OK. Buckle in and hold on because I’m about to tell you something that is going to blow. Your. Mind. Africa had civilizations before white people showed up. I’ll give you a second to process.
the way we teach africa
If you had the typical high school history experience, then you honestly might not have known that. Based on the way it’s taught around the country we are given the impression that Africa was made up of a bunch of small tribes that didn’t have technology or sophisticated institutions. This is why white people were able to conquer them so easily, right?
Nope. (To be clear: if you are a history teacher and are offended because you don’t teach Africa this way. You’re one of the good ones and you’d be surprised how rare you are.)
It’s so common for teachers to spend way more time talking about Europe, the Americas, and Asia and forget all about Africa. One of the biggest reasons for this is that they didn’t learn about Africa in school and we really don’t like getting up in front of judgmental teenagers to teach something that we know nothing about. So, since teachers are a product of their own education system, we’ve set up this cycle that perpetuates the overemphasis on Europe and the U.S. and skims past a lot of the rest of the world.
the importance of representation in history
This may not seem important but it is. It impacts our entire outlook today. When we look at the Middle East in the news today we only see radicalism and fighting and chaos without also seeing that this is one small part of a long history of sophisticated empires that showed tolerance and promoted art and culture – while Europe was torturing non-Christians, I might add.
Similarly, when we look at Africa today we only see disease and poverty and sadness because it fits our narrative that Africa without white people in charge is incompetent. Yeah, Africa does have a lot of issues today (but, like, don’t we? The U.S. has 42 million people in our own country who are food insecure.)
But they also are growing incredibly fast – remember, a lot of these African countries just got free from European imperialism like, 50 years ago. Anyway, we’ll come back to that later.
But the point is that if we keep skipping African history then we are doing ourselves a disservice by not learning about the incredible things that Africans have done, without the help or aid of outsiders. And knowing about these impressive civilizations might give us a better idea of exactly what the African people are capable of if people would just stop colonizing them for a second. OK rant over.
So a lot of Africa, and by this I mean sub-Saharan Africa (because, like, Egypt is in Africa too right? But we’ve already talked about them.) A lot of Africa was made of stateless societies – this just means that they were set up in smaller units without an overarching state.
But there were also a lot of incredibly impressive kingdoms and empires. Remember, Africa is huge! Africa’s landmass is bigger than the U.S., Europe, China, and India – COMBINED. Screw you Mercator map projection for making us think otherwise!
So even though Africa is huge and diverse and had a ton of different things going on, I’m going to focus in on one key civilization in each region.
Early African history
In the ancient and classical era, there was a kingdom in east Africa called Nubia that lived further south along the Nile and traded luxury goods with Egypt and the rest of the Mediterranean. This kingdom is also sometimes called “Kush” (with a K). This kingdom was very similar to ancient Egypt and they produced a ton of fantastic art that is found across the region.
At one point, they were ruled by a powerful Queen named Amanishakheto who defeated an invading army sent by Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. Nubia collapsed along with the other classical empires in the 300s and that region gave rise to Christian kingdoms, the greatest of which was Ethiopia.
aksum in Ethiopia
The Kingdom of Aksum in modern-day Ethiopia ruled east Africa from around 100 to 900 CE. It was notable as an early adopter of Christianity, right around the time the Romans did, too. This created a beneficial link between the two civilizations that traded until Rome fell. Aksum is going to rule east African trade for centuries until they are pushed back by the conquering Muslims. They will eventually retreat inwards, retaining their Christianity and internal unity in exchange for giving up power and control over trade routes.
Even today, Ethiopia is a mostly Christian nation. When European colonizers showed up in Africa, the Ethiopian Church already had 40-50 million members. They are also going to be the only nation in Africa that does not get colonized – partly because they were already Christian so it was hard for Europeans to justify that they needed to be civilized, but also because they were so unified – Italy tried to conquer them but were defeated in the Italo-Ethiopian War. We’ll come back to that near the end of the season.
The postclassical era – again, the medieval era in Europe – was dominated by three large trading kingdoms in sub-Saharan Africa. Furthest south, was a place called Great Zimbabwe.
We don’t know much about this kingdom (like I mentioned in a previous episode, many African civilizations value oral history which can get lost more easily.) but we do know that it was great. So great, in fact, that when Europeans discovered the remains of this civilization they were so convinced of the inferiority of black people that they couldn’t believe that African people had built it on their own. Really.
When colonizers arrived in Africa, they heard myths of a great city in the interior of southern Africa that sounded to them a lot like the mines of King Solomon mentioned in the Bible. In this version, Semitic people (a group of people from the Middle East) traveled down to southern Africa and founded a city of gold called Ophir.
When Great Zimbabwe was found, archaeologists and historians told this general version of the story for years. They said that they had found a great city that had been created by non-Africans deep in the jungle.
A few decades later in the early 20th century, archaeologists reevaluated the evidence and realized that none of the art and architecture from these ruins looked anything like something from Eurasia. In fact, it matched pretty dang close with other African art. They finally admitted that Great Zimbabwe was a purely African creation and it blew peoples’ mind.
The guy who first proposed this new version was kicked out of the National Geographic society because it was so controversial to claim that black Africans could have built it. This civilization did not have much contact with the outside world, but they did trade their precious materials – especially gold – with some of the key trading cities along the east coast.
These trading cities were mostly independent but we generally refer to them as the Swahili Coast States. These are basically located in modern-day Somalia and they are really important centers of trade between Africa, the Middle East and India. The cities become these huge melting pots of language and culture. Swahili is a language that develops as a result of the mixture of the native African Bantu and Arabic.
But the most famous trading empire during this time is Mali. It’s located in west Africa and is the largest of the Sudanic states. In the postclassical era, the “Sudan” referred to the region just below the Sahara desert and it comes from the Arabic phrase for “land of the blacks.” Mali was situated perfectly to take advantage of the gold-salt trade.
And now, for a quick shoutout to camels. Camels are CRUCIAL to African trading because they can cross the formerly uncrossable Sahara desert. So it’s not coincidence that these trading kingdoms grow very quickly after the camel gets introduced to the African continent via Middle East traders in around 300 C.E.
But, did you know that camels originated in Canada? Yeah. That Canada. Prehistoric camels were 30% bigger than they are today and they roamed the Arctic desert of North America. They eventually crossed the Bering land bridge and made their way into Asia and the Middle East, finally ending up in Africa. Also, some of the North American camels migrated down into South America where they became llamas and alpacas. Y’all. I just learned this and it’s now one of my favorite facts of all time.
So Mali grows incredibly wealthy and no one epitomizes that better than Mansa Musa. He was a Muslim king of Mali that lived at the turn of the 14th century, around the same time that the Mongols are controlling most of Asia and the Black Death is hitting Europe.
Mansa Musa took the traditional hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca and along the way he showered the communities he visited with gold. He spent so much gold in Egypt that he caused rampant inflation and sort of destroyed their economy. Oops.
There’s a history teacher who has a YouTube channel where she makes the most amazing music videos for historical parodies of pop songs. My favorite song she does is called “I’m Mansa Musa” and it’s a parody of Culture Club’s “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya.” You should go watch it. Historically, when adjusting for inflation and relative wealth at the time, Mansa Musa is still the richest man in all of history. Easily.
a rising threat for africa
His Hajj had an unintended effect that may have proved disastrous for the continent of Africa. He travels across north Africa and through the Middle East, spreading seemingly infinite supplies of gold, just as European merchants are on the rise and setting up shop in these same trading cities. And so the newly powerful European monarchs back at home are hearing about this mythical land of wealth just below the desert.
I don’t think it’s fair to say that this was the reason they eventually want to colonize Africa for its natural resources, but it definitely didn’t help. If Mansa Musa had just watched Black Panther he would have known that you shouldn’t flaunt your wealth to the outside world! If T’Challa had gone around bragging about all of his stores of vibranium, they totally would have been taken over. We could all learn a thing or two from the Wakandans.
Africa makes up the westernmost end of this Eurasian trading. So let’s head East to the place that instead of trading natural resources, trades inventions…