African history is a vast and epic tale. The continent has seen pretty much everything; from proto-bacteria and dinosaurs to the colonial 'scramble for Africa' and the Arab Spring that ousted long-time leaders in North Africa. The first humans walked out of the continent about 100,000 years ago to eventually populate the globe. Since then, African empires have come and gone – as have European explorers and colonialists.
Human Origins & Migrations
Around five to 10 million years ago, a special kind of ape called Australopithecines 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 humans) – 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'. All humans today descend from her: at a deep genetic level, we're all Africans.
The first moves away from the nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life came between 14,000 BC and 9500 BC, when rainfall was high and the Sahara and North Africa became verdant. 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, most notably a group of people speaking the same family of languages. Known as the Bantu, the group's population grew as it 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.
African Empires Through the Ages
Victorian missionaries liked to think they were bringing the beacon of 'civilisation' to the 'backward' Africa, but the truth is that Africans were developing sophisticated commercial empires and complex urban societies while Europeans were still running after wildlife with clubs.
Pyramids of Power
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, Egypt achieved an amazing degree of cultural and social sophistication. The Pharaohs, 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. Ancient Egypt was eventually overrun by the Nubian Empire, then by the Assyrians, Persians, Alexander the Great and finally the Romans.
Phoenician & Roman North Africa
Established in Tunisia by the Phoenicians (seafaring people with their origins in Tyre, in what is now Lebanon), the city-state of Carthage filled the power vacuum left by the decline of ancient Egypt. By the 6th century BC, Carthage was an empire in its own right and controlled much of the Mediterranean sea trade. Back on land, scholars were busy inventing the Phoenician alphabet, from which Greek, Hebrew and Latin are all thought to derive. It all came to an abrupt end with the arrival of the Romans, who razed Carthage and enslaved its population in 146 BC.
The Romans built some of Africa's most beautiful ancient cities in what are now Libya, Algeria and Morocco, and African-born Septimius Severus (r AD 193–211) went on to become Emperor of Rome. But the Romans, like the Carthaginians before them and the Byzantines who came after, had their control over Africa effectively restricted to the Mediterranean coastal strip. This was swept away by the Arabs who arrived in North Africa, bearing Islam, around AD 670.
The Kingdom of Sheba
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 between AD 100 and 940. Aksum's heart was the hilly, fertile landscape of northern Ethiopia. The Aksumites traded with Egypt, the eastern Mediterranean and Arabia, developed a written language, produced gold coins and built imposing stone buildings. In the 4th 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.
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 artisanal ceramics and glass. Merchants from as far afield as China and India came to the East African coast, then set off again, 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.
The area centred on present-day Mali was home to a hugely wealthy series of West African empires that flourished over the course of more than 800 years. The Empire of Ghana lasted from the 4th to 11th centuries AD, and was followed by the fabulously wealthy Empire of Mali (around 1250 to 1500), which once stretched all the way from the coast of Senegal to Niger.
The Songhaï Empire (1000–1591), with its capital at Gao in modern-day Mali, was the last of Africa's golden empires, which at their peak covered areas larger than Western Europe. Their wealth was founded on the salt from Saharan mines, which was traded ounce for ounce with West African gold. 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.
The Age of The Explorers
By the 15th century, with gold and tales of limitless wealth making their way across the Sahara and the Mediterranean, European royalty became obsessed with Africa.
The Portuguese were first off the block, building a fortified trading post, the earliest European structure in sub-Saharan Africa, along today's Ghanaian coast. By the end of the century their ships had rounded Southern Africa. In the early 16th century French, British and Dutch ships joined the Portuguese along the coast, building forts as they went. But unlike the Carthaginians and Romans, the European powers were never content with mere coastal footholds.
Victorian heroes such as Richard Burton and John Speke captured the public imagination with their 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.
The European Slave Trade
There has always been slavery in Africa (slaves were common by-products of intertribal warfare, and the Arabs and Shirazis who dominated the East African coast took slaves by the thousands). But the slave trade took on a whole new dimension after the European arrival. The Portuguese in West Africa, the Dutch in South Africa and other Europeans who came after them saw how African slavery worked and, with one eye on their huge American sugar plantations, saw the potential for slavery to fuel agricultural production. They were helped by opportunistic African leaders who used slavery and other trade with Europeans as a means to expand their own power.
Exact figures are impossible to establish, but from the end of the 15th century until around 1870, when the slave trade was fully 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.
Throughout the 19th century, the region-by-region conquest of the continent by European powers gathered pace and became known as the 'Scramble for Africa'. This was formalised at the Berlin Conference of 1884–85, when Europe's governments divided Africa between them. After the conference, Britain's Lord Salisbury told the London Times in 1890: 'We have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where the mountains and rivers and lakes were.' That Africans had no say in the matter scarcely seemed to register. France and Britain got the biggest swaths, with Germany, Portugal, Italy, Spain and Belgium picking up the rest. The resulting boundaries, determined more by colonial expediency than the complex realities on the ground, remain largely in place today.
Forced labour, heavy taxation, and vengeful violence for any insurrection were all commonplace in colonial Africa. 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 industrial development, social welfare and education were rarely policy priorities. The effects of the colonial years, which in some cases only ended a few decades ago, continue to leave their mark on the continent.
Africa for the Africans
African independence movements existed throughout the colonial period, but organised political resistance gained momentum in the 1950s and ’60s. 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; their catchcry became 'Africa for the Africans'.
Many African countries became independent in the 1960s – some peacefully, others only after years of bloodshed and struggle. The Organisation of African Unity was established with 32 members in 1963 to promote solidarity and act as a collective voice for the continent. By the 1970s most African countries had become masters of their own destinies, at least on paper.
It is impossible to overstate the euphoria that gripped Africa in the post-independence period. The speeches of bright young leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya) and Patrice Lumumba (Congo) had Africans across the continent dreaming of a new African dawn. For the most part, they were disappointed. Most African countries were woefully unprepared for independence, ruled over by an ill-equipped political class. The situation worsened when fledgling African nations became pawns in the Cold War machinations of the US and USSR, and factors such as drought, economic collapse and ethnic resentment led many to spiral down into a mire of corruption, violence and civil war.
The first decade in the 21st century held out hope for the continent. The Human Security Report Project (www.hsrgroup.org) found that between 1999 and 2006 the number of state-based armed conflicts dropped by 46%, while those between rebel groups fell by 54%. The annual number of deaths in battle actually diminished by two-thirds between 2002 and 2006.
Oil discoveries and lessening conflict resulted in more than 30 African countries growing economically at a rate of 4% or more in 2006 and 2007. Also in 2007, the G8 countries pledged US$25 billion aid for Africa and promised to eliminate the outstanding debts of the poorest countries. However, by the end of the decade, shrinking remittances from the diaspora, cuts in exports and falls in tourism earnings had taken a measurable toll. Above all, the global economic crisis and ongoing uncertainty threatens to dry up the generosity of industrialised nations.
The outbreak of the Ebola virus in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia from 2013 to 2016 rocked the continent to its core. Although there were isolated cases elsewhere, Africa breathed a huge sigh of relief when the epidemic was officially declared to be over, not least because the rest of world had steered clear of the entire continent – it was the equivalent of people not visiting Spain because of a disease outbreak in Norway. The after-effects of the Arab Spring, too, continued to be felt – from Tunisia and Libya to Mali and Niger – even as conflicts ended and democracy continued to deepen its roots in many places.