African history is a massive and intricate subject, world-shaking events have shaped the continent’s history, from the early men and women who left their footsteps in volcanic ash to the liberation of Nelson Mandela, and a whole lot of wars, conquests, civilisations and revolutions in between.
You’ve probably heard the claim that Africa is ‘the birthplace of humanity’. But before there were humans, or even apes, or even ape ancestors, there was...rock. Africa is the oldest and most enduring landmass in the world. When you stand on African soil, 97% of what’s under your feet has been in place for more than 300 million years. During that time, Africa has seen pretty much everything – from proto-bacteria to dinosaurs and finally, around five to 10 million years ago, a special kind of ape called Australopithecines, that branched off (or rather let go of the branch), and walked on two legs down a separate evolutionary track.
This radical move led to the development of various hairy, dim-witted hominids (early men) – Homo habilis around 2.4 million years ago, Homo erectus some 1.8 million years ago and finally Homo sapiens (modern humans) around 200,000 years ago. Around 50,000 years later, somewhere in Tanzania or Ethiopia, a woman was born who has become known as ‘mitochondrial Eve’. We don’t know what she looked like, or how she lived her life, but we do know that every single human being alive today (yup, that’s EVERYONE) is descended from her. So at a deep genetic level, we’re all still Africans.
The break from Africa into the wider world occurred around 100,000 years ago, when a group numbering perhaps as few as 50 people migrated out of North Africa, along the shores of the Mediterranean and into the Middle East. From this inauspicious start came a population that would one day cover almost every landmass on the globe.
Around the time that people were first venturing outside the continent, hunting and gathering was still the lifestyle of choice; humans lived in communities that rarely exceeded a couple of hundred individuals, and social bonds were formed to enable these small bands of people to share food resources and hunt co-operatively. With the evolution of language, these bonds blossomed into the beginnings of society and culture as we know it today.
The first moves away from the nomadic hunter–gatherer way of life came between 14,000 BC and 9500 BC, a time when rainfall was high and the Sahara and North Africa became verdant. It was in these green and pleasant lands that the first farmers were born, and mankind learned to cultivate crops rather than following prey animals from place to place.
By 2500 BC the rains began to fail and the sandy barrier between North and West Africa became the Sahara we know today. People began to move southwest into the rainforests of Central Africa. By this time a group of people speaking the same kind of languages had come to dominate the landscape in Africa south of the Sahara. Known as the Bantu, their populations grew as they discovered iron-smelting technology and developed new agricultural techniques. By 100 BC, Bantu peoples had reached East Africa; by AD 300 they were living in southern Africa, and the age of the African empires had begun.
Victorian missionaries liked to think they were bringing the beacon of ‘civilisation’ to the ‘savages’ of Africa, but the truth is that Africans were developing commercial empires and complex urban societies while Europeans were still running after wildlife with clubs. Many of these civilisations were small and short-lived, but others were truly great, with influence that reached far beyond Africa and into Asia and Europe.
Arguably the greatest of the African empires was the first: Ancient Egypt. Formed through an amalgamation of already organised states in the Nile Delta around 3100 BC, it achieved an amazing degree of cultural and social sophistication. Sophisticated food-production techniques from the Sahara combined with influences from the Middle East to form a society in which the Pharaohs, a race of kings imbued with the power of gods, sat at the top of a highly stratified social hierarchy. The annual flooding of the Nile kept the lands of the Pharaohs fertile and fed their legions of slaves and artisans, who in turn worked to produce some of the most amazing public buildings ever constructed. Many of these, like the Pyramids of Giza, are still standing today. During the good times, which lasted nearly 3000 years, Egyptians discovered the principals of mathematics and astronomy, invented a written language and mined gold. Ancient Egypt was eventually overrun by the Nubian Empire, then by the Assyrians, Persians, Alexander the Great and finally the Romans. The Nubians retained control of a great swathe of the Lower Nile Valley, despite getting a spanking from the Ethiopian empire of Aksum around AD 500.
Established in Tunisia by a mysterious race of seafaring people called the Phoenicians (little is known about their origins, but they probably hailed from Tyre in modern-day Lebanon), the city-state of Carthage filled the power gap left by the fading empire of Ancient Egypt. By the 6th century BC, Carthage controlled much of the local sea trade, their ships sailing to and from the Mediterranean ports laden with cargos of dye, cedar wood and precious metals. Back on land, scholars were busy inventing the Phoenician alphabet, from which Greek, Hebrew and Latin letters are all thought to derive. All this came to an abrupt end with the arrival of the Romans, who razed Carthage to the ground (despite the best efforts of the mighty warrior Hannibal, Carthage’s most celebrated son) and enslaved its population in 146 BC. A host of foreign armies swept across North Africa in the succeeding centuries, but it was the Arabs who had a lasting impact, introducing Islam around AD 670.
Aksum was the first truly African indigenous state – no conquerors from elsewhere arrived to start this legendary kingdom, which controlled much of Sudan and southern Arabia at the height of its powers. Aksum’s heart was the hilly, fertile landscape of northern Ethiopia, a cool, green place that contrasts sharply with the hot, dry shores of the Red Sea just a few hundred kilometres away. The Aksumites traded with Egypt, the eastern Mediterranean and Arabia, developed a written language, produced gold coins and built imposing stone buildings. In the third century AD, the Aksumite king converted to Christianity, founding the Ethiopian Orthodox church. Legend has it that Ethiopia was the home of the fabled Queen of Sheba and the last resting place of the mysterious Ark of the Covenant. Aksum also captured the imagination of medieval Europeans, who told tales of a legendary Christian king named ‘Prester John’ who ruled over a race of white people deep in darkest Africa.
The area around present-day Mali was the home of a hugely wealthy series of West African empires that flourished over the course of more than 800 years. The Ghana Empire lasted from AD 700 to 1000, and was followed by the Mali Empire (around AD 1250 to 1500), which once stretched all the way from the coast of Senegal to Niger. The Songhai Empire (AD 1000–1591) was the last of these little-known, trade-based empires, which at times covered areas larger than Western Europe, and whose wealth was founded on the mining of gold and salt from Saharan mines. Camels carried these natural resources across the desert to cities in North Africa and the Middle East, returning laden with manufactured goods and producing a huge surplus of wealth. One Malian emperor was said to possess a nugget of gold so large you could tether a horse to it! Organised systems of government and Islamic centres of scholarship – the most famous of which was Timbuktu – flourished in the kingdoms of West Africa, but conversely, it was Islam that led to their downfall when the forces of Morocco invaded in 1591.
While the West African kings were trading their way to fame and fortune, a similar process was occurring on Africa’s east coast. As early as the 7th century AD, the coastal areas of modern-day Tanzania, Kenya and Mozambique were home to a chain of vibrant, well-organised city-states, whose inhabitants lived in stone houses, wore fine silks and decorated their gravestones with fine ceramics and glass. Merchants from as far afield as China and India arrived on the East African coast in their magnificent, wooden sailing boats, then set off again with their holds groaning with trade goods, spices, slaves and exotic beasts. The rulers of these city-states were the Swahili sultans – kings and queens who kept a hold on their domains via their control over magical objects and knowledge of secret religious ceremonies. The Swahili sultans were eventually defeated by Portuguese and Omani conquerors, but the rich cultural melting pot they presided over gave rise to the Swahili language, a fusion of African, Arabic and Portuguese words that still thrives in the present day. The Omani sultans who replaced the Swahili rulers made the fabled island of Zanzibar their headquarters, building beautiful palaces and bathhouses and cementing the hold of Islamic culture on the East African coast.
There has always been slavery in Africa (slaves were often the by-products of intertribal warfare, and the Arabs and Shirazis who dominated the East African coast took slaves by the thousands), but it was only after Portuguese ships arrived off the African coast in the fifteenth century that slaving turned into an export industry. The Portuguese in West Africa, the Dutch in South Africa and other Europeans who came after them were initially searching for lucrative trade routes, but they soon saw how African slavery worked and were impressed with how slaves helped fuel agricultural production. They figured that slaves would be just the thing for their huge American sugar plantations. At the same time, African leaders realised they could extend their kingdoms by waging war, and get rich trading with Europeans, whose thirst for slaves (and gradual insistence that slaves be exchanged for guns) created a vicious circle of conflict.
Exact figures are impossible to establish, but from the end of the 15th century until around 1870, when the slave trade was abolished, up to 20 million Africans were enslaved. Perhaps half died en route to the Americas; millions of others perished in slaving raids.
The trans-Atlantic slave trade gave European powers a huge economic boost, while the loss of farmers and tradespeople, as well as the general chaos, made Africa an easy target for colonialism.
The first European visitors to Africa were content to make brief forays into well-fortified coastal settlements, but it wasn’t long before the thirst to discover (and exploit) the unknown interior took hold. Victorian heroes such as Richard Burton and John Speke captured the public imagination with the hair-raising tales from the East African interior, while Mungo Park and the formidable Mary Wesley battled their way through fever-ridden swamps, and avoided charging animals while ‘discovering’ various parts of West Africa. Most celebrated was missionary–explorer David Livingstone, who was famously encountered by Henry Morton Stanley on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Livingstone spent the best years of his life attempting to convert the ‘natives’ to Christianity and searching for the source of the Nile.
Hot on the heels of the 19th-century explorers came the representatives of European powers, who began the infamous ‘scramble for Africa’, vying with each other to exploit real or imagined resources for their sovereigns, and demarcating random and unlikely national borders that still remain to this day. At the Berlin Conference of 1884–85, most of Africa was split neatly into colonies. France and Britain got the biggest swathes, with Germany, Portugal, Italy, Spain and Belgium picking up bits and pieces.
Forced labour, heavy taxation, and swift and vengeful violence for any insurrection were all characteristics of the colonial administrations. African territories were essentially organised to extract cheap cash crops and natural resources for use by the colonial powers. To facilitate easy administration, tribal differences and rivalries were exploited to the full, and Africans who refused to assimilate to the culture of their overlords were kept out of the market economy and the education system. Industrial development and social welfare were rarely high on the colonialists’ agenda, and the effects of the colonial years, which in some cases only ended a few decades ago, continue to leave their mark on the continent.
African independence movements have existed for as long as the foreign overlords, but the formation of organised political resistance gained momentum in the 1950s and ’60s, when soldiers who had fought in both World Wars on behalf of their colonial masters joined forces with African intellectuals who had gained their education through missionary schools and universities. Young men and women went abroad to study and were inspired by the fiery speeches of communist figures and the far-reaching goals of nationalist movements from other countries. They returned home dreaming of ‘Africa for the Africans’. Some realised this dream peacefully, others only after decades of bloodshed and struggle, but by the 1970s the dream had become a reality, and a new era of independent African governments was born.
In many cases, however, it didn’t take long before the dream turned into a nightmare. Fledgling African nations became pawns in the Cold War machinations of self-serving foreign powers, and factors such as economic collapse and ethnic resentment led them to spiral down into a mire of corruption, violence and civil war.
If Africa sometimes seems like a continent suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, one of the least thoroughly digested of its many traumas was the slave trade. Part of African reality long before the white man set foot there, slavery was the fate of criminals, the indebted and prisoners of war. However, its domestic form was more benign than what came later, when Arab slave traders sent raiding parties into the interior, kidnapping the fittest and strongest. Entire regions became depopulated as villagers fled, and the impact of the Arab tactics of divide and rule, in which one chieftain turned against another, have been insidious. By the 16th century, European powers were hard on the Arabs’ heels. With African rulers acting as middlemen – the West African empires of Dahomey and Ashanti in today’s Benin and Ghana grew fat on slavery’s proceeds – British, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch traders shipped between 12 and 20 million souls across the Atlantic to work the New World’s tobacco, sugar and cotton plantations. The brutal trade finally ended in 1833 when Britain, its conscience pricked by the abolition movement, outlawed slavery in its colonies.
What is striking is how deep in the continent’s subconscious this terrible episode has been buried. Some academics estimate that had it not been for the slave trade, Africa’s mid-19th-century population would have been double its 25 million figure. Yet with the exception of the markets along the Swahili coast (a 2, 900km stretch of Kenyan and Tanzanian coastline), Ghana’s castles and Senegal’s Goree Island, one rarely stumbles upon its traces. The complicity of rulers of the day may explain a reluctance to engage with the issue. As Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade, whose ancestors were slave owners, told African delegates campaigning for reparations: ‘If one can claim reparations for slavery, the slaves of my ancestors or their descendants can also claim money from me.’ The other complicating factor may be awareness of the time it took many African states to outlaw slavery – Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie, for example, only set about it in the 1920s – and embarrassment at the knowledge that it still quietly persists in countries such as Sudan, Mauritania and Niger. This awkward fact was highlighted in May 2005 when a pressure group arranged a release ceremony for 7,000 slaves in Niger. Humiliated by the media coverage, the government warned those involved they faced prosecution if they admitted to being slave masters, and the ceremony was scrapped.