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General History of Africa

An Educational Resource of Countries in the Five Regions of Africa.


This is a short history of Africa. The 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 and a whole lot of wars, conquests, civilizations and revolutions in between.

Africa is the birthplace of humankind and knowing its history is essential for understanding the global society that’s grown around it. Here, you’ll discover resources on the continent’s prominent historical races, glorious past (pre-colonial), ancient Kingdoms in different regions, occupations, Traditions and Customs before the Continent was carved into different countries, and how we lost our focus and disintegrated into regions and countries.

It is important to highlight how we are now, how the ancient kingdoms became the current 54 Countries post-colonial era and what happened? Ultimately this history will show an understanding of what is the proposed and planned future of Africa.


The continent of Africa is rich with the history of mankind. Some of the earliest archeological discoveries of human development have been found in Africa including ancient cave paintings many thousands of years old. The geography of Africa helped to shape the history and development of the culture and civilizations of Ancient Africa. It impacted where people could live, important trade resources such as gold and salt, and trade routes that helped different civilizations to interact and develop.

The continent of Africa borders the southern half of the Mediterranean Sea. The Atlantic Ocean is to the west and the Indian Ocean is to the Southeast. Africa stretches well south of the equator to cover more than 12 million square miles making Africa the world’s second largest continent. Africa is also the world’s second most populous continent. Africa is one of the most diverse places on the planet with a wide variety of terrain, wildlife, and climates.

Population: 1,022,234,000 (Source: 2010 United Nations)
Area: 11,668,599 square miles
Ranking: It is the second largest and second most populous continent.
Major Biomes: desert, savanna, rain forest
Major Cities:

  • Cairo, Egypt
  • Lagos, Nigeria
  • Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Johannesburg-Ekurhuleni, South Africa
  • Khartoum-Umm Durman, Sudan
  • Alexandria, Egypt
  • Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire
  • Casablanca, Morocco
  • Cape Town, South Africa
  • Durban, South Africa

Bordering Bodies of Water: Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Mediterranean Sea, Gulf of Guinea.
Major Rivers and Lakes: Nile River, Niger River, Congo River, Zambezi River, Lake Victoria, Lake Tanganyika, Lake Nyasa.
Major Geographical Features: Sahara Desert, Kalahari Desert, Ethiopian Highlands, Serengeti grasslands, Atlas Mountains, Mount Kilimanjaro, Madagascar Island, Great Rift Valley, the Sahel, and the Horn of Africa


Africa has seen the rise and fall of many great civilizations and empires throughout its history. The oldest and longest lasting of these being the Ancient Egyptians who are still famous today for their pyramids and pharaohs. However, the Egyptians weren’t the only civilization to develop in Ancient Africa. Important civilizations developed throughout the continent such as Carthage, the Mali Empire, and the Kingdom of Ghana. You can learn more about these civilizations below.

The Races Of Africa
The two main races inhabiting Africa in early times were the Berbers of the Mediterranean coastlands and the Negroes of equatorial Africa. The Berbers (and the ancient Egyptians) were of Hamitic stock – racially Caucasian, with “European” facial characteristics. The Negroes included the small-statured Pygmies. The pygmies, and a third race – the rather yellow skinned Bushmen – may have been widely spread over central and southern Africa until they were driven from the most fruitful lands by the Negroes. The descendants of the Pygmies now inhabit the forests of central Africa. Only small numbers of Bushmen now survive, mainly in the Kalahari Desert in the south.

Between the northern coastlands and equatorial Africa is the Sahara desert. Until the end of the last Ice Age (about 8000 B.C.) the Sahara was a fertile grassland. It then started to dry up, much of it remaining habitable until about 2000 B.C. The early inhabitants of the Sahara were probably a mixture of Berbers and Negroes. Recently discovered rock paintings show that cattle keeping was a major occupation in what appears to have been a peaceful life. The paintings also show that music and dancing were important to these ancient Africans – as they are to the modern Negroes.

Between about 4000 and 2000 B.C, as the desert spread, the peoples of the Sahara gradually emigrated to the north, east and south though some remained, learning to live with little water: their descendants are the Berber Tuareg of the desert today (whose men wear veils).

Those who went south settled in the western and central Sudan. (The term Sudan relates to the wide strip of grassland stretching across Africa, south of the Sahara and Egypt. The western Sudan is separated from the coast to the south by a belt of dense forest.) In the Sudan the newcomers mixed with other Negro tribes to form the Bantu-speaking peoples, who gradually spread into central, eastern and southern Africa.

In the eastern Sudan, south of Egypt, another civilization arose, starting about 1000 B.C. – that of the Kushites, probably a mixture of Hamitic and Negro stock. Further east is Ethiopia. The Ethiopians were probably of Hamitic origin, mixed later with Arabs from Arabia.

Historical times, that is when history is known with reasonable accuracy and some detail, started on widely different dates in the different regions of Africa, very roughly as follows:-

Egypt – about 3000 B.C.
Nush – about 1000 B.C.
Berber North Africa – about 1000 B.C.
Ethiopia – about A.D. 0
Western and Central Sudan – about A.D. 300.
East Africa – about A.D. 700.
The Forest lands south of the Western Sudan – about A.D. 1000.


Ancient Egypt was one of the greatest and most powerful civilizations in the history of the world. It lasted for over 3000 years from 3150 BC to 30 BC.

The Nile River
The civilization of Ancient Egypt was located along the Nile River in northeast Africa. The Nile was the source of much of the Ancient Egypt’s wealth. Great Egyptian cities grew up along the Nile as the Egyptian people became experts in irrigation and were able to use the water from the Nile to grow rich and profitable crops. The Nile provided food, soil, water, and transportation for the Egyptians. Great floods would come each year and would provide fertile soil for growing food.

Kingdoms and Periods
Historians usually group the history of Ancient Egypt into three major kingdoms called the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom. It was during these times that Ancient Egypt was at its strongest. The times between the Kingdoms are called intermediate periods.

Ancient Egypt was rich in culture including government, religion, arts, and writing. The government and religion were tied together as the leader of the government, the Pharaoh, was also leader of the religion. Writing was also important in keeping the government running. Only scribes could read and write and they were considered powerful people.

Pyramids and Treasure
The Pharaohs of Egypt were often buried in giant pyramids or in secret tombs. They believed that they needed treasure to be buried with them to help them in the afterlife. As a result, archeologists have a lot of well preserved artifacts and tombs to examine in order to find out how the Ancient Egyptians lived.

End of the Empire
The Ancient Egyptian Empire began to weaken in about 700 BC. It was conquered by a number of other civilizations. The first to conquer Egypt was the Assyrian Empire, followed a hundred or so years later by the Persian Empire. In 332 BC, Alexander the Great of Greece conquered Egypt and set up his own ruling family called the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Finally, the Romans came in 30 BC and Egypt became a province of Rome.

The Ancient Egyptian People

  • Egyptian men and women wore makeup. It was thought to have healing powers, plus it helped protect their skin from the sun.
  • They used moldy bread to help with infections.
  • They were one of the first civilizations to invent writing. They also used ink to write and paper called papyrus.
  • The Ancient Egyptians were scientists and mathematicians. They had numerous inventions including ways to build buildings, medicine, cosmetics, the calendar, the plow for farming, musical instruments, and even toothpaste.
  • Ancient Egypt plays a major role in the Bible. The Israelites were held captive there as slaves for many years. Moses helped them escape and led them to the Promised Land.
  • The Pharaoh kept his hair covered. It was not to be seen by regular people.


The Kingdom of Kush was an ancient civilization in Africa. It is often referred to as Nubia and had close ties to Ancient Egypt. During the time of ancient Egypt’s glory – during the third and second millennia B.C. – the influence of Egyptian civilization was strong in the land to the south, the eastern or Egyptian Sudan, often called Nubia and known to the Egyptians as Kush. The northern Nubians, darker skinned than the Egyptians, may have originally come from Asia; those further south were Negroes. Egypt traded with, fought with, and to some extent ruled over these peoples.

The Kushite civilization in Nubia, with its capital at Napata, flourished from the 11th century B.C; and at the same time Egypt entered into a long period of weakness and divided rule. About 750 B.C. the Kushites began the conquest of Egypt, and in 715 established there a Kushite dynasty (misleadingly known as the Ethiopian Dynasty). But about 50 years later the Kushites were driven out of Egypt, after some tremendous battles, by invading Assyrians.

The Kushite kings retired to their old capital at Napata, where they continued to rule until early in the 6th century B.C. They then transferred their capital to Meroe, 300 miles further south, perhaps because Meroe was situated in an area rich in iron ore.

The Kushite Kingdom of Meroe lasted for eight centuries, until about A.D. 320, when it was destroyed by the King of Axum, the rising power in Ethiopia. The Kushite civilization vanished completely. It was not until very recently that knowledge of it has been compiled, from inscriptions in tombs and the ruins of Meroe and Napata. The Meroitic writing has been partly deciphered, though the language is dead.

The Kushites were great traders – from Red Sea ports to the east, and through Egypt where their relations with the Ptolemies in the last centuries B.C. were generally friendly. The Kushites were skilled iron workers; and their armies gained strength from their horsed cavalry and their taming and use of the elephant. Meroe was a splendid city, with a magnificent palace and a beautifully decorated Temple of the Sun.

About 200 years after the destruction of Meroe the Nubian descendants of the Kushites were converted to Christianity by missionary monks from Egypt (where at that time Christianity was widespread). There then existed for many centuries Christian kingdoms in Nubia, where the people appear to have led a comfortable life. Good farmers and craftsmen, they were also greatly interested in learning. They developed a modified form of Greek writing suitable for their own language, and built schools and libraries.

After the Moslem conquest of Egypt in the 7th century the Nubian Christians continued on friendly terms with Egypt until about 1250, when their kingdoms were invaded by Moslem Arabs and African neighbors who had been converted to Islam. By the 14th century this Nubian Christian civilization had faded out.

Natural Resources: Iron and Gold
Two of the most important resources of Ancient Kush were gold and iron. Gold helped Kush to become wealthy as it could be traded to the Egyptians and other nearby nations. Iron was the most important metal of the age. It was used to make the strongest tools and weapons.

Culture of Kush
Outside of the Pharaoh and the ruling class, the priests were the most important social class in Kush. They made the laws and communicated with the gods. Just below the priests were the artisans and scribes. Artisans worked the iron and gold that was such an important part of the Kushite economy. Farmers were also respected as they provided the food for the country. At the bottom were servants, laborers, and slaves.

Like the Egyptians, religion played an important role in the lives of the Kushites. They believed strongly in the afterlife. Women played an important role and could be leaders in Kush. Many of the Kushite leaders were queens.


In early times the peoples of the western and central Sudan were subject to many outside influences – from the Egyptians, the Kushites, and the Carthaginians – but mainly from the Berbers of the North African coastlands. The links were the trade routes across the Sahara.

The Berber trade was largely for gold from the district south of the western Sudan, in exchange for salt and manufactured goods. The greatly increased trade after the introduction of the camel about A.D. 700 led to the formation of Berber states south west of the Sahara. This helped to cause a greater degree of co-ordination between the Negro tribes and the creation of the first large West African kingdom, probably sometime in the 4th century A.D. This was ancient Ghana, formed by the Soninke people who lived in the grasslands of the western Sudan north of the headwaters of the Senegal and Niger rivers. (Ancient Ghana was – rather confusingly in present-day Mali, and a quite different land from modern Ghana.)

The Empire of Ghana was located in Western Africa in what is today the countries of Mauritania, Senegal, and Mali. The region lies just south of the Sahara Desert and is mostly savanna grasslands. Major rivers in the region such as the Gambia River, Senegal River, and the Niger River served as the means of transportation and trade.

The capital city of Ancient Ghana was Koumbi Saleh. This is where the King of Ghana lived in his royal palace. Archeologists estimate that up to 20,000 people lived in and around the capital city.

The Ghanian Empire dominated West Africa for seven centuries around 300 to 1100 CE, reaching its peak in the 11th century. The empire first formed when a number of tribes of the Soninke peoples were united under their first king, Dinga Cisse. The government of the empire was a feudal government with local kings who paid tribute to the high king, but ruled their lands as they saw fit.

Based on the gold trade, the Kings of Ghana were immensely rich, and powerful. King Tunka Manin, who ruled in the middle of the 11th century, had a magnificent court in his stone-built capital of Kumbi Saleh, and is said to have been able to field an army of 200,000 men.

Natural resources – Iron and Gold
The main source of wealth for the Empire of Ghana was the mining of iron and gold. Iron was used to produce strong weapons and tools that made the empire strong. Gold was used to trade with other nations for needed resources like livestock, tools, and cloth. They established trade relations with the Muslims of Northern Africa and the Middle East. Long caravans of camels were used to transport goods across the Sahara Desert.

Fall of the Empire of Ghana
Around 1050 CE, The Empire of Ghana, however, was unable to withstand Moslem invasions in the second half of the 11th century. The Moslem Arabs had been infiltrating the settlements in the Sahara oases since the 7th century. Then, in the 1070s, Ghana was attacked by the armies of the Almoravids of Morocco. Though the Almoravids retired or were driven out, after destroying Kumbi Saleh, Ghana was permanently weakened. In the course of the next 150 years it was absorbed and its place as the leading West African power taken by the Kingdom of Mali.

The Empire of Mali was located in Western Africa. It grew up along the Niger River and eventually spread across 1,200 miles from the city of Gao to the Atlantic Ocean. Its northern border was just south of the Sahara Desert. It covered regions of the modern day African countries of Mali, Niger, Senegal, Mauritania, Guinea, and The Gambia.

Mali, of the Mandinka People was the great empire in West Africa for about two centuries, from the middle of the 13th to the middle of the 15th. It rose to prominence under Mari-Djata (the Lion Prince) and was at the height of its power under the Emperor Kankan Musa early in the 14th century. On the way to a pilgrimage to Mecca, Kankan Musa exchanged greetings and presents on equal terms with the Mameluke Sultan of Egypt. (The kings of Mali had embraced Islam – and so became members of a world civilization.) Mali was famous for the wealth of its rulers, the peace and order in its territories, and for its learned men – influenced by Islamic studies in law, government and business affairs.

These advances made society more complex – and more divided. At the bottom were those who had lost the right to be treated as free men, either through some serious offence or by capture in war. They were “rightless persons” or “permanent servants’ and subject to sale, in effect slaves, but it was usually a form of slavery which was tolerant and allowed them to work in much the same way as other people.

The government of the Mali Empire was led by the emperor who was called the Mansa. The empire was then divided up into provinces that were each led by a governor called a ferba. The religion of Islam played an important part in the government and many of the government administrators were Muslim scribes.

The Mali Culture
Although there were many small tribes and cultural groups within the Mali Empire, most of these groups were considered part of the Mande peoples. The Mande peoples spoke similar languages and had similar cultures. People were divided into castes. One of the most respected castes were the farmers. Farmers were highly regarded because they provided food. Just below the farmers were the artisans. Other groups included fishermen, scribes, civil servants, soldiers, and slaves.

The religion of Islam was an important part of the Mali Empire. However, even though the kings, or Mansas, had converted to Islam, they did not force their subjects to convert. Many people practiced a version of Islam that combined Islamic beliefs with the local traditions.

Mansa Musa
Perhaps the most famous of the Mali Emperors was Mansa Musa. Mansa Musa became famous because of his lavish trip to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Mecca is the holy city of the Muslims and Mansa Musa decided to make a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324.
It is said that Mansa Musa was extremely rich and that he brought as many as 60,000 people along with him on his pilgrimage. He also brought camels loaded with gold. Mansa Musa must have made quite the impression during his trip with his large entourage and massive display of wealth. During his travels, Mansa Musa gave away and spent a significant amount of gold, but he also brought back a lot of new ideas to Mali. This included a number of scholars such as architects, poets, and teachers who helped to improve his empire.

Fall of the Empire of Mali
Not long after the rule of Mansa Musa ended, the Mali Empire began to grow weak. In the 1400s, the empire began to lose control along the edges of its borders. Then, in the 1500s, the Songhai Empire rose to power. The Mali Empire came to an end in 1610 with the death of the last Mansa, Mahmud IV.

The Songhai Empire was located in Western Africa south of the Sahara Desert and along the Niger River. At its peak, it stretched well over 1,000 miles from the current modern day country of Niger to the Atlantic Ocean. The capital city of the Songhai was the city of Gao which was located in modern-day Mali on the banks of the Niger River.

The pre-eminence of Mali was followed by that of the Songhay people of the central Sudan, with their capital at Gao. The Songhay had her trading connections with the Berbers for many centuries, and their Kings of Gao had accepted Islam early in the 11th century. At various times they had been subject to Ghana, and then to Mali; but towards the end of the 14th century they threw off the over-lordship of Mali, and then their power increased as that of Mali declined. Their prosperity grew as gold began to come from the forest country south of Gao (modern Ghana).

The main founder of the Songhay Empire of Gao was Sunni (King) Ali, a warrior king who reigned from about 1464 to 1492. He transformed a small trading kingdom into a large empire, including in his domains the rich trading centre Timbuktu, which had been one of the main cities of Mali. In the Songhay times Timbuktu became a renowned centre of learning, known throughout the Moslem world.

The Songhai Empire was divided into five provinces each led by a governor. Under Askia Muhammad, all the governors, judges, and town chiefs were Muslims. The emperor had total power, but he also had ministers who ran different aspects of the empire for him. They also counseled the emperor on important issues.

Under Askia Mohammed (c 1493-1528) the empire expanded further, becoming as extensive as Mali had been at its peak. A source of weakness in the empire, though, was a conflict of beliefs and interests between the Moslem traders of the towns and the country people who remained true to their old Songhay religion.

The Songhai Culture
The Songhai culture became a blend of traditional West African beliefs and the religion of Islam. Daily life was often ruled by traditions and local customs, but the law of the land was based on Islam.

Slave Trade
The slave trade became an important part of the Songhai Empire. Slaves were used to help transport goods across the Sahara Desert to Morocco and the Middle East. Slaves were also sold to Europeans to work in Europe and the Americas. Slaves were usually captives of war captured during raids on nearby regions.

Fall of the Songhai Empire
Late in the 16th century Songhay came into conflict with the Sultan of Morocco, who in 1590 sent an army across the Sahara to seize the sources of gold. The Moroccans captured and looted Gao and Timbuktu, sending back much gold – and slaves – but they failed to win control of the trade routes to the south. Twenty years later the Moroccan leader in Timbuktu threw off allegiance to the Sultan, and the “Niger Moors” remained as rulers there for nearly 200 years quarrelling among themselves and oppressing the Negro tribes. The Songhay Empire was destroyed, and so was the culture of Timbuktu.

As well as the three great empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhay there were many other kingdoms in the grasslands of the Sudan. One was Kanem-Bornu, around Lake Chad; and between Kanem-Bornu and the Songhay – in the central and western part of present-day northern Nigeria – were the many city states of the Hausa people.

The Kanem-Bornu Empire and the Hausa kingdoms were created in about the 10th century, and like the other empires in the Sudan were dependent for their prosperity on the Berber trade. Kanem-Bornu reached its zenith at about the same time as Songhai.

The Hausa cities were noted for their leather goods and textiles. The most famous of them was the walled city of Kano. The Hausa political and social organization was much influenced by the penetration of Islam in the 13th-14th centuries.

Another people who succeeded in remaining independent of the great Sudanese empires were the Mossi, who occupied the basin of the Upper Volta, south of the bend in the Niger River. They are said to have a line of kings who have ruled for a thousand years.


In the thick forest belt south of the western Sudan grasslands movement was difficult except along the rivers, and the Negro tribes here in early times tended to remain small and scattered. The forest also protected them from the Sudanese empires to the north, whose military strength was based on their cavalry. The first known organized forest kingdoms were formed in about the 11th century A.D. by the Yoruba and the Edo peoples of western Nigeria.

The Yorubas
The Yorubas lived in their forest cities (the farmers preferred to live in towns rather than in villages near their land), of which the chief was Ife. Perhaps as early as 1200 Ife began to become famous for the work of its sculptors in bronze and terra-cotta.

In the 17th century many of the Yoruba became united under the central government of the city of Oyo; and by the end of the century the empire of Oyo included much of Nigeria. The empire was powerful for over a hundred years. The Yoruba of Oyo were basically farmers, but their craftsmen were proficient in spinning, dyeing and metalwork.

The Edo People
They were centered on Benin City in southern Nigeria, which rose to importance under some enterprising and powerful kings in the 14th and 15th centuries. The Benin Empire reached its peak in the 16th century, when the Kings of Benin established close relations with the Portuguese – the first Europeans to explore the West African coast. An ambassador from Benin visited Portugal (about 1510), and Portuguese missionaries tried to introduce Christianity into Benin, but without much success. More successful was the development of an ocean trade (an innovation on the west coast), mainly with the Portuguese and the Dutch. Pepper and dyed cotton goods were exported in exchange for European manufactures. Benin City was a walled city 25 miles round, with wide streets and spacious wooden houses. Like Ife earlier, Benin was remarkable for its bronze sculptures.

The Ibo Tribes
In south eastern Nigeria the Ibo tribes, productive and prosperous, never amalgamated into a single state, preferring to remain organized into a vast number of self-governing villages. The Benin Empire began to decline in the 17th century; and in the 19th century the empire of Oyo disintegrated through invasions by its neighbors and revolts by some of its subject kingdoms. Meanwhile two other powerful states arose to the west of them – Dahomey and Ashanti.

The Dahomey
Dahomey became an independent kingdom about 1625, and reached the height of its power some 200 years later, in the middle of the 19th century. It became notorious for its “customs”, which included human slaughter on a grand scale on the death of a king, to provide him with wives and attendants in the spirit world; and Dahomey played a large part in the slave trade. Another curious institution was the training of women as soldiers. The women’s regiments were the elite of the Dahomeyan army.

The Ashanti
These were groups of the Akan peoples, who from about 1200 formed a number of forest states. They had a well developed community culture, with the emphasis on music and dancing. By about 1400 there were several strong Akan states, and it was they who produced the gold which led to the prosperity of Songhay to their north. Later, when the European traders began to arrive, the Ashanti found another outlet for their gold – to European merchants established along the coast to the south to become known to Europeans as the gold coast.

At the end of the 17th century the Ashanti groups, hitherto divided, succeeded in uniting; and for the next 200 years their power and prosperity grew. In the 18th century, to protect their trade, they extended their domains to the north, into the grasslands; and early in the 19th century they conquered the tribes in the coastal belt to the south.

The early Ashanti kings were great conquerors; and as the empire grew the kings in the later part of the 18th century and early 19th were also reformers. They modernized the system of government to keep up with changing conditions, and they selected men to help them based on ability irrespective of rank – or color; Europeans were employed in many important posts. There was a federal police force, and civil servants with regular pay and pensions. Kumasi, the capital, was a fine city, kept spotlessly clean; and Ashanti was famous for its wood carvings.

South of the forest belt there is a narrow strip of open land along the sea coast. Rather confusingly Dahomey is now modern Benin – a different land from the old Benin Empire.


The religions practiced by the majority of people living in Africa are Christianity and Islam. However, there were many traditional religions practiced prior to the arrival of these two religions. Today, around 10 percent of the African population still practice some form of traditional religion.

Common Beliefs
Although Africa is a huge continent with many different peoples and traditional religions, some beliefs and practices are common through many of the religions. These include:

Supreme God – Many African religions believed in a supreme god that created the world. Some examples include the gods Oludmare of Nigeria and Katonda of Uganda. In some religions this god may be prayed to for help, but in others the supreme god does not interact with humans.

Nature Spirits – Beneath the supreme god are a number of spirits who mostly live in nature including animals, water, and the earth.

Ancestral Spirits – The spirits of dead ancestors often played an important part in traditional African religion. By honoring these spirits, believers hoped that the spirits would help them or would talk to the supreme god on their behalf.

Sacrifice – Most Ancient African religions offered some sort of sacrifice to their gods or the spirits. This sacrifice varied from small items, like a portion of food or drink, to much larger items like cattle or even human sacrifice.

Rites of Passage – Traditional religions played an important role in the rites of passage. These included rituals surrounding marriage, entering adulthood, birth, and death.

Magic – Many traditional African religions believe in mysterious forces and magic. Priests (sometimes called witchdoctors) could cast spells or provide charms to help people with their illnesses or other problems. Sometimes the witchdoctors used herbs and other remedies to help the sick. They also would tell the future by using magic and “casting the bones” where they would toss bones (or sometimes other items like shells) and then tell the person’s fortune from the way the bones fell.
Certain artisans were considered to use magic in their craft. The most powerful of the artisans were the ironworkers. Ironworkers would keep the secret of how they forged iron within their group in order to maintain the mystery and power of their craft.

Rituals – Traditional rituals and ceremonies played an important part in the community. Masks, drums, chanting, and dancing were often a part of the ritual. Generally the rituals called on the spirits of ancestors or the spirits of nature for help and assistance.


The 15th and 16th centuries in North Africa were a period of struggles between dynasties, insurrections, raids, and near anarchy. During this period, too, the Spaniards and Portuguese obtained a foothold in the ports of the Mediterranean coast. In 1415 the Portuguese captured Ceuta in Morocco; and the Spaniards took Oran in Algeria in 1409 and Melilla in Morocco in 1496. In 1578, however, a Portuguese crusade against the Moors in Morocco ended in disaster, in which the King of Portugal and the flower of the Portuguese nobility were killed.

It was shortly after this, in 1590, that the Sultan of Morocco, Ahmed al Mansur, sent an army across the Sahara which led to the destruction of the Songhai Empire (see chapter 5), and from which great riches were acquired. The reign of Ahmed al Mansur (1578-1603) is regarded as a “golden age” in Moroccan history.

In the 16th century Spain and Portugal were confronted in the Mediterranean by the Ottoman Turks, who had taken over the leadership of the Moslem world. After taking Constantinople in 1453 (and so obliterating the remains of the Byzantine Empire) the Turks conquered the whole of the Middle East (including Egypt in 1517), advanced far into south-eastern Europe, and dominated the eastern Mediterranean. From Egypt they extended their Empire along the North African coast as far as Algiers by the end of the 16th century, after being opposed for a time by the Spaniards in Tunisia.

Until early in the 19th century North Africa, except for Morocco, then remained under Turkish suzerainty. But the Turks did not take much interest in ruling their vassal states in North Africa, interfering little in the feuds of the native dynasties and tribes provided that they paid their taxes – and the money to pay the taxes came mainly from piracy in the Mediterranean. For some 300 years the headquarters of the notorious pirates of the Barbary (Berber) coast was at Algiers, which survived many bombardments and blockades by the European trading nations.

Morocco also took part in the piracy, extending it into the Atlantic. By the 18th century the native rulers in Algeria, Tunisia, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, though nominally subject to the Sultan of Turkey, were virtually independent.


Soon after the capture of Ceuta in 1415 the Portuguese, under an organization set up by Prince Henry (the Navigator), became the pioneers in European exploration to the western coasts of Africa and the search for a sea route round Africa to the East. The trade route to the East through the Mediterranean and overland to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean had for long been dominated by the Arabs – and was also subject to interference by the Barbary pirates of the Mediterranean.

In the first half of the 15th century the Portuguese discovered the Atlantic island of Madeira, the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands. All were uninhabited, and the Portuguese annexed them. In 1446 they landed and established trading posts in the Senegal district of West Africa. In the south west they reached the Congo estuary in 1482, and later made settlements in Angola, with access to trade with the Kingdoms of Kongo and Ndongo. In 1497-98 the Portuguese Vasco da Gama sailed round the south of Africa and on to India, calling at the East African ports Malindi and Mombasa on the way.

When da Gama returned to Portugal he described the great wealth of the Swahili cities; and subsequently the Kings of Portugal sent fleets to capture and loot these cities. The Swahili trading community was largely ruined, and some of the cities were abandoned. But some survived, as did the Swahili culture; and at the end of the 17th century the Portuguese were expelled from the East African ports north of Mozambique by Arabs from Oman in south eastern Arabia.

Portuguese activity in Benin and Morocco in the 16th century has already been mentioned (see previous chapters). Also in this century they tried, from settlements on the Mozambique coast, to gain control of the gold mines of Zimbabwe – unsuccessfully in the Rozvi Kingdom of southern Zimbabwe, but with more success in the northern Kingdom of the Mwana Mutapas. In 1573 they persuaded the King to give them possession of some mines and permission to settle along the Zambezi River in northern Mozambique. But the settlers wanted more, and gradually increased their influence over the affairs of the kingdom. In 1628-29, with hired African soldiers, they defeated the King’s forces, and a new treaty made him a puppet of the Portuguese.

The same thing happened in Angola. At first on friendly terms with the King of Ndongo, the settlers’ ambitions culminated in a war of conquest. This went on intermittently from about 1580 to 1670, by when Ndongo was a broker kingdom; but resistance continued, and Portuguese penetration of the interior was very slow. The Kingdom of Kongo suffered the same fate. At first an ally of Portugal, Kongo later became a target for military invasion – about 1665, when the King of Kongo was captured and killed, and the independence of Kongo was ended.

One of the motives in these Portuguese conquests was the procurement of slaves. When the Portuguese first landed in West Africa in 1446 they brought back, not only gold, but a few slaves; and during the rest of the 15th century the trade for slaves in return for European goods expanded partly to relieve Portugal’s limited resources of manpower.

The sale of slaves was no new custom in Africa (nor in Europe). In Africa there were “rightless persons” who where subject to sale; and at first these were the people sold to Portugal, where they became household servants or were trained as craftsmen.

Their lot in Portugal was probably little worse than that of the free, but poor, Portuguese. A big change in the nature and extent of the slave trade, however, came after the discovery of America and the beginning of European colonization there in the 16th century.

In Ndongo the King’s title was Ngola – which the Portuguese mistook for the name of the country; hence Angola.


The European colonists in America soon found the need for imported labour to work on the sugar plantations and in the mines, and later on the tobacco and cotton plantations. The Spaniards started using Negro slave labour in their West Indian colonies early in the 16th century; and the Portuguese in the middle of the century started sending slaves from Africa to Brazil. Other European nations soon joined in this lucrative trade, and the slave trade became big business.

The trade went on until the 19th century, with Europeans of many countries taking part in it – notably the British, French, Dutch and Danes as well as the Spaniards and Portuguese. The British first engaged in the trade as agents providing slaves for the Spanish colonies in 1562 – over 50 years before slavery itself was introduced into British North America.

The traders operated from “factories” and forts established along the African coast, mainly in West Africa, from where they exchanged European goods for gold, ivory and slaves. By the end of the 18th century there were some 40 of these factories – which sometimes changed hands as the nations competed with each other in the trade. Altogether they were exporting perhaps between 70,000 and 80,000 slaves annually.

The procurement of the slaves was sometimes by raids into the interior, or even actual wars, but more usually by trading agreements with the local native rulers or by providing them with military help against their African enemies. As the trade expanded some African chiefs continued it with reluctance, but found it difficult to withdraw. Some of the main European commodities supplied in exchange were guns and gunpowder – and if an African chief stopped getting the guns he would be at the mercy of more unscrupulous neighbors.

One of the worst features of the trade was the voyage to America. The slave ship owners, in search of a bigger profit, packed more and more slaves into their vessels – often on shelves across the holds which allowed no room to stand, or even to kneel. The voyage lasted anything from three weeks to two months or more, depending on the weather; and fever and hunger were often suffered in addition to the appalling living conditions. Large numbers died before arrival.

It has been estimated that the total number of African slaves who reached America and the West Indies in the course of the trade was about 9 to 10 million. It may well have been more; and this does not include those who died on the voyage or those who were killed in Africa in slaving raids or wars. Probably between a half and two thirds of the total came from West Africa, most of the others from Angola and the Congo, some from Mozambique.

Apart from the actual loss of manpower, the slave trade inhibited social and economic progress in the African regions most affected. The trade degraded political life, and encouraged the continuation of slavery in Africa; and while the European nations were organizing and inventing new means of production these Africans were depending economically upon a trade which was totally unproductive – and which, by the loss of the fittest members of the community, curtailed production.

Until late in the 17th century no one in Europe or the colonies seemed to see anything wrong in the slave trade. Then the lead was taken by the Quakers in England and North America in protesting against it. But it was another 100 years before the British parliament, due mainly to the efforts of William Wilberforce, began to consider abolition of the trade. It took Wilberforce 20 years to get Parliament to agree; and in 1807 Britain ceased to engage in the trade. Denmark had already done so. The other European nations followed, some less willingly than others. By 1850 the trade was almost ended. The last slave ship sailed in the 1880s.

Long before this both the British and the Americans (who became independent in 1783) started settlements in Africa for freed slaves the British in Sierra Leone in 1787, the Americans in Liberia (“the land of the free”) in 1822. Both ventures, which were organized by private associations, suffered a number of setbacks some financial and some through the resentment of the local tribes due to the privileged status given to the ex-slaves. The British base was Freetown, and British control was gradually extended inland. Liberia was declared an independent republic in 1847.

Slavery itself was abolished by the European and American nations at various times during the 19th century – by Britain in all her colonies in 1533, by the United States in 1865 after the American Civil War, by Brazil (independent of Portugal since 1822) in 1888. In Brazil the numbers of slaves had been substantially reduced during the 19th century, from nearly 2 million to about 700,000 at the time of abolition.

The subsequent history of the Negroes in the Americas is part of the history of those countries rather than of Africa. Their contribution to Western music, singing and dancing has been notable – for instance jazz and Negro spirituals, the latter made world famous by the great American Negro singer Paul Robeson. And American Negroes have provided a remarkable number of world champions in boxing and athletics.

On the political side, one episode before the abolition of the slave trade and slavery should be mentioned. This was in the French colony of Saint Domingue in the West Indies. During the Napoleonic Wars the slaves in Saint Domingue, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, expelled the French and in 1804 established the Negro nation of Haiti.

In the 19th century, while the Atlantic slave trade was dwindling, another slave trade grew up in East Africa. The Arabs who ruled in Zanzibar and other places on the east coast raided far into the interior for slaves, in partnership with the Swahili traders. Some were sold to Arabian dealers, some to the French for work in the Indian Ocean islands, some even to North America. However, by the 1880s this trade, like the Atlantic trade, had ceased.

Manpower it includes women. Though the slaves were mainly male, there were many women. Toussaint L’Ouverture, reputed to be the son of an African chief, was brought to Saint Domingue as a slave and rose to the position of superintendent of other Negroes on the plantation. He joined in a rebellion in 1791, and later raised and disciplined a Negro army. He led a further insurrection in 1796. His armies defeated a French force sent by Napoleon, but Toussaint L’Ouverture was captured and died in a French prison.


In the early part of the 19th century the political situation in the different countries and regions of Africa was one of varying degrees of independence; and the social Organization still varied from the kingdom to the tribes. The following is a brief summary of the position.

North Africa
Morocco was ruled by the Filali dynasty (since the mid-7th century). There was considerable trade with European nations – the French, British, Dutch – in spite of some high-handed treatment of European emissaries. The possession of Ceuta had passed from Portugal to Spain, which also still held Melilla.
Algeria was under nominal Turkish suzerainty. Algiers was still the main centre of the Barbary pirates. Oran had been taken from Spain by the Turks.
Tunisia was ruled by Beys, originally appointed by the Turks, but becoming hereditary in the 18th century. They paid tribute to the Sultan, but were otherwise independent. Under pressure from the European powers piracy was abandoned as a main occupation about 1820.
Tripolitania was virtually independent in the 18th century, but the Turks re-asserted their authority in 1835 after a civil war. Piracy was still rampant at the beginning of the 19th century.
Cyrenaica was practically free from Turkish control, and more or less in a state of anarchy. In the 1840s it became the main base of a Moslem religious reform group, the Senussi. Their leader, Mohammed Ben Ali as-Senusi, preached a return to the simplicity of early Islam.

(In Egypt power was seized in the first decade of the 19th century by the Albanian Mohammed Ali, whose descendants ruled until late in the century.

West Africa
Nigeria On the disintegration of the Oyo Empire, Nigeria consisted of a large number of states and communities, mainly of the Yoruba, Ibo and Hausa peoples. At the beginning of the 19th century the Hausa states were conquered by the Fulani, a lighter-skinned people with mixed Negroid and Hamitic features, who had penetrated into Nigeria and the central Sudan from the west. (They are thought to be descended from the rulers of’ the ancient kingdom of Tekrur, in the Senegal river area, which in the 10th to 15th centuries sometimes rivaled the empires of Ghana and Mali.) The Fulani, ardent Moslems, set up emirates in northern Nigeria. Their religious centre was Sokoto.

Ashanti and Dahomy were the main kingdoms in West Africa, The conquest of the coastal tribes brought the Ashanti into political rivalry with the British stations on the coast early in the 19th century. After several armed conflicts an uneasy peace ensued, with British influence in the coastal area (which they called the Gold Coast) increasing.

Further west were the ex-slave states of Liberia and Sierra Leone; and on the “bulge” of West Africa -there were French settlements on the coast of Senegal, which had started about 1650, and British in Gambia. The British and French had for long fought for supremacy in “Senegambia”. Guinea and Ivory Coast were inhabited by mixtures of peoples – Fulani and Mandinka in Guinea, and Mandinka, Mossi and Akan in Ivory Coast.

The Sudan
In the central Sudan the kingdom of Kanem-Bornu, which had reached its peak in the 16th century, fell to the Fulani in about 1808, but was soon reconquered from them. However, the ruling dynasty, which had reigned for 1000 years, was extinguished. In the Western Sudan political power had reverted from the “Niger Moors” to various tribes of the Mandinka (the original founders of ancient Mali).

East and South Africa
The Swahili area of the East African coast (Kenya and Tanganyika) was controlled by the Arabs from Oman. In 1832 the Sultan of Oman transferred his court to Zanzibar; and the Sultans of Zanzibar extended their influence along the coast from Mogadishu to the Portuguese-controlled territory of Mozambique.

  • Inland were the kingdoms of Buganda, Rwanda and Burundi, and the Kikuyu, Masai and Luo tribes. Buganda was one of the most advanced kingdoms in East Africa. The people lived a peaceful and orderly existence in spacious dwellings – which, in the absence of suitable stone or clay, were constructed of grass and reeds.
  • In Zimbabwe the Rozvi kingdom was destroyed and Great Zimbabwe devastated in 1830 by an invasion from the south, caused by the northern movement of the Bantu Zulu people who had formed a nation in Natal. The Zulus then founded a Matabele (Zulu) kingdom among the Shona of Zimbabwe.
  • Somalia was still divided into many small Somali states. (Ethiopia. During the 18th and the first half of the 19th century the power of the Kings of Ethiopia dwindled, and the country was in a continual state of turmoil.)
  • Angola and the Congo basin were largely controlled by the Portuguese. Both territories had suffered very severely from the slave trade.
  • Madagascar By the end of the 18th century the Hova, the lightest colored of the peoples of the island, had established supremacy over most of the island. The French had intermittently held stations there and exerted considerable influence; but the Hova Queen Ranavalona, who reigned from 1828 to 1861, pursued a policy of excluding all Europeans, and foreign commerce almost ceased.

As with the political and social organization, the way of life in Africa also varied, basically between the more advanced peoples of the coastlands and the less advanced in the interior but perhaps the latter had the benefit of a calmer and more unhurried existence in which the community spirit prospered.

Educationally, Islam played a prominent part in the lands in which it was predominant – the north, the east coast, and to a lesser extent West Africa. For many centuries Arabic was the language of business and learning for Moslem Africans, and the Arabic script their medium of writing; but at some time between the 16th and 18th centuries Africans began to write their own languages, using the Arabic letters. Books, at first for religious purposes, appeared in Swahili, Hausa, Mandinka, Fulani and Yoruba.

Apart from the Christian Nubian kingdoms in the 6th to 13th centuries, Christianity – until the coming of the Portuguese – played little part in African history (except in Ethiopia which has been basically Christian since the 4th century and in Egypt where there are still a million or more Christians of the Coptic Church). European missionaries started activities in Africa in about 1500, but Christianity did not become at all widespread until the later part of the 19th century.

The Africans’ love of music continued unabated. Various instruments were played, but pride of place was taken by the drum. It was used for many different purposes, including dancing, drama, ceremonies, and sending messages. The royal drums were often an important symbol of kingship, through which the king communicated with his ancestors. Some of these drums measured 12 feet across.

The Zulus later came into conflict with both the British and Dutch in South Africa. The Dutch had first settled in South Africa in 1652, and the colony had been taken over by Britain in 1806. During the mid-19th century both the British and the Boers (the Dutch South Africans) advanced from the original Cape Colony eastwards and northwards, the Transvaal and Orange Free State being occupied by Boers dissatisfied with British rule.


Exploration of the interior of Africa by Europeans, in search of geographical and other knowledge of the continent, and not start until- late in the 18th century. Previous expeditions for any distance into the interior – mainly by the Portuguese in the south – had been basically in search of trade or of slaves for the slave trade.

The new phase of exploration, starting in the 1770s, was fraught with many difficulties peculiar to Africa. The tropical climate and diseases of central and west Africa were a great hazard to the European; the tribes of the interior, seeing in every European an emissary of the slave trade, were naturally often hostile; and in Moslem areas the European had to contend with Moslem fanaticism. High proportions of the early explorers died or were killed.

Some of the earliest were two Scotsmen – James Bruce, who went through Ethiopia and the Sudan and traced the course of the Blue Nile in 1770-72; and Mungo Park, who was drowned on his second attempt (in1805) to find the source of the Niger. In the south- east the Portuguese de Lacerda died in 1798 near Lake Mwera in northern Zambia, having reached there from the Zambezi; and in the first decade of the 19th century two half-caste Portuguese crossed southern Africa from Angola to the Zambezi.

Between 1820 and 1834 several British expeditions explored northern Nigeria, the first expedition starting from Tripoli and going to Nigeria via the Kingdom of Kanem-Bornu. Later expeditions reached northern Nigeria from the west and south. The leaders were the Naval Commander Hugh Clapperton and – after his death from dysentery – his ex-servant – Richard Lander, who also died after being wounded in an affray with Africans. Clapperton was the first European to publish descriptions of the Hausa states from personal experience.

The first European to reach Timbuktu was the Scotsman Major Laing in 1826. He was murdered on leaving it. Two years later the Frenchman René Caillié, having learned to speak Arabic, disguised himself as an Arab and joined a Mandinka caravan travelling inland from Senegal. He reached Timbuktu, stayed there for two weeks, and then joined another caravan crossing the Sahara to Morocco – becoming the first European to return alive from Timbuktu.

The first non-Africans to penetrate far into central Africa were Arabs from Zanzibar, one of whom crossed the continent to Benguela in Angola in 1848. Then came the best-known of all explorers of Africa, the Scottish doctor and missionary David Livingstone. In 24 years (1849-1873) of travels over a third of the continent – from the south to the equator – he not only vastly increased European knowledge of central Africa, but by his interest in the Africans and their welfare, his kindness and gentlemanly behavior towards them, he was trusted and revered by them wherever he went. His journeys were unhurried, allowing time for meticulous observation and often delayed by fever or dysentery – and sometimes by slave traders, against whom he raised a strong feeling in Europe which greatly contributed to the final extinction of the trade.

Amongst Livingstone’s achievements were the crossing of the Kalahari desert, the crossing of central Africa in both directions, and the discovery of Victoria Falls and Lake Nyasa. In a search for the source of the Nile, starting in 1866, he was out of contact with Europeans for four years until met at Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika by the Welshman Henry Horton Stanley, journalist and explorers who had been commissioned by an American newspaper to find him. Still exploring, Livingstone died of dysentery in 1873. His body and all his instruments and papers were carried by his faithful African porters 700 miles to Zanzibar.

Meanwhile detailed exploration of the land between Timbuktu and Lake Chad had been carried out by the German Heinrich Barth in the 1850s; and the British Richard Burton, John Hanning Speke, Samuel Baker and James Grant, in expeditions in the north-east in the 1850s and 1860s solved the problem of the sources of the Nile.

In the later part of the century interest in Africa had been so inspired by the example of Livingstone and other pioneers that it became almost crowded with explorers and missionaries. On his journey along the west coast of Lake Nyasa, Livingstone was appalled at the activities of the Arab slave traders among the Malawi tribes.


In the 1820s the main European colonies in Africa were Portuguese Mozambique and Angola in the south, the French settlement in coastal Senegal, and the British possessions (in addition to South Africa) in Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast and. Gambia.

Then the first big step in European colonization was by the French in Algeria. Though still under nominal Turkish suzerainty, Algeria was in practice ruled by local chiefs. One of these, in 1827, insulted the French consul; and after failing to get an apology the French sent an expeditionary force which captured Algiers in 1830. After some indecision as to what to do next, the French embarked on a policy of further conquest. Though strongly opposed by some of the Algerian chiefs, the conquest of Algeria was virtually completed towards the end of the 1840s – and the Barbary pirates at last quelled. Some 40,000 French colonists were settled there.

French rule was later extended into the Algerian Sahara, and a policy of “assimilation’ of Algeria to France adopted. In 1881, by when there were nearly 400,000 European settlers, Algeria became politically part of metropolitan France.

In 1881, also, the French invaded Tunisia from Algeria, and established a French protectorate there. Elsewhere in North Africa – Morocco remained independent, with the European powers, chiefly Spain, France and Britain, from the middle of the century rivaling each other in spreading their influence. The Spaniards extended their foothold on the north coast in the 1860s.

In Cyrenaica and Tripolitania the power of the Senussi increased. By the 1880s they had over 100 monasteries in North Africa and elsewhere. They were basically peaceable and a civilizing influence, but there were opposed to Europeans as being incompatible with Islam – and also to the Turks as not fulfilling its precepts. The Turks had to accept the authority of the Senussi over the Bedouin tribes of the desert.

West Africa
In Senegal the French started an advance into the interior in the 1850s, and Senegal became an important base for further expansion into the Sudan and the extension of French influence in West Africa generally. The French also started moving into Dahomey from the coast in the 1880s.

The British throughout the 19th century were involved in a series of minor wars in the Gold Coast with the Ashanti, who were not resigned to British influence, in the coastal area. After an invasion of this area by the Ashanti in 1873, a British punitive expedition destroyed the capital, Kumasi, and forced the Ashanti to agree to refrain from further invasion of the coast.

In Nigeria the British – in order to stop the slave trade through the port of Lagos, and to stop aggression from the King of Dahomey, captured Lagos in 1851, and it became a British colony in 1861. British influence then spread in the Yoruba area of Nigeria, and the British made efforts to stop the civil wars which had engulfed the country since the breaking up of the Oyo Empire. In the 1880s Nigeria became a British protectorate.

Further South – on the equator the French in 1849 founded a colony for freed slaves at Libreville in Gabon; and in the 1870S they started advancing into the interior of this region.

On the other side of Africa the French acquired from the local sultan the port of Obok in Somalia in 1862.

Egypt and the Eastern Sudan
In 1869 European interest in Africa became focused on Egypt, with the opening of the Suez Canal (built under the direction of the French diplomat and engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps). Egypt at this time, though still nominally under Turkish suzerainty, was ruled by the Khedive (viceroy) Ismail, great grandson of Mohammed Ali. Ismail had many ambitious schemes, one of which was the conquest of the southern part of the Egyptian (or Eastern) Sudan and the suppression of the slave trade there. The northern part had been conquered by Mohammed Ali.

In 1870 Ismail commissioned the British explorer Samuel Baker to carry out this conquest with Egyptian troops – which he did: and on the completion of Baker’s 4-year contract Ismail obtained the services of the British General Gordon as Governor of the Sudan.

Ismail’s foreign adventures, public works schemes, and personal extravagance brought Egypt to financial collapse in 1875; and after an international investigation her finances were placed under the joint control of Britain and France. A nationalist movement then arose, and several years of turmoil culminated in 1882 in serious riots, which resulted in Britain putting down the Nationalists by force. The Khedive’s authority was restored, but Britain now effectively ruled Egypt.

The Liberal government in Britain did not wish to perpetuate this control, and intended to withdraw British troops as soon as order and good government was restored; but this policy was thwarted by events in the Sudan. General Gordon, after 5 years as Governor, during which he established firm military control and did much to suppress the slave trade, resigned in 1879; and the Sudan reverted to an oppressive Egyptian rule. In 1881 there was a formidable revolt led by Mohammed Ahmed of Dongola, who claimed to be the Mahdi, or Messiah, destined to conquer the world for Islam. An Egyptian army under the British Colonel Hicks was sent in 1883 to suppress the Mahdi – and was wiped out.

The British government, reluctant to extend British involvement, persuaded the Egyptian government to abandon the Sudan, and sent Gordon there to evacuate the Egyptian garrisons. Gordon began trying to arrange for the future settlement and welfare of the Sudan after the evacuation, but his ideas were rejected by the Mahdi – who then besieged the capital, Khartoum. Inspired by Gordon, the Egyptian troops held out for 10 months, but in 1885 Khartoum fell, and Gordon and the garrison and many of the inhabitants were massacred.

This disaster caused a demand in Britain for retribution and the restoration of British prestige. The British withdrawal from Egypt was indefinitely postponed.


Until the 1870s only Portugal, Britain and France of the European nations had made any substantial colonization in Africa. And. the French and British advances had been rather spasmodic, their colonial policies varying with the government or regime in power, and with the enterprise of its representatives in Africa.

In the 1870s, however, the outlook of the European nations towards African colonization changed. This was partly due to the greater knowledge of the continent obtained from exploration, and consequent increased opportunities for trade and access to valuable raw materials; and partly due to efforts to protect the explorers and missionaries and to suppress slavery and the remnants of the slave trade. But it was also due to a new spirit of national prestige, stemming largely from the unification of both Germany and Italy in the period 1859-1870; and perhaps to some extent due to the rise of a sentiment that it was the duty of the “superior” white man to civilize, educate and convert the Africans – a sentiment which ignored the fact that the white man was not necessarily superior, and that the Africans might well be much happier, and certainly preferred, to be left alone.

The result was the “scramble for Africa”, in which the European nations competed with each other for colonies there. One of the earliest targets was Tunisia, where Italy had greatly extended her commercial interests and hoped to gain control of the country but, as already mentioned, was forestalled by the French in 1881.

The French people were no very ardent colonists; but France’s policy, after her humiliating defeat by Prussia in 1870, had become one of vast colonial expansion, partly to restore her international prestige. Bismarck, the creator of Germany, did not want colonies, but deferred to pressure by German commercial interests, and Germany joined in the competition.

There then followed, in 1884-85, a remarkable international conference in Berlin at which rules were drawn up for colonization in Africa. There were many provisions in the Act emanating from the conference, the main one being that all signatories had to notify the others of any intended action to take possession of any part of the African coast or to penetrate into the interior – and in effect to obtain the approval of the other signatories. In this way, although there were international disputes and ‘incidents’, Africa was carved up by the European nations without armed conflict between them.

One of the first agreements arising from the Berlin conference was the recognition of the “Congo Free State” as the personal possession of King Leopold II of the Belgians. (Belgium had been an independent country since 1830). The enterprising Leopold, seeing the possibilities of central Africa opened up by the explorations of Livingstone, Stanley and others, had called an international conference in 1876 to co-ordinate further exploration and suppress the slave trade. (This was the forerunner of the Berlin conference eight years later.)

An international association was formed – largely Belgian – and Leopold engaged Stanley to establish trading posts in the Congo area and make treaties with the African chiefs. Stanley spent 5 years doing this. The international aspect of the operations soon evaporated, and Leopold financed the enterprise from his private fortune – hence the award of the Congo Free State as his personal property. Early in the 1900s mismanagement and ill-treatment of the Africans in the Congo Free State led to international concern, particularly in Britain and the United States. The result was that in 1908 the Belgian government took over the colony, and the worst of the abuses were removed.

In general, the period from 1885 to about 1920 was one of invasion, conquest and/or negotiations with African rulers by the European powers in their chosen and allotted areas, and the setting up of colonial rule. The only African states to survive as independent were Ethiopia and Liberia. In some of the more powerful and organized African countries resistance was fierce and prolonged, but in the end they succumbed to the superior weapons and equipment of the invaders. Another cause of the defeat of the Africans was that there was no unity amongst them – either between different states, or within each state. Some countries comprised several different African peoples, with one ruling and oppressing the others. The Europeans could often recruit African soldiers for their invading armies.

Altogether some 40 colonies or protectorates were formed. Taking in turn the European nations involved:-

France was the most active colonial power, and acquired the largest area of territory. By 1900 her African empire included Algeria and Tunisia in the north; Senegal, French Guinea, Ivory Coast and Dahomey in the West African coastlands; French West Africa which took in nearly all the Sahara and western Sudan; French Equatorial Africa which comprised Gabon, some of the Congo and central Sudan (modern Chad); French Somaliland (Djibouti), and the island of Madagascar.

France did not achieve this without a number of severe struggles, particularly in Dahomey, and in the Lake Chad area where they met with resistance from the Senussi. It was well into the 20th century before the French had won control in the western and central Sudan. In Madagascar resistance by the Hova dynasty was not finally overcome until 1896.

The last stage of French colonization was in Morocco, where France, Spain, Germany, Britain and Italy competed for influence over the Sultan. Eventually, in 1912, the country became a French protectorate, except for the Spanish possessions in the north – around Ceuta and Melilla. Resistance by the Riff tribes continued. A prolonged rising by them in the 1920s was suppressed, but guerilla action went on into the 1940s.

Britain completed her occupation of Nigeria, the Gold Coast, Gambia and Sierra Leone in West Africa, and acquired Kenya, Nyasaland, Uganda, Zanzibar (where the Arab Sultan accepted a British protectorate) and British Somaliland in the east. In the Gold Coast there were two more wars with the Ashanti before it became a British colony in 1902. In Somaliland a Moslem Somali leader, nicknamed the “Mad Mullah” by the British, caused a lot of trouble by raids against the British forces during the first 20 years of the 20th century.

In Egypt a British-officered Egyptian army defended the frontier with the Sudan for 10 years against the Mahdi’s successor until Britain decided on re-conquest to end this nuisance and to deliver the Sudanese from tyranny. In 1896-98 the re-conquest was achieved by a British/Egyptian army under Lord Kitchener. The eastern Sudan came under the joint control of Britain and Egypt – and Britain continued to rule Egypt until 1922. (By a British unilateral declaration Egypt then became formally independent, but with certain powers reserved to Britain, including the future of the Sudan. The last British troops left Egypt in 1956, leaving the Sudan a separate state, independent of Egypt.)

In British South Africa the dominant personality in political affairs in the 1880s and early 1890a was Cecil Rhodes who had visions of British dominion from Cape Colony to Cairo. He was alarmed at the threat to the route to the north by German infiltration in South West Africa on one side and the Boers of the Transvaal on the other; and when the Bechuana tribes in 1885 asked for protection against Boer aggression, Britain proclaimed Bechuanaland (modern Botswana) to be a British protectorate.

Rhodes later turned his attention to the land north of the Transvaal – ancient Zimbabwe – then divided between the Shona and the Zulus (with whom Britain had already had a serious conflict in 1879 ). The British now intervened in a Shona-Zulu war, defeating the Zulus; but some years later, in 1896, they were faced with a formidable rising of both peoples, which they suppressed. The whole area was given the name Rhodesia, separated in 1911 into the two protectorates of Northern and Southern Rhodesia, north and south of the Zambezi. Northern Rhodesia is modern Zambia, Southern Rhodesia modern Zimbabwe.

Returning to the “scramble” – Germany acquired the Cameroons and Togo, South West Africa (Namibia) and Tanganyika. To the latter were joined Rwanda and Burundi, to form German East Africa. In the first decade of the 20th century the Hottentots and the Herero tribes in South West Africa and the African tribes In Tanganyika all rebelled, unsuccessfully, against German rule.

Italy, after being disappointed in Tunisia, was ‘awarded’ Eritrea (north of Ethiopia) and Italian Somaliland. Not content with this she embarked in 1887 on an attempt to conquer Ethiopia. After establishing a sort of protectorate, with the terms of which the Emperor of Ethiopia did not agree, the Italians invaded the country again in 1896, only to be disastrously defeated at Adowa. Still in search of a greater African empire, Italy invaded Tripolitania in 1911. The Turks, attacked by a league of Balkan countries, withdrew from Tripolitania to meet the menace nearer home – and Italy conquered Tripolitania and Cyrenaica; but they had great difficulty with the Senussi, who were not finally subdued until the early 1930s. In 1934 Tripolitania and Cyrenaica were united to form the Italian colony of Libya.

Portugal, as well as being confirmed in her possession of Mozambique and Angola, was awarded “Portuguese” Guinea. Portugal also still possessed the Cape Verde Islands and Madeira.

Spain kept her ancient possessions – in northern Morocco, the Canary Islands and the island of Fernando Po (which she obtained from Portugal in the 18th century). To Fernando Po she added the nearby mainland area of Rio Muni, to form Spanish Guinea; and along the north-west coast she acquired the Spanish Sahara.

Nyasaland was ancient Malawi, Uganda largely the ancient Kingdom of Buganda. Britain acquired both mainly by peaceful agreement with the Africans.

The history of Rhodesia, while it was Rhodesia, is included in the history of South Africa. (After the Boer War of 1899-1902, the Boer Transvaal and Orange Free State became British colonies, and in 1910 were united with Cape Colony and Natal to form the British dominion, the Union of South Africa.)


The colonial period lasted for different lengths of time in the different colonies, ending with most African states obtaining independence in the 1950s and 1960s. The peak of the colonial era was roughly the first half of the 20th century – a period which included the two world wars.

On the outbreak of the First World War the German colonies in Africa were invaded by Allied forces – the Cameroons and Togo by the British and French, German East Africa by British imperial armies (including Indian and South African), and South West Africa by the South Africans. The Germans were quickly defeated in Togo and South West Africa, in the Cameroons by 1916. In East Africa the campaigns went on throughout the war.

At the end of the war Tanganyika became a British mandate under the League of Nations, South West Africa a South African mandate, and the Cameroons and Togo were each divided between Britain and France (the British shares being administered by the neighboring colonies Nigeria and the Gold Coast respectively). Rwanda and Burundi were detached from Tanganyika and became Belgian mandates, administered as part of the Congo Free State.

European-officered African regiments took part in all these campaigns, and fought loyally for their “mother” countries. For instance, battalions of the Nigeria Regiment fought with distinction in the British campaigns in the Cameroons and East Africa, and Algerian and Senegalese levies fought on the western front in Europe as citizens of France.

Between the two world wars good progress was made in industrial development. This benefited the Africans when they later became independent, but did not benefit them very such at the time. The profits largely went to European companies, which relied on cheap African labour. The means of recruiting this labour varied. Sometimes it was by force, sometimes voluntary, the latter sometimes by a contract system which often caused the African worker to be away from his home for long periods.

And, although tribal conflicts were to a large extent eliminated, the Africans became involved, as we have seen, in the wars between the European powers. So it cannot be supposed that the Africans were entirely happy under the colonial system. But they did receive the benefits of education – in missionary and government schools – and the establishment of medical services. And some European modernization made a big difference – for instance to the forest-bound villager in West Africa whose vista was transformed by European road building.

Throughout this period there was a gradual build-up of a new spirit of nationalism among the African peoples, particularly in the more advanced countries of North Africa, but also in the rest of Africa, led by the better educated Africans. In effect they were copying the nationalism of their European masters, and saw no reason why the Africans in each colony should not become free nations like those in Europe. This movement, however, made little progress until after the Second World War.

Before that war the status quo in north-east Africa was challenged by Mussolini’s Italy. Mussolini was obsessed with the idea of winning an important place in the world for Italy, and with the determination to wipe out the memory of the humiliating defeat by the Ethiopians in 1896. In 1935 the Italians invaded Ethiopia from Eritrea and Somaliland, and quickly overran the country. Ethiopia was then joined with the other two colonies to form Italian East Africa.

In the Second World War, after the collapse of France in 1940, Italy entered the war on the side of Germany; and the war then spread to Africa, with Italian offensives from Libya against British-controlled Egypt and from Italian East Africa into British Somaliland.

In East Africa the Italian invasion was soon halted; and a counter-offensive by a British Commonwealth force (including Indians, South Africans, East Africans and West Africans), assisted by an Ethiopian revolt, was overwhelmingly successful. The campaign was over by May 1941. Ethiopian independence was restored, and Eritrea and Italian Somaliland came under British administration.

In the north a fluctuating desert war, in which British Commonwealth forces were opposed by the Italians and Germans, continued until late in 1942, with Libya the battlefield. Then the British drove the German/Italian armies back across Tripolitania into Tunisia. Here they were joined by an Anglo-American army which had landed in Morocco and Algeria. By May 1943 they had cleared North Africa of German and Italian troops; and in July the Allies, from their bases in North Africa, invaded Sicily, and later Italy.

The position of the French colonies, after the collapse of France, was complicated. Her North African and West African colonies remained under the “Vichy” government, but French Equatorial Africa opted for General de Gaulle and became an important base of the ‘Free French’. From Chad a Free French force conquered the Fezzan in Libya in 1942-43.

After the war all the pre-war French colonies were once more under the French government, headed by de Gaulle until his resignation in 1946. Madagascar, which had been taken by the British from Vichy control during the war, to prevent it from falling to the Japanese, was returned by Britain to France.

Libya, no longer an Italian colony, remained under a British/ French administration for several years, and then – in 1951 – it became, by a decision of the United Nations, an independent kingdom under Idris I, the leader of the Senussi.

In the early days of the colonial period education was provided mainly by missionary schools; but after the Second World War there was a great expansion of state education. For example, in 1950, in Nigeria there were some 9000 primary schools, 100 secondary, over 100 teacher training colleges, and a University College at Ibadan. In the much smaller Senegal (a tenth the population of Nigeria) there were 200 primary schools and some secondary schools, teacher training colleges and technical colleges. In Kenya there were separate primary and secondary schools for Europeans, Africans, Indians, and Arabs.


After the Second World War nationalist movements in Africa quickly gained momentum. This was largely due to the war itself, and its effects. Many thousands of Africans had fought In the Allied armies, expanding their outlook and their knowledge of international affairs; and the war had been to some extent an anti- racist war – against the racist governments of the Axis powers. And many more Africans had by now received the beginnings of a modern education and begun to take an interest in political matters. In many parts of Africa outstanding leaders arose – such men as Kwame Nkrumah of the Gold Coast, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Sékou Touré of (French) Guinea, Houphouet- Boigny of Ivory Coast.

Moreover the status of the two great colonial powers in Africa – France and Britain – had changed, and also their attitude to colonialism. France had been defeated, and after the war soon had serious troubles in her south-east Asian colonial empire, which she abandoned altogether in 1954. Britain had withdrawn from her Empire in India In 1917, and British opinion was becoming favorable to political concessions towards self-government in her colonies and protectorates.

The first moves came in the north. After their withdrawal from south-east Asia the French were faced with nationalist unrest in Morocco and Tunisia which they were unable to subdue, and both were granted independence in 1956 – the year in which the British left the (Egyptian) Sudan to be an independent nation.

The greatest blow to France, though, was a Moslem revolt in Algeria, regarded as part of France, and where there were over a million European settlers. For four years, 1954-58, huge numbers of French troops were sent to Algeria to crush the rebellion, but failed to do go. In 1958 the French government decided to negotiate, whereupon the settlers and French military leaders in Algeria seized power. To restore the situation de Gaulle came back, on a wave of public enthusiasm, to govern France. But the war went on; and in 1962, with the approval of a referendum in France, the independence of Algeria was accepted. Nearly a million settlers moved to France.

Meanwhile France had launched, in 1958, a “Community of African nations” to include all the remaining French territories in Africa. (De Gaulle had probably hoped that Algeria would fit into this.) In the Community each state was to be self-governing, but closely linked to France in foreign, strategic, financial and economic affairs. The following became members: Senegal, Gabon, Chad, Congo, Central African Republic, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Upper Volta, Ivory Coast, Benin (Dahomey), and Malagasy (Madagascar). Guinea did not join, and became independent.

Two years later all members of the Community became fully independent – whereupon six of them withdrew from the Community (Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Upper Volta, Ivory Coast, and Benin).

The organs of government in the Community later dropped into abeyance, but French influence remained dominant. The ex-mandates Togo and Cameroon also became independent in 1960, and remained territories associated with the Community. French Somaliland became a “territory associated with France” and fully independent as the Republic of Djibouti in 1977.

In all these ex-French African states, except those in North Africa, French is still an official language – and it is also much spoken in ex-French North Africa.

The first Negro state to gain independence was the British colony, the Gold Coast, which became independent Ghana in 1957 under the leadership of Nkrumah (and the British part of the Togo mandate was added to Ghana). The other British possessions in West Africa – Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and The Gambia – followed between 1960 and 1965. (Gambia took the name “The Gambia” after independence.)

Progress towards self-government and eventual complete independence was probably smoother in these West African states where there were few white settlers than it was in some of the climatically more salubrious territories in East Africa, where there were significant numbers of Europeans and Asians who were apprehensive of their future under African rule. For instance, in Kenya there were some 40-50,000 whites, about the same number of Arabs, and nearly 200,000 Indians or Pakistanis who had originally been imported for work on railway building.

Nevertheless, between 1960 and 1964 independence was granted to all the British possessions in East Africa: British Somaliland (which was united with ex-Italian Somaliland to form the new state of Somalia), Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, and Zambia. In Kenya Britain had been confronted during most of the 1950s by a terrorist Organization, the Mau Mau, a Kikuyu secret society expressing resentment against the European settlers and against the restrictions on allotment of land to Africans.

In South Africa the British protectorate of Bechuanaland became independent Botswana in 1966; and two other tribal territories – Basutoland and Swaziland – which were surrounded by the Union of South Africa and had become British protectorates in 1868 and 1902 respectively, also gained independence, Basutoland (as Lesotho) in 1966, Swaziland in 1968.

In 1960 the Union of South Africa became a republic, and in 1961 withdrew from the British Commonwealth. The former British colonies and protectorates Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, The Gambia, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland all remained in the Commonwealth.

The situation in Southern Rhodesia was more difficult. Britain’s plans for her independence with majority rule (in effect African rule) were bitterly opposed by most of the ¼ million or so white settlers. Failing to reach any agreement on the question, the white Rhodesians in 1965 declared Rhodesia to be an independent Dominion, within the Commonwealth. Negotiations and discussions – and internal troubles – continued for 15 years, until in 1980 Rhodesia became the independent African nation Zimbabwe – staying in the British Commonwealth.

The remaining territory in southern Africa, South West Africa or Namibia, is still administered by South Africa, which would like to incorporate it into the republic – against the ruling of the United Nations.

  • Belgian Africa. The Congo Free State became independent Zaire in 1960. Rwanda and Burundi were detached from it, and became separate states in 1962.
  • The Portuguese were reluctant to give up their African empire; but in all three colonies – Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau (Portuguese Guinea) – they were faced with continuous warfare from the early 1960s onwards against the guerillas of African resistance organizations. In 1974-75 Portugal abandoned the struggle, and all three became independent.
  • Spain granted independence to Spanish Guinea in 1968 – under the name Equatorial Guinea; and in 1975 the Spanish Sahara came under the joint control of Morocco and Mauritania.

So, between 1951 (Libya) and 1980 (Zimbabwe) colonial Africa ceased to exist. Instead there were (apart from Egypt, Ethiopia and South Africa) 43 independent countries, of which only one – Liberia – had been independent in 1950; and the unsolved problem Namibia.

Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Upper Volta, Ivory, Benin and Guinea are parts of what was French West Africa; Gabon, Chad, Congo and Central African Republic parts of what was French Equatorial Africa.

Tanzania consisted of Tanganyika and Zanzibar. They were granted independence separately; but in Zanzibar the African majority rebelled against and overthrew the Arab Sultan and elected to join with Tanganyika.

The ex-Italian colony of Eritrea was joined, by a United Nations decision, to Ethiopia in a federation, and was later (in 1962) incorporated in Ethiopia as a province of that country.


The newly independent African nations faced many problems, particularly those countries – the great majority – with no recent experience of being a national state.

One awkward problem was that the boundaries of the new states often bore little or no relation to racial or tribal divisions. The boundaries had mainly come about as a result of the “scramble” for Africa”, and had been drawn after bargaining between the European powers concerned with little consideration for tribal organization. When independence was gained these artificial boundaries were accepted, because there was no other practicable way of obtaining independence without prolonged discussion, negotiation and strife. There was some talk of federation in West Africa, uniting the ex-British and also the ex-French colonies, but it came to nothing.

There were nevertheless many frontier disputes and small wars; but the “Organization of African Unity”, which was formed in 1963 by representatives of some 30 of the new states, helped to settle them. The OAU aimed to help towards independence those which had not yet, at that time, achieved it, and to improve economic, political and cultural conditions throughout Africa. Its permanent headquarters was established at Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia. The new states also became members of the United Nations; indeed, African countries number about 30% of the whole.

Another difficult problem facing particularly the East African countries was the position of the European and Asian minorities in the new order.

Nearly all the new nations became republics. The few exceptions were the Kingdoms of Lesotho and Swaziland in the south, and Morocco and Libya in the north, but Libya became a republic later. And, in the other direction, the Central African Republic later changed to the Central African Empire.

We have Seven Economic/Regional Communities, including the Diaspora. With little experience of democratic government, there has been an inevitable trend in many states towards autocratic rule. Military coups and dictatorships have been frequent in many countries and regions, and Communist interference by the Soviet Union in some areas has added to the problems. They are grouped as follows; and some notes are here given regarding previous names, to assist in identification.

  • North Africa:
    Libya – Tripolitania and Cyrenaica
  • The Countries of the Sudan:
    Mauritania – Part of French West Africa. Not to be confused with Roman Mauretania, which was roughly modern Morocco.
    Mali – Part of French West Africa. In roughly the same position as ancient Mali from which it has taken its name.
    Niger – Part of French West Africa.
    Chad – Part of French Equatorial Africa. Named after Lake Chad, includes much of ancient Kanem-Bornu.
    Sudan – Nubia, Egyptian or Eastern Sudan.
  • West Africa:
    Nigeria – includes ancient Oyo and Benin.
    Ghana – Ashanti, Gold Coast. A different land from ancient Ghana, whose name it has taken.
    Sierra Leone
    The Gambia – Gambia.
    Senegal – part of French West Africa.
    Benin – Dahomey, part of French West Africa. A different land from ancient Benin.
    Ivory Coast – part of French West Africa.
    Upper Volta – part of French West Africa.
    Guinea – French Guinea, part of French West Africa.
    Togo – Togoland.
    Guinea-Bissau – Portuguese Guinea.
  • East Africa:
    Somalia – British and Italian Somaliland.
    Djibouti – French Somaliland, Territory of the Afars and Issas.
    Uganda – Buganda, Bunyoro and other kingdoms.
    Tanzania – Tanganyika and Zanzibar.
    Malagasy – Madagascar.
  • Central Africa:
    Central African Empire – Central African Republic, part of French Equatorial Africa.
    Cameroon – Cameroons.
    Congo – ancient Kongo, part of French Equatorial Africa. Different from the ‘Belgian Congo’.
    Gabon – part of French Equatorial Africa.
    Equatorial Guinea – Spanish Guinea.
    Zaire – Congo Free State, Belgian Congo. (Includes ancient Lunda, Luba, Kazembe.)
    Rwanda & Burundi – ancient kingdoms, then part of German East Africa, then part of the Belgian Congo.
  • Southern Central Africa:
    Zambia – Northern Rhodesia. Includes some of Central ancient Monomatapa
    Malawi – Ancient Malawi, then Nyasaland.
    Angola – parts of ancient Kongo and Ndongo.
  • Southern Africa:
    Zimbabwe – ancient Zimbabwe, then Southern Rhodesia, then Rhodesia.
    Botswana – Bechuanaland.
    Lesotho – Basutoland.
    Namibia – (German) South West Africa.


The culture of Ancient Africa was as diverse as the geography of the large continent. The Sahara Desert of North Africa, the savanna of West Africa, and the rainforest of Central Africa shaped the way people lived their lives. Much of what we know about Ancient Africa has been passed down orally over the years through storytellers called griots. You can learn about some of the aspects of the culture of Ancient Africa in the subjects below.

Africa is a large and diverse continent. Its history is filled with the rise and fall of numerous civilizations and empires. As a result, the art of Ancient Africa is varied and diverse. However, there are some common themes throughout much of African art that we will discuss on this page.

By Regions
Ancient African art can be somewhat divided into regions. The art of northern Africa was heavily influenced by the Arabs after the Islam conquest. Similarly, the art of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa was influenced by Europe and Christianity. There is also the well preserved art of Ancient Egypt found in temples and burial chambers. However, what most people think of today as African art is the art produced by the peoples living south of the Sahara Desert.

The art of Ancient Africa was produced using a wide variety of materials. Unfortunately, a lot of African art was produced using wood, which has since been destroyed by time and the elements. Other materials, such as metals (like bronze and iron), ceramics, and ivory have survived.

Three Dimensions
One of the main elements of African art is that it is often created in three-dimensions rather than two-dimensions. For example, they used sculpture more often than flat paintings. Here are some of the primary types of art used in Ancient Africa.

Sculpture was one of the most important types of art in Ancient Africa. Sculptures were mostly made of people and sometimes animals. African artists often used wood for their sculpture, but they also used bronze, terracotta, and ivory.

Masks were an important part of art. They were often used together with dance to create a type of performance art. Masks were generally made of wood, but were often decorated with ivory, gems, paint, and animal fur.

Many Ancient African civilizations created jewelry from gold, gems, shells, and other materials. Jewelry was an important part of showing one’s status and wealth.

Ceramics were used for everyday items like bowls and cooking pots. However, some ceramics were works of art that were shaped and painted with fine details.

Human Form
One of the main themes in the art of Ancient Africa is the human form. The primary subject in the majority of the art is people. Sometimes people were shown with animals or as part animal, part person. Many times the representation of people wasn’t natural, but was more abstract with certain features exaggerated while others were entirely left out.

Monumental Art and Architecture
The most famous examples of monumental art and architecture in Ancient Africa come from Egypt. The Ancient Egyptians created huge structures such as the pyramids, the Sphinx, temples, and statues (like the giant pharaohs at Abu Simbel). Other African civilizations built monumental structures as well including the giant obelisks of Aksum in Ethiopia, mosques like the Great Mosque of Djene in Mali, and the rock-cut churches in Ethiopia.


Although we mostly hear about the vast riches of the kings of Ancient Africa, the daily life of the average person was much different. The commoners in Ancient Africa were typically very poor and had to work hard all their lives.

Typical Jobs
Farmers – Most people in Ancient Africa were farmers. They spent much of their day working the land growing crops such as yams, sorghum, barley, and wheat. Some people fished for food or took care of herds of livestock such as cattle and sheep.
Traders – Traders played an important role in the economy of Ancient Africa. They moved goods across the Sahara Desert using caravans of camels. Some traders became wealthy and held high positions in society.
Artisans – Artisans included blacksmiths, weavers, tailors, jewelers, and tool makers. In some Ancient African societies, artisans were thought to have magical powers.
Warriors – Warriors were important in the large empires of Ancient Africa such as the Mali and the Songhai Empires. Professional warriors kept the peace and maintained power for the emperor. During times of major wars, farmers were required to join the army and help fight.
Slaves – There were also many slaves in Ancient Africa. Slaves were often people captured from enemy tribes during war or were born into slavery. Sometimes criminals were forced into slavery for their punishment.

Types of Homes
Most people of Ancient Africa lived in thatched huts with walls made from clay and straw. Generally these huts were round and had a single room. The homes of royalty and the kings were often made of wood and stone.

What Did They Eat?
Depending on where in Africa people lived, they ate different foods. Each region had a major staple crop that formed the majority of their food. They would then supplement this crop with fish, meat, and vegetables that they were able to grow or hunt where they lived. Staple foods that were grown by farmers included wheat, yams, maize, and rice.

What Did They Wear?
Because it is so hot in Africa, the people of Ancient Africa didn’t wear a lot of clothes. Most of the time, they went around naked. However, for special ceremonies and meetings, they would sometimes wear loincloths or tunics. As Islam became a more popular religion in Africa, people began to wear more clothing. Typical materials included animal skins, fur, cotton, and some regions even made clothing from the bark of trees.

The people of Ancient Africa also wore jewelry and makeup. Jewelry was made from different items depending on where the people lived including gold, seashells, feathers, and gemstones.


Africa’s economy was diverse, driven by extensive trade routes that developed between cities and kingdoms. Some trade routes were overland, some involved navigating rivers, still others developed around port cities. Large African empires became wealthy due to their trade networks, for example Ancient Egypt, Nubia, Mali, Ashanti, and the Oyo Empire.

Some parts of Africa had close trade relationships with Arab kingdoms, and by the time of the Ottoman Empire, Africans had begun converting to Islam in large numbers. This development, along with the economic potential in finding a trade route to the Indian Ocean, brought the Portuguese to sub-Saharan Africa as an imperial force. Colonial interests created new industries to feed European appetites for goods such as palm oil, rubber, cotton, precious metals, spices, cash crops other goods, and integrated especially the coastal areas with the Atlantic economy.

Following the independence of African countries during the 20th century, economic, political and social upheaval consumed much of the continent. An economic rebound among some countries has been evident in recent years, however.

The dawn of the African economic boom (which is in place since the 2000s) has been compared to the Chinese economic boom that had emerged in Asia since late 1970s. In 2013, Africa was home to seven of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

As of 2018, Nigeria is the biggest economy in terms of nominal GDP, followed by South Africa; in terms of PPP, Egypt is second biggest after Nigeria. Equatorial Guinea possessed Africa’s highest GDP per capita albeit allegations of human rights violations. Oil-rich countries such as Algeria, Libya and Gabon, and mineral-rich Botswana emerged among the top economies since the 21st century, while Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo, potentially among the world’s richest nations, have sunk into the list of the world’s poorest nations due to pervasive political corruption, warfare and braindrain of workforce. Botswana remains the site of Africa’s longest and one of the world’s longest periods of economic boom (1966–1999).

Current Conditions
The United Nations predicts Africa’s economic growth will reach 3.5% in 2018 and 3.7% in 2019. As of 2007, growth in Africa had surpassed that of East Asia. Data suggest parts of the continent are now experiencing fast growth, thanks to their resources and increasing political stability and ‘has steadily increased levels of peacefulness since 2007’. The World Bank reports the economy of Sub-Saharan African countries grew at rates that match or surpass global rates. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the improvement in the region’s aggregate growth is largely attributable to a recovery in Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa, three of Africa’s largest economies.

The economies of the fastest growing African nations experienced growth significantly above the global average rates. The top nations in 2007 include Mauritania with growth at 19.8%, Angola at 17.6%, Sudan at 9.6%, Mozambique at 7.9% and Malawi at 7.8%. Other fast growers include Rwanda, Mozambique, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia. Nonetheless, growth has been dismal, negative or sluggish in many parts of Africa including Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo and Burundi.

Many international agencies are increasingly interested in investing in emerging African economies especially as Africa continues to maintain high economic growth despite current global economic recession. The rate of return on investment in Africa is currently the highest in the developing world.

Debt relief is being addressed by some international institutions in the interests of supporting economic development in Africa. In 1996, the UN sponsored the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative, subsequently taken up by the IMF, World Bank and the African Development Fund (AfDF) in the form of the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative (MDRI). As of 2013, the initiative has given partial debt relief to 30 African countries.

Trade Growth
Trade has driven much of the growth in Africa’s economy in the early 21st century. China and India are increasingly important trade partners; 12.5% of Africa’s exports are to China, and 4% are to India, which accounts for 5% of China’s imports and 8% of India’s. The Group of Five (Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates) are another increasingly important market for Africa’s exports.

Africa’s economy—with expanding trade, English language skills (official in many Sub-Saharan countries), improving literacy and education, availability of splendid resources and cheaper labour force—is expected to continue to perform better into the future. Trade between Africa and China stood at US$166 billion in 2011.

Africa will only experience a “demographic dividend” by 2035, when its young and growing labour force will have fewer children and retired people as dependents as a proportion of the population, making it more demographically comparable to the US and Europe. It is becoming a more educated labour force, with nearly half expected to have some secondary-level education by 2020. A consumer class is also emerging in Africa and is expected to keep booming. Africa has around 90 million people with household incomes exceeding $5,000, meaning that they can direct more than half of their income towards discretionary spending rather than necessities. This number could reach a projected 128 million by 2020.

During the President of the United States Barack Obama’s visit to Africa in July 2013, he announced a US$7 billion plan to further develop infrastructure and work more intensively with African heads of state. A new program named Trade Africa, designed to boost trade within the continent as well as between Africa and the U.S., was also unveiled by Obama.

With the introduction of the new economic growth and development plan introduced by the African Union members pricely about 27 of its members who are averagely some of the most developing economies of the continent, it will further boost economic social and political integrations of the continent. The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) will boost business activities between member states and within the continent. This will further reduce too much reliance on importation of finished products and raw materials in to the continent.

Causes of the Economic Underdevelopment over the Years
The seemingly intractable nature of Africa’s poverty has led to debate concerning its root causes. Endemic warfare and unrest, widespread corruption, and despotic regimes are both causes and effects of the continued economic problems. The decolonization of Africa was fraught with instability aggravated by cold war conflict. Since the mid-20th century, the Cold War and increased corruption and despotism have also contributed to Africa’s poor economy.

According to the researchers at the Overseas Development Institute, the lack of infrastructure in many developing countries represents one of the most significant limitations to economic growth and achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Infrastructure investments and maintenance can be very expensive, especially in such areas as landlocked, rural and sparsely populated countries in Africa.

It has been argued that infrastructure investments contributed to more than half of Africa’s improved growth performance between 1990 and 2005 and increased investment is necessary to maintain growth and tackle poverty. The returns to investment in infrastructure are very significant, with on average 30–40% returns for telecommunications (ICT) investments, over 40% for electricity generation, and 80% for roads.

In Africa, it is argued that to meet the MDGs by 2015, infrastructure investments would need to reach about 15% of GDP (around $93 billion a year). Currently, the source of financing varies significantly across sectors. Some sectors are dominated by state spending, others by overseas development aid (ODA) and yet others by private investors. In sub-Saharan Africa, the state spends around $9.4 billion out of a total of $24.9 billion.

In irrigation, SSA states represent almost all spending; in transport and energy a majority of investment is state spending; in Information and communication technologies and water supply and sanitation, the private sector represents the majority of capital expenditure. Overall, aid, the private sector and non-OECD financiers between them exceed state spending. The private sector spending alone equals state capital expenditure, though the majority is focused on ICT infrastructure investments. External financing increased from $7 billion (2002) to $27 billion (2009). China, in particular, has emerged as an important investor.

The economic impact of the colonization of Africa has been debated. In this matter, the opinions are biased between researchers, some of them consider that Europeans had a positive impact on Africa; others affirm that Africa’s development was slowed down by colonial rule. The principal aim of colonial rule in Africa by European colonial powers was to exploit natural wealth in the African continent at a low cost. These colonial policies are directly responsible for many of Africa’s modern problems. Colonialism injured African pride, self-worth and belief in themselves. The true effects of colonialism are psychological and the domination by foreign powers creates a lasting sense of inferiority and subjugation that creates a barrier to growth and innovation. But a new generation of Africans free of colonial thought and mindset is emerging and that this is driving economic transformation.

Africa probably benefited from colonialism on balance. Although it had its faults, colonialism was probably “one of the most efficacious engines for cultural diffusion in world history”.

Africa was relatively wealthy and technologically advanced until at least the seventeenth century. Some scholars who believe that Africa was generally poorer than the rest of the world throughout its history make exceptions for certain parts of Africa. Though most of Africa has always been relatively poor, but “Aksum, Ghana, Songhai, Mali, and Great Zimbabwe… were probably as developed as their contemporaries anywhere in the world. Poverty of Africa at the onset of the colonial period was principally due to the demographic loss associated with the slave trade as well as other related societal shifts.

Language Diversity
African countries suffer from communication difficulties caused by language diversity. Greenberg’s diversity index is the chance that two randomly selected people would have different mother tongues. Out of the most diverse 25 countries according to this index, 18 (72%) are African. This includes 12 countries for which Greenberg’s diversity index exceeds 0.9, meaning that a pair of randomly selected people will have less than 10% chance of having the same mother tongue. However, the primary language of government, political debate, academic discourse, and administration is often the language of the former colonial powers; English, French, or Portuguese.

Trade-based theories
Dependency theory asserts that the wealth and prosperity of the superpowers and their allies in Europe, North America and East Asia is dependent upon the poverty of the rest of the world, including Africa. Economists who subscribe to this theory believe that poorer regions must break their trading ties with the developed world in order to prosper.

Less radical theories suggest that economic protectionism in developed countries hampers Africa’s growth. When developing countries have harvested agricultural produce at low cost, they generally do not export as much as would be expected. Abundant farm subsidies and high import tariffs in the developed world, most notably those set by Japan, the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy, and the United States Department of Agriculture, are thought to be the cause. Although these subsidies and tariffs have been gradually reduced, they remain high.

Local conditions also affect exports; state over-regulation in several African nations can prevent their own exports from becoming competitive. Farmers subjected to import and export restrictions cater to localized markets, exposing them to higher market volatility and fewer opportunities. When subject to uncertain market conditions, farmers press for governmental intervention to suppress competition in their markets, resulting in competition being driven out of the market. As competition is driven out of the market, farmers innovate less and grow less food further undermining economic performance.

Although Africa and Asia had similar levels of income in the 1960s, Asia has since outpaced Africa, with the exception of a few extremely poor and war-torn countries like Afghanistan and Yemen. One school of economists argues that Asia’s superior economic development lies in local investment. Corruption in Africa consists primarily of extracting economic rent and moving the resulting financial capital overseas instead of investing at home; the stereotype of African dictators with Swiss bank accounts is often accurate. University of Massachusetts Amherst researchers estimate that from 1970 to 1996, capital flight from 30 sub-Saharan countries totaled $187bn, exceeding those nations’ external debts. From 1970 to 2008, capital flight from 33 sub-Saharan countries totaled $700bn.

Because governments were politically unstable and new governments often confiscated their predecessors’ assets, officials would stash their wealth abroad, out of reach of any future expropriation.

Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko became notorious for corruption, nepotism, and the embezzlement of between US$4 billion and $15 billion during his reign. Socialist governments influenced by Marxism, and the land reform they have enacted, have also contributed to economic stagnation in Africa. For example, the regime of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, particularly the land seizures from white farmers, led to the collapse of the country’s agricultural economy, which had formerly been one of Africa’s strongest; Mugabe had been previously supported by the USSR and China during the Zimbabwe War of Liberation.

In Tanzania, socialist President Julius Nyerere resigned in 1985 after his policies of agricultural collectivization in 1971 led to economic collapse, with famine only being averted by generous aid from the IMF and other foreign entities. Tanzania was left as one of the world’s poorest and most aid-dependent nations, and has taken decades to recover. Since the abolition of the socialist one-party state in 1992 and the transition to democracy, Tanzania has experienced rapid economic growth, with growth of 6.5% in 2017.

Foreign Aid
Food shipments in case of dire local shortage are generally uncontroversial; but most famines involve a local lack of income rather than of food. In such situations, food aid—as opposed to financial aid—has the effect of destroying local agriculture and serves mainly to benefit Western agribusiness which are vastly overproducing food as a result of agricultural subsidies.

Historically, food aid is more highly correlated with excess supply in Western countries than with the needs of developing countries. Foreign aid has been an integral part of African economic development since the 1980s.

The aid model has been criticized for supplanting trade initiatives. Growing evidence shows that foreign aid has made the continent poorer. Today, Africa faces the problem of attracting foreign aid in areas where there is potential for high income from demand. It is in need of more economic policies and active participation in the world economy. As globalization has heightened the competition for foreign aid among developing countries, Africa has been trying to improve its struggle to receive foreign aid by taking more responsibility at the regional and international level. In addition, Africa has created the ‘Africa Action Plan’ in order to obtain new relationships with development partners to share responsibilities regarding discovering ways to receive aid from foreign investors.


Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want
AGENDA 2063 is Africa’s blueprint and master plan for transforming Africa into the global powerhouse of the future. It is the continent’s strategic framework that aims to deliver on its goal for inclusive and sustainable development and is a concrete manifestation of the pan-African drive for unity, self-determination, freedom, progress and collective prosperity pursued under Pan-Africanism and African Renaissance The genesis of Agenda 2063 was the realization by African leaders that there was a need to refocus and reprioritize Africa’s agenda from the struggle against apartheid and the attainment of political independence for the continent which had been the focus of The Organization of African Unity (OAU), the precursor of the African Union; and instead to prioritize inclusive social and economic development, continental and regional integration, democratic governance and peace and security amongst other issues aimed at repositioning Africa to becoming a dominant player in the global arena.

As an affirmation of their commitment to support Africa’s new path for attaining inclusive and sustainable economic growth and development African heads of state and government signed the 50th Anniversary Solemn Declaration during the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the formation of the OAU /AU in May 2013. The declaration marked the re-dedication of Africa towards the attainment of the Pan African Vision of An integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens, representing a dynamic force in the international arena and Agenda 2063 is the concrete manifestation of how the continent intends to achieve this vision within a 50 year period from 2013 to 2063. The Africa of the future was captured in a letter presented by the former Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Dr. Nkosazana Dlaminin Zuma.

The need to envision a long-term 50 year development trajectory for Africa is important as Africa needs to revise and adapt its development agenda due to ongoing structural transformations; increased peace and reduction in the number of conflicts; renewed economic growth and social progress; the need for people centered development, gender equality and youth empowerment; changing global contexts such as increased globalization and the ICT revolution; the increased unity of Africa which makes it a global power to be reckoned with and capable of rallying support around its own common agenda; and emerging development and investment opportunities in areas such as agri-business, infrastructure development, health and education as well as the value addition in African commodities

Agenda 2063 encapsulates not only Africa’s Aspirations for the Future but also identifies key Flagship Programs which can boost Africa’s economic growth and development and lead to the rapid transformation of the continent.

Agenda 2063 also identifies key activities to be undertaken in its 10 year Implementation Plans which will ensure that Agenda 2063 delivers both quantitative and qualitative Transformational Outcomes for Africa’s people.