Africa’s history did not start with slavery
Despite the peculiarity, horror and duration of African enslavement, slavery occupies a minor time frame (0,5%) in the 120,000 years of African history. The Transatlantic Slave trade not only distorted Africa’s economic development, it also distorted views of the history and importance of the African continent itself. It is only in the last fifty years that it has been possible to redress this distortion and to begin to re-establish Africa’s rightful place in world history.
In most parts of Africa before 1500, societies had become highly developed in terms of their own histories. They often had complex systems of participatory government, or were established powerful states that covered large territories and had extensive regional and international links.
Many of these societies had solved difficult agricultural problems and had come up with advanced techniques of production of food and other crops and were engaged in local, regional and even international trading networks. Some peoples were skilled miners and metallurgists, others great artists in wood, stone and other materials. Many of the societies had amassed a great stock of scientific knowledge, some of it stored in libraries such as those of Timbuktu, and some passed down orally from generation to generation.
The African continent continued on its own path of development, without significant external intervention until the fifteenth century of our era. Some of the world’s other great civilisations, such as Kush, Axum, Mali, and Great Zimbabwe, flourished in Africa in the years before 1500. In this early period Africans participated in extensive international trading networks and in trans-oceanic travel. Some African states had established important trading relations with India, China and other parts of Asia long before these were disrupted by European intervention.
Before 1600, a massive regional and international trading system stretched from the coast of West Africa, across the Sahara to North Africa and beyond. It was sustained by the mining of gold in West Africa, as well as the production of many other goods there. For many centuries, it was dominated by powerful empires such as Ghana, Mali and Songhai, which often controlled both gold production and the major trading towns on the southern fringes of the Sahara.
A 9th-century historian wrote: ‘The king of Ghana is a great king. In his territory are mines of gold.’ When al-Bakri, the famous historian of Muslim Spain, wrote about Ghana in the 11th century, he reported that its king ‘rules an enormous kingdom and has great power’. He was also said to have an army of 200,000 men and to rule over an extremely wealthy trading empire.
In the 14th century, the West African empire of Mali, which was larger than western Europe, was reputed to be one of the biggest, richest and most powerful states in the world.
Highlighted African empires:
Egypt was the first of many great African civilisations. It lasted thousands of years and achieved many magnificent and incredible things in the fields of science, mathematics, medicine, technology and the arts.Who were these original Egyptians? The Latin historian Ammianus Marcellinus said “the men of Egypt are mostly brown or black with a skinny desiccated look.” The Greek historian Herodotus described the Colchians of the Black Sea shores as “Egyptians by race” and pointed out they had “black skins and kinky hair.” Between 1450-1550, the Songhai kingdom grew very powerful and prosperous. It had a well organised system of government, a developed currency and it imported fabrics from Europe. Timbuktu became one of the most important places in the world. Libraries and universities were built and it became the meeting place for poets, scholars and artists from other parts of Africa and the Middle East. In the west of Africa, the kingdom of Ghana was a vast Empire that spread across an area the size of Western Europe. Between the ninth and thirteenth centuries, it traded in gold, salt and copper. It was like a medieval European empire, with a collection of powerful local rulers, controlled by one king or emperor. Ghana was highly advanced and prosperous. It is said that the Ghanaian ruler had an army of 200,000 men. The kingdoms of Benin and Ife were led by the Yoruba people and sprang up between the 11th and 12th centuries. The Ife civilisation goes back as far as 500BC and its people made objects from bronze, brass, copper, wood and ivory. Studies of the Benin show that they were highly skilled in ivory carving, pottery, rope and gum production. From the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, the kingdom of Mali spread across much of West and North-East Africa. At its largest, the kingdom was 2000 kilometres wide and there was an organised trading system, with gold dust and agricultural produce being exported north. Mali reached its height in the 14th century. Cowrie shells were used as a form of currency and gold, salt and copper were traded.