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A History of Africa


1415 to 1795

This chapter is divided into two parts, which cover the following topics:

Part I

Prince Henry's Captains
The Way to the Orient
Kongo and the Rise of Modern Slavery
Mwene Mutapa
Cross vs. Crescent: The Indian Ocean and East Africa
Cross vs. Crescent: The Mediterranean Front and the Maghreb
Morocco and the Sahel Out of Balance

Part II

East African Tribal Migrations
Dutch, French, English and Omani Intruders
Oyo and Dahomey
Luba, Lunda and Kuba
The Barbary States
The Cape Colony
Madagascar Coalesces
The Effects of the Slave Trade on Population
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East African Tribal Migrations

When the Bantu migration took place (see Chapter 4), the Nilotics were confined to a relatively small area: the Horn of Africa and the part of the Sahel between Lake Chad and the Nile. We also noted that one reason for the Bantu success was their lifestyle; sedentary agriculture can support ten to a hundred times as many people as herding on the same amount of land. As a result, when the Bantus settled the district between East Africa's lakes, they found an area where the amount of rainfall was just right for agriculture, so population grew orders of magnitude higher than it had been under the Pygmies and Bushmen. Since the Nilotics lived by herding, they only had the advantage in areas that were too dry for the farmers.

Despite this, the Nilotics managed a partial comeback after the Bantus settled down. Two pastoral Nilotic tribes, the Kalenjin and the Madai, moved south from the neighborhood of the Sudd in the early fourteenth century. The Kalenjin bypassed Lake Turkana to settle in the Kenya highlands, while the Madai stopped in the Interlacustrine region(19); both displaced the local Bantus. Another Nilotic group, the Luo, moved up the White Nile to the shore of Lake Victoria in the last quarter of the sixteenth century. The next migratory wave occurred in the early eighteenth century; in this one the Masai moved from Lake Turkana to southern Kenya and Tanzania, and the Tutsi moved from the upper White Nile basin to the land between the lakes (modern Rwanda and Burundi), where they dominated the local Bantu tribe, the Hutu, instead of driving them out.

These migrations produced several small kingdoms around the lakes. Four of them were run by Nilotic tribes like the Tutsi, and were founded between 1350 and 1500: Bunyoro, Ankole, Karagwe, and Rwanda. A Bantu-run kingdom named Buganda got started on Lake Victoria's shore at the same time, and a fifth Nilotic kingdom, Burundi, appeared around 1675. Bunyoro dominated the other five until the late eighteenth century, when Buganda pulled into the lead.

Another migration had more violent results. Around 1600, the Oromo (also called the Galla) spilled out of the Ogaden desert in eastern Ethiopia, raiding both Christian Abyssinia and Moslem Adal, and eventually destroying the latter. The Oromo were almost identical to the Somalis on the coast, but less advanced and still pagan; now they had to move north and west, because Somalia and the Ogaden weren't big enough for both tribes. They terrorized Abyssinia throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and were a constant concern of the kings until Menelik II conquered the Ogaden, at the end of the nineteenth century. However, those who reached the heart of the highlands were seduced by the civilizing influence of the Amhara culture, and they eventually switched from herding to farming; some were even baptized as Christians.

Nor was that all that was happening in East Africa; in 1585 the inhabitants of the northern Swahili coast, from Mogadishu to Mombasa, revolted against the Portuguese, and this coincided with the outpouring of Zimba warriors, from the Maravi tribe in Malawi. The Zimba, who the Portuguese reported were cannibals, went after Portuguese targets first, pillaging Tete and Sena and killing every missionary they could get their hands on. Then in 1587 the Zimba destroyed Kilwa, killing 3,000 inhabitants (40% of the population). Mombasa invited the fleet of a Turkish corsair, Mirale Bey, but a Portuguese fleet from India captured the Turkish ships, and left Mombasa to be sacked by the Zimba as their next victim (1589). However, the sultan of Malindi was still friendly, and in the end he saved the day for the Portuguese, by using warriors from the Segeju tribe to defeat the Zimba. In 1592 he occupied Mombasa and asked for a Portuguese garrison; they responded by building Fort Jesus at the entrance to Mombasa's harbor.

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Dutch, French, English and Omani Intruders

Portugal's union with Spain in 1580 quickly brought disaster. The enemies of Spain, especially the Dutch, now became the enemies of Portugal. King Philip and his successors had the resources to defend the new Portuguese portion of their empire, but they ignored it, concentrating their attention on fighting Protestant heresies in Europe instead. Thus, Portugal was on its own, and while it had successfully used diplomacy, trade and occasionally force to keep its precarious outposts out of the hands of unfriendly natives, it didn't stand a chance against another European power.

The Dutch, being even more commercially-minded than the Portuguese, set up a corporation, the Dutch East India Company (V.O.C.), to direct their first campaign, the one that destroyed most of Portugal's Far Eastern trade network. This is covered in Chapter 3 of my Southeast Asian history. Because they had done so well in Asia, the Dutch next decided to try their luck in the South Atlantic. However, this was going to be a tougher proposition; Portugal could send aid to its African forts in a few months, and Brazil already had most of the resources it needed to defend itself. Consequently it took until 1621 for the Dutch to float a West India Company (W.I.C.), and for much of the 1620s it was in danger of running out of money before it won any battles. Still, away from Brazil all advantages were with the Dutch. In Africa they started with the island of Gorée, off Cape Verde. Here they built their first African trading post in 1594-95, and by 1621, it had become the most important one for the transatlantic slave trade. This was soon followed with the establishment of Mouri/Fort Nassau on the Gold Coast, and the taking of the island of Mauritius(20) (both in 1598). Then the Dutch seized Elmina in 1637, and Arguin Island in 1638. By 1640 they had all Portuguese forts on the West African Coast, effectively taking over the Portuguese gold trade.

This was all that the Portuguese could stand. They now realized that they would have to end their co-dominion with Spain before they lost everything. Portugal's 1640 revolt against the Spanish crown was a success, but it didn't immediately change the course of the war; in 1641 the Dutch swept the African coast again, taking Fernando Póo, Luanda and Benguela.(21) Fortunately for Portugal, the W.I.C. was still losing money and the Dutch and Spaniards had to watch each other in Europe (we're up to the Thirty Years War), so the Portuguese got a chance to recover; a 1648 counterattack took back the slaving ports that had been lost in 1641. By 1654, they also regained the part of northern Brazil that had been lost to the Dutch earlier. The traffic in spices, gold and slaves remained in Dutch hands, but at least Portugal had managed to keep most of the African and South American portions of her empire. The Portuguese even gained a bit of ground in 1687, by building a port at Bissau on the Guinea coast.(22)

The French were interested enough in Africa to send privateers to prey on Portuguese shipping in the sixteenth century, but they didn't try to set up an African enterprise of their own until the seventeenth. Starting in the 1620s, they tried to force their way into the West African slave trade. In 1643 they established their first outpost, Fort Dauphin, on the southern coast of Madagascar, as a place for French ships to stop for rest and resupply before they crossed the Indian Ocean. Then in 1662 they colonized the island of Reunion (then known as the Ile de Bourbon), about 500 miles east of Madagascar. The Madagascar outpost depended on the goodwill of the local tribe, the Antanosy, and when they turned unfriendly and massacred most of the colonists (1674), the French abandoned Fort Dauphin, choosing to rely on Reunion instead. In 1715 they claimed Mauritius for France, now that the Dutch were no longer there.

North of Reunion and Mauritius, the Seychelles were just as uninhabited when the Portuguese first visited (in 1502). The French claimed these islands in 1756, and began to move in plantation owners and their slaves in 1768. However, they only got to hold the archipelago for a generation; in 1794 Great Britain annexed the Seychelles, and kept them for the next 182 years.

On the West African coast, the French founded St. Louis, on an island at the mouth of the Senegal River, in 1659. In 1677 they captured Gorée Island, which England had taken from the Dutch ten years earlier. The Senegal River, unlike most African rivers, isn't interrupted by cataracts or waterfalls, and this allowed André Brüe, the director of the Royal Company of Senegal from 1697 to 1720, to do business in the interior; in 1700 he founded Fort Saint Joseph at Galam, 400 miles inland, to regulate the local trade in slaves, ivory, and gum arabic.

After the Portuguese-Dutch war ended, the Dutch did not neglect their African interests. On the Gold Coast they strengthened their presence, increasing the number of forts they held to six by 1700. More important in the long run, however, was the founding of Cape Town in 1652. The Dutch East India Company didn't intend to build a colony at the Cape of Good Hope, just a way station to service Dutch ships, the way Fort Dauphin and Reunion had serviced the French. To provide crews with fresh meat and vegetables, farmers were brought in, once the Company realized that the South African climate was temperate enough to grow European crops. However, these farmers were under strict regulations concerning how and where they could sell their products, so the more independent-minded of them moved out of sight of De Kaap (the Cape), looking for a place where they could live and work as they pleased. This marked the beginning of the Boers, the self-proclaimed "white tribe of Africa"; we'll be hearing a lot more from them later in this work.

Like the French, the English introduced themselves in Africa as both privateers and merchants. One of the first was Captain William Towerson, who found that trading was difficult because privateers had just raided the coast for slaves, so he resorted to the pirate game. On March 23, 1557, he wrote in his logbook that while sailing off the coast of Guinea, he sighted "a ship in the weather of us, a Frenchman of 90 tons, who . . . coming near us, perceived that we had been upon a long voyage, and judging us to be weak . . . thought to have laid us aboard . . . Whereupon we sent them some of our stuff, crossbars, and chainshots and arrows, so thick that it made the upper work of the ship fly about their ears."

These events were commonplace, teaching Africans that while Europeans may look alike, they were divided into tribes of their own. Consequently they learned to play the Europeans against one another, thereby keeping one group from becoming too powerful at this stage. However, the Europeans could play this game, too. When another privateer, Captain John Hawkins, dropped anchor in a Sierra Leone estuary in 1562, two local kings sent ambassadors to his ship, the Jesus, asking him for aid in an attack against two other African kings and promising to give him some prisoners of war should they succeed. Hawkins agreed, and ended up receiving 260 slaves, which he took to the West Indies in a run of the blockade against non-Spanish ships going to those islands.

England had two things in mind when choosing locations for English forts: commerce, and keeping an eye on the competition. Their first forts were Fort St. James (1651, at the mouth of the Gambia River) and Cape Coast Castle (1665, on the Gold Coast). The latter was previously a Dutch fort; taking that, as well as New Amsterdam in North America, triggered a naval war between England and the Netherlands (1665-67). In terms of fighting the war was a draw, but afterwards the English got to keep the disputed outposts, in return for trade concessions favoring the Dutch. By 1700 England's navy dominated the waves, and three more English forts were built on the Gold Coast: Discove, Commenda, and Accra. However, in Africa the English would not use their new advantage until the Napoleonic Wars; at this time they simply concentrated their activity on the Gold Coast because that was where the money was, now more from slaves than from gold.

Finally, it should be noted that three European nations not known for overseas empires were trading in West Africa in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: Denmark, Sweden and Brandenburg (Prussia after 1701). The only outpost they built worth mentioning was the Danish fort of Christiansborg, near Accra.

On the East African coast, the Portuguese got an unexpected challenge from the Sultanate of Oman (see Chapter 13 of my Middle Eastern history), which became very vigorous in the seventeenth century. The Omani began by taking back their main port, Muscat, from the Portuguese in 1649. Then, following the Portuguese to their nearest bases, they attacked their garrison at Zanzibar in 1652, and captured Mombasa in 1660, though Fort Jesus remained in Portuguese hands. They also encouraged anti-Portuguese revolts in the other cities, and nine years later, a fleet of eighteen Omani ships attacked Mozambique, though it failed to capture that port.

After that the Portuguese viceroy concentrated his attention on the Kenyan port of Pate, which resisted Portuguese assaults from 1678 to 1687. However, the streak of good luck that had been with the Portuguese for most of the past two centuries was finally running out. In 1694 the island of Pemba threw out its Portuguese masters, and in 1696, seven Omani ships, bringing 3,000 soldiers, arrived at Mombasa. The Portuguese and their supporters, 2,500 in all, withdrew to Fort Jesus; the Omani subjected the fort to a grueling 33-month siege, with most of the defenders dying of hunger or disease, before the last thirteen survivors surrendered in 1699.

A generation later, in 1728, the Portuguese returned and recovered Mombasa, but they found themselves so unpopular among the locals that they abandoned Mombasa for good a year later. Thus, north of Cape Delgado, European (especially Portuguese) influence on the coast had ended, and would not be reestablished until the Europeans returned to carve up Africa, in the nineteenth century. In 1741 the dynasty ruling Oman was overthrown, and the Arab governor of Mombasa declared independence; soon his family, the Mazrui, ruled an emirate across much of the Swahili corridor, from Pate to Pemba, and held the rest within its sphere of influence.

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The Nigerian cultures we looked at previously--those of Nok, Igbo Ukwu and Ife--were all forerunners to the splendid civilization of Benin. Located just above the Niger delta, Benin's rulers claimed direct descent from the Yoruba kings of Ife, though most of Benin's people were from the Bini (Edo) tribe. According to legend, the first oba, or king of Benin, was Oranmiyan, and he took the crown in 1176 A.D. However, the kingdom remained just another city-state for two centuries, with the real rise to greatness beginning under Ewuare the Great, who ruled from 1440 to 1473. Oral histories credit him with being not only a wise ruler, but also an excellent musician, doctor and warrior; he was said to have a gaze so potent that he had to put a veil over his face to keep from harming others with a glance. He claimed to have captured 201 towns and villages, giving Benin wealth on an imperial scale. With such resources, Ewuare commanded the building of an earthen wall around his palace, seven miles long, as much as thirty feet high in some places, with nine fortified gates and a moat 50 feet deep. Graham Connah, the British archaeologist who excavated the walls in the 1960s, estimated that this project would have required a thousand laborers, working ten hours a day, seven days a week, for five dry seasons. Even more impressive were the walls in the countryside, stretching between 4,000 and 8,000 miles, to mark the boundaries between city-states; these would have taken 150 million man-hours, spread over several centuries, to complete.

Fernão Gomes, the Portuguese explorer, discovered Benin in 1473, the year of Ewuare's death. The people of Benin took an immediate interest in European products like velvet, firearms, saddles, candied fruit and gilded mirrors, so trade quickly developed; the next two kings built Lagos as a new trade port. Ewuare's grandson, Esigie (1504-50), went so far in promoting trade that he learned to speak and read Portuguese. When other Europeans made contact, Benin was willing to trade with them, too. However, to do business here took time. Merchants had to go through the oba's agents, who would greet them at the port in their finest costumes, wearing necklaces of jasper or coral. After the initial pleasantries, the agents would ask for news from the country of the merchants' origin, and distribute gifts of fruit. This would be followed by drinking if the visitors wished, and on the second day they would begin bargaining--which sometimes went on for months. Richard Eden, an English trader, wrote the following about these African capitalists in 1590: "They are a very wary people in their bargaining, and will not lose one sparke of golde of any value. They use weights and measures, and are very circumspect in occupying the same." All this attention to commerce paid off. By 1600, Benin City had an estimated population of 60,000, and it was so rich that the residents reportedly greeted each other by saying, "Thank God, what wealth has done for me!"

Some of our best information on Benin in its heyday comes from A Description Of Guinea, a travel guide written for Dutch businessmen by Pieter de Marees in 1602. Marees quoted many travelers to West Africa, notably one D.R. (Dierick Ruyters?), who was impressed by the size of Benin City:

"[The city is] very great when you go into it [for] you enter a great broad street, not paved, which seems to be seven or eight times broader than the Warmoes street in Amsterdam; it goes straight in and never bends." Ruyters went on to report that his lodgings were "at least a quarter of an hour's going from the gate, and yet I could still not see to the end of the street." And the side streets branching from the main one looked just as long: "You cannot see to the end of them because of their great length."

Sixty years later, another Dutch visitor, Olfert Dapper, wrote that the king's palace was a complex of buildings and courtyards that "occupies as much space as the town of Haarlem and is enclosed within walls. There are numerous apartments for the Prince's ministers, and fine galleries most of which are as big as those on the Exchange at Amsterdam. They are supported by wooden pillars encased with bronze, where their victories are depicted, and which are carefully kept very clean." Here he is referring to the bronze plaques which were made to commemorate important events, because like most of Black Africa at this time, Benin did not have its own writing system. They also made portrait heads of kings and queens, like the Ife culture had done, and sometimes they decorated them with coral beads or sprinkled them with blood from human sacrifices, believing these extreme measures were needed to keep the kingdom strong and prosperous.(23)

Four examples of the spectacular bronzes produced by Benin's artisans. Clockwise from the top left: head of a king, head of a queen, a plaque showing the oba and two attendants, a rooster. From WorldArt Web Kiosk.

Dapper, like his predecessors, was also careful to remind readers that in Benin they weren't dealing with savages, but with an advanced, sophisticated people: "These Negroes are much more civilized than others on this coast. They are people who have good laws and a well-organized police; who live on good terms with the Dutch and other foreigners who come to trade with them, and to whom they show a thousand marks of friendship." To the Europeans they not only sold traditional commodities like ivory and slaves(24), but also locally made textiles, jasper, leopard skins, and pepper. As time went on, they acquired tastes for new products the Europeans brought them, like silk, cotton, glasswork, cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean (used as currency in much of West Africa), tobacco and liquor.

The oba of Benin was treated much like a pharaoh; he was an absolute monarch whose every command would be instantly obeyed, and was such an important agent of the gods that anyone who didn't see him as godlike could be executed as a heretic. However, he was also kept so busy with the required ceremonies and sacrifices that most governing matters went to a council of ministers, and he had to build the queen mother's palace a few miles away from his own to keep herself and her retinue from meddling in politics.

Indeed, the obas withdrew from politics after 1550, though they appear to have maintained a tremendous amount of influence even when they didn't leave the palace. The routine of life went on in Benin for the next two centuries, with little awareness of how changing conditions in the outside world could affect them. In the eighteenth century, the ban on selling male slaves was lifted, in an effort to keep up with rival kingdoms. According to some accounts, the oba could mobilize 100,000 warriors in a day's notice, so maybe he felt that as long as he had the troops to capture slaves, he didn't have to worry about other sectors of the economy collapsing, like agriculture. When things went wrong for Benin in the nineteenth century, the oba thought the traditional solution, more human sacrifices, would cause the devil to leave him alone; instead it caused the kingdom to commit suicide, as we will see in the next chapter.

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Oyo and Dahomey

In the previous chapter we looked at Ife, the oldest of the city-states founded by the Yoruba in southwest Nigeria. One of Ife's neighbors, Oyo, was in existence by 1100 A.D., and after 1400 it grew into a kingdom. Two factors caused Oyo to replace Ife as the dominant Yoruba state. The first was trade; when the Portuguese arrived on the coast, the Yoruba did not have the organization needed to trade for European goods--except in Oyo. The other factor was Oyo's acquisition of horses, which happened some time in the late sixteenth century. The horses came from the open country north of the forest zone, most likely from Songhay or the Hausa states. With these horses, they created a cavalry that made them more powerful than any previous forest kingdom. Whereas Benin never ruled more than a fifth of present-day Nigeria in its heyday, Oyo dominated all of Nigeria west of the Niger River, except for Benin itself.

In return for horses and salt from the Sahel, Oyo traded palm products and kola nuts. The Europeans, however, only wanted slaves from Oyo. Maybe Benin was diversified enough to ignore slavers for the time being, but Oyo's dependence on one export caused it to expand the slave trade aggressively. By the early eighteenth century, Europeans were shipping 50,000 slaves across the Atlantic every year, ten times as many as they had shipped in 1600. Nearly half of them came from the "Slave Coast," thanks to the fact that this was the most densely populated part of West Africa, and because of the trading policies of Oyo and Dahomey.(25)

West of Benin and Oyo was the kingdom of Dahomey. According to oral tradition, Dahomey got started when the Aja tribe (now known as the Ewe) migrated from the Mono River in Togo and founded the village of Allada, in the twelfth or thirteenth century. Allada became the capital of a kingdom the Europeans called Great Ardra, and it did well until the death of King Gangnihessou, around 1620. Gangnihessou's three sons quarreled over who should be the next king; Kokpon won out and got to keep Allada, while his brothers moved away. One brother, Dogbagrigenu, went a few miles north and founded the town of Abomey, while the other, Te-Agdanlin, went about the same distance east and founded the town of Ajatche or Little Ardra (the Portuguese later renamed it Porto Novo). In 1625 Dogbagrigenu was succeeded by his son, Dakpodunu, and he was the most successful of them all; his Aja followers mixed with the natives around Abomey to form a new tribe, the Fon or Dahomey.

Dahomey was a tightly centralized kingdom with a standing army and an official cult that promoted sacrificial offerings, including human sacrifices, to the ancestors of the monarch. All land was owned directly by the king, and he collected taxes from all crops grown on it. However, like Oyo, the main source of Dahomey's income was the slave trade, so if the kings wanted European technology, especially modern weapons, the kings had to promote slavery, whether they liked the practice or not.

The two kings following Dakpodunu turned away slave raids from Allada, defeated two invasions from Oyo (1680 & 1698), and found time to increase the size of the kingdom to forty towns. The next king, Agaja (1708-32), did even better, conquering Allada in 1724 and Whydah (also spelled Ouidah), the French-built port on the coast, in 1727. Today Agaja is mainly known for creating a female royal bodyguard, arming them with muskets and machetes; Europeans nicknamed these warriors the "Dahomey Amazons."(26) However, he met his match in Gberu, the king of Oyo. From 1726 to 1730 Oyo invaded almost every year during the dry season, until Agaja agreed to pay an annual tribute. This tributary status lasted until 1818, but Dahomey continued to expand and prosper, first because of the slave trade, and later by exporting palm oil, an essential ingredient of soap, from large plantations.(27)

The slave trade was a double-edged sword for those who participated in it. Because African states could no longer supply enough criminals and other undesirables to meet Europe's demand for slaves, they now had to make war on their neighbors to get captives for the slave trade. And after 1700, these slaver wars usually involved guns, now that most of the forest kingdoms had them. The result was widespread political instability, not only for the victims but also for the slavers, because the attitudes of the slavers came to match the inherent cruelty of the business, and because the kingdoms that were the best at slave-raiding made enemies of everyone around them.

slave coffle
The Europeans and Arabs couldn't have taken away as many slaves as they did without African cooperation. Usually Africans caught the slaves first; here we see a slave coffle being delivered to the coast, where the Europeans waited to buy them.

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The most successful of the forest kingdoms was one of the last to appear. Although the Akan/Gold Coast region had seen economic activity for a long time, it did not produce a kingdom of its own until the late seventeenth century. Organization above the village level became possible because of slavery--but unlike the other African states so far covered in this chapter, the Akan tribes bought slaves, instead of selling them. The Portuguese probably supplied 12,000 slaves to the Gold Coast between 1500 and 1535, most of them captured from the Slave Coast region to the east. Some were put to work in gold mines (previously, West African gold was usually obtained by panning in streams), but they did a more important job when they cleared away enough of Ghana's jungles for farming, allowing the local tribes to switch from hunting and gathering to agriculture.

Whereas in the late sixteenth century, the Akan country contained at least 38 small states, by 1650 it had only a handful, the most powerful of which was Denkyira. One of the others was Kumasi, founded around 1630 by Oti Akenten. He was successful in several military campaigns, but his nephew and successor, Obiri Yeboa (1660-97), was forced to become a vassal of Denkyira. The terms of vassalage required that Kumasi send a hostage to live in the Denkyira capital, so Obiri Yeboa sent a nephew, Osei Tutu. According to Akan traditions, Osei Tutu rose to become a general in Denkyira's army, but then suddenly fled to Kumasi; one account says he did this after refusing to hand over to the Denkyira king gold that had been captured in a war, another says he had to run because he had made the chief's sister pregnant. Whatever the reason, the people of Kumasi saw something special in him, special enough to make them choose him as the next chief when Obiri Yeboa died.

Osei Tutu brought all communities within a fifty-mile-radius of Kumasi under his control, thus founding the Ashanti kingdom. In a series of wars from 1699 to 1701, he effectively turned the tables, making Denkyira and its vassals switch their allegiance to Kumasi. The next king, Opoku Ware (1731-42), did even better, by expanding the kingdom until it included most of Ghana and parts of present-day Togo and the Ivory Coast. On the economic front, he increased the traditional source of income, the gold trade, and tried to reduce dependence on European imports by establishing local distilling and weaving industries.(28) Appropriately, the Ashanti chose a golden stool to represent both the king's throne and his wealth, and they told a legend about how the kingdom got started when the stool came down from Heaven and gently landed on the knees of Osei Tutu.(29) He and his successors also developed an efficient slave-trading organization, but they made it a point to never depend on one export; to them the Europeans were just another trading partner, the one they happened to buy muskets from.

The Ashanti had the most advanced political organization of the forest kingdoms. The towns within fifty miles of Kumasi were considered "Metropolitan Ashanti"; the rulers of those towns shared membership in the royal family's Oyoko clan, and took part in the choosing of a new king. Areas farther out had fewer privileges, and were forced to pay tribute in the form of slaves, in addition to the usual taxes. Over all this, an elaborate bureaucracy with literate clerks ran everyday affairs of the government. An efficient army defended the kingdom, and it showed what it could do in 1745, when Ashanti soldiers armed with muskets defeated the armored cavalry of a nearby rival, Dagomba; this would have been impossible previously. European visitors to Kumasi in the early nineteenth century were impressed not only by the ceremonies that were typical of African kingdoms, but also by the well-maintained roads, clean houses, and even built-in plumbing. Later on the Ashanti implemented a courier system that resembled Western postal services, and the king hired a German drill master to train the troops. In the end they were conquered by the British, but before that happened, the Ashanti had one foot in the modern world.

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Luba, Lunda and Kuba

The lands immediately below the equatorial jungle must have seemed inviting to the Bantu tribes that migrated there, being more pleasant than what they had just traveled through, a place that allowed both fishing and farming, and rich in metals, especially copper. However, it was also a land filled with lakes, marshes and rivers; the people needed to drain wetlands, build dikes to protect themselves from flooding, and dams to keep enough water for fishing in the dry season. Thus, they learned to work together on these projects, which was the first step toward forming nations later on.

The oldest of these kingdoms was founded in the sixteenth century by the Luba (also called Baluba) tribe, around Lakes Kisale and Upemba in the southern Congo district of Katanga. Its founder, one Nkongolo, conquered several small villages to form the nucleus of a state, but failed to establish an orderly form of succession and was regarded as a cruel drunkard. He was in turn overthrown by a hunter named Kalala Ilunga, who went on to found a better government. Both of these kings may have been myths; they lived too far back for records to be clear, and are also credited with creating the Luba culture, as if the achievements of several men were rolled together into these two (Kalala Ilunga, for example, is credited with teaching the Luba how to forge iron).

The Luba believed that their kings became gods when they died, and the villages from which they ruled became monuments devoted to them, with official "men of memory" maintaining oral histories of their accomplishments. This meant that they usually got a new capital every time they got a new king, and the sacred kings gained so much prestige that the minor chiefs nearby paid tribute and contributed labor to Luba projects, hoping that the Luba would add their names to the Luba royal lineage. However, the state still wasn't centralized enough to prevent younger sons of the dynasty from breaking away to found their own kingdoms. Around 1600, one of these princes, Chibinda Ilunga (Cibind Yirung), moved south to the Lunda tribe and took over by marrying their princess, Lweji. However, the Lunda state also had a problem with dissatisfied princes, and over the course of the seventeenth century it split as well. The main Lunda State, Mwata Yamvo, was based in the southwest corner of the Congo and eastern Angola, where it became a rival to the Kongo kingdom, as we saw previously. The other Lunda kingdom, Mwata Kazembe, appeared on the modern Congo-Zambia frontier, around 1710. This location allowed the Kazembe king access to the Portuguese outposts in both Angola and Mozambique; usually he sold slaves to Angola, and ivory to Mozambique, because that brought the biggest profits.

Around the big states of Luba and Lunda were a constellation of smaller ones, filling up the whole area between Lake Tanganyika and the Atlantic Ocean. One of these is worth mentioning because of its many artistic achievements, the kingdom of Kuba. Located around the Sankuru, Lulua, and Kasai Rivers, this land belonged to several minor tribes until unified around 1625 by a chief named Shyaam a-Mbul a Ngoong-Shyaam. The government encouraged the growing of many crops, which helped pay for the art produced, and was organized around a merit-based title system that dispersed power among the aristocracy and made sure that the most loyal were entrusted with positions of power. Like the leaders of modern states, Kuba rulers used taxation to force their citizens to become more productive. Kuba farmers responded by reorganizing their calendar to allow two or three crops per year, because the kings did not tax the resulting surplus, and allowed men to marry at a younger age, because unmarried men did not do farm work. Together, these changes may have doubled the total size of the annual harvest.

The biggest patrons of Kuba art were the kings, who needed fancy embroidered textiles, hats, and wooden cups for court ceremonies and their funerals. Around 1700, King Misha mi-Shyaang a-Mbul introduced larger-than-life wooden sculptures. Called an ndop, each of these statues was an idealized portrait with a personal symbol, revealed at the king's coronation, for identification purposes. For example, one king, Shyaam a-Mbul a Ngoong, had an ndop showing him sitting in front of a mancala board; that African game requires intelligence and foresight, so having it here meant that this king had those skills.

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The Barbary States

The Ottoman Empire coasted into a long, steady decline after 1600, though it managed to avoid losing any territory until the seventeenth century was nearly over. Productivity decreased almost every year, and the sultan's grip on the provinces grew weaker as a result. In Mameluke-ruled Egypt, for example, the main source of income came from selling Asian spices, and after the Portuguese broke that monopoly, nobody could find a substitute; Egypt suffered from an unfavorable balance of trade when foodstuffs were all it had to trade for Europe's manufactured goods. In fact, the peasants of Egypt, the Fellahin, made the problem worse by growing the minimum they needed to survive, reasoning that the less they produced, the less the authorities would take:

"[The Egyptian] had pitted his craft against the exploiters and had failed; and failing, the genius of the race, inferior to no other in capacity and depth of feeling, had turned in upon itself in bitterness and sought revenge, as it were in limiting production to a minimum of its requirements, in a tenacious opposition to all changes, and an almost deliberate harshening of all the conditions of life. The fertility of the soil served only to raise up oppressors on every side, and since, in the fellah's experience, it seemed that only by oppression could anything be gained, he also, by a natural reaction, became an oppressor of his own kind."(30)

The first Crusaders found much to admire in the Turkish lifestyle, and imitated it after they conquered Jerusalem in 1099. Compare this to the response of European travelers in the eighteenth century. In that day it was customary for students to go on a "Grand Tour" of Western civilization, as part of their higher education. Usually that meant seeing France and Italy; if they included a visit to any Turkish-ruled territories, like Greece or Egypt, they always commented on how run-down those places were, and how the people lived in ignorance and poverty. Whereas Egypt and the Maghreb had been critical to the economies of the Greek and Roman civilizations, to the eighteenth-century European these were usually places to pass by quickly, on the way to somewhere else.

The Ottoman sultan had always ruled North Africa with a loose hand, since that region was too far away from Constantinople to communicate with quickly. His governors in Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers, who administered territories corresponding roughly to Libya, Tunisia and Algeria, found themselves on their own as the eighteenth century began. Tunis had come under a hereditary dynasty, the Husainids, in 1705, and another family, the Qaramanids, took charge of Tripoli in 1711. In Algeria the situation was different, for the ruler of Algiers, the dey, was a president-for-life, like the doge of Venice, elected by the most important merchants, corsairs and Janissaries in the city. The dey spent much of his time playing a balancing act between these factions, for he had to watch his back; fourteen of the twenty-seven deys were assassinated.

The heyday of the Barbary pirates had been in the sixteenth century, when their ships sailed out of the Mediterranean to attack Europe's Atlantic shore; some even went to Iceland. However, this had stopped by 1700, and after that date the corsairs more often had to defend their home shores from European counterattacks. By the time Napoleon Bonaparte sailed to Egypt, the corsairs were no longer a threat to him, or to the British fleet that pursued the French. The governors of the Barbary states had to fall back on other sources of income, either from maritime trade or from agriculture on what farmland remained. In the case of Tripoli, this also meant maintaining the caravan route across the Sahara, to Bornu and the Hausa states. Despite these stopgap measures, the whole region continued to stagnate; the population of Algiers fell from 100,000 in the seventeenth century, to 40,000 when the French took over the city in 1830.

It was a similar story in Egypt. Suleiman the Magnificent had allowed the Mamelukes to import new slaves from Asia, thereby perpetuating their institution. Over the next two hundred years they regained most of their old powers, until the sultan was ruling in name only. Except for the payment of taxes to Constantinople, the Mamelukes, governors and deys of North Africa were able to run things as they pleased.

Cairo became the main intellectual center of Islam when the Mongols destroyed Baghdad in 1258. It still had that reputation in the eighteenth century, but because the city-dwellers held the Fellahin in contempt, the way Alexandria had done in ancient times, it might as well have been in another country from the rest of Egypt. Population remained stable at 100,000 for most of the period covered by this chapter, and in the eighteenth century it climbed to around 200,000, as peasants came here looking for a better life than what they had on the farm. Wherever they came from, the residents of Cairo felt they had more in common with Arab cities like Damascus than they did with those Egyptians who lived just up the Nile; Arabic literature from this era was always written for city dwellers and had nothing to say about life in the countryside.

However, the Barbary states could still defend their home turf at this stage. Spain tried to stabilize North Africa in the eighteenth century; King Charles III made a truce with Morocco in 1767, but in 1774 the sultan broke the peace, ordered all Christians out of the country, and attacked Melilla. Spain beat off this siege, unjustly blamed Great Britain for causing the problem (Spain and France, Great Britain's archenemy, were usually on the same side in those days), and sent 18,000 troops to crush the dey of Algiers, an ally of the sultan. Instead, Spain was badly defeated, losing thousands of those men. We will see in the next chapter what happened when the Barbary states picked on a Western power their own size, namely the new United States.

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The Cape Colony

The Cape Colony expanded slowly; when it grew, it was generally due to the need for more pasture land, or because the Boer farmers were feeling population pressures behind them. Like the pioneers of the American West, they would load up their families and belongings in wagons pulled by oxen, and look for a place where they could live simply, free of the laws and taxes of civilization. Often they slept in a hut made of mud and reeds, or in their wagons, rather than in a permanent settlement. They didn't have wine, bread or beer where they went, but they did have meat and milk, from game they hunted as well as from their herds, and sometimes they had honey. For those things they could not make, they would occasionally return to Cape Town or other settlements, and trade what they produced--sheep and cattle, leather, soap and ivory--for gunpowder, cloth and tools. On these shopping trips they would also return with luxuries like brandy, coffee and tobacco.

Men of God often play an important role in the lives of frontier families, and that was the case with the Boers. They might go for weeks without seeing a church (during such times the wagon was their place of worship), and travel for miles to find a minister to perform weddings, christenings, etc. They were Calvinists, like most Dutchmen back in the Netherlands, but instead of arguing the details of salvation, the Boers felt closer to the Israelites of the Old Testament; when they read the stories of Moses leading the Chosen People through the wilderness, they saw an example of the life they were living. Thus, they came to see themselves as chosen people, too, with South Africa as the "Promised Land" that God had given to them. This was the first step in the forming of the ideology behind twentieth-century apartheid.

By the end of the eighteenth century, wandering Boers had gone as far as the Orange River in the north, and the Great Fish River in the east. The indigenous peoples that they met weren't much of a challenge; the Hottentots only put up a token resistance, and the Bushmen couldn't resist at all. In 1713 a ship's load of infected laundry caused a smallpox epidemic; the whole area around Cape Town was hit, but because the Europeans had some immunity to the disease from outbreaks in the old country, the natives were devastated the most; before they died, some Hottentots cursed the Dutch for bewitching them.

Though official Dutch policy called for trading fairly with the Africans, Boer frontiersmen often used their superior firepower--rifles against spears--to take advantage of the natives. When buying cattle from the Hottentots, Boers often paid them with goods that corrupted their way of life: cheap brandy, tobacco, or beads and brass wire. If the Hottentots weren't willing to sell, the Boers would threaten them, take hostages, or simply steal what they wanted. Once a Hottentot lost his livestock, he lost his culture as well. Some were so demoralized that they became vagrants on the edge of white communities, while others began working on white farms, and were effectively enslaved by a law that required them to have a pass whenever they left their place of work (something employers rarely gave). The Bushmen did not have herds of their own, but they might hunt for their meals from a white man's herd, so the Boers simply treated them as vermin to be exterminated. Those that got away retreated into the Kalahari Desert; those that were captured ended up as slaves.

Eventually, lengthy contact between these three races (Europeans, Bushmen and Hottentots) produced a mixed-race community, known as the "Cape Coloreds." Much of this miscegenation happened in the early days of the colony, when women were in short supply, and the men of Cape Town would go to the slave lodge of the Dutch East India Company to get their jollies. Some of the kids produced this way became slaves, while others merged into Cape Town's general population if they looked white enough. Still others went north and joined with the Hottentots, to form an independent community at the junction of the Orange and Vaal Rivers. They called themselves the Bastaards at first--which means just what it sounds like it means--until a shocked clergyman persuaded them to change the name of their state to Griqua, matching the name of the family most of them claimed descent from.

East of the Great Fish River lived the nearest Bantu tribe, the Xhosa. Stronger and better organized than either the Hottentots or the Bushmen, these were no pushovers. They were not warlike, but the Amaqwanga, or "pale beasts," puzzled them, because they would not live with or intermarry with the tribe the way other Africans did. Eventually the Xhosa decided that they would have to fight when they realized that all the whites wanted from them was their cattle. The resulting conflict, the First Kaffir War (1779), involved cattle rustling from the Xhosa and commando raids in retaliation from the Boers.(31) The Xhosa were brave enough, but their hide shields, assegais (throwing spears), and knobkerries (clubs) were no match for European soldiers with guns. In the end the Boers drove the Xhosa back across the river and captured 5,300 head of cattle--a crippling blow. In 1793 a severe drought caused some Boer farmers to cross the river into Xhosa country to find more pasture, provoking a Second Kaffir War. The Xhosa responded by invading Boer lands; the Dutch East India Company man on the spot, H. C. D. Maynier, used a commando force to throw them back, but irked the Boers by not demanding cattle as compensation for their losses, and also failed to resolve the issues that had started the fighting. He probably couldn't have done it anyway, for in 1795 the British Navy arrived at Cape Town and started a new chapter in South Africa's history.

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Madagascar Coalesces

We looked at Madagascar briefly in the last chapter, first when Southeast Asian settlers arrived, then when Arab sailors discovered the place. Over the centuries the population divided into eighteen tribes, though they continued to speak the same language. The main differences between the tribes were local customs and racial makeup; the Sakalava are the most African, while the Merina are the most Asian. In the oral traditions we hear of some petty kings with extremely long names (the Merina claim that their first kingdom was named Ambohidratima, and it was founded as early as 1300). They also claim that the Vazimba (see Chapter 5, footnote #4), had kingdoms previously. Still, when the Europeans made contact, no Malagasy tribe had any organization above the village level.

Madagascar owes its present-day name to a misunderstanding of Marco Polo. That famous traveler lived in the late thirteenth-early fourteenth century, and we did not discuss him in the previous chapter because he did not visit any part of Africa. Still, he collected quite a bit of hearsay about places he never saw, and passed it on to us in his travel account; these descriptions are so detailed that sometimes it is hard to tell what he saw and what he didn't. He came home from the Far East by crossing the Indian Ocean, and reported that the ocean contained more than 11,000 islands (only true if you count Indonesia). The largest island was a fantastic place that Polo called Madagascar. He described it as having a circumference of 4,000 miles, and containing one of the grandest collections of wild animals to be found anywhere. Polo went on to claim that the natives ate nothing but camels, there was no shortage of leopards, bears, and lions, and this place had "more elephants than in any country in the world."

The place which best fits Polo's description is the eastern part of mainland Africa. Today the East African nation of Kenya is one of the best places to see animals like lions and elephants, and we now believe the name Madagascar is a corrupted form of Mogadishu, the capital of Kenya's neighbor Somalia. However, Marco Polo called the place an island, not a continent, so nobody back then associated his story with Africa. Present-day Madagascar is nearly 1,500 miles south of Mogadishu, and while it has plenty of animals found nowhere else, like lemurs and tenrecs, it has none of the wildlife Polo put there: no elephants, no leopards, no bears, no lions--and definitely no camels.

We saw that the first European to set foot on the island, Portugal's Diogo Dias, wanted to name the place St. Lawrence Island. It did not stick, because this was the only island in the Indian Ocean that came anywhere near the size of Marco Polo's Madagascar, and other Europeans wanted so much for Polo's account to be true, that they figured this had to be the place he was talking about. Even the Malagasy people eventually accepted the name, though their language is not designed to handle it (they don't have an "sc" sound, and every word is supposed to end with a vowel). Consequently they altered the name to Madagasikara; before European contact, each tribe had its own name for the land, which could be used to mean either all of Madagascar, or just the part of it they happened to live on.

The Portuguese signed treaties with Sakalava chiefs in 1613, allowing a Jesuit mission to visit them. European contacts increased steadily after that, but most of the visits cast the newcomers in a bad light. Pirates used the island as a place to hide, recuperate and resupply between raids, and after the settlement of Mauritius and Reunion, slavers came to Madagascar, looking for laborers to work the new plantations. Sometimes the slaves were taken beyond the Indian Ocean; a census taken at the West Indian island of Barbados, at the end of the seventeenth century, found that half of that island's 32,473 slaves came from Madagascar.

In response to these outside attacks, the Malagasy tribes began to pull themselves together into kingdoms. The first to try it were the Sakalava, because they were in the area most frequently raided, but because they were also the largest tribe, they found unity a tougher challenge than most. Under Andrianahifotsy, the first Malagasy chief to use firearms, the Sakalava began expanding from the southwest around 1610, eventually occupying nearly half the island. However, Andrianahifotsy's three sons divided the kingdom, and by 1685 civil war had produced two Sakalava states: Menabe, on the barren western grasslands, with its capital at Tulear, and Boina in the northwest, around the port of Majunga. By 1700 three other tribes also had kingdoms of their own: the Antaimoro on the east coast, and the Betsileo and Merina in the central highlands.

Of these, the Merina kingdom, also called Imerina, had the most advanced political structure, with a village council called the fokonolona to enact regulations and handle local matters like public works and security. The Malagasy oral histories credit Andriamanelo (1540-75), who previously ruled a village named Alasora, with the founding of the kingdom. Imerina had a steady succession from father to son until 1710, when a king named Andriamasinavalona ordered the realm divided between his favorite four sons, supposedly because he asked the gods who should be his heir, and the priests did not give him a straight answer. The result was alternating periods of unity and division until 1787, when a prince named Romboasalama overthrew his uncle Ambohimanga, and proclaimed himself King Andrianampoinimerina.(32) By 1794 he had eliminated the other three Merina kings; in 1797 he made Antananarivo (also spelled Tananarive) his permanent capital and the island's most important city. During the rest of his reign, which lasted until 1810, he skillfully played off the British against the French, and persuaded most of Madagascar's tribes to accept Merina authority.

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The Effects of the Slave Trade on Population

In the period covered by Chapters 5 & 6 of this work, Africa's population grew from an estimated 23.5 million to 70 million, almost exactly a threefold increase. Of those 70 million, about three quarters were black, either Bantu or Nilotic. The rest were "Mediterranean whites" (the mixture of Arabs, Egyptians and Berbers in the north), a scattering of Bushmen and Pygmies, Hottentots in the far south, the Cushites of Ethiopia, and the Malagasy; the last three groups were no more than half black, technically speaking. Nearly all of the gains were made below the Sahara; whereas Black Africa's population quadrupled, the North African community only grew from eight to ten million, a 25% increase over eleven and a half centuries. Relatively speaking, the north had fallen tremendously, now that the world didn't have the ancient Egyptians or Carthaginians to kick around anymore.(33)

Contact with Europe and the resulting slave trade did not change demographic trends in Africa, but the results were dramatic in the Western Hemisphere. In the Caribbean, the local Indians were extinct by 1600, and slaves took their place. As a result, West Indian nations like Haiti, Jamaica and the Bahamas are close to 100% black today. On the mainland, the largest importer of slaves was Brazil, so the northeastern coast of that nation is 80% black. Add to that the black and mulatto communities in the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America, and the Afro-Americans of the United States and Canada, and you get a community almost 200 million strong, nearly a fourth of the 800 million who now live in the Americas.

The slave trade was Western efficiency at its worst. Ships followed a triangular path that was designed to turn a profit at each point. From Europe to Africa they took the manufactured goods that Africans were likely to buy. Then came the "Middle Passage," where the ships were loaded with slaves and sent across the Atlantic. For most of the forty-day journey, the slaves were crammed below decks like books on a shelf, each chained in a space that could be as narrow as eighteen inches high, thirteen inches wide for women, and twenty-three inches wide for men. Sanitation and health under these conditions was dreadful; a single sick slave could infect and decimate the entire ship; slavers considered the trip a success if no more than a third of the slaves perished on the way.(34) Finally, after the ships unloaded their human cargo at an American port, they picked up raw materials like molasses, cotton and tobacco for the journey back to Europe.

Map of where slaves were captured and sold.
The slave trade network.

We noted earlier in this chapter that many Europeans felt they were doing the black man a favor, by taking him to a place where he would be exposed to Western civilization and Christianity. Others looked at the role of slaves in the economy; France's King Louis XIV, for example, once said that "There is nothing that contributes more to the development of the colonies and the cultivation of their soil than the laborious toil of the Negroes." Gradually, however, the philosophers of the Enlightenment convinced most Westerners that slavery was a cruel punishment that should not be imposed on anyone. The Abolitionist movement got started in 1773 through the efforts of William Wilberforce, an English clergyman, and for sixty years he led the campaign to eliminate slavery. Although most of their successes would not happen until the nineteenth century, the Abolitionists got Denmark to outlaw the slave trade in 1792; in England itself, slavery became such an unpopular practice that in 1772 a judge declared that there was no such thing as slavery on English soil.

It is estimated that over the centuries, 12 million blacks came to America on the "Middle Passage."(35) This statistic often appears in today's history textbooks, so for a proper perspective, keep in mind that the Arabs enslaved at least 3 million Africans, and Mediterranean groups like the Barbary pirates sold a million white Christians into slavery. The reason why the Arab and Barbary slave trades did not get out of control, the way the trans-Atlantic trade did, is because the Arabs only wanted slaves for a few specific jobs (soldiers for the men, domestic servants for the women), and European navies got the upper hand on the pirates after 1600. In the 1780s, when the Abolitionist movement began putting the brakes on the slave trade, about 100,000 blacks were being removed from the continent every year.(36) However, this does not seem to have had any effect on Africa's population growth, which was probably more than 200,000 a year when nature permitted it. One reason was that two thirds of the slaves removed were male, meaning enough women were left behind to replace them. In addition, many slaves were executed or sacrificed if they couldn't be sold, so they probably wouldn't have left descendants in Africa anyway. A third factor, which wasn't appreciated until the twentieth century, was the impact of the crops outsiders brought to Africa in return. Corn, cassava (manioc) and peanuts from the Americas, and Asian staples like plantains, yams and rice, allowed bigger harvests and made it easier to survive times of famine, so population may have grown fast enough to offset losses from the slave trade.

The biggest change brought about by the new crops occurred in the southeast corner of the continent, an area that previously hadn't been able to support a large population. Bantu tribes of the Nguni and Xhosa groups obtained corn from the Portuguese in Mozambique, and used it to supplement their cattle-herding lifestyle. By 1800 their numbers had grown to approximately two million; against that, the 16,000 Boers of the Cape Colony and an equal number of "Cape Coloreds" were insignificant, promising that there would be trouble in the next century.

At the end of the period covered by this chapter, outside influence in Africa was still very limited. Only north of the Sahara (the Ottoman provinces) and south of the Orange River (the Cape Colony) had there been any successful attempt at foreign control, and even there, outside of the capital cities, control was more nominal than real. Elsewhere Europeans remained largely confined to their factories and forts on the coasts, because diseases tended to kill them off as quickly as they arrived. The African tribes and kingdoms had not only found ways to survive in the harsh environments that the continent wielded, but also to prosper. In these solutions they obviously did better than the Europeans of the pre-industrial era, but now things were changing in the outside world. The Industrial Revolution created a Europe that was bustling with energy, and the political revolutions in England, America and France meant that the white man was full of new ideas as well. This meant that the Europeans weren't going to keep their hands out of Africa forever. By contrast, Africans were about finished with their social experiments as the eighteenth century drew to a close. Their societies worked so long as they could live the same way that their ancestors did; the question now was, were they flexible enough to deal with new challenges?

This is the End of Chapter 6.


19. Interlacustrine is Latin for "between the lakes," and refers to the lands between Lakes Victoria, Albert and Tanganyika. Today this includes all of Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, the northwest corner of Tanzania, and the easternmost part of the Congo. Rainfall here is moderate (30-40 inches a year), making the place ideal for rain-watered agriculture, and the high elevation makes for somewhat milder temperatures than you'd expect a place on the equator to have. Consequently, after the Bantus settled here, population grew more quickly than in surrounding areas, and this region saw Africa's worst violence in the twentieth century, from the Idi Amin dictatorship to the Rwanda massacre.

20. Mauritius was in a convenient location for the Dutch, being on the path they preferred to take when crossing the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese, and possibly the Arabs and Malays, had gone there, but none expressed an interest in the place. The island was uninhabited previously, but within a century of the Dutch arrival, the most famous resident, a turkey-sized flightless bird called the dodo, was driven to extinction. None of the attempts at settlement by the Dutch were very successful, and always conscious of the bottom line, they abandoned the place in 1710, after introducing sugar cane, domestic animals and deer.

21. In southern Angola, the Dutch got help from Nzingha (also spelled Nzinga, 1624-63), the queen of Ndongo, the main state of the Ovimbundu tribe. As a young woman, Nzingha had been baptised by a Portuguese priest and given the Christian name of Ana de Sousa, but by the time she became queen it was clear that the Portuguese were only interested in Ndongo for slaves (the silver mines they had heard about in the region were a false rumor). Consequently, when it came to war with Portugal, she and the Dutch formed the first Afro-European alliance against a European oppressor, and her family abandoned Christianity in favor of that old-time paganism, which included ritual cannibalism. However, the Portuguese could not be defeated by bravery alone, and Nzingha had to sign a treaty with them after they returned (1657).

There is a tendency for people to tell stories and legends about great queens, perhaps because we don't hear about them as much as we hear about great kings. That is the case with Nzingha. One story tells how if she wanted to sit down and couldn't find a chair, she would order a male servant to get down on his hands and knees, and sit on his back instead. According to Philosophy in the Bedroom, by the Marquis de Sade, and a work called History of Zangua, Queen of Angola, Nzingha dressed like a man, and kept a harem of enslaved young men, dressed as women. When she had trouble deciding which member of the harem to sleep with, she would have two of them fight to the death for the privilege, spend the night with the winner, and then execute him the next morning -- what a motivation! However, by the time Nzingha signed the aforementioned treaty with the Portuguese, she was seventy-four or seventy-five years old, and maybe feeling guilty about this combination of sex and violence, because she accepted re-baptism, married one of her "wives," and set the rest of the harem free, so for the last few years of her life she was a Christian again.

22. In 1778 Portugal handed over Fernando Póo to Spain, in return for Spanish recognition that most of South America's interior now belonged to Brazil (the Treaty of Pardo).

23. The Bini did not give much attention to the god that they believe created and ruled the earth, viewing that as pointless. Instead they worshiped lesser gods, expecting them to mediate with the chief god for them. Human sacrifices were offered to the devil, who was seen as the cause of every bad thing that happened. There was rarely any struggle from the victims of the sacrifices; they believed so strongly in their religion that some even volunteered to go, for the good of the kingdom.

24. However, Benin tried to keep the slave trade from having the same destabilizing effects that it had on Kongo, by prohibiting the export of male slaves in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though it did buy slaves that Europeans brought to them from elsewhere, and resold them to places like the Ashanti kingdom.

25. The pagan elements of Santeria (a Caribbean religion that venerates both Roman Catholic saints and traditional African gods) come from the Yoruba culture, because Nigerians made up such a large percentage of the slaves brought to the New World.

26. A previous king, Wegbaja (1650?-1680?) recruited women to hunt elephants. Agaja put women in his army because he was impressed by his father's huntresses and because wars and slave raids had caused a shortage of men. While some women joined willingly, there are also reports of wives being drafted into the unit if their husbands complained to the king about their behavior. I wish someone would explain to me how turning the wife into a killing machine was considered the solution for a troubled marriage. It reminds me of the gun shop that put an ad on the Internet saying, "We provide quick solutions for women in spousal abuse situations."

Dahomey Amazon holding a head.
Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh, a leader of the Amazons in 1851. If her husband complained about her cooking, I'm sure he only did it once!
From Wikimedia Commons.

While in the army, Dahomeyan women were not permitted to have children or marry -- children would get in the way of their duties and the women were considered married to the king -- but since the king did not actually have sex with them, many Amazons were virgins. They were also given a grueling physical training that was tougher than what the male soldiers endured. During wartime their motto was, "Whatever the town to be attacked, we will conquer or bury ourselves in its ruins." Any Amazon that fled from battle without being ordered by the king to withdraw was executed on the spot. In return for the strict discipline they had to live under, the Amazons were given extraordinary privileges for women in those days: they were allowed to have alcohol, tobacco, and as many as fifty slaves. They were considered better warriors than the men even when defeated, and the king revered them so much that the penalty for touching an Amazon was death.

Incidentally, after Haiti became independent in 1804, the Haitian emperor, Henri Christophe, hired (male) palace guards from Dahomey.

27. In the early nineteenth century, Great Britain also persuaded Benin and Oyo to produce palm oil, as an alternative to selling slaves. Europeans at the time called the huge Niger River delta "the Oil Rivers" for that reason--it has nothing to do with the petroleum that attracted investors to Nigeria later on.

28. Kente cloth, the gold plaid often associated with African culture, is a product of Ashanti weavers.

29. The Ashanti still have the golden stool today, which they keep tipped on its side when the king isn't using it, to prevent anyone else, including devils, from sitting on it and thus claiming the crown.

30. H. A. R. Gibb & H. Bowen, Islamic Society and the West, London, 1950, Vol. I, pg. 264.

31. The term Kaffir means infidel in Arabic, and was first applied to the southern Bantus by the Moslem Swahili culture, because they had not accepted Islam. It stuck when whites began calling the Xhosa by the same name.

32. Actually, that's his abbreviated name. His full name was Andrianampoinimerinandriantsimitoviaminandriampanjaka!

33. All of North Africa's growth was in the Barbary states. Life must have been really bad in medieval Egypt, because Egypt's population declined to about 3.75 million by 1800, little more than half of what it had been two thousand years earlier. The only explanation for this is that Egypt's economy supported fewer people with every generation, and that the Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Fatimid, Mameluke and Turkish rulers of Egypt did not leave the Fellahin with enough food to keep them from starving.

34. If they got the chance, some slaves would jump overboard, thinking that they were going to be fed to giant cannibals upon reaching their destination. When an English slave captain, Thomas Phillips, lost twelve this way, he remarked that "they [are] having a more dreadful apprehension of Barbados than we can have of hell."

35. Don't believe absurd figures like those stated by Congressman Major Owens (D-NY), who claimed in 1995 that the slave trade permanently changed the feeding habits of sharks. Quote:

"What about the 200 million people who were lost in the Atlantic crossing? Very conservative estimates say that the slave trade, just the crossing of the Atlantic, bringing the slaves across, there were 200 million people who died just coming across. So great was the number of people who were thrown overboard that it altered the ecology of the ocean. The sharks even now trace, er, follow after ships along a trail, seeking the flesh that was thrown overboard in all those years, 200 years of the slave trade."

36. In just a six month-period in 1775, the English took more than 8,000 slaves from the Wolof tribe in Senegal; the bottom fell out of the slave market in St. Louis, where the price of a slave dropped until it matched the price of a piece of cloth. The Fulani kingdom of Futa Toro responding by banning trade with the English along the upper Senegal River.

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© Copyright 2016 Charles Kimball

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