for the Release of certain Persons held to Service – was passed by the British Parliament, abolishing slavery throughout the Empire and giving her colonies the choice between freeing slaves, or placing them into apprenticeship for 6 years. Plantation owners received recompense for the loss of their slaves. The abolition of slavery by Britain encouraged other nations of Europe to do likewise.  France’s slavery in the West Indies ended in 1848.  However, Spain and Portugal despite abolishing slave trade locally could not force their colonies to free their enslaved Africans.  Slavery came to a welcome end in America in 1865, as a result of the American Civil War, which was also the primary reason for abolition in Cuba.  Slaves who fought in the Ten Years War (1868-1878) were promised their freedom if they fought alongside Cubans against Spain.

It should be remembered that African abolitionists played a leading role throughout the campaign to abolish slavery.  They included Ignatius Sancho, a freed man who became the pioneer African writer to be published in the United Kingdom, and Olaudah Equiano who had direct experience of enslavement and published his narrative on the slave trade, ‘Sold as a Slave’, in 1789”. William Curtis of Alton

Mansa the Magnificent

The growth of trade routes and linkage in Afro-Eurasia helped to stimulate the development of additional states in several parts of Africa. Many of these states were tied to Islamic trading networks, and they combined local political ideas with thoughts and technologies coming from other parts of the Islamic World. Some states, like Mali and the city-states of east Africa, had a great impact on those growing trading networks. At the center of it all was a legendary leader. In the annals of African history, no one has left more of an imprint on the outside world than Mansa Kankan Musa, ruler of Mali from 1312-37 A.D. Also known as Gongo Musa, he became one of the most powerful leaders of his time and was to make Mali’s name acclaimed throughout the European and Islamic nations. Beginning in the 14th century, Mansa’s name and that of Mali were to become synonymous with opulence, learning and justice. Called by historians Musa the Magnificent, he was a very successful leader, celebrated for his enlightenment, justice and piety. Inheriting a great empire, Mansa extended its boundaries and made his country a world power. Among his great contribution to Mali history was the spread of its fame and prestige to other lands. Mansa Musa certainly helped spread Islam in Mali and in West Africa. Modern Mali is mostly Muslim.

Mansa Musa – one of the richest men to ever live . By Top Trending

The Crisis in Africa, in Contrasts (Excerpts)

“We were saying, how very important it is, to bring about in the human mind the radical revolution. The crisis is a crisis in contrasts. A crisis that cannot anymore accept the old norms, the old patterns, the ancient traditions. And, considering what the world is now, with all the misery, conflict, destructive brutality, aggression, and so on, man is still as he was. Is still brutal, violent, aggressive, acquisitive, competitive, and has built a society along these lines”. For a long time, all kinds of myths and tales concealed the history of Africa from the world. Contrariwise, emphasis was laid on things likely to lend credence to the idea that a split had existed, from time immemorial, between a ‘white Africa’ and a ‘black Africa’, each unaware of the other’s existence. Another phenomenon that did great disservice to the objective study of the African past was the appearance, with the slave trade and colonization, of racial stereotypes that bred contempt and lack of understanding and became so deep rooted that they distorted even the basic concepts of historiography. From the time when the notions of ‘white’ and ‘black’ were used as generic labels by the colonialists, who were regarded as superior, the colonized Africans had to struggle against both economic and psychological enslavement. Africans, identifiable by the colour of their skin, became a kind of merchandise, earmarked for hard labour and eventually in the minds of those dominating them, they came to symbolize an imaginary and allegedly inferior ‘Negro’ race. This pattern of identification relegated the history of the African peoples in many minds to the rank of ethno-history, in which regard of the historical and cultures was bound to be warped.

Trade in Africa between 300 - 1500