Chapter 9 Summary
Africa below the Sahara for long periods had only limited contact with the civilizations of the Mediterranean and Asia. Between 800 and 1500 c.e., the frequency and intensity of exchanges increased, with Islam proving the major external contact. The spread of Islam in Africa linked its regions to the outside world through trade, religion, and politics. Social, religious, and technological changes influenced African life. State building in Africa was influenced both by indigenous and Islamic inspiration. States like Mali and Songhay built upon military power and dynastic alliances. City-states in western and eastern Africa were tied to larger trading networks. African civilizations built less clearly on prior precedent than other postclassical societies. Older themes, such as Bantu migration, persisted. Parts of Africa south of the Sahara entered into the expanding world network; many others remained in isolation.
African Societies: Diversity and Similarities. Although Africans shared aspects of language and belief, their large continent’s vast size and cultural diversity made diversity inevitable. Political forms varied from hierarchical states to stateless societies organized on kinship principles and lacking concentration of power and authority. Christianity and Islam sometimes influenced political and cultural development.
Stateless Societies. Stateless peoples were controlled by kinship institutions. They lacked concentrated authority structures, but at times incorporated more peoples than their more organized neighbors. In the west African forest, secret societies were important in social life and could limit rulers’ authority. The main weakness of stateless societies was their delayed ability to respond to outside pressures, mobilize for war, undertake large building projects, or create stability for long-distance trade.
Common Elements in African Societies. There were many similarities among African cultures. The migration of Bantu speakers produced a widespread common linguistic base. Animistic religion, a belief in natural forces personified as gods, was common, with well-developed concepts of good and evil. Priests guided religious practices for community benefit. African religions provided a cosmology and a guide to ethical behavior. Many Africans believed in a creator deity whose power was expressed through lesser spirits and ancestors. Families, lineages, and clans had an important role in dealing with gods. Deceased ancestors were a link to the spiritual world; they retained importance after world religions appeared. African economies were extremely diversified. North Africa was integrated into the world economy, but sub-Saharan regions had varying structures. Settled agriculture and ironworking were present in many areas before postclassical times, with specialization encouraging regional trade and urbanization. International trade increased in some regions, mainly toward the Islamic world. Both women and men were important in market life. Little is known of the size of Africa’s population; by 1500 it may have totaled 30 to 60 million.
The Arrival of Islam in North Africa. Northern Africa was an integral part of classical Mediterranean civilization. From the mid-7th century, Muslim armies pushed westward from Suez across the regions called Ifriqiya (Tunisia) by the Romans and the Maghrib (the west) by the Arabs. By 711 they crossed from Morocco into Spain. Conversion was rapid, but initial unity eventually declined and divided north Africa into competing Muslim states and groups. The indigenous Berbers were an integral part of the process. In the 11th century, reforming Muslim Berbers, the Almoravids of the western Sahara, controlled lands extending between the southern savanna and into Spain. In the 12th century another group, the Almohads, succeeded them. Islam, with its principle of the equality of believers, won African followers. The unity of the political and religious worlds appealed to many rulers. Social disparities continued between ethnicities and men and women, the former stimulating later reform movements.
The Christian Kingdoms: Nubia and Ethiopia. Christian states were present in northern Africa and Ethiopia before the arrival of Islam. Egyptian Christians, Copts, had a rich and independent tradition. Oppression by Byzantine Christians caused them to welcome Muslim invaders. Coptic influence spread into Nubia (Kush). The Nubians resisted Muslim incursions until the 13th century. The Ethiopian successors to Christian Axum formed their state during the 13th and 14th centuries. King Lalibela in the 13th century built great rock churches. Ethiopia remained Christian, despite increasing pressure from Muslim neighbors.
Kingdoms of the Grasslands. Islam spread peacefully into sub-Saharan Africa. Merchants followed caravan routes across the Sahara to the regions where Sudanic states, such as Ghana, had flourished by the 8th century. Camels were unable to carry goods into humid forest zones, and the sahel, an extensive grassland belt bordering the southern edge of the Sahara, became a major exchange point. By the 13th century, new states were emerging as successors to Ghana.
Sudanic States. The states often were led by a patriarch or council of elders from a family or lineage. They were based upon an ethnic core and conquered neighboring peoples. The rulers were sacred individuals separated from their subjects by rituals. Even though most of their population did not convert, the arrival of Islam after the 10th century reinforced ruling power. Two of the most important states were Mali and Songhay.
The Empire of Mali and Sundiata, the “Lion Prince.” Mali, between the Senegal and Niger rivers, formed among Malinke peoples who broke away from Ghana in the 13th century. Rulers’ authority was strengthened by Islam. Agriculture, combined with the gold trade, was the economic base of the state. The ruler (mansa) Sundiata (d. 1260) receives credit for Malinke expansion and for a governing system based upon clan structure. Sundiata’s successors in this wealthy state extended Mali’s control through most of the Niger valley to near the Atlantic coast. Mansa Kankan Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca during the 14th century became legendary because of the wealth distributed along the way. He returned with an architect, Ishak al-Sahili from Muslim Spain, who created a distinctive Sudanic architecture utilizing beaten clay.
City Dwellers and Villagers. Distinctive regional towns, such as Jenne and Timbuktu, whose residents included scholars, craft specialists, and foreign merchants, developed in the western Sudan. Timbuktu was famous for its library and university. The military expansion of Mali and Songhay contributed to their prosperity. Mandinka juula traders traveled throughout the Sudan. Most of Mali’s population lived in villages and were agriculturists. Despite poor soils, primitive technology, droughts, insect pests, and storage problems, the farmers, working small family holdings, supported themselves and their imperial states.
The Songhay Kingdom. The Songhay people dominated the middle reaches of the Niger valley. Songhay became an independent state during the 7th century. By 1010, the rulers were Muslims and had a capital at Gao. Songhay won freedom from Mali by the 1370s and prospered as a trading state. An empire was formed under Sunni Ali (1464–1492), a great military leader, who extended rule over the entire middle Niger valley. He developed a system of provincial administration to secure the conquests. Sunni Ali’s successors were Muslim rulers with the title of askia; by the mid-16th century, their state dominated the central Sudan. Daily life followed patterns common in savanna states; Islamic and indigenous traditions combined; men and unveiled women mixing freely. Songhay remained dominant until defeated by Moroccans in 1591. Other states that combined Muslim and pagan ways rose among the Hausa of northern Nigeria. In the 14th century, the first Muslim ruler of Kano made the Hausa city a center of Muslim learning. Along with other Hausa cities, Kano followed the Islamic-indigenous amalgam present in the earlier grasslands empires. Traders and other Muslims widely spread influences even in regions without Islamic states.
Political and Social Life in the Sudanic States. When larger Sudanic states emerged, their rulers represented a particular group or family. Indigenous social groups within the states continued to organize many aspects of life. Islam provided a universalistic faith and a fixed law that served common interests. Rulers reinforced authority through Muslim officials and ideology, but existing traditions continued to be vital since many of their subjects were not Muslims. The fusion of traditions shows in the status of women. Many Sudanic societies were matrilineal and did not seclude women. Slavery, and the slave trade to the Islamic world, lasting over 700 years, had a major impact upon women and children. All individuals might become slaves, but the demand for concubines and eunuchs increased demand for women and children.
The Swahili Coast of East Africa. A series of trading ports, part of the Indian Ocean network, developed along the coast and islands between the Horn of Africa and Mozambique. Town residents were influenced by Islam, but most of the general population remained tied to traditional ways.
The Coastal Trading Ports. Bantu-speaking migrants had reached and mixed with indigenous Africans early in the 1st millennium c.e. Immigrants from southeast Asia had migrated to Madagascar from the 2nd century b.c.e.; they introduced bananas and coconuts. With the rise of Islam, individuals from Oman and the Persian Gulf settled in coastal villages. By the 13th century, a mixed Bantu and Islamic culture, speaking the Bantu Swahili language, emerged in a string of urbanized trading ports. They exported raw materials in return for Indian, Islamic, and Chinese luxuries. As many as 30 towns flourished, their number including Mogadishu, Mombasa, Malindi, Kilwa, Pate, and Zanzibar. From the 13th to the 15th century, Kilwa was the most important. All were tied together by coastal commerce and by an inland caravan trade.
The Mixture of Cultures on the Swahili Coast. The expansion of Islamic influence around the Indian Ocean facilitated commerce. It built a common bond between rulers and trading families and allowed them to operate through a common culture. Apart from rulers and merchants, most of the population, even in the towns, retained African beliefs. A dynamic culture developed, using Swahili as its language, and incorporating African and Islamic practices. Lineage passed through both maternal and paternal lines. Islam did significantly penetrate into the interior.
Peoples of the Forest and Plains. Apart from the peoples of the savanna and eastern coast, by 1000 c.e. most Africans were following their own lines of development. Agriculture, herding, and the use of iron implements were widespread. Some large and complex states formed; most were preliterate and transmitted knowledge by oral methods.
Artists and Kings: Yoruba and Benin. In the central Nigerian forests, the Nok culture flourished between 500 b.c.e. and 200 c.e. Its members developed a realistic art style; they practiced agriculture and used iron tools. After Nok disappeared there was a long hiatus before the reappearance of regional artistic traditions after 1000 c.e. The Yoruba-speaking peoples were highly urbanized agriculturists organized into small city-states, each controlling a radius of about 50 miles. The city-states were under the authority of regional divine kings presiding over elaborate courts. The king’s power was limited by other societal forces. At Oyo, for example, local lineages controlled provinces while paying tribute to the ruler. In the capital, a council of state and a secret society advised the ruler. Ile-Ife was the holiest Yoruba city; its subjects after 1200 created terra-cotta and bronze portrait heads that rank among the greatest achievements of African art. Similar organizational patterns are found among the Edo peoples to the east. They formed the city-state of Benin in the 14th century under the ruler Ewuare. It ruled from the Niger River to the coast near Lagos. Benin’s artists are renowned for their work in ivory and cast bronze.
Central African Kingdoms. By the 13th century c.e., Bantu speakers were approaching the southern tip of Africa. By around 1000 they were forming states where kinship patterns were replaced by political authority based on kingship. The Luba peoples, in Katanga, created a form of divine kingship where the ruler had powers ensuring fertility of people and crops. A hereditary bureaucracy formed to administer the state, thus allowing the integrating of many people into one political unit.
The Kingdoms of the Kongo and Mwene Mutapa. The kingdom of the Kongo flourished along the lower Congo River by the late 15th century. It was an agricultural society whose people were skilled in weaving, pottery making, blacksmithing, and carving. There was a sharp gender division of labor: women dominated crop cultivation and domestic tasks; men cleared the forest, hunted, and traded. The population resided in small, family-based villages; the area around the capital, Mbanza Kongo, by the 16th century included up to 100,000 people. A hereditary central kingship ruled over local nonhereditary chiefs. The Kongo was a federation of states grouped into eight major provinces. To the east, in central Africa, Shona-speaking peoples in the region between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers by the 9th century began building royal stone courts (zimbabwe). The largest, Great Zimbabwe, was the center of a state flourishing by the 11th century. Massive stone buildings and walls were constructed. Its ruler, the Mwene Mutapa, controlled a large territory reaching to the Indian Ocean. Zimbabwe dominated gold sources and trade with coastal ports of the Indian Ocean network. Internal divisions split Zimbabwe during the 16th century.