Jump to content
Sturgeon's House

Recommended Posts

Because there is way too much ignorance and a bunch of awesome civilizations, I'm starting an African history thread.

 

First up, the OG cool culture that wasn't Egypt (although they also were, sort of): Nubia. Nubia is actually more of a place (the civilizations there had names like Wawat, Irthet and Kush), located beyond the second cataract of the nile. After being conquered by the Hyksos and then absorbing them China-style, a newly-invigorated Egypt conquered most of this region and turned it into a colony. After a long while (about 500 years), the Egyptian state became all crusted up and useless (a periodic thing for Egypt), splintered into the upper and lower kingdoms and was finally taken over wholesale by the Kushites. Thereafter Kushite Egypt found itself at war with the Assyrians (who were mean SOBs of the first order, and were the first major users of iron tools), held them off and eventually fell to a former Assyrian satrapy coming out of Sais. The Kushites withdrew and Egypt returned to business as usual: repeatedly being invaded, absorbing successive foreign dynasties, brother-sibling incest and necromancy, in pretty much that order.

 

The Kushites struggled on after this, before seeing a second flowering in the form of an institutional move to the city of Meroe - which was located further South than the previous capital. This movement produced something of a renaissance, and for a time Meroitic civilization flourished as a trade empire (especially in iron) distinct from Egypt both culturally and technologically. In the process it fended off some of the bigger powers in the region, including the Romans. In due time, however, Meroe itself succumbed to age, changing climate and trade, and the intrusions of neighbouring Axum.

 

From a military perspective, the Nubian area is interesting because of the strong emphasis on the bow. Nubian archers were prized as mercenaries, and came armed with longbows (and later composite bows and thumb rings). They showed remarkable consistency in this and could be found shooting fools full of arrows in armies ranging from bronze-age Egypt to late-period Persia.

 

4505910818_12542871c9_z.jpg

This picture is both full of shit and the only decent image I could find. So it goes.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

What I've heard about some of the sub-Saharan civilizations (Great Zimbabwe, and I vaguely recall some city states along the east coast) seems cool, though I'm pretty ignorant.

 

Edit: Wasn't there also a group of Jewish people that ended up in Southern Africa somehow, or am I misremembering?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

 

Edit: Wasn't there also a group of Jewish people that ended up in Southern Africa somehow, or am I misremembering?

I read this too. I believe it is the Lemba

 

I am most intrigued by African resistance to imperialism thanks to reading about the Nama's war against the Germans led by Hendrik Witbooi. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

More Nubians!

 

Aksum/Axum, which came into our story at the end of the meroitic era, ended up having a glorious and long history of its own. Previous theories (of the sort which crop up disturbingly often whenever the concept of African civilizations comes up) posited that Axum was essentially founded by migrating semitic peoples from the middle east. Today, it is known that the origins of the empire predate any sustained contact with semitic peoples by a hundreds of years.

 

In any case, Axum spent a while as a fellow trade polity to Meroe, located principally along the coast of what is now North-Eastern Ethiopia. Certainly, there was a large Arabian influence (principally religious and linguistic), which faded over time as a distinct local culture emerged. For a while, as trade shifted and the city of Adulis became a key point in the route linking Ptolemaic Egypt and the East (including India), a strong whiff of high Greek culture came in with the ships. In time the city of Axum itself, located inland of Adulis, became the focus of a civilization at the centre of world trade.

 

By the first century CE, Axum had become powerful. It's rulers erected gigantic stelae and minted gold and silver coinage. It was in this phase (sometime in the fourth or fifth century CE) that the fledgling empire toppled the rickety remains of grand old Meroe - which had by then been partially colonised by a people that Axumite inscriptions referred to as the Red Noba (or Nubians, for anyone keeping score at home). Here inscriptions by the Axumites themselves (in Ge'ez, a form of writing which survives to this day) hold that the then-king Ezana marched an army into Meroe and defeated the Noba at the ford of Kemalke. From here, he seems to have become rather indiscriminate in his campaign and destroyed Noba and Kushite towns alike, North and South. With the competition removed, Axum was ready to make its mark on the world.

 

Ezana (or perhaps his predecessor) also oversaw another momentous event: the adoption of Christianity into Axum. With this, the slow diversion of the empire into the Ethiopia we know and love today was started.

 

In terms of their military, Axum was nothing special for the time and the place. This meant that they were light-infantry/archer heavy, with the use of iron being taken up rapidly (as opposed to the slow assimilation of iron tools into Egyptian society). Horses were known, but were probably limited to light cavalry/skirmishers suitable for the mountainous terrain.

 

steala_axum_ethiopia_1.jpg

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Wow, I'm so poorly educated in African civilizations that that literally sounded like fantasy mumbo-jumbo to me.

Dude, you would love Ethiopian history.

 

I must admit that I don't know enough of it myself (my summaries are coming largely from a broad overview sort of book), so I've been trying to hunt down books again.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Dude, you would love Ethiopian history.

 

I must admit that I don't know enough of it myself (my summaries are coming largely from a broad overview sort of book), so I've been trying to hunt down books again.

 

Yes, well, I'm not surprised that I would, since it's a history that led to Ethiopian food, simultaneously the best cuisine and dining experience known to man.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Trading cities!

 

During the classical era and the later Islamic expansion, sub-Saharan African cities along the East and West coast of the continent were intimately tied into the global trade network. In the West, this was anchored by trade in gold and salt*, and relied on the passage of caravans through the Sahara. Indeed, trade was so extensive that the gold coinage of Europe during the high medieval era can largely be sourced back to mines in West Africa. In time, states like Benin rose to power on the basis of a web of trade routes which criss-crossed the continent: North-South through the Sahara and the coast, East-West through the plains and forests South of the Sahara. Situated as it was between the plains and the forests further South, Benin found itself in a favourable position to trade its own manufactured goods (especially cotton goods) for copper and horses.

 

In the East, trade was more diffuse and tied to coastal cities which bartered external goods for raw goods sourced from the interior. In the classical era, merchants from Southern Arabia and Axum established coastal trade posts and way-stations, married the locals and founded cities. Trading manufactured iron goods and foods (spears, axes, wine and so on) for spices, shells, horns, palm oil and slaves; these little colonies eventually grew into regional trade hubs. It was only with the rise of Islam, however, that they were integrated fully into the world trade network. By the fourteenth century a string of city-states extended along the East coast of the continent (to what is now Mozambique), each functioning as a node along the great Indian ocean trade route. The length and depth of this route can be seen in the Chinese porcelain fragments which can still be found all along the eastern coast of the continent.

 

So it was that the Portuguese, arriving at the East coast after rounding the Cape, were confronted by a string of well-settled cities; their tall stone houses decorated with carved wooden doors, Indian cloth, Iranian rugs, Chinese ceramics and Persian silverware. There were also books aplenty, written in Swahili using an Arabic script. The cities produced no real goods of their own besides coins and provisions, and made their profits by dint of carefully husbanded monopolies and stiff tariffs on goods.

 

Having stared in wonder at these exotic and storied cities, the Portuguese then set about ravishing them utterly. With a century of rounding the Cape, they managed to loot, burn, pillage and destroy every major trade city along the coast. And having done so, they then found themselves too hamfisted to manage or repair the intricate trade system they had laid waste to.

 

 

* One famous waystation on this route, Tagaza, was known for it's houses. These had since ancient times been built from solid blocks of salt, roofed with skins.

 

Kilwa-Ruins-Lodges-Pictures-201.jpg

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

More Trade!

 

So one of the (few) constants of large civilizations on the African continent is the tension between countryside and city. In the case of the muslim trade states, this manifested as a sort of back-and-forth power relationship between the (muslim, trade-based, hierarchical, worldly) cities and the (animist, agricultural, more egalitarian, insular) countryside. A product of this tension was the interesting trajectory of dynasties; with powerful leaders emerging from the countryside and conquering the cities before passing the torch to descendants who invariably became inculcated with the same city values and lifestyles. Lather, rinse, repeat.

 

A good example here is the Mali Empire, which was birthed out of the collapse of Ghana. Here the Mandinka people, by a combination of good placement, favourable social structures* and solid leadership, established for themselves the core of a new state under Sundiata Keita. From around the mid-thirteenth century, this core grew into an empire of fabulous wealth and power; built on a foundation of military success, control^ and expansion of trade, and standardised imperial rule.

 

The tension of religion becomes immediately apparent here: trade was tied to the wider Islamic world, but political power vested with the much more numerous people of the countryside. Sundiate Keita squared this circle by being nominally muslim and wholly clothed in a mythos of magic and enchantment - a man of power (both temporal and spiritual) who was nonetheless acceptable enough to do business with. His sons and grandsons, however, were fully muslim. After a break in the royal line for the oft-forgotten Sakuru (who did more than his share to expand and fortify the state), Mali saw it's height in Mansa (that is: emperor) Musa, who came from Sundiate's sister's line. As a devout muslim, he famously dispensed enough gold (in the form of gifts) during his pilgrimage to cause severe inflationary pressure on the metal across the middle east.

 

Here, the fortunes of the Mali empire begin to fall. Starting with Musa's successors, the Mali Empire begins to show how brittle the hold of a trade-based empire can be when its support base is confined to a relatively small sliver of muslim nobles and merchants. By the mid fifteenth-century a successor-state; Songhay; began to rapidly envelop it from the East. This state, like Mali itself, was enormously advanced by a energetic ruler who drew he power principally from the countryside: Sunni Ali. And so the cycle started again.

 

1024px-Catalan_Atlas_BNF_Sheet_6_Western

 

 

*Most importantly, the Dyula trade guilds and the West African revolution in agriculture.

 

^Goods were heavily taxed in gold, with gold dust being reserved for trade and gold nuggets being the sole property of the state. Trade was principally in gold, cotton, salt and agricultural goods, with a not-insubstantial sideline in slaves. The Dyula, of course, were the middlemen in almost all trade.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Trading cities!

 

During the classical era and the later Islamic expansion, sub-Saharan African cities along the East and West coast of the continent were intimately tied into the global trade network. In the West, this was anchored by trade in gold and salt*, and relied on the passage of caravans through the Sahara. Indeed, trade was so extensive that the gold coinage of Europe during the high medieval era can largely be sourced back to mines in West Africa. In time, states like Benin rose to power on the basis of a web of trade routes which criss-crossed the continent: North-South through the Sahara and the coast, East-West through the plains and forests South of the Sahara. Situated as it was between the plains and the forests further South, Benin found itself in a favourable position to trade its own manufactured goods (especially cotton goods) for copper and horses.

 

In the East, trade was more diffuse and tied to coastal cities which bartered external goods for raw goods sourced from the interior. In the classical era, merchants from Southern Arabia and Axum established coastal trade posts and way-stations, married the locals and founded cities. Trading manufactured iron goods and foods (spears, axes, wine and so on) for spices, shells, horns, palm oil and slaves; these little colonies eventually grew into regional trade hubs. It was only with the rise of Islam, however, that they were integrated fully into the world trade network. By the fourteenth century a string of city-states extended along the East coast of the continent (to what is now Mozambique), each functioning as a node along the great Indian ocean trade route. The length and depth of this route can be seen in the Chinese porcelain fragments which can still be found all along the eastern coast of the continent.

 

So it was that the Portuguese, arriving at the East coast after rounding the Cape, were confronted by a string of well-settled cities; their tall stone houses decorated with carved wooden doors, Indian cloth, Iranian rugs, Chinese ceramics and Persian silverware. There were also books aplenty, written in Swahili using an Arabic script. The cities produced no real goods of their own besides coins and provisions, and made their profits by dint of carefully husbanded monopolies and stiff tariffs on goods.

 

Having stared in wonder at these exotic and storied cities, the Portuguese then set about ravishing them utterly. With a century of rounding the Cape, they managed to loot, burn, pillage and destroy every major trade city along the coast. And having done so, they then found themselves too hamfisted to manage or repair the intricate trade system they had laid waste to.

 

 

* One famous waystation on this route, Tagaza, was known for it's houses. These had since ancient times been built from solid blocks of salt, roofed with skins.

 

Kilwa-Ruins-Lodges-Pictures-201.jpg

 

Many of our early European adventurers were one part trader and two parts pirate. I'm certain this sort of skullduggery wasn't confined merely to the Europeans but since the Portugese and later explorers had slight technological advantage in how their ships were armed, it did serve to upset the entire apple cart.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Many of our early European adventurers were one part trader and two parts pirate. I'm certain this sort of skullduggery wasn't confined merely to the Europeans but since the Portugese and later explorers had slight technological advantage in how their ships were armed, it did serve to upset the entire apple cart.

The Portuguese were something else though.

I think they honestly didn't realise the extent or fragility of the trade network they'd bumped into. And by the time they did the golden goose was cooked.

I mean, the Mongols managed to improve trade. The Vikings managed to improve trade. Even the Spanish managed to improve trade (sort of). Pirates are parasitic upon trade.

But the Portuguese managed to simply fuck everything up. There was almost no rhyme or reason to it.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The interesting (and maddening thing) here is that the Portuguese weren't an isolated case.

 

There was just something about the interaction of European powers with the African continent that made even otherwise hard-eyed actors go berserk. Even the British managed to have a series of wars (eg: the Anglo-Zulu war) that had no strategic merit, no possible upside even if they won*.

 

It's like the mere sight of black dudes having nice things did (does?) something to Europeans that made them want to roll in, smash the things and then blame the black dudes for being backwards and savage. 

 

* A full list of the things that the British got out of the Anglo-Zulu war: they smashed a friendly polity on what amounted to the whim of a colonial governor. The vacuum then got filled by distinctly unfriendly (where they weren't overtly mutinous) polities. The comparisons to the US and the middle east write themselves.  

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

In college, I was exposed to the interesting notion that the initial European incursions into the Orient and Indian Ocean was small potatoes relatively speaking to the kingdoms and empires that they interacted with at least until the 18th and even 19th centuries. This runs contrary to the stereotypical Eurocentric view that once Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue, the Europeans pub-stomped every wog that they ran across and the only thing holding them back was malaria.

 

The truth lies in the middle of course but I'm just throwing out my vaguely remembered notions of 15th Century Indian Ocean trade routes when I just woke up and am still drinking coffee.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

True - the coming of European power was not exactly the thunderclap of promise/ruin (depending on your viewpoint) that it's made out to be.

A lot of bad Eurocentric history (again, on both sides of the aisle) also trades in this stereotype of the rest of the world as passive actors.

 

One of the interesting ideas I've read regarding Africa specifically is that the rise of durable social structures sort of forced change into this series of cyclical movements as new things arrived and were assimilated into the system without fundamentally changing it. This is also true of a lot of Euro history, of course. But at a certain point something in the Western world did change, and dramatically. And this change built up steam until it rolled over the earth - a tidal wave that washed away everything an rearranged the flotsam into new and often unworkable forms.

 

I've always said that we're still working through the change wrought by the printing press. So you can imagine how I feel about all the other stuff that societies are trying to process. It doesn't help that human lives and perspectives are a blink in the eye of the societies they operate in. Or that the societies themselves are ephemeral compared to anything even approaching geological time.

 

In time all of this (printing, steel, steam, plastics, nuclear power, contraceptives, mass media and so on) will shake out and we'll reach a new equilibrium. Until then it's interesting to see how societies changed and grew under different pressures.

 

Speaking of which: the next instalment (whenever that arrives) with refocus on Ethiopia again!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Thank you! I'm happy to farm up-boats from it, but even more happy to sperg out on African history :)

 

Anyway, more Ethiopia!

 

One of the fascinating things about history is this tension between the momentum of historical events (the past constrains your present choices) and the agency of individuals within those events (what I do with my options further affects things down the line). This leads to the "butterflies" that alt-history folk love so much - a sort of hinge point where everything is (in retrospect) set up just right for the currently unfolding course of events to be dramatically changed.

 

The butterfly moment for Ethiopia happened in the late Roman era (fourth century AD), where a Christian philosopher was travelling by ship with two of his young relatives. The ship they were travelling on was Roman, and made the bad decision to put into an Axumite port just after the Axumites had declared themselves in dispute with Rome. Shortly after docking an angry mob boarded the ship an massacred the crew. The philosopher, who was still on board, was killed in the process. His two relatives, however, were not on board. Instead they were found under a tree, preparing for their lessons.

 

Both children, the brothers Aedesius and Frumentius, ended up being put to the king's service: Aedesius as his cup-bearer and Frumentius as his secretary. And it was Frumentius, who must have had the King's ear on many occasions, who brought Christianity to Ethiopia. Before he died, the old king both freed the two brothers and charged them with educating his heir, Ezana. In time, their efforts (Frumentius especially) resulted in Christianity being adopted as the state religion of Axum. Ezana, meanwhile, did his part to further his legacy by invading Kush and destroying Meroe - effectively ending an era of cultural and economic influence by that great city. From here, the slow conversion of the Nubian states which formed after the destruction of Meroe and the invasion of Kush resulted in a spread of Byzantine Christianity through the region.

 

Here things may have rested, with Ethiopia and the surrounding kingdoms simply forming another branch of the rather diffuse Christian world. And the old issue of city-and-country, which I talked about in the previous post, may simply have played out in its standard form. However, the rise of Islam did something dramatic to change the equation. Beginning with the occupation of Egypt in the seventh century, muslim power began to encroach upon the Christian kingdoms more and more. By the twelfth century Saracen cavalry were making large raids into region of the middle nile. By the thirteenth century, the kingdoms of Nobatia were overthrown. Finally; by the beginning sixteenth century the last and most Southward kingdom, Alodia, was no more. Christian Axum, cut off from the sea until the tenth century, moved its seat of power from Axum to Lasta by the Zagwe dynasty. In the process, it's identity was transformed; with the overthrow of the Zagwe in the thirteenth century leading to a more inland and Amharic culture. From here, the capital shifted southwards again to Shoa. The nation, pulled into itself, regrouped and became something new.

 

Part of this transformation was a rebirth of literature and learning. Religious works were translated into Ge'ez, while histories, bibliographies and national epics began to appear. By the fourteenth century, a number of energetic and authoritarian kings were successfully waging war abroad and keeping the pimp hand strong at home. More and more of old Axum was recaptured and brought within the folk, culminating in the retaking of the old city itself in the early sixteenth century. Contacts with Christian Europe began to become more frequent, with Rome doing the Ethiopian church the dubious honour of trying to make it bend a knee in the direction of the Vatican. In time, there was a relatively frequent exchange of ideas and people from Christendom at large.

 

The result of all of this was that Ethiopia became a true nation: culturally homogenous and distinct from its neighbours in ways that made it's socio-political structures enduring. It was remarkably feudal in character, while remaining remarkably African* in terms of how the binding of social obligation were interwoven into everyday life. Formed from the fires of adversity and struggle, Ethiopia produced a system which has still not completely given up its hold on its subjects. This system has seen it through centuries of hostile relations with the surrounding world, and allowed it to survive into the present day as a lonely island of stable Christianity in a turbulent Islamic sea.

 

st.-Frumentius.jpg

 

I literally cannot find a larger image of this dude, because Catholicism cannot into high definition images apparently. Also, bear in mind that this guy was Syro-Phoenician Greek. So, you know, probably significantly shorter, swarthier and so on.  

 

 

*See: ubuntu

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

It is a serious recurring issue with this series that all of the available images are either tiny or complete bullshit.

 

This is supposed to be Ezana of Axum, for instance:

 

Ezana-of-Axum.jpg

 

Compare this with the only extant images of the man:

 

GmOA1fT.jpg

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  

×