Sub-Saharan Africa Post Classical States and Societies

African peoples south of the Sahara desert interacted to a small extent with the larger economies and societies of the Eastern Hemisphere; but not to the extent as other societies; primarily because of the barrier posed by the Sahara desert. In addition, the coastline of sub Saharan-Africa has few good natural harbors and rivers often have cataracts which make travel up the rivers difficult. In fact, it was the presence of cataracts which had provided some degree of protection to the ancient Egyptian society. The Bantu people of Africa continued to expand the territory which they occupied, along with other groups such as the Kushite, Sudanese and Mande people. As agricultural societies expanded, they often displaced the hunting and gathering societies which had previously occupied much of the area.

Iron and Bananas: By 500 B.C.E., the Bantu people had perfected iron metallurgy, which enabled them to manufacture iron axes and hoes which augmented their clearing of land for agriculture. Many indigenous people adopted the agrarian processes of the Bantu. Early agricultural crops had included yams, sorghum and millet together with some cattle raising. Increased agricultural production led to increased population, which in turn led to increased migration to other areas and the spreading of agriculture. A significant factor in agricultural practice was the introduction of the banana from Southeast Asia. Bananas came by way of sea trade across the Indian Ocean. Banana cultivation had first been established by Malay merchants on the island of Madagascar, off Africa’s east coast. They also brought taro, chickens and Southeast Asian agricultural traditions. By 500 C.E., Bananas were cultivated on the mainland. They were an important supplement to the diet of the Bantu people, and banana plants often thrived in areas where yams and millet would not grow. This allowed them to spread agricultural practices to heavily forested areas, increased the supply and quality of food available, and allowed more rapid expansion.

The Establishment of Chiefdoms: By the year 1000 C.E., Bantu migration had reached its outer limit. Further expansion would bring them into conflict with other long settled agricultural societies which would make settlement difficult. As a result, they developed increasingly complex forms of government and organized themselves into more efficient societies in the areas they then occupied. Early sub-Saharan societies have often been called stateless societies by scholars to explain their social organization. This does not mean that they had no form of government; rather there was no elaborate governmental hierarchy or bureaucracy. Bantu government was largely through family and kinship groups. They typically settled in villages of roughly one hundred people with a ruling council comprised of male heads of families. This council decided on all public matters. The most prominent of the family heads presided as chief, and represented the village in dealings with other villages. A group of villages constituted a district (although it was not formally organized into a geographically defined district) largely based on ethnic identification and loyalty. Village Chiefs often negotiated among themselves over matters of common concern. These stateless societies worked well until after 1000 C.E. when population growth strained available resources and there were few lands upon which migrants could settle. Conflict between villages increased which led to the organization of military forces and the formation of more formal structures of government. Often a district would be led by a single powerful chief who imposed their own authority irrespective of kinship networks. Some managed to establish small kingdoms, such as Ife and Benin in West Africa, which were city-states in which court and urban residents controlled the surrounding countryside through family relations and political alliances.

One of the more active political establishments was the kingdom of Kongo in the basin of the Congo (Zaire) River where several kingdoms of various sizes emerged. Kongo participated in the trade of copper, nzimbu shells from the Atlantic Ocean, and raffia cloth. By 1200, it embraced much of the modern day Republic of the Congo and Angola. Its government consisted of a king and officials who oversaw military, political and financial matters. There were six provinces administered by governors and within each province, districts governed by officials who answered to the governors. Local administration was by tribal chiefs. In Kongo and other such kingdoms, the king could replace local officials at will, and the central government maintained a currency system based on seashells from the Indian Ocean known as Cowries. However, although these kingdoms developed and were powerful, they did not completely destroy kinship based societies. In fact they survived well into the nineteenth century.

The Spread of Islam to West Africa: Islam arrived in sub-Saharan Africa by means of camel caravans and by means of sea lane travel across the Indian Ocean. Small groups of nomadic people had lived in the Sahara since it was created c. 5000 B.C.E., who interacted with peoples on the fringes of the desert. Trade and travel across the desert was substantially improved by the introduction of Camel caravans about 600 B.C.E. and the production of a camel saddle which made it possible to ride the animal comfortably. The ability of the animals to travel long distances without water made them indispensable, and earned them their nickname, the "ships of the desert." They are ill tempered and unpleasant, but invaluable in desert settings.

Islam was established by Arab conquerors in northern Africa in the seventh and eighth centuries who also integrated the area into the larger Islamic trading network. Over time they established caravan routes across the Sahara to sub-Saharan Africa where they found a number of established societies which offered access to trade in the central continent. The principal state they discovered was the kingdom of Ghana (not to be confused with modern day Ghana) which sat between the Senegal and Niger rivers (between modern day Mali and Mauritania). Ghana had existed as a kingdom long before the founding of Islam. It was an important city for gold trade which had become important. Ghana did not produce gold, but its kings were able to procure gold nuggets from areas to the south where large deposits were located. He did so by controlling and taxing its trade. In fact the King, who was known as the Ghana, was the only person allowed to handle gold nuggets. Islamic merchants quickly flocked to Ghana to cash in on the gold trade as well as trade in ivory and slaves for which they traded horses, cloth, manufactured wares, and salt, which was in short supply in central Africa.

The gold trade made Ghana enormously wealthy. Its capital, Koumbi-Saleh, was reported by a Spanish Muslim, Al-Bakri to have more than a dozen mosques in the eleventh century and a large number of Islamic scholars. Taxes on the gold trade financed an army reported to be greater than 200,000 warriors who protected the gold fields and maintained order. The army also protected Ghana from nomadic invasions to the North.

The kings of Ghana converted to Islam c. 1000, which improved relations with Muslim merchants in North Africa and with Muslim nomads who transported goods across the desert. They did not impose the religion on their subjects, and actually blended it with a number of traditional religious practices such as magic and the worship of idols; however many people converted voluntarily, particularly those engaged in trade with Muslim merchants.

The kingdom of Ghana was weakened by nomadic attacks from the north and eventually collapsed in the 1200’s. It was replaced by the Mali Empire of West Africa. The empire was built by prince Sundiata, (r. 1230-1255) often known as the "lion prince." He had previously been exiled, but while gone had made a number of alliances with local rulers, gained a reputation for courage in battle, and built a large army dominated by cavalry. He built an empire by 1235 which included most of modern Mali and also parts of modern Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, and Sierra Leone.

Mali benefited from the trans-Saharan trade as had Ghana, but on a much larger scale. It controlled and taxed almost all trade from West Africa. Some caravans had as many as 25,000 camels laden with wares. The rulers of Mali also honored Islam and provided accommodations for Muslim merchants; and encouraged but did not force their subjects to convert. Under the reign of Sundiata’s grand nephew, Mansa Musa, (R. 1312 – 1337), the Empire reached its high point. Mansa Musa made a pilgrimage to Mecca in a gigantic caravan comprised of slaves, soldiers, gold, and many attendants. He presented lavish gifts to those who accommodated him on the way. In fact while staying in Cairo for three months, he distributed so much gold that its value declined by as much as 25 per cent in local markets. His trip to Mecca caused him to take his Islamic belief much more seriously than before, and he built a number of Mosques for Muslim merchants. He also sent students to study with Islamic scholars in northern Africa, and established religious schools where Arabian and North African scholars taught. Four of them were descendants of Muhammad himself. However, within one hundred years of Mansa Musa’s death, the empire fell into decline as factional disputes led several provinces to secede from the empire; and neighboring kingdoms and nomads invaded. By the late 1400’s, Mali was dominated by the Songhay Empire, discussed later. However, the Songhay continued the Mali tradition of centralized government, and ensured the continuance of Islam as a prominent factor in West Africa.

Islamic States and Indian Ocean Trade in East Africa: Indian Ocean trade had reached the East African coast as early as 500 B.C.E., when Greek and Roman mariners sailed through the Red Sea. Malay sailors established colonies on Madagascar, but had limited opportunity for trade, as the early people of the region were primarily hunter, gatherer, fishing societies. However, Bantu migrations reached East Africa by the second century B.C.E., and agriculture, cattle herding, and metallurgy were introduced. They also founded complex small local state societies and founded settlements on the coast and offshore islands. Many supplemented their agricultural production with ocean fishing and maritime trade which led to the development of the term Swahili, an Arabic term meaning "coasters" which referred to those who engaged in trade on the East African coast. From this, the Swahili language, which was a form of Bantu supplemented with some Arabic; which allowed communication among various peoples in the area, even though they spoke different dialects.

Swahili traders obtained gold, slaves, ivory, and leopard skins from interior East Africa and traded it to Muslim merchants for pottery, glass and textiles from Persia, India and China. Trade bought great wealth to East Africa, so much so that local chiefs were able to strengthen their authority and increase the importance of their communities. Trade concentrated on coastal and island cities such as Mogadishu, Lamu, Malindi, Zanzibar, Mozambique, and Sofala. Each became a powerful city state governed by a king who supervised trade and controlled public life. The wealth of the cities was soon obvious. Buildings which had once been constructed of wood and mud were now built with coral and stone. The elites and wealthy merchants wore silk and fine cotton, and set their tables with porcelain from China.

One of the busiest of the East African trading cities was Kilwa. Its earliest Bantu inhabitants had relied mostly on fishing; but began importing pottery and stoneware interior regions and relied more on agriculture. Its population grew to about twelve thousand by the 1300’s. They were prosperous enough by the 13th century to erect multi-story buildings and used copper coins for financial transactions. Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan traveler, visited the city in 1331 and reported that Muslim scholars from Persia and Arabia lived in the city and regularly consulted with the ruler. By the late 15th century, Kilwa was exporting roughly a ton of gold every year.

Although the riches of such trade did not extend far into central Africa, the residents of the interior, who traded the slaves and gold, were able to establish powerful interior kingdoms, the best known of which is Zimbabwe, meaning "the dwelling of the chief." (There were many wooden residents in local states referred to as "Zimbabwe.") In the early 13th century, a stone complex known as Great Zimbabwe was erected in the vicinity of the present nation of Zimbabwe. It featured stone walls 16 feet thick and 32 feet tall with stone towers, palaces, and public buildings for a kingdom situated between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers. It housed up to eighteen thousand people and stretched deep into the interior of South Central Africa. The Kings of Great Zimbabwe controlled the trade between interior and coastal regions and taxed it. With their control, they were able to forge alliances with local rulers and made handsome profits from commercial transactions.

The ruling elite of East Africa also converted to Islam, but did not give up their traditional religious and cultural practices. Their conversion laid the groundwork for cooperation with Muslim merchants in the Indian Ocean basin and gave them new legitimacy, as they were recognized by Islamic states in Southwest Asia and made political alliances with Muslim rulers in other lands. They also did not force their subjects to convert, but the religion was attractive to many, and became a principal religious tradition in East Africa.

African Society and Cultural Development: It is perhaps incorrect to speak of an "African" society because the continent offered such tremendous diversity in languages, tradition and culture. The people of sub-Saharan Africa spoke over eight hundred different languages and were supported by a wide variety of economies. Still, there was some consistency in social and cultural patterns.

Larger kingdoms such as Kongo, Mali, and Kilwa developed complex societies with defined classes somewhat similar to those found in Eurasia. Smaller states and societies relied primarily on kingship, sex and gender expectations and age groupings to determine one’s social position.

The extended family and clan was the main foundation for small agricultural societies. Private property did not exist; rather communities claimed rights to land and used it in common. Villages normally consisted of several extended family groups. Male heads of families governed and organized the work forces and allocated portions of common lands for relatives to cultivate. They were also responsible for equitable distribution of harvests. Men performed heavy labor, such as clearing land and preparing it for cultivation while men and women planted and harvested crops. Women were primarily responsible for tending to children and domestic chores. Public authority was largely the province of men; yet women often enjoyed high honor as they were considered the sources of life. On occasion, they became merchants and engaged in trade in local and long distance markets. On some occasion, they organized all female military units, although this was the exception rather than the rule.

The coming of Islam to sub-Saharan Africa did not substantially alter the status of women as it had in other areas, as it was first adopted primarily by the ruling elite and the merchant class. In some few societies, upper class Muslim women were required to wear the veil in public and lead secluded lives, but in most areas, Muslim women freely socialized with men outside their immediate families and worked openly in society in ways which was not permitted in other Islamic areas.

Age grouping was important in many sub-Saharan societies. Members of "age grades" performed tasks appropriate to their age and level of development, and often bonded into tight friendship circles and political alliances.

Slavery: Slavery had existed in sub-Saharan Africa since antiquity. Most were either war captives, those who could not pay their debts, criminals, and suspected witches. Most worked as agricultural laborers, but others worked as construction laborers, miners and porters. Slaves were an important source of wealth as one could thereby increase one’s agricultural production and enhance one’s position in society. With the expansion of trade in the Indian Ocean basin, trade in slaves soon became prominent. Slaves in India, Persia, southwest Asia and the Mediterranean Basin had previously come from Eastern Europe (in fact the term comes from the word "Slav") but the demand was far greater than supply. As a result, trade in African slaves soon accelerated. The trade became so important that large states and societies made war on smaller ones who could not effectively defend themselves in order to obtain captives who were sold in northern slave markets. As many as twenty thousand people were sold in some given years. Ibn Battuta reported crossing the Sahara desert with a caravan comprised of six hundred slaves bound for the North. When Mansa Musa traveled to Mecca, he carried five hundred slaves with him, many of whom were distributed to his hosts as gifts. The Islamic slave trade was smaller than the more modern Atlantic slave trade, but estimates are that between 760 and 1500, more than ten million African slaves were deported to the north. The economic success of this endeavor created networks within Africa for the trade, and provided the foundation for the Atlantic slave trade.

An uprising known as the Zanj (a term used to describe black slaves from the Swahili coast) illustrates the extent of the trade. Many slaves worked on sugar cane plantations or cleared land of salt deposits to make it arable. In 869, a slave known as Ali bin Muhammad organized fifteen thousand Zanj slaves into a force which captured Basra, the most important city in southern Mesopotamia and established a rebel state. The Abassid rulers were distracted by other matters, and could not deal with the rebellion until ten years later. They finally crushed it in 883 and executed its leaders, including Ali bin Muhammad.

African Religion: Although there were geographic and cultural differences within the various sub-Saharan African societies, some common elements existed. Most recognized a single divine force or male god responsible for the creation of the world and for keeping it orderly. Some believed that this god intervened in human affairs by means of spirits; others considered him to be omniscient and omnipotent. In addition to the creator god, many Africans recognized lesser gods and spirits, often associated with the sun, wind, rain, trees, rivers and other natural features. They participated actively in the workings of the world, and could bestow or withhold favor from individuals. Most Africans believed that the souls of departed Ancestors had the power to intervene in the lives of their descendants and could work to the advantage of those who honored them or cause misfortune to those who neglected their memory. Rituals involving prayers, animal sacrifices, and ceremonies marked important milestones of life (birth, circumcision, marriage, death, etc.)

African religion for the most part did not concern itself with theological matters, but rather with practical explanations of explaining experiences in the world. It typically placed strong emphasis on morality and proper behavior as essential for maintenance of an orderly world. If one did not observe high moral standards, this would displease the spirits, deities, or ancestors and misfortune would result. The importance of moral behavior was such that family and kinship groups often disciplined members of their groups who did not live up to acceptable standards.

Some individuals were recognized as religious specialists, similar to priests in other societies, who were believed to have the power to mediate between humans and deities. They were often called diviners, and were normally men (and occasionally women) of some intelligence. They often intervened on behalf of individuals afflicted by illness, sterility, crop failure or disaster. They often made their determinations based on the consultation of oracles and prescribed medicines, rituals, or sacrifices to remedy the difficulty.

Christianity and Islam: Christianity first reached Egypt during the first century, shortly after its founding. Alexandria became a prominent center of early Christian thought. It was the home of St. Augustine of Hippo, a prominent leader of the early church. It did not enter sub-Saharan Africa for several hundred years, when it became established at Axum, in modern Ethiopia. The first converts were probably merchants who traded with Christians on Mediterranean sea ports. The king of Axum converted to Christianity, most likely in hopes of improving relations with the leaders of Christian Egypt. They were some of the first royal converts to Christianity, having done so shortly after Constantine himself. Christian missionaries translated the Bible into Ethiopian and worked to popularize the religion within the area.

When the ruling house of Axum collapsed in the seventh century and Islam spread throughout the area, there remained only a small island of Christianity in the Ethiopian highlands. During the twelfth century, however, a new dynasty enthusiastically promoted Christianity as a faith that would provide cultural unity. For the next four hundred years, it was the favored religion of Ethiopia. During the twelfth century, massive churches were carved from solid rock and in the thirteenth century, the Solomonic claimed descent from the Israelite Kings David and Solomon. A fictional work, the Kebra Negast, ("the Glory of Kings") which claimed to trace the lineage, has recently be come popular among Rastafarians and reggae music devotees in the area and other areas also. Christianity became the favored religion of Ethiopia until the socialist revolution of 1974.

Ethiopian Christians had little contact with Christians in other areas, and although they maintained the basic theology and rituals, their practice increasingly reflected African interests. They believed in the presence of evil spirits in the world, and carried amulets and charms for protection. Even the rock churches represented traditional religion. They remained isolated from European Christianity until the arrival of the Portuguese in the sixteenth century who established Roman Christianity.

Islam appealed to the ruling elites and merchants, as it formed the basis for strong relationships with Muslim merchants from other areas. They did not convert to Islam solely for mercenary reasons, however; they often took their new religion seriously. They built mosques, founded religious schools, and invited in Islamic scholars. Islam in sub-Saharan Africa, like Christianity in Ethiopia, reflected local interests. Those who converted still believed in the presence of evil spirits and took measures to protect against them. They also engaged in rituals to please nature spirits and ancestors.

Relations between sexes also were adjusted. Ibn Battuta, a strict Muslim, was offended at the casual conversations between men and women not married to each other. He saw some women in public dressed only in loin cloths, which he considered abominable. Although he ranted and raved about proper conduct for Muslim women, his African hosts paid him no attention. In fact, in the early years after its introduction, Islam supplemented rather than replaced traditional African religion. Many merchants in West Africa adopted the religion because it facilitated their dealings with merchants in Islamic countries, but they returned to their traditional practices when they were home. Ruling elites continued to honor inherited religious traditions gave credence to their rule among the populace long after adopting Islam for the advantages it offered them.