Thursday, May 29, 2008

A look at Africa's history up to around 1500 ad

African Empires to 1500 CE

Satilite image of africa

East African young woman

East African

Ancient Zimbabwe Ruins

The Kingdom of Aksum

In the sixth century, the kingdom of Aksum (Axum) was doing what many elsewhere had been doing: pursuing trade and empire. Despite the disintegration of the Roman Empire in the 400s and the decline in world trade, Aksum's trade increased during that century. Its exports of ivory, glass crystal, brass and copper items, and perhaps slaves, among other things, had brought prosperity to the kingdom. Some people had become wealthy and cosmopolitan. Aksum's port city on the Red Sea, Adulis, bustled with activity. Its agriculture and cattle breeding flourished, and Aksum extended its rule to Nubia, across the Red Sea to Yemen, and it had extended its rule to the northern Ethiopian Highlands and along the coast to Cape Guardafui.

From Aksum's beginnings in the third century, Christianity there had spread. But at the peak of Christianity's success, Aksum began its decline. In the late 600s, Aksum's trade was diminished by the clash between Constantinople and the Sassanid Empire. The Sassanid Empire clashed with Constantinople over trade on the Red Sea and expanded into Yemen, driving Aksum out of Arabia. Then Islam united Arabia and began expanding. In the 700s, Muslim Arabs occupied the Dahlak Islands just off the coast of Adulis, which had been ruled by Aksum. The Arabs moved into the port city of Adulis, and Aksum's trade by sea ended.

Aksum was now cut off from much of the world. Greek- the language of trade - declined there. Minted coins became rare. Paganism revived and mixed with Christianity. And it has been surmised that the productivity of soil in the area was being diminished by over-exploitation and the cutting down of trees. Taking advantage of Aksum's weakness, the Bedja people, who had been living just north of Aksum, moved in. The people of Aksum, in turn, migrated into the Ethiopian Highlands, where they overran small farmers and settled at Amhara, among other nearby places. And with this migration a new Ethiopian civilization began.
West Africa

In West Africa, trade was giving rise to towns. There, on the fringes of the Sahara, arose a kingdom and empire that its rulers called Wagadu. The people of this kingdom were the Soninke - black people who spoke the language of Mande. Their king was called Ghana, and Ghana became the name by which this kingdom and empire became known - ancient Ghana rather than the modern state also called Ghana.

The kings of ancient Ghana were authoritarian. They inherited rule through their mother's side of the family - matrilineal rather than patrilineal as with kings in Europe at the time - and they claimed descent from an original ancestor whom they believed had first settled the land. Ghana's king was the leader of a religious cult that was served by devoted priests, and the king's subjects were obliged to view him as divine and as too exalted to communicate directly with them.

Ghana's kings had enhanced their power and enriched themselves by exploiting the trade passing through their territory. From the perspective of merchants they were not unlike highway bandits, forcing from tradesmen a tax on the gold they carried. But the tax was shrewder than robbery: a continual robbery would have ended the arrival of tradesmen carrying gold.

As Ghana's kings grew richer they conquered, forcing obedience from the kings of other tribes, from whom they exacted tribute. They extended their rule to the gold producing regions to their south, and they imposed a tax on gold production.

Ghana's major competitor was the Berber dominated city of Awdaghost to the northwest - a city with an ample supply of water, surrounded by herds of cattle and where millet, wheat, grapes, dates and figs were grown. The Berbers who dominated that city had wanted to make it the major point of passage for caravan trading across the western Sahara. But in 990 Ghana conquered the city, putting Ghana at the peak of its power.
Muslim Incursions

During Ghana's days of glory, Muslim tradesmen were coming south in caravans from places like Sijilmasa, Tunis and Tripoli. From Sijilmasa the caravans had been going through Taghaza to Awdaghost. From Tunis and Tripoli they had been going to Hausaland and the Lake Chad region. They had been bringing salt southward, and they also carried cloth, copper, steel, cowry shells, glass beads, dates and figs. And they brought slaves for sale.

The Muslims were literate while the Soninke and their kings were not. The Soninke left no record of the doings of their kings. It was through Muslim writers that modern historians would gather what information they could about Ghana.

The Muslims were offended to find people worshiping their king as a divinity rather than worshiping Allah. The Muslims complained of people believing their kings to be the source of life, sickness, health and death. The Muslim writer al-Bakre described a Ghana king as having an army of 200,000 men, 40,000 of whom were archers. And he described the presence in Ghana of small horses.

Among the Soninke, the town of Kumbi had become a commercial center alongside a town of round mud-brick huts. Muslim tradesmen living there built stone houses and a number of mosques. Some Muslims there served as ministers at the king's palace, and the town of Kumbi became an intellectual center for western Africa.

Muslim writers described one king of Ghana as renowned for his great wealth and the splendor of his court. The king held audience wearing fine fabrics and gold ornaments and bedecked his animals and retainers in gold. People in the north of Africa spoke of the king of Ghana as the richest monarch in the world.

But the power of the kings of Ghana was destined to end. Muslims in western Africa united behind the Almoravids - a Muslim dynasty that ruled in Morocco and Spain in the 11th and 12th centuries. A religious movement among the Muslims known as the Sanhaja inspired the Almoravids and others to a jihad (holy war), and Muslim Berbers in the Sahara joined an effort toward conversions and war against Ghana. The leader of the Sanhaja movement and army in the Sahara area, Abu Bakr, captured Awdaghost in 1054. And in 1076, after many battles, he captured the city of Kumbi.

Almoravid domination of Ghana lasted only a few years, but the Almoravids held onto control of the desert trade that had been dominated by Ghana. Without control of the gold trade, the power of Ghana's kings declined further. They had, meanwhile, converted to Islam - while holding onto the religious rituals and myths that justified their rule to their subjects. Ghana's kings allowed Berber herdsmen to move into Soninke homelands, and these herdsmen began overgrazing Ghana's lands. Ghana's agricultural land became worn and less able to support as many people as before. Subject kings and tribes broke away from Ghana's rule. The king of the Sosso people, in neighboring Kaniaga, turned the tables on Ghana, and in 1203 the Sosso overran Ghana's capital city, Kumbi.
The Mandingo Empire

After their victory over Ghana, the Sosso expanded against the Mandingo (or Mande) - a people who spoke Mande and lived on fertile farmland around Wangara. The Sosso king, Sumaguru Kante, put to death all of the sons of the Mandingo ruler but one, Sundjata, who appeared to be an insignificant cripple. But Sundjata rallied the Mandingo. A guerrilla army built by Sundjata overwhelmed the Sosso and in 1235 killed their king, Sumaguru Kante. Sundjata annexed Ghana in 1240, and he took control of the gold trade routes. Merchants moved out of Kumbi to another commercial city farther north: Walata. And in small groups the Soninke people began emigrating from what had been their homeland.

The empire that Sundjata created, called Mali, controlled the salt trade from Taghaza and the copper trade across the Sahara. The gold trade was a source of wealth for Mali, and so too was trade in food: sorghum, millet and rice. And regarding trade, Mali dominated the town of Timbuktu, nine miles north of the Niger River, which had risen a century or two before as a point of trade for desert caravans.

After Sundjata's death in 1255 more conquests were made by his successors - Mansa Uli and then Sakura. Sakura had been a freed slave serving in the royal household and had seized power after the ruling family had become weakened by quarreling among themselves. It is surmised that Sakura was responsible for Mali's expansion to Tekrur in the west and to Gao in the east.

By the 1300s, Mali's kings had converted to Islam, which gave them advantages of good will in diplomacy and commerce. But, again, the pagan rituals and artifacts that were a part of the ideology and justification of rule were maintained. And the king's loyal subjects continued their traditional prostrations and covering themselves with dust to display their humility.

By the 1300s, Muslim Mandingo merchants were trading as far east as the city-states in Hausaland and beyond to Lake Chad. Islam was spreading with the trade of its merchants, and it appears that in the 1300s or 1400s the kings of Hausaland converted to Islam. But when a Mali king tried to pressure people in the gold mining region around Wangara to convert, a disruption in the production of gold was threatened, and the pressure to convert was withdrawn.

One well known Mali emperor who was Muslim was Mansa Musa, who ruled from 1312-1337. On record is Mansa Musa's pilgrimage to Mecca, his entourage described as including 500 slaves with gold staffs and 100 camels each with 300 pounds of gold. Mansa Mura is described as spending lavishly in the bazaars of Cairo and his spending is said to have increased the supply of gold to an extent that its price depreciated on the Cairo exchange. And, as usual, scholars were not immune from being influenced by wealth, Mansa Musa bringing a collection of them back with him from Mecca. Mali was literate, but only insofar as it employed Muslim scribes at the court of its kings. As in Europe, the common people of Mali were not yet expected to read and write.
The Songhai Rebellion and Mali's Decline

Mali reached its peak in fame and fortune in the 1300s. Then weak and incompetent kings inherited power. Late in the 1300s the old problem of dynastic succession brought quarrels that weakened the Mali kingship and gave others opportunity.

The others in this instance were the Songhai people, who lived along the middle of the Niger River and monopolized fishing and canoe transport there. Trade at Gao had brought Islam to the Songhai. Some Songhai royalty had converted to Islam, as had an unknown percentage of Songhai commoners. Mali control over the Songhai capital, Gao, had always been tentative, and the spirit of independence had not died among Songhai kings. A Songhai king led his people in rebellion. The rebellion disrupted Mali's trade on the Niger River. Mali's empire suffered as the Songhai sacked and occupied Timbuktu in 1433-34. In 1464 a Songhai king, Sonni 'Ali took power, and again Timbuktu was attacked, Sonni 'Ali capturing the city after a great loss of life. Five years later, Sonni 'Ali conquered the town of Jenne which had been thought impregnable. In his twenty-eight years of military campaigning, the victorious Songhai king won the title King of Kings. He dominated trade routes and the great grain producing region of the Niger river delta. Sonni 'Ali's competitor, the Mali empire, was deteriorating, and the Mali empire was to die in the 1600s.
Benin Exports Slaves

Benin was a city that dated back to the eleventh century - and no relation to the West African nation of Benin of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Benin was a large city for its time - a walled city several kilometers wide in a forested region inland from where the Niger River emptied into the Atlantic. In the mid-1400s the ruler of Benin, Ewuare, built up his military and began expanding. Captives taken in battle he traded to the Portuguese. Benin's empire reached about 190 miles (300 kilometers) in width by the early 1500s. Then it stopped expanding, and with this it had no more captives to sell as slaves, while selling slaves to the Portuguese was being taken up by others.
South Central Africa

Some scholars theorize that Bantu speaking people had moved south from around the Benue River in western Africa into south-central Africa. By the 900s, the pastoral and Hamitic speaking Tutsi were migrating southward, into east-central Africa, to Rwanda, near Ukerewe, in centuries to come to be known as Lake Victoria. There, it is said, the Tutsi introduced cattle raising, iron-working, new crops, kingship and caste divisions. The people whom the Tutsi overran were Bantu speakers - the Hutu - and the Tutsi made vassals of some of the Hutu, giving them cattle in exchange for services and loyalty.

Before the 1100s agriculture was practiced in much of south-central Africa, except in the interior of southern Angola, close to the Kalahari Desert. In south-central Africa, bananas were grown. This was tropical woodland and savana, where yams and sugar cane were grown. Beans, groundnuts, sorghum and other millets were cultivated in areas of savanna. And people augmented their food production by hunting, fishing, gathering grubs and by raising chickens, pigs and, in a few places, cattle. There was also pottery making, wickerwork and salt production. At Munza were iron mines. People in this region of Africa preferred using salt and metal, including copper, as currency for trading. By the 1300s, communities in Katanga were uniting into a kingdom of farmers, fishermen and crafts people, and they were trading in dry fish and products made of metal.

In some of the more remote parts of south-central Africa were villages that were still egalitarian, but in the more densely populated areas monarchs had arisen. These monarchs associated their rule with spirits, and their rule was supported by rituals and priests not totally removed from sorcery, divination, healing and fertility rites. And those supporting monarchical rule believed in the sacredness of lineage and royal blood of their monarchs. A monarch had underlings who advised him and went with him in his visits to the villages where he claimed rule. He had the keepers of emblems, a military chief and warriors to support his rule. He had slaves. And from his subjects the monarch received taxes with which to maintain his operation and to buy what he needed to maintain what he considered an appropriate lifestyle.

By the 1400s small empires thrived in south-central Africa. One was centered at Luba , built by iron-working farmers in a place well-suited for agricultural surpluses: with fertile land and sufficient rainfall. And there were woodlands, lakes and rivers for supplementary hunting and fishing. Another empire was centered at Lunda , its center about 400 kilometers southwest of the center of Luba's empire. It was less densely populated than Luba and not quite as agricultural, and where, it appears, people learned metal working from Luba. A third empire was centered in the kingdom of the Kongo, which dominated areas such as Loango, Kakong, Ngoi and Kisama.
Eastern Africa

Those who remained in Nubia after conquests by the Soba and by the Aksumites lived for long periods in peace and cooperation with Egypt, including returning to Egypt runaway slaves. They traded with Egypt, and some genetic diffusion with the Egyptians occurred. Between the ninth and twelfth centuries, Nubia became more Arabic and more Muslim. And blacks from Nubia filled the ranks of Egypt's military.

Egypt went through rule by the Fatimids, followed by the turmoil of the Christian crusades and rule by Saladin and his Ayubbid dynasty. In 1172 Christian Nubia joined Europe's Crusaders by attacking the Ayubbids, and an Ayubbid army successfully counterattacked. In 1250 the Mamelukes replaced the Ayubbids, and the more aggressive Mamelukes warred frequently, their armies diminishing Nubian populations and taking many slaves from Nubia. Nubia split into two kingdoms, Makouria and Alwa. In the 1300s Makouria collapsed. Then in the 1400s, pastoralists from Egypt overran Alwa, and this was followed by civil war there. The Muslim invasions were accompanied by anti-Christian violence, and by 1500 little Christianity was left in what had been Nubia.
Christianity and Islam in Ethiopia

In the 700s and 800s, Arab traders looking for opportunity moved southward into coastal towns such as Mogadishu , Merca and Brava . They participated in the trade that traversed the Indian Ocean. Intermarriages with local blacks occurred. Arab tradesmen made themselves dominant in the region, and a few Arabs migrated farther south along the coast, the island of Pemba becoming part Muslim by the 900s.

Since the 900s, people in and around the Ethiopian highlands had been benefiting from trade with port cities such as Adulis on the Red Sea, Zeila and Berbera on the Gulf of Aden, and Mogadishu, Merca and Brava on the shore of the Indian Ocean. Inland were Muslim and Christian communities, often neighboring each other. The Muslims had a strong sense of community and generally participated more in trade than the Christians - trade being largely in Muslim hands. The Christians were under various chiefdoms. Many were farmers, and a few were prosperous and had slaves.

In the area was also a Jewish community, the Falashas, who spoke Ge'ez and knew no Hebrew. They were unfamiliar with the Talmuds that had been produced in West Asia, but they claimed to be descended from the ten tribes banished from Israel.

Around the year 1270, at Amhara, in the northern highlands of Ethiopia, a new Christian dynasty, the Solomonids, was founded by Yikunno-Amlak, a conqueror who was described as a king of kings. His dynasty was believed to be a continuation of the Christian kingdom that had been in Aksum centuries before. Yikunno-Amlak was to be described as descended from Solomon's son, Manelik and the Queen of Sheba. His Christian subjects believed that they were God's chosen people, that they were maintaining purity in Christian belief, and that they were members of a second Israel.

The Solomonids addressed the problem of monarchical succession by putting Yikunno-Amlak's male descendants in a mountain retreat guarded by several hundred warriors. There Yikunno-Amlak's descendants remained in isolation, studied their faith, wrote poetry and composed sacred music as they awaited selection as heir to the throne.

It was under Yikunno-Amlak's grandson, Amda Seyon (1314-44), that the Solomonids gained military dominance in Ethiopia - Solomonid rule stretching from Adulis in the north to Bali in the south. The success of Christians against Muslims in Ethiopia did not sit well with the Muslims of Egypt. In Ethiopia, Amda-Seyon became concerned about retributions against his fellow Christians in Egypt. He demanded freedom of worship and other civil rights for Christians in Egypt, and he was prepared to fight Egypt and to ally himself with Christian Europe to end Muslim supremacy in West Asia, but no such war took place. The Mamelukes of Egypt remained interested primarily in events in the eastern Mediterranean. Christians in Egypt were becoming more outnumbered by Muslims, and this would continue into the 1400s, with the Muslim majority increasingly blaming Christians and other minorities for their troubles.

In the 1400s the power of the Solomonids in Ethiopia declined as various Muslim communities rebelled against it. Under the king Beide-Maryan (1468-78), the Solomonids suffered their first serious military defeat. And after 1478 the Solomonids were weakened by a conflict over succession - their attempt to solve the problem of succession apparently having failed. War between two Solomonid princes continued for several years. Muslims took advantage of Solomonid weakness, declared a holy war, and the Solomonid Empire collapsed. But a Solomonid king remained, a local king rather than a king of kings, the Solomonids would rise again, the last of them to be Haile Selassie in the 20th century.
Farther South

Below Mogadishu, Merca and Brava, Africa remained predominately black. There were hunters, fishermen, growers of sorghum, millet, rice, cucumbers, coconuts, sugar and bananas, and some were raising cattle. Some hunter-gatherers integrated with the cattle herders or agriculturists, into societies ruled by kings who believed that they were divine but also feared assassination if they became too oppressive.

Inland, about 180 miles from the eastern coast, on a plateau sparse in trees, was Zimbabwe, where Bantu speakers were living sometime between the 5th and 10th centuries - the Bantu speaking people having replaced the Sa (Bushmen) whom they had driven into the desert. The Bantu speakers had come in two waves, the last wave being a pastoral and agricultural people who built the stone structures that were to be known in the 20th century as the ruins of Zimbabwe, of an architecture unknown to any people elsewhere in the world - the oldest of which dated from the 700s.

Gold that was mined near Zimbabwe was taken to trading towns along the coast. So too were leopard skins, rhinoceros horn, ambergris, slaves and ivory - the ivory of the African elephant more in demand than the harder ivory of the Indian elephant. Joining this trade was iron taken from deposits around the towns of Mombasa and Malindi. Traders on the eastern coast of Africa, many of them blacks, profited from a rise in trade with Asia, and from India the Africans imported silks, cottons and glassware.

From the 1100s, Arabs began arriving in greater number in this coastal area. In the 1200s Mombasa became staunchly Muslim, and a Muslim dynasty was established at Kilwa. By the mid-1200s, Kilwa controlled the trade from Sofala to its south, Sofala being a point of departure for gold from inland.

Meanwhile, economic activity in Zimbabwe was predominantly cattle raising, while the wealth of its king grew from trade in gold. With his wealth the king was able to maintain a powerful army and to extend his authority across a variety of principalities - a hundred miles to the west and to the Indian Ocean in the east. During the 1300s and into the 1400s Zimbabwe was the richest state on Africa's eastern coast, but it was also declining: Zimbabwe was losing its timber. Its lands were overgrazed and farmlands were eroding. Zimbabwe declined as a power, and it was abandoned around 1450. Successor states arose: Torwa to its west, Changamire just to its north, and Mutapa on the Zambezi River. Mutapa's economy was also based on cattle and wealth from the gold trade, and Mutapa expanded locally by military conquest.

Toward the end of the 1400s, Kilwa's preeminence on the east coast was fading as dynastic struggles sapped its strength. Kilwa was losing the trade in gold from Sofala to Mutaba. And Mutaba's gold trading attracted the Portuguese, who had begun sailing along Africa's eastern coast. Trade between Africans and the Europeans was on the rise, in slaves as well as gold.

1 comment:

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