BECK index

Sub-Saharan Africa to 1700

by Sanderson Beck

West Africa to 1500
West Africa and Slavery
Bornu, Hausa, and Songhay
Dahomey, Gold Coast, and Oyo
Nubia and Ethiopia
East and Central Africa
Southern Africa
Traditional African Ethics

This has been published in the book Mideast & Africa to 1700.
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Africa was the birthplace of the human species, and the Nile River nurtured the long and ancient history of Egypt. However, most of the continent, as with most of Asia, Europe, and the Americas, did not develop urban civilization until the last two thousand years. Before it began to dry up about four thousand years ago, the Sahara was occupied by hunters who left marvelous rock paintings at Tassili and domesticated sheep and wild cattle. About 1500 BC horses were introduced in the Sahara from Egypt; about a thousand years later the camel was imported from Arabia, and soon after that the desert was too dry for horses and was increasingly abandoned by people as well.

Use of camels began about the first century CE and made crossing the Sahara practical as North Africans traded salt and other goods to the Sudan for gold and slaves. Starting in the 7th century, Islam gradually spread in Africa. Early Muslim travelers were astonished at the liberty the African women enjoyed. In Walata though devout, their beauty was far from veiled, and they could take lovers as they pleased. In the many matrilineal societies kings were succeeded by a son of a sister.

West Africa to 1500

In 772 CE al-Fazari in Baghdad called Ghana the land of gold. Ghana’s kings controlled the Wangara gold and competed with the Sanhaja Berbers, who held Awdaghust until Sanhaja strife enabled the Soninke of Ghana to capture that city in 990. The city of Kumbi Saleh became a commercial and intellectual center in the Sudan. Legends told of this region anciently called Wagadu, of which Kumbi was the capital, saying that Wagadu was blessed with much gold that was replenished annually thanks to a snake that guarded the kingdom. Every year they sacrificed a virgin to the snake until the year a lover of the chosen virgin killed the snake. The dying snake cursed Wagadu, causing the land to dry up and the gold to cease there and move to the upper Niger River area.

Ghana’s rulers maintained their ancestral religion and resisted Islam. In 1068 al-Bakri wrote that Ghana’s King Tunka Menin had great power and was respected for his love of justice and kind treatment of Muslims. Kumbi fell to the Almoravids in 1076, and many were forced to convert. Almoravid military leader Abu-Bakr ibn ‘Umar, whom Mauritanian oral traditions held responsible for dispossession of the blacks in the Sahara by the Berber nomads, was killed in Tagant in 1087. Plundered and with its trade disrupted, Ghana declined.

East of Ghana, the Kanuri Sefawa dynasty was established in Kanem about the 9th century and lasted a millennium. Gao’s King Kossoi became a Muslim in 1010 but did not change his court ceremonies. About 1085 the second Sefawa king, Dunama ibn Hummay, was converted to Islam; he made two pilgrimages to Mecca and died on a third.

Declining Ghana was finally destroyed in 1203 when Soso chief Sumaguru Kante of the Kaniaga, which had been a vassal state of Ghana, sacked Kumbi. Sumaguru also conquered the Mandinkas to the south by the upper Niger and put to death all the ruler’s sons except a cripple named Sundiata, who raised a guerrilla army and eventually defeated and killed Sumaguru in 1235. In a few years the Mandinkas took over what had been Ghana and controlled the gold trade from Wangara. Though essentially an agricultural community, this kingdom of Mali also traded the Saharan salt of Taghaza and copper of Takedda, as Jenne and Timbuktu became commercial centers. Sundiata was succeeded in 1255 by his son Wali, who went on pilgrimage to Mecca; during his 15-year rule the Mali kingdom included Songhay. Wali was succeeded by two brothers; the second, Khalifa, having killed people with arrows for sport, was deposed and killed. During these troubles Songhay became an independent kingdom under ‘Ali Kolon. Incompetent Mali kings were controlled by court officers, though a freed slave named Sakura usurped the throne in 1285 and expanded his power with his Mandinka army so that by the end of the 13th century Mali sovereignty stretched from Takrur in the west to Goa and Songhay in the east. Sakura died on his way back from Mecca, and the legitimate line resumed.

In the first half of the 13th century under Dunama Dibalami the Kanuri Sefawa dynasty expanded from east of Lake Chad to the north to take Kawar and the Fezzan and west to include Bornu, establishing the first Kanuri empire by military forces that included 41,000 horses. At the end of this century King Ibrahim Nikale killed one of his sons and was assassinated. A civil war in the next reign lost the Fezzan, where a Banu Nasur dynasty lasted a century before it was destroyed by Arabs from the Maghrib.

The Mali kingdom was divided into three provinces with many local chiefs. Sons of vassal kings were often held hostage at court, and local chiefs ruled under appointed governors. Farming, the army, and administration depended on serfs and slaves, though some slaves could become officials, even a provincial governor. The cavalry consisted of free men; horses were expensive and were often purchased with slaves. Property was respected so much that when a foreigner died in Mali, the property remained until the heir was sent for to recover it, according to Ibn-Battuta. This Arab traveler also complained that female servants and slaves in the court were naked.

In the forests of West Africa farmers and some pastoralists, like the Ibo and Tiv, had egalitarian societies based on family kinship and tribes that were free of tribute, tax, and rent. Elders administered justice and communal activities in small groups. The Akan people were matrilineal but had a king with attending ministers. A council could remove the king, who might be obligated to commit suicide; they could stop the king from going to war if they believed it was unjust. Wolof and Serer kings of Senegambia were elected by the nobility but were considered divine and had more power, appointing local chiefs to collect taxes. Women could hold powerful positions and in Walo could even be chief of state. Wolof and Serer societies were very hierarchical with defined classes of royalty, nobility, warriors, peasants, servants, and many slaves, some of whom held privileged positions, even advising the king. Society was also graded by age, and secret societies enforced customs and standards of behavior, promoting virtue in women and honor among men. Kola nuts were chewed as a stimulant and were often given in friendship. The art of Ife indicated it was an important center in the 11th century. Oyo was the primary state of those later called the Yoruba people. The Oyo king had to work with the council representing seven wards or face suicide. The secret society of the Ogboni was a check on the council. Tradition held that the Benin line of kings to the east was started by an Oyo king about the 14th century.

Mali’s King Mansa Musa (r. 1312-37) was celebrated by Muslim historians for making a famous pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324; his spending about 30,000 pounds of gold in Cairo depreciated the precious metal there. In choosing between gold production or proselytizing the Muslim faith in Wangara, Musa abandoned the latter. The Mossi pillaged and reduced Timbuktu to ruin by about 1330 and again in 1338. Musa broke tradition by leaving the kingdom to his son instead of the oldest male in the family, Sulayman, who took the throne four years later and maintained the Mali empire for twenty years. Ibn Battuta visited Mali in 1353 and noted a failed plot to overthrow the King. After Sulayman’s death a civil war over the succession was won by Mari-Djata II, who ruled so oppressively from 1360 to 1374 that he depleted the treasury and almost ruined the kingdom. In the next reign the chief minister carried out military expeditions against rebellions in Gao and beyond. In the fifteenth century Mali’s royal power declined as the Mossi raided the subject state of Macina.

The Songhay royal house at Gao on the Niger River had converted to Islam by the 11th century; in the 14th century the Sonni dynasty gained strength, and in 1420 Songhay’s Sonni ruler Muhammad Da’o raided Mali territory. In 1433 the Tuareg chief Akilu-ag-Malwal occupied Timbuktu and Walata, and in 1450 Macina became independent. Two hundred miles up the Niger River, the fishing village of Jenne had grown into a center of Islamic learning and trade. When Mali lost control of Timbuktu, Jenne also became independent for a half century. Sonni ‘Ali (r. 1464-92) of Songhay continued to practice his native religion but gave contributions to mosques. Yet he mistrusted Muslims and often persecuted them. He recaptured Timbuktu in 1468 and conquered Jenne about four years later. Naba Nassere invaded Baghana and Walata in 1477, but in 1483 Sonni ‘Ali drove his army out of the region. The Songhay army also pushed the Mossi south of the Niger and raided their territory. Arab historians criticized Sonni ‘Ali for tyrannically oppressing Muslims, but for the Songhay empire he was its founding hero. Both the Mali and Songhay empires traded slaves for horses in order to field a professional cavalry. Jews were resented for having become prominent, and in 1492 the qadi al-Maghili incited a massacre of Jews in Tuat.

In the early 14th century four Kanuri kings, all sons of ‘Abd Allah ibn Kaday, were killed fighting the So, though Idris ibn Ibrahim Nikale managed to get along with the Bornu people and ruled for about 25 years. The second half of the century was filled with wars against the pastoral Bulala, again killing four Kanem kings in a row and forcing the next mai (divine king) Umar ibn Idris to move the capital to Bornu west of Lake Chad. In 1391 mai Bir ibn Idris complained to the Egyptian Sultan Barquq of Arab raids on his Kanem people, but he ruled a third of a century. In the late 14th century nomadic Arabs came in to the western Sahara and raided caravans so much that trade shifted to Timbuktu in the east. In the 15th century the Kanuri revived in a second empire.

Some political history of Kano survived in “The Song of Bagauda.” Population increased in this fertile land as others suffering famine migrated to Kano. Larger territory was conquered by a series of kings called sarki. Gijimasu (r. 1095-1134) had established the city of Kano, and his son Tsaraki (r. 1136-94) subdued most of the chiefdoms in the area except Santolo. Muslims helped Yaji (r. 1349-85) conquer the Santolo and destroy its religious center of traditional sacrifices. The 15th sarki Kananeji (r. 1390-1410), using horse armor, iron helmets, and coats of chain-mail, invaded and occupied Zaria (Zazzau). The wealthy war-chief Dauda (r. 1421-38) brought a more sophisticated administration with Bornu titles. When a deposed Bornu ruler took refuge in Kano about 1425, the Bornu mai made the Hausaland towns pay tribute to Bornu during the reign of Kano sarki Abdullahi Burja (r. 1438-52). Katsina had to send a hundred slaves each year to the Bornu capital at Ngasargamu. In the 15th century the most powerful states in the Hausaland were Katsina, Kano, Zaria, and Gobir. The spread of Islam put more emphasis on the higher Hausawa god Ubangiji rather than possession by the oskoki spirits that were subordinated as jinn.

During the Kano reign (1452-63) of Ya‘qub, kola nuts were introduced into Hausaland. The Kano sarki Muhammad Rumfa (1463-99) made Kurmin Jakara into a market, built mosques, and consulted a council of nine, letting trusted slaves handle finances. His conversion to Islam was marked by his cutting down the sacred tree and replacing it with a mosque. During his reign the series of wars between the Kano and Katsina began. Sarki Muhammad Korau (r. 1445-93) founded the walled city of Katsina at the site of an iron mine. His successor Ibrahim Sura (r. 1493-98) imprisoned his subjects who refused to pray.

In 1415 the Portuguese captured Ceuta on the Moroccan side of the Gibraltar Straits. After their fleet was destroyed at Tangier, they abandoned it in 1437; but they began colonizing the Azores two years later. In 1441 Antam Gonçalves seized two Africans on the coast of Rio d’Oro and took seven captives back to Lisbon. Two years later Nuno Tristao took captives from the Senegal region, and the next year a company was set up in Lagos to exploit the African slave trade. A fort was built at Arguin in 1445, and the next year Portuguese explorers arrived in western Malinke. Ten years later a Venetian reported that the Portuguese were stealing about a thousand people a year from the west African coast, and plantations were established on the Canary Islands, the Cape Verde Islands, and on Sao Tomé, using African slaves.

The Portuguese attacked Tangier in 1471, also taking Arzila and Larache. That year the expedition led by Fernao Gomes discovered the lucrative region they called the “Mine” (El Mina) that became known as the Gold Coast. In a 1480 treaty Portugal gave up the Canary Islands to Spain, and the Spanish promised not to interfere in the Guinea trade. Portuguese led by Azambuja began building the Sao Jorge da Mina fortress in 1482, and the next year Portuguese captain Diogo Cao reached the Kongo; missionaries tried to convert the natives to Christianity while ambassadors and goods were exchanged with Lisbon. In 1485 d’Aveiro began trade and diplomatic relations with the Benin empire.

West Africa and Slavery

All together over four centuries about ten million African slaves were transported to the Americas. Africans were most viable economically for this exploitation because of their superior resistance to diseases and willingness to work. Native Americans died in enormous numbers as a result of contact with Europeans, and Europeans themselves were three times more likely to die of disease in America than Africans. Thus a greater percentage of the crews on the ships died during the passage than the slaves in miserable conditions. More slaves were continually needed because only half as many women were transported as men, and the raising of children was difficult.

For fifty years after 1482 over 400 kilograms of gold were sent annually from El Mina (“The Mine”) to Lisbon, Portugal. Led by Tengella and his son Koly, the Denianke Fulani fought a war against Mali between 1481 and 1514. Tengella invaded Zara but was defeated and killed about 1512 by the Songhay; Tengella had led the Fulani into Futa Toro and Jolof. Mali retained authority from Gambia to Casamance, and the mansa maintained diplomatic and trade relations with the Portuguese. Mansa Mahmud III in 1534 received envoys from Joao de Barros, who governed at Fort Elmina. The Portuguese transported slaves from Benin and the Kongo to Elmina to sell them to interior merchants; but Portuguese King Joao III (r. 1521-57) declared this illegal because the slaves were becoming Muslims.

Portuguese Jews and criminals were sent to colonize the island of Sao Tomé in the Gulf of Guinea as the slave trade was organized. In 1506 Pereira wrote that every year they were getting 3,500 slaves, plus ivory, gold, and cotton. The Portuguese established sugar plantations worked by slaves on Sao Tomé, and as late as 1560 this island was exporting twice as much sugar as the Caribbean island of Española. The Portuguese took over the Cape Verde Islands in 1484 and required a license to travel to Guinea in 1514. By 1582 the Cape Verde Islands had 1,600 Europeans, 400 free Africans, and 13,700 slaves. By 1600 Sao Tomé had imported 76,000 slaves as compared to 75,000 for all of Spanish America and 50,000 for Brazil.

After the Mali empire declined, the Kaabu became the dominant military power in this region. Early Portuguese trade favored the coasts and broke up the Jolof confederacy. In 1660 the Hassani were fighting the Berber marabouts in Mauritania. When Amari Ngoone defeated the Buurba Jolof at Danki, he proclaimed Wolof independent and became the Damel of Kayor.

A Zawiya (religious) leader who took the title Nasir al-Din opposed the slave trade and condemned kings who killed and enslaved people. He declared a holy war (jihad) against the Hassani in 1673 and crossed the Senegal River to invade Futa Toro, Wolof, Kayor, and Jolof. Marabouts from the countryside joined his movement, defeating and killing Wolof brak Fara Kumba. Nasir al-Din set up a theocratic government using the royal puppet Yerim Kode as brak, and he imposed an Islamic tax on tribes north of the Senegal. Turmoil occurred in Kayor as the marabout Njaay Sall assassinated Mafaali Gey for not respecting the Qur’an and then proclaimed himself viceroy. In 1674 Nasir al-Din was killed in a third battle against Hassani warriors in Mauritania, and his successor ‘Uthman was killed fighting the Wolof. Three succeeding imams were also defeated as the marabout movement declined. Because trade had been suspended by the viceroys, the French at Saint-Louis intervened for the Futa Toro, Wolof, Kayor, and Jolof kings and helped them defeat the marabouts by 1677. The war disrupted agriculture, and famine followed. Marabouts fled from Futa Toro to Bundu, where Maalik Sy founded a Muslim theocracy about 1690, taking the title Almamy.

Bornu, Hausa, and Songhay

Mai ‘Ali Gaji founded a Bornu dynasty about 1472 at Ngasargamu east of the Songhay empire and ruled for a quarter century. His son Idris, called Katakarmabe, inherited a peaceful kingdom but attacked Bulala’s Sultan Dunama ibn Salama, driving him out of Njimi before departing. Dunama was killed by his brother Adam, who reoccupied Kanem. Mai Idris then invaded Njimi again. Traveler Leo Africanus considered Bulala more powerful than Bornu because of its flourishing trade with Egypt. Bulala’s Sultan Kadai ibn ‘Abd al-Jalil attacked the son of Idris, Mai Muhammad (r. 1525-43), but Kadai was defeated and killed. In 1555 Bornu’s Dunama (r. 1545-62) opened diplomacy with the Ottoman Turks, who had occupied Tripoli in 1551. Dunama and his son ‘Abdullah (r. 1562-69) continued to battle the Bulala. The mother of Bornu mai Idris Alooma (r. 1571-1603) was a Bulala princess. Idris Alooma led a campaign against the Kano, Tuareg, and Teda, and he also suppressed internal resistance of the Kotoko, Buduma, Ngizim, and the So. After fighting Kanem, Idris Alooma made a peace treaty with the Bulala. Trade with the Ottomans in Tripoli enabled him to employ Turkish musketeers. In 1582 Idris Alooma asked for military aid to fight infidels, and al-Mansur used this opportunity to extend his imperial influence from Morocco.

Idris Alooma in Bornu was succeeded by his three sons, Muhammad (r. 1603-18), Ibrahim (r. 1618-25), and ‘Umar (r. 1625-44). Muhammad was said to have ruled in peace, but he died fighting a jihad. Ibrahim changed from a dissolute youth to a pious warrior who fought ten battles. A song to the queen mother Amina praises Bornu as having a thousand thrones and 500 gunmen. ‘Umar was elderly but went on a pilgrimage, and his son ‘Ali ibn ‘Umar went on three pilgrimages, letting his brother Kashim Birri rule as regent while he was away. When Kashim tried to take the throne, ‘Ali had him blinded and banished. During his last four years in the early 1680s his son Idris acted as regent.

Tuareg warriors gave the Hausa states troubles as Ahir’s Sultan Muhammad al-Mubarak (r. 1654-87) and his son Agg-Abba expanded their domain and challenged Bornu sovereignty. In 1667 Tuareg disputes caused Sultan al-Mubarak to flee to In Gall. In 1679 he launched a raid on Bornu from Dabak, but four years later he arbitrated a peace between the Itisen and the Kel Away. In 1685 Sarkin Zamfara led forces that wiped out a party of about 700 Tuaregs. The same year Muhammad al-Mubarak retaliated with a Tuareg army that routed the Zamfara forces, killing a thousand. Al-Mubarak died during a severe epidemic at Agades in 1687. His son Agg-Abba campaigned against Gobir in 1689 and sold some Gobirawa into slavery. Five years later he left Agades and took refuge in Dabak. In 1696 the War of Hunger between the Kel Away and the Itisen ravaged the sultanate, followed the next year by a devastating drought in the Sahel.

In the Hausaland wars between the Kano and Katsina were continued by Kano’s sarki Muhammad Rumfa’s son ‘Abdullah (r. 1499-1509) and grandson Muhammad Kosoki (r. 1509-65). Katsina’s ruler ‘Ali (r. 1498-1524) was known as a religious warrior. However, tradition credits Katsina’s Chief Ibrahim Maje (r. 1549-66) with being a religious reformer. Kuta Kanta led Kebbi by invading the Hausa states and defeating the Bornu army; but after he died in 1556, Kano and Katsina regained their independence. Rumfa’s elderly son Yakufu let the Katsinawa ravage the country while he devoted himself to religion; he was deposed in 1573. Katsina defeated Kano’s sarki Muhammad Shashere (r. 1573-82); but his successor Muhammad Kisoki (r. 1582-1618) was victorious over them. Zamfara, south of Gobir, gained strength and fought a war for about fifteen years with Katsina that ended in 1609.

Kano’s sarki Muhammad Zaki (r. 1618-23) tried to make peace with Katsina; but according to the Kano Chronicle when they invaded, he won. Kano’s sarki Kutumbi (r. 1623-48) sacked the main city in the Gombe region, and Kano and Zaria warriors raided the Kwararafa empire to capture slaves. Kutumbi invaded Katsina twice; the first was a nine-month siege, but in the second he was defeated and killed. When Kwararafa began invading Zaria, Kano, and Katsina about 1650, Kano and Katsina made a perpetual peace treaty with each other that was not broken. About 1653 Kwararafa attacked Kano while Sarki Muhammad Kukuna was touring eastern provinces. The same year Kwararafa besieged and set fire to Katsina, which was reported to have been saved by the prayers of a pious poet known as Dan Marina. Kwararafa attacked Kano and Katsina again in 1671; many were slaughtered as both cities were plundered. After Katsina’s Muhammad Uban Yara (c. 1641-71) killed a Zamfara prince, Zamfara’s sarki Zaudai wanted to retaliate but was persuaded not to and died. The electors chose his brother Aliyu, who was the first Muslim ruler of Zamfara. In 1674 Sulayman led the Hausa states in a major attack on Kebbi’s army of 6,000 and defeated them, enabling Ahir’s Prince Agaba to take over Adar.

Muhammad Ture (r. 1493-1528) founded Songhay’s Askiya dynasty. He went on a pilgrimage and got the caliph in Cairo to recognize his authority over Takrur (West Africa). When he returned in 1497, he implemented Islamic law by appointing qadis (Muslim judges), such as Mahmud ibn ‘Umar in Jenne. That year Muhammad Askiya declared a jihad to convert Nassere, the Naba of Yatenga; so many Mossi resisted that he had to build a special quarter for the captives in his capital at Gao. Muhammad fought wars against Mali governors, conquering the provinces of Baghana, Ka’arta, and Galam. He drove the Tuareg back into the Sahara, captured Air in the east, and took over the salt mines at Taghaza. The Mali retreated south of the Niger delta to Malinke territory. However, Songhay failed to conquer the Bariba of Borgu, who defeated their army in 1504. Muhammad invaded the Hausaland, conquering Katsina and Zaria and killing their rulers; but Songhay had to withdraw from the Hausaland in 1515 because of the Kebbi revolt led by Kuta Kanta. Muhammad Askiya revived learning at Timbuktu but did not force the common people to become Muslims. The Songhay empire declined as Muhammad aged; in 1528 he had become blind and was finally deposed by his son.

Dynastic conflicts among the Askiya family caused short reigns in the next decade. Muhammad Benkan overcame the pagan Gurma but was defeated by the Kebbi before he was deposed in 1537. Ishaq I (r. 1539-49) was elected but was so suspicious that he had governors killed and dismissed. After he died, Dawud (r. 1549-82) gained the throne peacefully. Dawud also tried to subdue the Mossi and was praised for memorizing the Qur’an and supporting learning and religion. He even forced two scholars to become judges. A struggle with Morocco’s Sultan Muhammad al-Shaykh caused the loss of the salt mines at Taghaza in 1557. Dawud reorganized the Songhay army and won victories over the Mossi, Borgu, Gurma, Hombori, Bandiagara, Mali, Fulani of the Sahel, and Arabs in the desert, though a cavalry raid on Katsina failed. When al-Mansur (r. 1578-1603) of Morocco imposed a tax, Dawud sent him 10,000 mithqals (1,250 ounces) of gold but did not recognize it as a tax. Al-Mansur sent an expedition in 1583 that in three years took over the Sahara oases at Tuat and Gurara for Morocco, which exchanged diplomatic gifts with al-hajj Muhammad II (r. 1582-86) of Songhay. Civil war caused by another succession struggle then weakened the Songhay empire, and Moroccan spies captured a brother of Askiya Muhammad Bani (r. 1586-88) and Askia Ishaq II, taking him to Marrakesh in 1589.

The next year al-Mansur demanded a tax of one mithqal of gold for every load of salt from Taghaza, but Askia Ishaq II answered his letter with spears. Al-Mansur sent 4,000 men under his Spanish eunuch, the pasha Judar. This force met the Songhay army of about 40,000 or more about 35 miles north of Gao in March 1591. The small Moroccan force had muskets and prevailed. Ishaq submitted and offered a heavy annual tribute, as Judar’s troops occupied Gao and Timbuktu. The latter, led by qadi ‘Umar ibn Mahmud Aqit, refused to cooperate with the conquering army, which tore down people’s houses. Judar was replaced by pasha Mahmud ibn Zarqun. After a disturbance when a former Songhay governor of Timbuktu returned and was killed, ‘Umar ibn Mahmud sent three ‘ulama’ (clerics) to Marrakesh. People put their goods in the houses of leading jurists; but in 1593 Mahmud sent the seventy jurists, including the great scholar Ahmad Baba, to Marrakesh in chains. The next year Mahmud ibn Zarqun was assassinated by the Songhay resistance in Bandiagra. Pasha Sulayman (r. 1600-04) restored order in Timbuktu by punishing criminals and by not letting Moroccan soldiers out after sunset.

In 1598 Fulani ardo Hammadi Amina tried to intervene for an imprisoned ‘ulama’ in Timbuktu and was driven into exile by the Moroccans. Mali’s mansa Mahmud IV attacked Jenne in 1599 but was defeated by Moroccan reinforcements. The death of Mawlay Ahmad in Morocco led to civil war there in 1603, and after that the Sudan army gave their allegiance to the prince in Marrakesh. Jenne revolted in 1609 with Songhay’s aid; but eventually the Moroccan army subdued the region. After 1612 the sultans of Morocco abandoned control of Timbuktu, and without Sudanese trade it fell into anarchy. The Fulbe and Tuareg plundered the fallen Songhay empire, which was divided among local pashas. Askiya al-Amin governed the Songhay in Dendi 1612-18 and helped them during famine. His successor Askiya Dawud was said to have killed many people, including his relatives and army commanders. His brother Isma‘il escaped to Timbuktu, gained the support of the Pasha, and returned in 1639 to depose Dawud. When he asserted his independence by sending back the arma (Moroccan troops also called Ruma), the Pasha attacked the Dendi capital at Lulami and deposed Isma‘il. However, the askiya appointed by the Pasha was later rejected by the independent Songhay.

In 1618 Marrakesh sent to Timbuktu the new amin Mahmud ibn Abi Bakr; but in 1629 he was accused of corruption and executed by Mawlay ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Zaydan. He was replaced by a local commander (qa’id), and two years later the Pasha appointed the amin, who became his assistant. After the army elected the amin to be Pasha in 1638, the former office was no longer filled. Jenne revolted against the Pasha in 1632, but they were punished two years later by the new Pasha from Timbuktu. Merchants left Jenne and went to Bina in 1637, and in 1643 the arma in Jenne revolted again, getting the troops in Timbuktu to replace the Pasha. In 1644 the Pasha defeated ardo Hammadi Amina II; but he regained his position the same year, and the next year a qadi of Masina went to Timbuktu and restored peaceful relations. After the ‘Alawi dynasty gained power in Morocco, the army in Timbuktu pledged allegiance to Mawlay al-Rashid in 1671.

In the early 17th century slave-owning Fulbe nomads settled in the Segu region and married Berber, Bambara and Mande women. Banmana animists, called Bambara, revolted against local chiefs and the last Mali Emperor Mansa Magan in 1645. The Kulibali family founded the Masasi dynasty that was established by the time of Kaladian Kulibali (r. 1652-82), but its influence declined under Danfassar (r. 1682-97) and Souma (r. 1697-1712).

Dahomey, Gold Coast, and Oyo

As early as about 1500 the Portuguese were selling slaves from the fort at Accra on the Gold Coast west of the Volta River. The Accra people destroyed that fort in 1578. The Ga people, led by priests, moved into the Accra region and came into conflict with the Akwamu, reaching their peak of power during the reign of Accra’s King Okai Akwei (c. 1640-77). In 1659 Denkyira defeated Adansi and surrounding tribes to take control of trade routes from Assini and Axim to the coast. From 1662 to 1666 so much fighting occurred in the Accra region that Danes at Christiansborg could not get their provisions locally. The Ga army did not defend Okai Akwei, who was surrounded by the Akwamu army. He shot himself and left a curse on Accra. His son Ashangmo continued the war against the Akwamu. In 1677 the Akwamu led by Ansa Sasraku (d. 1688) using cannons took over the capital of Great Accra and drove their kings beyond the Volta to Little Popo on the Dahomey coast, where they became vassals of the Dahomey kingdom. The Akwamu made Nyanoase their capital.

Early in the 17th century the Dutch put agents in Assim in the Aja kingdom of Allada, and the French sent Capuchin missionaries in 1640. The Allada King even sent an envoy to Paris in 1670, but the Aja would not sign a trade agreement he considered unfair. The French established a trading station at Whydah the next year, giving Allada an economic rival. The English established their factory for slave trading at Allada in 1674 and began trading at Whydah in 1681. The Dutch arrived the next year and Brandenburgers in 1684.

About 1625 a younger brother was forced off the Allada throne and migrated north. His followers killed the local leader Da. Dogbagrigenu still did not have land for a kingdom; but he was succeeded by his son Dukodonu, who conquered enough territory and was crowned Dahomey King. The next King, Wegbaja, reigned from about 1650 for thirty years; he encouraged agriculture, trained his warriors, and used new tactics such as surprise night raids to expand his domain. This new kingdom in the Abomey plateau emphasized merit and service to the King over lineage. Dahomeans turned away Allada slave raiders in 1671 and 1688 and made them negotiate.

French raiders captured 300 Portuguese caravels between 1500 and 1531, and the French increased their trade on the Guinea coast. Starting in 1553, English ships began visiting and for a while were allied with the French. Captains William Towerson and George Fenner found trading difficult because previous English privateers had raided the coast for slaves. In 1588 England’s Queen Elizabeth granted merchants the right to trade on the Senegal and Gambia rivers. The Dutch made their first voyage to the Gold Coast in 1595, and three years later they settled at Mori, Butri, Kormantine, and Kommenda.

After tunnels collapsed near Elmina in 1622, Africans refused to go back in the mines. The next year the Portuguese went up the Ankobra River and built a fort to work a gold mine in Aowin territory. However, after an earthquake in 1636 destroyed tunnels, the Aowin people killed Portuguese; the surviving garrison fled to Axim. In 1625 natives near Elmina repulsed an attack by 1,200 Dutch troops and 150 Africans. Organization of the Dutch West India Company in 1629 for expeditions to the Gold Coast got competition two years later when the English crown chartered the Company of Adventurers of London Trading in Africa. The Dutch fortified Mori, and the English built a fort at Kormantine. The Dutch appealed to natives upset with the Portuguese and used force to take over Elmina from the Portuguese in 1637. While Portugal was preoccupied winning its independence from Spain in 1640, the Dutch captured Axim and drove the Portuguese off the Gold Coast by 1642.

In 1660 the Dutch ended their ban on exporting firearms. The English formed a new trading company of Royal Adventurers in 1662 that included King Charles II’s brother James. Their encroachment led to a war in 1665 with the Dutch, whose Admiral de Ruyter took back the lost towns on the Gold Coast, causing the Royal Company to go out of business in 1672. However, the same year the Royal African Company was formed with Charles II as a stockholder, and between 1673 and 1704 they shipped nearly 66,000 firearms and more than 9,000 barrels of gun-powder to West Africa. Brandenburgers, Swedes, and Danes sent traders. In 1693 the African Asameni tricked a Danish garrison into giving his men guns, and they took over the fort at Christiansborg. When the Dutch mediated, Asameni gave the fort back for £1,600 after having taken £7,000 worth of trading goods. The next year Dutch mining of a sacred hill at Fort Vredenburg provoked a war with the Kommenda people, who gained the Fante as allies. In 1698 the British Parliament opened West African trade to anyone paying ten percent on exports and imports as a license fee; but the Royal African Company complained because gold and slaves were exempted.

Operating from the Cape Verde Islands, the Portuguese traded for gold, ivory, hides, spices, and slaves along the Senegal and Gambia rivers, and between 1562 and 1640 they transported about 5,000 slaves per year from the southern rivers to islands and the New World. In 1621 the Dutch moved into Gorée Island. The English built Fort St. James at the mouth of the Gambia River in 1651, and the French established Saint-Louis across from the Senegal River mouth in 1659. In 1660 the leather trade peaked with 150,000 hides meeting European demand. Gorée Island was taken by the Dutch in 1629 and 1645, by the English in 1667, and by the French in 1677. The French built the Saint Joseph fort at Galam in 1700. These western-most ports were used for transporting slaves before the larger slave markets were developed in the Gulf of Guinea and Angola.

Under Oti Akenten the Asante (Ashanti) became a military people. When he died about 1660, his nephew Obiri Yeboa continued military expansion and confederated Asante tribes. Obiri Yeboa’s sister Manu Kotosii had a son named Osei Kofi Tutu, who was raised at the Denkyira court of Boa Amponsem. After making the chief’s sister Ako Abena Bensua pregnant, he fled to the Akwamu court. There he became friends with the priest Okomfo Anokye. When Obiri Yeboa was killed fighting the Doma, Osei Tutu was chosen chief. Okomfo Anokye and thirty Akwamus from Anum accompanied him back to Asante. The spiritual power of Okomfo Anokye helped mold the Asante into a unified nation so that they were able to overcome the Doma and the people of Tafo. The Doma chief was given a position in Osei Tutu’s house, and the Tafo chief was killed. People hated and feared the domination of both the Akwamu and the Denkyira; but Okomfo Anokye brought conquered provinces into the Asante confederation as equals, respecting their customs and territory while listening to their chiefs in the Asante council called Abrempon.

The Asante had to pass through Denkyira and Adansi territory to get to the sea. When the Adansi rebelled against Denkyira and fled to Asante, the latter prepared for war against Denkyira. After Denkyira’s Chief Bosianti died, he was succeeded by Ntim Gyakari, believed to be the son of Osei Tutu and Ako Abena Bensua.

The Benin empire of Nigeria was east of the Oyo River. They settled succession disputes for the Ibo rulers by keeping the rejected candidate as a sword-bearer and sending back the new king. The Portuguese founded Christian missions in Benin and Warri in the 16th century. In the 1640s Benin supplied the Dutch and British with large amounts of cloth.

West of the Niger River, the Aja felt the impact of Europeans before the inland Yorubas at Oyo. After the Moroccans conquered the towns of Gao, Timbuktu, and Jenne in Songhay in 1591, the Oyo began moving south toward the coast. Horses helped them conquer the grasslands. The Nupe drove the Oyo from their homes but were defeated by Oyo’s King Ajiboyede. Oyo expansion in the Yoruba country was continued by kings Abipa and Obalokun. Under Ajagbo’s improvement of the military the Oyo cavalry reached the coast, conquering Weme. A series of unpopular rulers led to an army mutiny against Odarawu for carrying on a vendetta.

In 1680 the Oyo went to war against the Aja of Allada and Dahomey for two years. Then Oyo warriors withdrew; but civil wars resulted in which European mercenaries participated as traders tried to set up favorable kings.

Nubia and Ethiopia

Nubia was attacked by the earliest Egyptian dynasty before 3000 BC and occasionally after that. In the eighth century BC the Kushite civilization was led by princes who made Napata their capital. King Piankhi reversed the trend by attacking Memphis and seizing Thebes and most of Upper Egypt. In 716 BC his brother Shabaka even brought the Nile delta within the Kushite kingdom. His successor Taharqa (r. 690-664 BC) ruled Egypt peacefully but was driven out of Memphis by the imperialist Assyrians led by Esarhaddon in 671 BC; although Kushite Tanutamen invaded Egypt in 664, ten years later the Kushites were back in Napata.

The Kushites were defeated by an invasion of Egyptians and Greek mercenaries in 593 BC. As the Sahara got drier, the grazing land around Napata deteriorated, and Meroe became the new center of the Kushites led by King Aspelta from 593 to 568 BC. Meroe was further away from possible Egyptian attacks and had developed the use of iron, which was more plentiful there. Iron weapons had given the Assyrians a military advantage, but now this was no longer the case. The Kushites, like the Egyptians, also built pyramids.

During the reign of Kushite King Nastasen from 328 to 308 BC the Meroites began to use their own hieroglyphs, which were soon followed by a Meroitic alphabet and script. The religion, which was derived from the Egyptians, changed also in the reign of Ergamenes in the last quarter of the third century BC from the worship of the Egyptian ram to a lion god depicted with three faces and four arms. Elephants were domesticated and used for royal prestige and in war. The Kushites traded extensively with the Egyptians but also through Red Sea ports with Arabia, East Africa, India, and perhaps even China. The multi-faces and arms of their lion god seem to reflect the influence of India’s Shiva cults.

Although the Greeks used their term meaning “dark-skinned” to refer to the Kushites as Ethiopians, they were not what became Ethiopia. The civilization which did develop in Ethiopia was at Axum, where many Semitic people from Yemen congregated by the third century BC. They were ruled by kings claiming to be descendants of the son of Solomon and Sheba, who was supposed to have brought the Ark of the Law from Jerusalem to Axum. Although they sometimes called themselves Israelites, their religion was actually more Arabian in origin. Nubians controlled Thebes from 203 to 187 BC.

Strabo wrote that Ethiopia was so peaceful that the Romans only needed three cohorts there. However, when the Roman army in Egypt was busy with a war in Arabia, the Ethiopians (Kushites) took over Syene, Elephantine, and Philae, pulling down statues of Augustus Caesar. In retaliation for this raid near the Nile’s first cataract, a Roman army led by Petronius plundered the Kushite city of Napata in 23 BC, sending a thousand prisoners to Caesar. In the next generation Kushite King Netekamani and his Queen Amanitare built temples at Naga, and King Sherkarer, probably their son, commemorated a military victory with an inscription. Ethiopian civilization founded a new dynasty of kings at Axum soon after 50 CE.

About two thousand years ago the spread of iron-working gradually brought Africa south of the Sahara desert out of the stone age. Farming could be done more easily, although the tsetse fly in central Africa prevented the use of draft animals for plowing. Population began to increase, especially among those speaking Bantu languages. The coast around the horn of eastern Africa was described by a Roman official from Alexandria in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea about 75 CE. Goods were traded for ivory and tortoise shells at Adulis, the port city for Axum; slaves, incense, and Indian cinnamon could be obtained along the coast to the south. Natives at Rhapta were described as pirates of great stature ostensibly under Arab rule. Bananas and yams were brought to Africa by Indonesian traders, who settled on the island of Madagascar about the second century CE. With the exception of Bushmen and a few others in central and southern Africa who continued to hunt and herd, by the 8th century CE the iron age had spread throughout Africa.

In the 4th century CE the Axumites conquered Kush. After Himyarite King Dimnos massacred some Greek merchants in revenge for the Roman empire’s ill treatment of Jews, Abyssinian King Andas invaded Yemen and killed Dimnos. Andas had vowed if he were victorious, he would become a Christian; in response the Roman Emperor sent a bishop from Alexandria. Christianity was made the state religion when his successor King Ezana was converted by the captured Syrian Frumentius, who had become his tutor and later was appointed bishop of Axum by the bishop of Alexandria. Axum King Ezana devastated the once powerful empire of the Meroitic Kush. Apparently the royal family and military class of Meroites, which exploited the masses of workers, had not proved stable. Desiccation caused by over-grazing and soil erosion was another factor in the decline of Meroe, as the desert expanded. The army of Axum under Ezana made the caravan trade routes safer, destroying his enemies by sacking cities, taking prisoners, ruining crops, and confiscating livestock. Ezana was succeeded by his son Elesboas.

Another Jewish Himyarite named Dhu Novas overcame the Ethiopian garrison and proclaimed himself king in 519. He persecuted Christians and tried to exterminate all Ethiopians who would not accept Judaism. In 523 a siege of Nejran resulted in the massacre of 280 Christians. Two years later Axum King Ela Atzbeha led a large army of Abyssinians to defeat and kill Dhu Novas, establishing a tributary Christian King named Esimiphaios. In 531 Roman Emperor Justinian sent Julian to ask the two Red Sea kingdoms of Ela Atzbeha and Esimiphaios for help against the Persians, but they did little.

As Isis worship at the Philae temple had been ended by imperial decree, Christianity grew rapidly in Nubia after Byzantine Empress Theodora sent the Monophysite Julian there in 543; she and the Egyptians made sure that the rival Melkite mission was delayed even though her husband, Emperor Justinian, opposed the Monophysites. Thus the Nobadae (Nubians) and their King Silko became Monophysite Christians, and with the help of a Byzantine general they made the Blemyes adopt the same faith. Julian’s work in Nubia was continued by Philae bishop Theodoros; Longinus went as far as ‘Alwa, where he baptized the King and his people in 580. The Ethiopian church followed the Egyptian Copts in adhering to the Monophysite doctrine. When their trade routes to Yemeni, Jewish, and Greek merchants were cut off by Muslim invaders in the 7th century CE, the Ethiopian economy stagnated.

The Mukurra kingdom was attacked by Arabs in 641, and in the peace treaty of 651 the Nubians agreed to tolerate a Muslim mosque and provide 360 slaves annually to the Muslim imam in exchange for some supplies not mentioned in the treaty, which enabled Nubians to co-exist next to Muslim Egypt peacefully for six centuries. The Nubian church was greatly strengthened when Merkurios became King in 697. When Copts were persecuted in Egypt about 745, Nubian King Kiriakos demanded that imprisoned Alexandrian patriarch Khael be released and, according to a Christian author, invaded. In 836 Nubians made a treaty with the Caliph of Baghdad, and they occupied southern Egypt in 962.

At the end of the 10th century the Ethiopian King, because of a conflict with the patriarch of Alexandria, asked Nubian King George II to send a bishop, while many Christians from Egypt fled to Nubia. Ethiopian expansion led to conflicts in the 10th century, and forces of a queen in Damot even defeated and killed the Christian king. Late in the 10th century the Agau revolted and slaughtered Christian clergy. The Ethiopian monarchy subdued them eventually; but local Agau religious customs were made part of church rituals. As an isolated Christian community, practices such as circumcision and polygamy justified by the Old Testament persisted, as the Ethiopians identified with the tribes of Israel surrounded by enemies.

In the 12th century the Agau gained control of the Ethiopian monarchy as the Zagwe dynasty and ruled for 133 years, building impressive churches with gigantic sculptures. King Lalibela ruled for at least twenty years in the early 13th century and used his army of more than 60,000 to invade pagans to the west and south. A chronicle reported that Lalibela had ten churches built and that he donated all his worldly possessions to the poor before he died of illness at age 70 in 1220.

In 1171 Nubians attacked Egypt and were counter-attacked two years later by Saladin’s brother Turan-Shah. A century later in 1272 Nubian King Dawud captured the Arab trading post at ‘Aydhab; this also resulted in attacks by Mamluk Egypt which captured prominent Nubians and helped Shakanda defeat Dawud II in a struggle over the Nubian throne. Shakanda agreed to pay annual tribute to the Egyptian Sultan; Nubians not becoming Muslims had to pay a poll tax; and it was reported that 10,000 captives were sent to Egypt as slaves. Conflicts in Mukurra with Mamluk troops engaged 40,000 tribesmen seeking booty, and in 1290 Nubian King Shamamun captured the Mamluk garrison at Dunkula; Sultan Kala‘un, busy with the last crusaders, agreed to a treaty.

Ethiopian expansion led to conflicts in the 10th century, and forces of a queen in Damot even defeated and killed the Christian king. Late in the 10th century the Agau revolted and slaughtered Christian clergy. The Ethiopian monarchy subdued them eventually; but local Agau religious customs were made part of church rituals. As an isolated Christian community, practices such as circumcision and polygamy justified by the Old Testament persisted, as the Ethiopians identified with the tribes of Israel surrounded by enemies. In the 12th century the Agau gained control of the monarchy as the Zagwe dynasty and ruled for 133 years, building impressive churches with gigantic sculptures. King Lalibela ruled for at least twenty years in the early 13th century and used his army of more than 60,000 to invade pagans to the west and south. A chronicle reported that Lalibela had ten churches built.

Opposition to the Zagwe dynasty came from a monastic school on an island of Lake Hayq in Amhara led by Yekunno-Amlak. After winning a dynastic struggle, Zagwe King Yitbarek arrested Yekunno-Amlak; but he broke out of jail and led a revolt that defeated and killed Yitbarek. The last Zagwe King Dilanda donated land to another monastic stronghold in 1268, but two years later Yekunno-Amlak must have been in control as he was giving them land then. Thus in 1270 Yekunno-Amlak claimed to be restoring the ancient Solomonid dynasty. When he died fifteen years later, struggle for the throne caused a civil war and led to the practice for two centuries of imprisoning his descendants on Mount Gishen until each was chosen to rule or died. To the northwest of Ethiopia was the Jewish community of Falasha. Muslim settlers in the sultanate of Shoa came into conflict with Ethiopia in 1128. The Muslim merchants often fought each other too, and in 1285 Ifat King ‘Umar Walasma defeated and annexed the sultanate of Shoa, controlling the trade route from Zeila.

Monastic schools like the one at Lake Hayq founded in 1248 by Iyesus-Mo’a (d. 1292) did much to educate clerics and Christians. The monasteries spread along with the Ethiopian empire. Tekla-Haymanot (1215-1313) was trained at Hayq by Iyasus Mo’a and started the important monastic community of Debre Asbo in Shoa. The Asbo abbot Filippos criticized Amda-Siyon and Sayfa-Ar’ad for their polygamy; for this Filippos and others were flogged and exiled, stimulating many monks to move into the highlands. Monastery leaders were elected democratically and managed considerable property.

After attacking and annexing Damot, Hadya, Gojjam, and Falasha, Ethiopian Emperor Amda-Siyon (r. 1314-44) invaded Ifat, defeating and killing its King Haqedin I. Dawaro and Sharka made treaties with this growing Christian empire; but ruling from a mobile camp, Amda-Siyon had to quell Christian rebellions in Tigray and along the Eritrean coast. In 1332 Ifat King Sabredin revolted by attacking Christian garrisons, burning churches, enslaving and forcing clergy to accept Islam, and arresting even Muslim merchants doing business for Amda Tseyon. Ifat formed an alliance with Dawaro, Sharka, Bali, and Adal, but they were all defeated and forced to submit to the forces of Amda-Siyon. His son and successor as Emperor of Ethiopia, Sayfa Ar’ad (r. 1344-72), managed to divide the Muslims of Ifat by cooperating with some of them. In retaliation for the persecution of Copts in Egypt, in 1352 Sayfa Ar’ad imprisoned Egyptian merchants and executed those refusing to become Christians.

The Muslim ruler of Zeila, Sa’ad-ad-Din (r. 1373-1403), attacked the Christian army in Dawaro and Bali, taking many slaves and cattle as booty; but he was eventually driven back to Zeila and executed by Ethiopian Emperor Dawit (r. 1382-1411). Conflicts continued as Dawit’s sons and successors, Tewodros and Yeshaq (r. 1414-29), were killed fighting Adal princes. Adal ruler Ahmad Badlay (r. 1432-45) led a jihad against the Christian highlands and recaptured Bali; but in an attack on Dawaro he was killed. His Muslim army was badly defeated by the forces of Ethiopian Emperor Zara Ya‘qob (r. 1434-68), who centralized power at the new capital Debre-Birhan. In 1453 Zara Ya‘qob persecuted Stephanists who refused to worship the Virgin. His son Ba’eda Maryam (r. 1468-78) pardoned the political prisoners and relaxed the strict controls of his father that had led to rebellions. Empress Eleni continued to exert considerable influence well into the next century.

A second monastic movement was led by Ewostatewos, who encouraged his students to produce their own food; he prohibited accepting gifts from the wealthy or those in authority. He denounced the slave trade some Christian chiefs practiced, and he urged people to follow the teachings of Christ, refusing to deal with those who would not. He insisted on observing the Sabbath and eventually went to Palestine, Cyprus, and Armenia, where he died in 1352. Followers of Ewostatewos were excommunicated by Egyptian bishops in Ethiopia and in fleeing persecution spread to the frontiers; their main monastery in the Eritrean plateau was founded in 1390. Conflicts between the two monastic groups finally led Emperor Zara Ya‘qob in 1450 to call a council, which managed to resolve the differences by accepting the Sabbath. Zara Ya‘qob sent a letter to Egyptian Sultan Jaqmaq protesting the demolition of the Coptic church of Mitmak, and not liking the reply, he detained an Egyptian diplomat for four years. He formed a relationship with Rome, and he also instituted an inquisition against heresy that killed innocent people falsely accused, including members of the royal family.

The area that became Somalia was under Ethiopia in 1499 when the Portuguese bombarded Mogadishu. Ethiopia’s Empress Eleni requested a mission from Portugal, and the Portuguese arrived at the Red Sea port of Massawa in 1520. That year Adal’s Muslim General Ahmad ibn al-Ghazi or Gragn for “left-handed,” killed Sultan Abu Bakr at Harar, and he led a jihad in 1529 that defeated Ethiopia’s Emperor Lebna Dengel (r. 1508-40). The Ethiopian Royal Chronicles reported that the latter had 16,000 cavalry and 200,000 infantry against Gragn’s 560 cavalry and 12,000 soldiers; but Adal had firearms. The battle was bloody as Adal lost 5,000 men and Ethiopia even more. The Muslims plundered southern Ethiopia for many years, burning churches and monasteries and forcing Christians to convert. After Lebna was succeeded by his son Galawdewos (r. 1540-59), Ethiopians appealed to the Portuguese. Estevao da Gama led a fleet from India and came to Massawa in February 1541. In July he sent 400 musketeers led by Christavao da Gama, and they helped defeat Adal near Lake Tana in 1543, killing Gragn. His widow, Bati Del Wambara, married Gragn’s nephew Nur ibn Mujahid because he agreed to seek revenge. In 1548 the Ottoman empire annexed the port of Zeila.

In 1557 Turks led by Ozdemir Pasha took over the port of Massawa. Jesuit priest Andre de Oviedo from Portugal tried to convert them but was resisted by people in Tigray. In the next two years Ethiopians led by Bahr Negash Yishaq drove the Turks back to the coast. In 1559 after the Ethiopian army attacked Harar and killed Adal’s Sultan Barakat, Gragn’s nephew Nur defeated the Ethiopians and killed Galawdewos in battle. Oromo tribes (called Galla by Ethiopians) moved into the area. Minas, the brother of Galawdewos, attacked the Falasha of Semien; but he was challenged by Tigray’s ruler Bahr Negash Yishaq, who allied with the Ottomans. Before Minas died of a fever, he banished the Jesuits to Maigoga, which they renamed Fremona. His son Sarsa Dengel (r. 1563-97) became Emperor of Ethiopia as a child. He won over the Amhara aristocrats and Yishaq by 1567, and he defeated Adal in 1576. He also fought the Turks in Tigray successfully in 1578 and 1589. He sold about ten thousand slaves a year to the Turks.

When Sarsa Dengel’s infant son Ya‘qob succeeded in 1597, the military took power. After Ya‘qob grew up, he was deposed and replaced by Za Dengel (r. 1603-04). Jesuit Pedro Paez learned the languages Ge’ez and Amharic and was able to convert the emperors Za Dengel and Susenyos (r. 1607-32). Za Dengel was killed by nobles for trying to implement radical tax reforms. Ya‘qob became King again, but he was defeated by Lebna Dengel’s grandson Susenyos. The prudent advice of Paez kept Susenyos from submitting his country to Pope Paul V in Rome in 1612. Susenyos invaded Sennar in 1617 and had to put down a rebellion at home. He announced his conversion to the Roman Catholic faith in 1622. Religious conflict and his large army burdened Ethiopia, and during a civil war he abdicated in favor of his son Fasiladas, who immediately expelled the Jesuits from Dankaz to Fremona. Seven Jesuits remained in Ethiopia; but two were assassinated, and the other five were hanged.

Fasiladas (r. 1632-67) moved the Ethiopian capital to Gondar and had a castle built there in 1636. The Oromos continued to spread, and in 1642 they destroyed the royal army of Tigray. An attempt by a Muslim judge to convert Fasiladas in 1650 caused a riot in Gondar. Christians divided over a theological controversy regarding the nature of Christ. When Fasiladas sided with the Unctionists in 1654, he had to suppress a rebellion by the Unionists. During the reign (1667-82) of Yohannes monks at a council in 1668 tried to excommunicate him for marrying a distant relative. That council expelled Portuguese descendants from Ethiopia and segregated Muslims from Christians.

East and Central Africa

Thriving Mogadishu had a mosque in the 13th century and supported Adal’s efforts against Christian Ethiopia a century later; by then the people in Mombasa and Kilwa were staunchly Muslim. Based on Bantu with strong Arabic influences, Swahili was the main language in East Africa. The Book of the Zanj tells how Arab merchants had a Zanj patron (sahib), who with his tribe would support them in disputes with another Zanj. If an Arab stole Zanj goods, the debt was paid by taking goods of another Arab. In the region of the great lakes the Kitara empire was established by the warrior King Ndahura and his son Wamara in the 14th century. However, a famine, followed by a plague that devastated cattle, spread dissatisfaction, and Wamara’s military commander Kagoro massacred the Bachwezi, ending their empire. By the 15th century the ports of Sofala and Kilwa were becoming prosperous, trading ivory and gold for Arab, Indian, and Chinese goods.

Bantu flourished in the Kongo and crossed south of the Limpopo by the 11th century. Kikuyu entered the eastern highlands during the 13th and 14th centuries. Family, clan, community, and age group were important to the Kikuyu. District councils of elders were formed, and from these were chosen a national council. Group discussion and public opinion made government responsive. In central Africa in the 16th century Tutsi and Hima rulers had vassals or clients similar to the feudal system.

In east Africa according to the Kilwa Chronicle, Sulayman al-Hasan ibn Daud (r. 1170-88) developed the gold trade into a rich empire. They built a stronger citadel, and many Arabs and Persians settled there. Ibn Battuta visited in 1331 and was impressed by the piety of the Muslims. The Pate Chronicle recorded that Omar ibn Muhammad Fumo Mari (d. 1392) conquered Lamu, Manda, and Malindi and that he went to war with Kilwa to expand the Nabhani kingdom.

The impressive buildings of the Great Zimbabwe were started about 1300. In the 14th century Zimbabwe culture south of the Zambezi was governed by the Mbire, Bantus from the Lake Tanganyika area who revitalized the Shona kingdom. Although about 1425 Karanga King Mutota attempted to conquer the plateau between the Zambezi and the Limpopo, usually the spread of the Bantu seems to have been based on their knowledge of working iron more than on military conquest. A village chief with a council of elders usually governed. Spiritual beliefs and respect for ancestors helped sustain traditions and strengthen sanctions. Mutota’s son Matope became a powerful ruler, gaining the title mwanamutapa (lord of the plundered lands), which the Portuguese later took over, calling it Monomotapa. Matope moved his capital from the Great Zimbabwe to the north; deforestation and grazing had exhausted the region, though oral tradition blamed a lack of salt. Changa and Togwa rebelled against his empire. After Matope died about 1480, Changa was able to establish an independent kingdom in the southern region that is now Zimbabwe. Inland the Zambezi kingdom of Urozwi was beyond Portuguese influence; but in the north Portuguese gold-seekers established military authority and markets in Monomotapa near Mount Darwin.

In 1498 Vasco da Gama reached Mozambique and Mombasa. Kilwa had long prospered from the gold trade at Sofala and was reached by Pedro Alvares Cabral in 1500. Da Gama imposed tribute two years later, and in 1503 Ruy Lourenço Ravasco collected tribute from Zanzibar. Nuno da Cunha plundered Mombasa again in 1528. The Turks raided the east coast down to Malindi in 1540. By then posts were established at Sena and Tete for gold mining up the river.

In 1585 Turks led by Emir ‘Ali Bey caused revolts from Mogadishu to Mombasa against the Portuguese landlords; only Malindi remained loyal to Portugal. Zimba cannibals overcame the towns of Sena and Tete on the Zambezi, and in 1587 they took Kilwa, killing 3,000 people. At Mombasa the Zimba slaughtered the Muslim inhabitants; but they were halted at Malindi by the Bantu-speaking Segeju and went home. This stimulated the Portuguese to take over Mombasa a third time in 1589, and four years later they built Fort Jesus to administer the region.

A Portuguese captain made Malindi’s King al-Hasan bin Ahmad the Sultan of Mombasa, but arrogant commandants irritated him. In 1614 he went to the Portuguese Viceroy at Goa in India to complain. When he returned to Mombasa the next year, he fled to the Nikiya tribe and was assassinated for a Portuguese bribe. The highest ecclesiastical court in Portugal ruled that the King was wrongly murdered and that his son Yusuf bin al-Hasan was his rightful heir. Yusuf was then educated at Goa and baptized as Dom Jeronimo Chingulia by the Augustinian order. He returned with a Portuguese wife to rule Mombasa in 1630. The next year a Portuguese spy saw him praying like a Muslim at his father’s grave and reported it to Portuguese Captain Pedro Leitao de Gamboa; but the spy also informed King Yusuf about this.

Yusuf stabbed the Captain as 300 of his followers took over Fort Jesus from the garrison. Some who refused to convert to Islam were killed, and 400 were sold as slaves. A Portuguese fleet with a thousand troops arrived the next year but could not retake Mombasa. Yusuf captured two ships and fled to Pate. Portuguese Captain Francisco de Seixas de Cabreira hunted him down there and rejected a bribe of 4,000 paradaos. He punished Pate in 1636 by beheading 200 of their leaders and chopping down 10,000 coconut trees, demanding 8,000 paradaos; Siu and Manda were forced to pay heavy tribute and destroy their defensive walls. Yusuf escaped, but while trying to get Turkish support he died at Jidda in 1638.

Arabs in Oman led by Nasir ibn Murshid rose up against the Portuguese in 1643 by capturing the fort at Sohar. In 1650 they expelled the Portuguese from the trading port of Muscat. They built a fleet and responded to appeals from Mombasa by attacking the Portuguese on the island of Zanzibar in 1652. The Otondos’ Queen of Pemba accepted the imam of Oman and paid tribute. Captain Cabreira from Mombasa quickly arrived to burn her town and attack the Omani ships at Pemba. In 1660 the Omani navy landed at Mombasa and drove the Portuguese into Fort Jesus. In 1678 Portuguese Viceroy Dom Pedro de Almeida from Goa assaulted Pate and set up his headquarters in the mosque. The Portuguese were supported by the Faza King who brought a thousand Wagunya allies, though 200 of them mutinied and were massacred. The soldiers raided Pate and the cities of Siu, Lamu, and Manda, and Almeida ordered the four kings of these cities beheaded. After Omani troops from four ships arrived three days later, the Portuguese fled, leaving behind half of their ivory booty.

In August 1686 Joao Antunes Portugal organized political support in Mombasa for an attack on Pate but did not take the island until Arab ships withdrew a year later. The people of Pate did not resist and promised to pay 17,000 crusados. Within a few weeks Portugal arrested the King and twelve elders and sent them to Goa, where they were executed on Christmas Day 1688. A year before that an Arab fleet from Muscat had arrived at Pate, and Portugal had retreated back to Mombasa. In 1694 warriors from the island of Pemba overthrew the Portuguese masters. Two years later the Omani fleet besieged Mombasa as the population of 2,500 fled into Fort Jesus. Zanzibar’s Queen sent supplies to this last Portuguese bastion in East Africa, but the Portuguese failed to relieve the fort. They held out for 33 months, dying of hunger and smallpox before the last thirteen survivors surrendered to the Arabs. The Omanis then sent garrisons to Pemba, Kilwa, and other cities.


After 1500 Bito kings from Bunyoro sent out raiding parties, and their chiefs took over tribes such as the Haya of Kiziba, Kooki, Toro, Busoga, and Buganda in the region northwest of Lake Victoria. These chiefs set up independent kingdoms, but they became overextended. This region suffered four terrible droughts that began in 1588 and included a five-year famine that ended in 1621. People believed these natural disasters were “sent by God” and so called this period the Nyarubanga, during which many people migrated. About 1650 Ankole defeated the Bunyoro army, and Ganda’s King Katarega expanded his realm by war west to Mawokota, Gomba, Butambala, and Singo. Bunyoro men were usually busy cultivating the land since they believed it was wrong for women to do this work. The Ganda ate mostly bananas and could leave the work of supplying food to the women.


Portuguese explorers had reached the kingdom of the Kongo by 1483. Eight years later a Kongo embassy went to Lisbon, and by 1506 King ManiKongo was baptized Nzinga Mbemba Affonso; the Portuguese renamed his Mbanza capital Sao Salvador. The Portuguese tried to impose a feudal hierarchy on this King. They sent an embassy to Ngola in 1520, and Balthasar de Castro was held captive for six years. In 1526 Affonso complained to his “royal brother” in Lisbon that their population was being depleted as people were captured for slavery; he wanted priests and teachers but no merchandise and no slave trading. Because of his dislike of trading, eight merchants tried to assassinate him on Easter Sunday in 1540; the bullets missed him but killed a noble and wounded two others. Raiding the country for slaves made enemies in Mbundu, and four to five thousand slaves were being shipped annually from the Kongo. In 1532 Portugal required that all trade with the Ngola be through the Kongo.

Ngola Inene requested missionaries in 1557, and three years later Jesuits arrived with ambassador Paolo Dias; but the next year the Ngola stopped cooperating with the Portuguese and held the Jesuits captive until 1565. Affonso II became King of Kongo that year but was killed at mass. Jaga cannibals invaded the land west of the Kwango River and sacked Sao Salvador in 1568; but the Kongo kingdom was defended by 600 Portuguese musketeers from Sao Tomé, reinstating Kongo’s King Alvaro I in 1574.

In 1571 the Portuguese chartered the royal colony of Angola (named after the title ngola) around Luanda, and three years later colonizers set out to settle in western Kimbundu. The Jaga turned toward Angola and eventually settled in the area by the Kwango they had conquered from Yaka. The Portuguese also wanted the silver from the Ndongo mountains, and a century of wars over this began in 1575, causing Ndongo to become depopulated. Paolo Dias de Novais had tried to found a colony on the coast of Ndongo for mining silver in the Cunza valley; but this failed, and Luanda became a center for the slave trade instead. The Portuguese suffered major defeats by the Ngola in 1585 and five years later by a coalition army of Ndongo, Kongo, Matamba, and Jaga.

About 1600 a Luba King named Kibinda Ilunga moved west and founded a new state among the Lunda in the south by the Kasai River. The Portuguese sent reinforcements, and in 1607 Angola’s Governor Manuel Pereira Forjaz was able to make peace with Mbundu for four years; but his successor Bento Banha Cardoso launched campaigns against Mbundu and their ngola. By 1612 the Portuguese were shipping about 10,000 slaves a year from Angola. In 1618 Luis Mendes de Vasconcellos invaded the heartland of the Ndongo kingdom and destroyed the royal compound.

Kongo’s King Alvaro II (r. 1587-1614) asked for technical assistance from the Portuguese but got little. Alvaro III (r. 1614-22) brought in the Jesuits in 1619, and their influence began to surpass that of the mestizo clergy. Kongo and Angola quarreled over Luanda Island, and in 1622 Angola’s Governor Joao Correia de Souza invaded the Kongo, trying to gain more slaves and territory with mines. Mbundu’s Queen Nzinga Mbande (1580-1663) became the ruler, and the next year she went to Luanda to negotiate peace, trade, and less slave capturing. The Portuguese Governor baptized her, but Portuguese troops helping her fight the plundering Imbangala warriors resulted in the Kimbundu fleeing to the east, where she settled in Matamba. The Imbangala established the state of Kasanje in the Kwango Valley. The wars between Angola and the Kongo would go on for a half century.

Early in the 17th century the Dutch had developed trade in Sohio, the western province of Kongo, and in 1641 a Dutch slaving fleet captured Luanda. Queen Nzinga protected Matamba from the Portuguese by making an alliance with the Dutch. In 1648 Salvador Correia de Sa came from Brazil and drove the Dutch out of Angola, forcing Nzinga to retreat back to Matamba, which developed into a commercial center that included the slave trade. In 1651 Portugal’s King Joao IV exempted Capuchins from laws against foreigners in his empire as long as they asked his permission and sailed from Lisbon. Capuchins and the Jesuits studied Bunda and other native dialects, and Vitralla published a short grammar. In 1655 Nzinga sent warriors to attack a small Christian tribe led by Pombo Somba on the Kongo border; but she repented and made peace with the Portuguese. She persuaded her witchdoctors to accept her Christian faith. Lisbon ratified the treaty in 1657, and Nzinga was baptized again at Luanda. In 1664 Ndongo ngola Ari II by defeating local chiefs took control of trade routes in order to tax caravans between Luanda and the Kongo; but in 1671 Luanda’s governor captured the Ndongo royal family and sent them to a monastery in Portugal, building a fort in their last capital.

Garcia II (r. 1641-61) consolidated power over Kongo, and he invited Italian Capuchins in 1645. When Georges de Geel was killed in 1653 for interfering with local shrines, Garcia protected the Capuchins. He tried to make peace with Luanda’s Governor Salvador de Sa, but they could not agree. Garcia died and was succeeded by Antonio; but at Mbwila (Ambuila) in 1665 the Angolan army of 360 Europeans and 7,000 Africans defeated and killed Antonio and 400 nobles of Kongo. In 1670 another army led by the Portuguese was defeated at Soyo in a failed attempt to conquer Kongo. By then the Kongo region was exporting about 15,000 slaves each year. The Catholics preferred to sell slaves to the Dutch because they took them to the Spanish Indies. In 1687 the English Royal African Company complained to the Ngoyo kings they were being charged higher prices for slaves. Two years later when the Soyo army attacked Ngoyo, British marines tried to help defend Ngoyo but lost their artillery. Soyo and Ngoyo made a treaty in 1690, and the British merchants were allowed to stay in Ngoyo.

Southern Africa

In 1505 the Portuguese led by Francisco d’Almeida built a fort at Sofala near the mouth of the Zambezi River before sacking and garrisoning Kilwa; Mombasa, Hoja, and Brava were only plundered. On Mozambique Island the Portuguese built a hospital, church, factory, warehouse and fort in 1507. By 1512 the Portuguese garrison and Franciscans left Kilwa, and Sofala also suffered because of lack of gold.

In 1558 the Portuguese built Fort Sao Sebastiao on Mozambique Island, sending settlers up the Zambezi River to Sena and Tete. Mutapa’s Emperor ordered Conçalo da Silveira killed in 1560 because he believed the missionary had led Portuguese invaders. A year after Sebastiao became King of Portugal in 1568, he sent Francisco Barreto to govern Mozambique and to explore the mineral resources of the mwanamutapa kingdom. Led by Francisco Barrero, the Portuguese invaded the Zambezi lowlands in 1571 and massacred Muslim traders. Another Portuguese invasion three years later forced Uteve’s ruler to pay tribute to Sofala. Yet the Mutapa state managed to retain its independence on the eastern plateau. In 1573 the Portuguese gained gold mines in a treaty with Nogomo, who wanted a garrison near his capital at Masapa and trade with the coast.

In 1585 Portuguese soldiers tried to punish a Makua maurasa (chief) for his ravaging the coastland; but the Makua slaughtered most of the detachment and established their capital at Tugulu (Uticulo), which governed Macuana for three centuries. After mwanamutapa Gatsi Rusere (c. 1589-1627) succeeded Nogomo, the Zimba attacked his territory in the Zambezi valley in 1592. When a tribe attacked his gold fields five years later, a domestic conflict provoked a rebellion led by Matuzianhe. Gatsi Rusere got assistance from Portuguese traders at Masapa, Tete, and Sena, and after 1599 he allowed the Portuguese to enter his kingdom with guns. In 1607 the trader Diogo Simoe Madeira persuaded Gatsi Rusere to cede the mineral wealth of his kingdom to the crown of Portugal. Between Lake Malawi and the Zambezi mouth, Kalonga Mzura made an alliance with the Portuguese in 1608 and fielded 4,000 warriors to help defeat their rival Zimba, who were led by Chief Lundi.

Luba kings rose to power in the Kongo grasslands in the 16th century. Some of them wandered to Malawi and shared their form of government. The main Malawi chief was called kalonga after a Luba hero who led a migration. Kalonga Mzura sent 4,000 Malawi warriors to help the Portuguese fight the Shona during their invasion in support of mwanamutapa Gatsi Rusere south of the Zambezi in 1608. The same year the Makua helped the Portuguese defend Fort Sao Sebastiao from a Dutch siege. The Portuguese returned the favor by helping the Malawi against Mzura’s rival lundu. However, after Gatsi Rusere died, Mzura led the Malawi across the Zambezi, expanding his territory toward the seaboard of Mozambique. In 1628 an army of 250 Portuguese and a reported 30,000 Africans defeated Gatsi Rusere’s successor Kapararidze, and the next year they killed many chiefs and took power from the mwanamutapa, making a treaty with Mavura, whom they put on the throne. In 1667 the Portuguese official Manoel Barreto reported that the main reason the gold trade had declined was because Portuguese violence caused the Africans to leave. In 1669 eighteen Omani ships invaded Mozambique but could not capture the Portuguese fort.

Further west the Portuguese did not penetrate the Urozwi of Zimbabwe until after the Ngoni invaded in the 19th century. In 1684 their changamire (ruler) Dombo drove the Portuguese out of Sena despite their guns. This enabled the mwanamutapa to invade the western territory of the Urozwi; but in 1693 the mwanamutapa and Urozwi joined together and killed many Portuguese soldiers and settlers at Dambarare.

The Portuguese signed treaties with chiefs in western Madagascar in 1613, and a Jesuit mission went up the Manambovo River to Sadia three years later. A civil war broke out and affected the founding of the Sakalava kingdom of Menabe. In the Luso-Dutch treaty of 1641 the Portuguese claimed western Madagascar; but mostly they used it to supply slaves to the Dutch East India Company, which had taken over Mauritius for its timber. The French built Fort Dauphin in 1643, but they abandoned it in 1674; their Governor Etienne de Flacourt (1648-58) wrote two books about Madagascar. A census taken at Barbados in the West Indies at the end of the 17th century found that half of their 32,473 slaves were from Madagascar.

South of Zimbabwe lived the Tsonga, Venda, and the Sotho, who believed that their well-being depended on the health of their chief. The Ngoni cultivated the soil, and the Khoikhoi kept herds and hunted along the southern coast of Africa. In 1488 Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias met the Khoikhoi, and he named the Cape of Good Hope. In 1500 he erected a cross but died in a storm. De Almeida, the Portuguese viceroy of India, was killed fighting the Khoikhoi in 1510 at Table Bay. The pastoral Khoikhoi were called Hottentots, and the short-statured San, who primarily hunted and gathered, were called Bushmen.

The English explorer James Lancaster began bartering with the Khoikhoi in 1594. Cornelius Matelief was the first Dutchman to barter for sheep at Table Bay in 1608. The Khoikhoi bartered cattle for copper and then brass. When the prices went up, a Gorachouqua Khoikhoi named Goree was abducted in 1613 and taken to London. He begged to return to his warm country. In 1617 he persuaded the English to give their convict settlers guns to fight his enemy, the Cochoqua. The outnumbered British withdrew, but Goree got the Dutch to raid the Cochoqua. Goree still preferred the English, and in 1626 Dutch sailors killed him for refusing to trade with them. A Khoikhoi named Autshumao went on a ship to Java about 1631 and learned English. He was called Harry and passed messages to English travelers at the Cape until he died in 1663. The Dutch ship Haerlem was wrecked at Table Bay in 1647, and the sailors built a fortress on the beach.

In 1652 about ninety men led by Jan van Riebeeck established a refreshment station at Table Bay for the Netherlands East India Company (VOC). Vegetables and fruit were cultivated to help prevent sailors from getting scurvy. Riebeeck was forbidden to capture slaves, but they began importing slaves from Angola and Guinea in 1658. That year free farmers went on their first strike against the Company, and the next year Goringhaiqua interpreter Doman led a Khoikhoi rebellion against Dutch encroachment. The Dutch built a stone fort, planted an almond hedge, and brought more settlers. In July 1673 Jeronimus Cruse raided Cochoqua livestock, taking 800 cattle and 900 sheep. This and more land seizure provoked the second Khoikhoi war that lasted four years. Horses imported from Batavia (Java) gave the Dutch a military advantage, and in June 1677 Cochoqua chief Gonnema promised to pay an annual tribute of 30 cattle. By 1679 the European population was up to 259, and the Cape’s Governor Simon van der Stel (1679-99) founded Stellenbosch to expand the colony.

In 1685 visiting commissioner Hendrik van Reede noted that 57 children had white fathers; so he decreed that male slaves could buy their freedom for 100 guilders at age 25 and females at 22 if they could speak Dutch and joined the Dutch Reformed Church. In 1688 two hundred Huguenots were granted land, mostly at Franschhoek. Unable to compete in the labor market against slaves, Dutch “trekboers” with Khoikhoi servants began wandering outside of the Company’s control to find grazing land and water for their livestock. In 1690 four slaves revolted at Stellenbosch; but three were killed, and the other was imprisoned. Runaways and slaves caught stealing were often hanged. A slave using violence against an owner could be tortured on the wheel that broke bones. Laws against sexual relations between white men and slaves were often broken, and Europeans occasionally married African women. Disobedient slaves could be flogged.

Traditional African Ethics

For many centuries African culture has been primarily oral, and thus few written sources can provide us with information about comprehensive ethical systems. Yet these oral traditions have been carried on by each generation through teaching, folklore, proverbs, and customs. Most of sub-Saharan Africa seems to have similar beliefs and ethical traditions. Traditional African philosophy perceives that spirits are what cause good and evil, that these spirits are not only in living humans but in all life and in the invisible presence of the ancestors. For Africans, the community of the tribe, clan, and family is more important than the individual, because the individual depends on the group. The actions of individuals affect not only themselves but the group. Thus African ethics is more social than personal and more pragmatic than theoretical. Most Africans believe that the guilt of one person can affect the entire household, including the animals and property. Those who do wrong will eventually be punished by God. To avoid worse effects, most traditional African tribes punished sorcery, witchcraft, murder, incest, and adultery severely (often with death), but minor crimes were punished by fines paid in cattle, sheep, or money. Believing everything is interrelated, whenever misfortunes, illnesses, and accidents occur, Africans search for the evil intentions that originally caused them.

Taboos are based on moral considerations, and so they avoid doing wrong in order to prevent harm from occurring. The community may punish people for their wrong actions with physical ordeals or fines. Africans make a distinction between witchcraft and sorcery. Witchcraft comes from the inner self and may operate without one even being consciously aware of its effect, but sorcery is a technique that is consciously used to do harm, possibly for a price. However, Africans generally believe that only those who desire evil, have bad consciences, or are emotionally unstable are susceptible to sorcery. The function of the medicine-man, medicine-woman, or witch doctor is to prevent the negativity of witchcraft or sorcery from harming people by sending the magic back to its source. The witch doctor cures those who are bewitched and attempts to check the powers of witches and sorcerers. The Azande medicine-man cures the sick and warns of danger because in the African belief the negativity (or evil) is what causes both illness and moral harm. Ill will from jealousy or hatred may cause wishing someone harm (witchcraft) or a more overt bad action. Thus the healer seeks to discover the psychological cause of the illness. Africans believe witches are morose, anti-social, and easily offended. To become a witch doctor or diviner, the person must hear the call and undergo apprenticeship with a diviner or medicine person, who is usually an herbalist.

The Hausa people believe that being a good person (mutumin kirki) depends on character (hali), which is manifested in various ways. Being truthful (gaskiya) is perhaps the most important, and a Hausa proverb suggests that a lie can cause more pain than a spear. Trust (amana) goes along with keeping one’s word, and terrible shame can result from breaking a promise. Generosity (karama) is another Hausa virtue, and the giving spirit also implies cheerfulness. Patience (hakuri) is so essential in Hausaland that a common greeting is “How is the patience?”1 Hankali is described as common sense, prudence, and correct behavior. The communitarian nature of African ethics is indicated by the concept of kunya or shame. Ladabi can be understood as courtesy or propriety. Mutunci is the aspect of goodness that respects the feelings of others. Hikima means wisdom and maturity, and adalci implies justice and honesty.

For the Yoruba the community is more important than the individual. Their economic life was communal and based on the common ownership of land. Cooperative endeavor (owe) is essential to the Yoruba way of living. Another Yoruba saying indicates how they believe ethics affects their community. If someone in the house is eating poisonous insects and is not warned, the neighbors may lose sleep. This proverb also implies that each person is responsible for helping one’s neighbors stay on the right path. The Yoruba believe that God is the one who executes judgment in silence. The Yorubas are concerned whether their behavior will bring honor or shame on their family and group. Mutual helpfulness is essential to the survival of the kin-group. The Yoruba also place great emphasis on character (iwa), saying that gentle character is what keeps the rope of life unbroken, or that good character is the best protection. That they believe the soul resides in the heart is indicated by their using the same word (okan) to mean either the soul or the physical heart. The Yoruba could consult the Ifa oracle to find out if a death was caused by witchcraft. Ifa was a legendary sage with healing power who founded the sacred city of Ife-Ife. The Ifa oracle is similar to the Chinese Yi Jing, except that it has 256 permutations of two basic symbols in eight places instead of 64 in six places.

The Akan people believe that all humans are children of God and that no one is a child of the earth. The Asante instruct their future priests and require the neophytes to follow a discipline that forbids them to drink alcohol, gossip, quarrel or fight, pray to kill anyone, attend the chief’s court without being summoned, or go out at night with other men. They are also required to salute their elders with respect. The women could be trained to be mediums, but the male priests usually did not allow themselves to be possessed. The Asante believe that their ancestors are watching them and will hold them to account when they depart from this life to the world of the spirits. The ancient tradition of human sacrifice continued to be perpetrated by powerful rulers who ordered servants to accompany them in their transition from this life to the next. Such sacrifices were ordered by kings in Abomey, Kumasi, and Benin. Also victims might be sent to carry a message to the land of the dead. Usually those sacrificed were convicted criminals or war captives, who might even prefer this fate to being sold into slavery. Such messengers were often well treated prior to their execution.

Secret societies such as the Oro acted as vigilantes, condemning evil-doers and then executing them in Oro’s grove. Leopard societies might mark murdered bodies as though they had been mauled by leopards, and some practiced cannibalism. In addition to these judicial murders, some male secret societies exploited and bullied women. Often Christian missionaries or Muslims attempted to reform these abuses by teaching their religions. Secret societies may accept Christians and Muslims, and they may become a parallel government working at night to maintain ethical standards for the community.

Rites of passage are performed for birth, puberty, marriage, and death. The naming of children often seemed to imply an understanding of reincarnation. During initiations males were usually circumcised, and females often suffered clitoridectomy. The courage needed to undergo this pain marked a passage toward adult life. Although circumcision does not have negative effects, clitoridectomy has been criticized because it reduces the pleasure a woman experiences in sexual intercourse. Africans generally have open and healthy attitudes about sexuality, which is considered a gift of the ancestors from God. Everyone is expected to marry, and fertility is strongly valued. Because of this, adultery, incest, and homosexuality are usually considered taboo. For social Africans marriage is between families as well as individuals, and polygamy is allowed in order to produce more children. Africans are often suspicious of those who remain single or eat alone. During initiations the Bantu would teach the youngsters that friendship is always better than possessions and that a man should tell people not to quarrel and stop people from hurting each other. The Bantu language was widespread in southern and central Africa, and their term for God (Njambi) only exists in the singular, implying monotheism. The spiritual philosophy of Africans recognizes that souls continue to exist after they leave the body at death. Thus they continue to respect their ancestors and may aim to please them. Mediums are trained to be channels for departed spirits and may bring their messages from the other world.

Traditional African ethics includes such qualities as community loyalty, helpfulness, sharing, living in harmony, respecting people, and self-control. Africans believed in increasing their power but are leery of anyone having unlimited power. When things go wrong, the community works together to restore peace. They believed that much human evil comes from envy. The Dogon say that the patient person has peace and refreshes like water. The humanism of African culture is contained in Nguni concepts such as ubuntu, which implies community, reciprocity, solidarity, and social harmony. A famous humanistic Nguni saying is that a human becomes human through other humans. The Venda say that a person is born for others. Another old South African saying is “Your pain is my pain; my wealth is your wealth; your salvation is my salvation.”2


1. “Mutumin Kirki: The Concept of the Good Man in Hausa” by Anthony H. M. Kirk-Greene in African Philosophy: An Anthology, p. 124.

2. “Ubuntu: Reflections of a South African on Our Common Humanity” by Barbara Nussbaum in Reflections, Volume 4, Number 4, p. 26.

Copyright © 2010 by Sanderson Beck

This has been published in the book Mideast & Africa to 1700.
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Prehistoric Cultures
Sumer, Babylon, and Hittites
Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian Empires
Muhammad and Islamic Conquest
Abbasid, Buyid, and Seljuk Empires 750-1095
Islamic Culture 1095-1300
Ottoman and Persian Empires 1300-1700
North Africa to 1700
Sub-Saharan Africa to 1700
Summary and Evaluation

West Africa and the French 1700-1950
West Africa and the British 1700-1950
Ethiopia and Somaliland 1700-1950
East Africa 1700-1950
Congo, Angola, and Mozambique 1700-1950
Southern Africa 1700-1950

Chronology of Mideast & Africa to 1950
World Chronology
Chronology of Asia & Africa


BECK index