Tuesday, 24 April 2012


It is a general belief that empires in Africa, apart from the Egyptian, didn't exist. The main reason for this luck of earlier knowledge is the unknown continent of Africa or the dark continent as it was called. Till the middle of 16th century Africa was hardly visited by Europeans which resulted into this assumption.
For European to visit Africa was only possible by ship and land at one of their natural harbours. These existed only along the Red Sea and some on the east coast. Africa did not have many natural harbours south of the Sahara therefore trade was established across the land. Along the trade routes settlements were built and slowly kingdoms developed. These kingdoms were not known to Europeans because their explorers did not reach them.

There were three ancient kingdoms of West Africa = Ghana, Mali and Songhay - which were based on the trade of goods at that time. The area was rich on gold and slaves. Gold was found and traded from Ashante and Senegal. Slaves were traded from states further south and then taken by Arab traders across the Sahara.

The Arab people are legendary for trade and crossed the Sahara in large groups called caravans. They were the main reason for establishing different cultures and African empires. Most of the empires vanished completely but only one survived till the 20th century - the Ethiopian empire.
The Arabian people also were shipping goods along the coasts of East Africa and the Red Sea. Their style of ships are called dhows were also going down the Nile.

Caravans crossing the Sahara encouraged towns like Timbuktu, Gao and Walata being built and were their resting places. These major centres were then growing in to African kingdoms.
Crossing the Sahara was not only difficult and dangerous because of the very high temperature, sandstorms and starvation but also of the Tuaregs. They attacked the caravans for their precious goods of gold, ivory, gum, spices, salt and slaves.
These trade routes brought Christianity and then later on Islam. Islam spread right across Africa. Islam also brought a rich tradition of art and learning. Knowledge was encouraged in the universities of the Mali and Songhay empires.
The goods were sold in Mediterranean countries and the Near East. On their return journeys they brought back the vital salt and woollen and other luxurious goods from Europe. These riches brought a life style not known before. By the end of the Middles Ages the Christian Europe and the Muslim Middle East were thriving because of the African Gold.
The kingdom of Benin started at the 14th century and was at its glory in the 15th century. The City of Benin had walls 40km long. The people became famous for their art. A beautiful ivory mask was discovered which was made for one of the kings of Benin.
Two kings became famous for their splendour and their kingdoms. They were Mansa Mus of Mali and Sonni Ali of Songhay. Their name carried through Islam and Christendom. Their walled cities Timbuktu and Jenne had a very lively trade of all nations. The universities became famous and attracted scholars and poets from all over the world.
Mansa Musa, the king of Mali was so wealthy he gave away so much gold on the way of a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 it effected the economy in Cairo.
The kings and emperors ruled both by military force and keeping on the right side of the local leaders. These were the royal judges and royal bureaucracies for taxes and control of trade. The kings and emperors were aware that these local leaders were the backbone of their prosperity.
The empire of Knem-Borno grew alongside Lake Chad in the Middle of Africa. It prospered because of the eastern trade route. It started in the 11th century but reached their peak in the 16th century under the rule of King Idris.
South of Africa the kingdom of Zimbabwe flourished between 13th and 15th century. Their riches came from their gold mines and trading with Arabs along their coast and through the port of Sofala.

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