Africa, from 1464-1887
Like Europe, the period between the fifteenth and nineteenth century saw the formation, centralization, and growth of states in Africa. Along with the formation of centralized states came more sophisticated political systems accompanied by philosophies of legitimacy that relied heavily on religion and economics. These new states also encouraged trade both within, and beyond their borders, leading to a growing connection between Africa and the rest of the world. Of course, contacts with the Middle East, which had already been growing stronger since the seventh century, became the primary links to the broader world economy and political system. Still, by 1415, Portugal had established contact with African societies, and from that trade and political relationships grew. Some of the trade relationships were positive. The trade in salt, for example, provided a necessary subsistence commodity to the people of the Sahel in sub-Saharan Africa. In return, they put so much gold into the regional economy that a general deflation occurred by the seventeenth century. Far from the jungle-based tribal society stereotype long held by the West, Africa was a major player in the world economy and politics in this period before colonization by European powers.

To understand the way in which Africa was linked to the rest of the world, a bit of African geography will help. Africa consists of several regions, each of which has unique characteristics that have helped and hindered its interaction with the rest of the continent, and constrained the directions in which trade and culture could flow to and from the rest of the world. The Maghreb, for example, which consists of the northern coastal region of the African continent, has long had close contact with the great civilizations of the Middle East and Europe. If we think of the Mediterranean Sea as connecting, rather than separating, the continents, it becomes clear why.

The Maghreb has shared the history of Rome (Carthage was located here), been a part of the ancient trading network of the Phoenicians, been settled by Greeks, and provided the settlers for the conquered Iberian Peninsula. It has had a long history of contact with Syria and Arabia, and was one of the first places where both Christianity and Islam spread after their foundations, both before their arrival in Europe. Since the Maghreb borders Egypt, it has maintained trade and cultural contacts with both Egyptian and neighboring Mesopotamian civilizations. African societies in the Maghreb have therefore been influenced by, and contributed to, the trade, political, and military contacts of the entire region. Civilization in the Maghreb has been a long and storied affair.

South of the Maghreb is the Sahara desert. For the Berbers of the Maghreb, the Sahara has often functioned like the Mediterranean Sea – less a barrier and more a connector. The Berbers learned to navigate the dangers of the Sahara, and find its treasures, including large salt beds, which they mined to bring salt to the societies to the south of the vast desert, who, because of its scarcity, valued salt as much as gold. Since the Berbers had salt, and other commodities from the northern coasts, they were able to trade for the gold, and a long tradition of trans-Saharan trade and cultural exchange was begun very early in African history.

South of the Sahara were the kingdoms of Ghana (8th to 13th century),Mali (13th century to 1464) and Songhai (1464-1591), the great Sahel empires. Politically astute kings created these empires, largely by bringing together diverse tribal cultures into relatively centralized states that thrived because of efficient and profitable domestic trade, and well-regulated international trade.

In his book Millennium: A History of the Last Thousand Years, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto takes on the stereotype of African societies as consisting of only savage tribalism. Instead, Armesto begins with a brief narrative of the empire of Mali, at its height in the thirteenth century. Armesto regrets the accident of timing by which the first European visitors to Mali found the empire in decline. This, he says, led them to dismiss the stories they had heard about the power and wealth of Mali's Mansas (kings), and the greatness of the African Civilization. Armesto argues that in truth the greatness of Mali, and its successor state Songhai were a part of a general trend of expanding civilizations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, but no so much in Europe, during the 15th century. His narrative of Mali seems to support that view.

While Europeans were just beginning to venture outside of their continent in the early fifteenth century, Mali was already wealthy beyond the dreams of most rulers in the world. Armesto characterizes Mali as a culture of trade and empire, energetic, dedicated to education and trade, with imperial structures like, and the equal of, those in the Aztec and Mayan empires, the Ottoman Empire, the Chinese Empire, of the same period. Mali was the empire of a Mandé-speaking people whose core territory between the upper Senegal and Niger rivers. It controlled the major trading cities of Timbuktu, Walata, and Jenne. In describing Mali, Armesto takes most of his narrative from the accounts of famed Arab traveler and writer Ibn Battuta. This makes for a very interesting history. While Ibn Battuta observed an empire of great wealth and power, he also saw one in which local culture and customs mixed with imported customs of Islam to create a hybrid that both impressed and disturbed him.

To demonstrate the wealth of Mali, Armesto starts with the story of one of three Mansas to participate in the Hajj - the annual Muslim journey to Mecca. This Mansa, named Musa (r. 1312-1337), carried so much gold with him when he went to Mecca in 1324 that he caused a general deflation. The price of gold in Egypt, for example, dropped by 25% because of his generosity. A single ruler from Mali was wealthy enough to increase the money supply of Egypt to the point where money became less valuable. This is truly impressive. According to Armesto, people across northern Africa and Arabia remembered Mansa Musa's journey for more than a century.

One of the keys to Mansa Musa's empire, founded by the mythical conquering king Sundiata, was the way in which it incorporated a great variety of economic zones and activities. Like European and Asian empires of the time, many of these zones operated independently, but paid tribute to the king and gave military alliegiance as well. Thus Mali, which had access to gold mining centers in the areas of African Jungle it controlled, also had a thriving salt trade, a wealthy fishing industry, and controlled trade routes across the Sahel for other products.

In any event, by the time of Ibn Battuta's visit to Mali was a shocking, yet impressive, part of his life. Ibn Battuta required some time to recognize that the differences between Mali and the Islamic states that he had visited (and was born into) stemmed from the mixing of ideas, foreign culture, and trade goods in a geographical setting far different from those Muslim states. While the Mansa was a Muslim, much of the Mandé-speaking population of the empire were not converts. The upper classes followed Islam, but the lower classes maintained their traditional beliefs. In addition, the mixing of the two classes within the general population required them to adjust to each other in daily behavior. Mali's people, for example, were required to prostrate themselves in front of the king, and sprinkle dust on their heads as a sign of obeisance. Muslim traders, from the Berbers of the Maghreb to the Arabs of Mecca, were not required to do this. In other ways as well, Ibn Battuta was shocked. He complained in his account of the fact that women in Mali often went around in public in a state of undress that in his part of the world was unacceptable. They also associated with men who were not husband, father, or brother. These things were unseemly to the observer from outside (Fernandez-Armesto, p. 193).

Armesto relates that Ibn Battuta was not pleased with the food he received in Mali. He apparently did not recognize how difficult it was to get grain in the empire, not knowing the high cost of importing the simple millet he was being served. He clearly had a limited understanding of the relationship between the easy availability of gold in the empire (all mined nuggets were the property of the ruler by law, and his subjects had to get by on the gold dust alone), and the value of salt, which was never sufficient for the needs of Mali's people. For this reason he marvelled at the fact that the price of salt in Mali was in some places more than four times higher than it was in the Maghreb (Fernandez-Armesto, p. 194).

Still, the wealth and power of the Mansa and his court, the skill of his cavalry-oriented military, and the geographical extent of his power impressed Ibn Battuta so that he forgot his assumptions that black Africans were less skilled at political and social organization that Arabs. He was also impressed by the fact that the children of the elite were chained to their work tables until they learned the Qur'an perfectly. This combination of organization, power, and devotion to Islam contrasted with his observations of cultural activities, food, and work habits to leave him very confused.

Still, Mali was easily the equal of most of the great states of the period, and in terms of wealth, power, and the central authority of the king, probably superior to most European states of the fifteenth century (which were all smaller geographically as well). The irony, for Armesto, came in the fact that when the Portuguese finally arrived in Africa, they found a Mali in decline. War with the smaller nearby state of Songhai, loss of Timbuktu to raids from Tuareg people, limiting access to gold and other trade, had slowly impoverished this powerful empire. In 1464 Ghana was defeated by the Portuguese, and was not able to recover. The chronological accident that set the decline of empires in the Sahel with the rise of European power also seems to have had a major impact on the way in which Europeans came to view Africans as people (Fernandez-Armesto, p. 195-197).

The creator of Songhai, the largest and perhaps greatest of these trading states, was Sunni (or Sonni) Ali. Ali used both military conquest, and diplomatic, legal, and trade tactics to encourage villages, towns and cities to join his empire. His conquest of Timbuktu in 1468, and Jenne in 1473 cemented his power by giving him control of the primary trade centers of the region, and a sense of legitimacy as ruler of these two cultural centers. When Sunni Ali died in 1492, Songhai administered all of the major trading routes of the Sahel region, controlled most of the Niger River with a powerful navy, and reached the Sudan with its domestic trade networks. A combination of effective taxation policies, central power, and local power-sharing created a multi-ethnic empire that was very prosperous.

Several states also grew up in the West African rain forest south of the Sahara. These included the state of Oyo (15th to 18th centuries), a confederation of Yoruba societies whose success as a state only ended when European states conquered their territory and divided them during the eighteenth and nineteenth century Neo-colonialist surge in Africa. Other North African states included Benin (15th-16th centuries), Dahomey (17th -18th centuries), and the Ashanti Union (late 17th century).

In Benin, in the western part of the central rain forest band in Africa, society was organized very carefully. Children were raised by the state in age-grade groups which acted as proxies for their natal families. Kinship was reckoned according to the matriarchal, rather than patriarchal principal.
Benin had early contact with European civilizations, trading with the Portuguese as early as the fifteenth century. A number of Edo princes were educated in the West, and others in Benin learned to speak, read, and write English for trade purposes. However, culturally European influence was relatively minor here. Armesto suggests that Benin, had things gone slightly differently, could have become a major African trading power.

According to Armesto, "The African state best quipped in the late middle ages to impress Europe with an image of Black dignity was perhaps Ethiopia. 'Although the Nubians are Blacks," said an Aragonese geographical compilation of the late fourteenth century, "yet they are endowed with the faculty of reason, like us." Negroid physical features, such as low brows, flat noses, and thick lips - which, in a tradition of psycho-physiology popular in late medieval Europe, were associated with beastly qualities of sensuality, prurience, indiscipline and stupidity - were happily rare among Ethiopians. Moreover, they were zealous custodians of an ancient Christian tradition, which gave them a claim on the fraternal sensibilities of the Latin west and made them members not only of that vague juridical category, admitting so many invidious distinctions, known as the communitas mortalium, or community of mankind, but also of the communitas fidelium, or community of the faithful, whose rights were well defined (Fernandez-Armesto, p. 197)." Ethioians not only looked and in some ways behaved like Europeans, or at least, more like Europeans thought that all people should behave, they also shared the Christian religion. Furthermore, a group of Ethiopian Christians, with the blessing and assistance of Pope Sixtus V, established themselves in the Church of San Stefano dei Mori in Rome and showed, with their careful and learned "churchmanship," that they were devout and knowledgeable Christians worthy of the same respect as European Church leaders (Fernandez-Armesto, p. 197). These similarities seem to have been enough for Europeans to overcome their racial biases and accept Ethiopians as legitimately civilized.

The imperial success of the Ethiopian Negushta Nagast (king of kings) also confirmed for Europeans, based on their own measure of success by conquest, that Ethiopia was a civilization worthy of greatness and to be considered an equal. In fact, the military power and wealth that the conquests of various Ethiopian kings, such as Negus (King) Davit convinced them that this Christian kingdom was the home of the legendary Prester John, a mythical Christian king that Europeans in preceding centuries had mythologized. Prester John was said to be a Christian King of a wealthy and powerful kingdom on the opposite side of the Muslim empire from Europe, and who would eventually help Europeans to crush the Muslim kingdoms that they saw as threatening to them. Upon meeting the Ethiopians, their power, Christianity, and centralized leadership meant that Europeans automatically saw them as civilized, and imagined that this was the legendary kingdom of Prester John.