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Darwinian developments:


One of the interesting things about human societies that they exhibit something akin to biological evolution. Older forms give birth to newer forms, the most successful of which grow and propagate themselves under the pressures of internal and external factors. Here it should be noted that, as in evolution itself, newer doesn't imply anything like better. In fact one of the running themes of African history is the replacement of more egalitarian forms of social organisation with more rigid, hierarchical forms.


Three examples are illustrative here. The first, and most directly connected to my own history, is the Bantu migration. Here, the fascinating aspect is in how this massive movement of peoples (analogous to the late-Roman or dark age migrations, but larger and much longer lasting) was influenced by a number of factors and, in turn, how it ended up influencing events up and down the continent.


The Bantu migration is a bit of dependent thing, and has been argued as 'starting' in either 1000BC or the 13th century depending on definitions. In any case, Bantu-speaking people were in modern-day Angola and using iron tools by around 400BC, and moved from here in a slow Southward progression pretty much until 500AD (by which time they had hit the Northern Transvaal). The progression was slow because ecologies change as you go North-South (as any Jared Diamond fan will go on at length about) and so you need to change farming practices and so on as you go. East-West is significantly easier, so the migration moved in reasonably solid blocks down the Western half of the continent. 


The pattern of migration was something like this: pioneers move down the drag looking for greener pastures, fights with or absorbs the natives they find and sets up villages. In time the villages grow into cities and then kingdoms, and a new bunch of pioneers push off (or get shoved out) to start the process all over again. As they go, a sort of social winnowing takes place by which the more calcified and useless aspects of the old homeland get weeded out and more rugged structures stay.


The result is a sort of core package of Bantu cultural and social structures which got successfully transposed all over the lower half of the continent. This package included things like ancestor worship, the manufacture and use of iron tools, cattle rearing, agricultural practices and varieties, lobolo, kraal village structures, common mythology and folk stories, divine rulership of kings, age-rank groupings, inyangas/sangomas, witchcraft and curses, certain forms of pottery and weaving, communal rights and obligations, and a property system based on communal ownership of property vested in a male head of a number of households.


This core package would go on to form the foundation of a number of quite different societies, but the societies in turn invariably reflect adaptions of the core package rather than outright imports or inventions. Which isn't to say that no adoption or invention occurred. Rather, new material was fitted into the old core as necessity and changing circumstances dictated. A good example of an external change was the introduction of new crops from the transatlantic exchange, via the more settled societies in the Northwest. Of these maize would become especially important as it can be grown over a wide swath of the subcontinent. Indeed, the only place in Southern Africa where maize didn't grow (the Cape) would become the last relatively unpopulated area that the Dutch colonists stumbled upon. This quirk of geography and biology would have profound implications for South African history.


Another good example was the tendency for existing structures of hierarchy (especially the head-of-households) and society (especially age-ranks) to be strengthened and co-opted to support the bourgeoning political centralisation of kingdom and empire. My Zulu countrymen, whose history is well known enough so that I don't have to repeat it here, are a quintessential example of a single ruler using existing structures to form the socio-political basis of an empire. The Zulu innovations were then copied by the people they fought against or assimilated, and in that way flowed back up the continent*. This flow, in turn, fed back into the ongoing process of by ensuring that the surviving polities would tend to be of the armed and aggressive kind; led by a central guiding authority.



The pimptacular king Moshoeshoe I; who managed to unite his people into a nation which still endures to this day and did so while successfully fighting off the Zulus, Boers and British. Dude is a legend and deserves an infinite amount more love than he gets.


As usual, the options for pictures in this section were crap.


*The Mfecane is a bit controversial now, as it long formed a sort of cover for claiming that black savagery both opened up South Africa to settlement and legitimised white South African rule. The new explanation was that the insistent pressure of Dutch colonialism and Portuguese rapacity were the prime factors behind the events of 19th century Southern Africa. My rather unstudied opinion is that trying to reframe things in this way falls into a new version of the same trap; where African peoples are only allowed to react to events rather than shaping them. In any case, the story itself is epic in scope and very interesting in terms of how the societies which popped out of the crushing were formed and welded together.

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Slave states


The Atlantic slave trade scarcely needs to be discussed as a phenomenon in and of itself at this point – like anything connected to the history of the United States it has been exhaustively analysed and put to every possible rhetorical use. The other side of this massive exchange of people, however, inevitably gets glossed over with a paragraph or two. Which is a shame, because the impact of the slave trade provides a fascinating insight into the ways in which societies can be lead along by perverse incentives. Even more; it can provide a window into the variety of approaches that societies may adopt when faced with a single, overriding issue.


The African slave trade, at least in the form of a perverse exchange imposed by outsiders, can be traced all the way back to my favourite people: the Portuguese. Here, we can find a 1526 letter from the Kongo king recently baptised as Affonso I, to his ‘royal brother’ John III in Lisbon. The letter complained of a number of things which would become a recurring theme: that the Portuguese agents undermined his authority by dealing with petty chieftains rather than his own agents, that they bargained with them separately and that they showed no discernment in who to take: among the captives were members of King Alfonso’s family.


This behaviour – of playing off local interests against each other – worked in interaction with the growing European export in goods (most especially firearms) to create an irresistible dynamic for the kingdoms along the Western Coast. If they did not participate, the European agents would simply offer wares to the next group of people who did. And when those wares gave a distinct advantage, that group would likely as not turn to your people as a source of goods. This then, was the beginning of dependence economies, undevelopment and the unequal trade of 'raw goods' for a trade ounce.


From the African side, the growing stratification and regimentation of societies played into this dynamic as well. The concept of labour as taxes, exerted using the age-rank system, combined with concepts similar to land-bonded serfdom to create separate classes of people within societies whose lesser status made them more disposable than had previously been the case. Indeed, it was not unheard-of for kings and emperors to inherit or exchange whole ‘peoples’ whose bondage was in the form of an obligation to provide certain goods or services. This was especially the case in areas of what is now Sudan, where it eventually spread to other Muslim parts of Western Africa.


This form of serfdom, however, was not yet the same as slavery. Nor was the outright slavery which already existed the same as the system of chattel slavery then being built on the American continent. This was still the old-world conception, where a serf had inalienable rights to his land and a slave could (and very often did) succeed his master in title.



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Slavery II


In responding to the thorny problem posed by the slave trade, West-African societies were not necessarily locked into the miserable cycle of ruining your neighbours to obtain the weapons needed to prevent your neighbours from ruining you. Our next to examples found ways out of the trap.


1. Dahomey


Dahomey started when the Yoruba of Oyo was conquered by the trade state of Nupe. Fleeing his native land, the Alafin (king) of Oyo returned with the nucleus of an army (originally a thousand men) based around cavalry and patterned on their northern neighbours. To this conceptual core was added the concept of professional, long-service troops maintained directly by the state, rather than the quasi-feudal levies and self-financed noble armies of before. By this means the Yoruba of Oyo made themselves masters of their grassy northern frontier, which in turn provided a stable base of power for holding the more populated and productive woodland country to the South.


By around 1600 this system had produced the core of an empire which stretched Westwards to engulf their Yoruba cousins of Dahomey and the Fon people (who we will return to). Located in fertile land along an existing North-South trade route, the Yoruba of Oyo were able to play the part of intermediaries between the nations to the forested East and the trade centres of the North. To this they added their own productive capacity, becoming in the process rich enough to sustain a standing cavalry arm by purchase of Sudanese horses (horses in this part of the world die by Tsetse fly at such a rate that local breeding simply was not an option). In this way, the Yoruba of Oyo were able to maintain a powerful and cohesive empire for two centuries.


Sitting in the Western shadow of the Yoruba of Oyo, the Fon people began to build their own state from atop the rather isolated Abomey plateau. Lacking initial access to trade or resources, the little Fon kingdom developed a taste for raiding and centralised government that would stand it in great stead as the slave trade increased. By the 1720s, the kingdom had developed into something resembling a proto nation-state, with all European trade isolated and concentrated at their trade port of Ouidah. This isolation allowed the development of import-export trade to be tightly controlled from the top, an approach which neutered the issue of petty chieftains making separate deals with European traders. This effectively shielded the greater part of the kingdom from the most corrosive effects of the slave trade, while still allowing the kingdom to reap the rewards of access to firearms and other goods. 


Another innovation of the Fon, which should perhaps be added to the developments brought in by their former masters, was the creation of a hierarchy based entirely on state (specifically military) service. With a strong military tradition and secure supplies of weapons, the kingdom of Dahomey made a concerted bid for independence during the 18th century. By the end of the century Dahomey forces were marching Eastward into Yorubaland, having secured the trade centres of Ardra and Jakin. This both brought them into direct contact with European merchants and effectively ended foreign depredations of their own people. This independence lasted until nearly the end of the 19th century, when the kingdom was defeated and subjugated by the French Empire.


Militarily, the only thing about Dahomey that anyone cares about is the Amazons, who were effectively an elite, parallel army structure made up entirely of women. They acted as a sort of royal guard unit, had good equipment and morale and generally performed very well on campaign. They also effectively met their end fighting the French during the Battle of Aldégon, which was one of a series of inexplicable battles where similarly-armed French and Dahomey forces came to blows; the French consistently inflicting massively disproportionate casualties


The reason, upon closer examination, becomes clear. The one thing that the French had and Dahomey did not were machineguns (Dahomey did have some cannon, but these never saw action in the field). If anyone had been paying attention, this was a sign of things to come.



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2. Igbo


While one way of avoiding outside depredations may be to wall yourself off from them or isolate their influence, another is to have a society robust enough to simply absorb and survive whatever is thrown at you. The Igbo, who have survived as a sizable ethnolinguistic group into the present day, managed to weather the constant depredations of their neighbours by being simply too numerous and too socially durable to crush.


The Igbo homeland, centred around the Anambra river in what is now Southern Nigeria, has always been unusually fertile when compared to the area around it. This, when pared with the skill of its tenders, led to the Igbo and their immediate neighbours having unusually high populations for the region. To this the Igbo, who can trace their cultural roots back almost four and a half thousand years, added a remarkably egalitarian agricultural civilization; centred around a very republican system of village governance. The Igbo were (and, as far as I can tell, are) competitive, individualistic and argumentative folk, and their style of government suited their temperament*. It also made for a society which was incredibly adaptable in matters of trade and opportunity.


The flip side of individuality and freethinking is, of course, that the Igbo were never unified in the same way as, for instance, the Yoruba. Instead, Igbo cooperation tended to be a temporary thing as the villages united to face a common threat or seek a common opportunity. Even so, the Igbo as a whole remained too cohesive to ever be substantially absorbed or subdued by foreign polities. Instead, their society was only transformed, and even there only in part, by the overwhelming shock of colonial rule. While they chafed under the imposition of 'tribal' structures of authority under the British, the Igbo also rapidly embraced the opportunities that education and industrialization presented. These developments, when combined with a process of ethnic joining and self-identification that was already underway before colonialism, led the Igbo into their present-day role as perhaps the entrepreneurial force on the continent.


As a final note: I realise that I am bumping up against some very unhappy topics here in addition to my more usual sin of simplifying/mangling some pretty complex history. As such, if we have any Nigerian folk on this forum (now or in the future) who wish to comment on or add to this part of the series, I invite them to do so.



Picture of an Igbo village, as found here (plus inevitable trollish debate)



* It says something that some of the most famous and ancient cultural traditions of the Igbo are a harvest calendar, a banking system and the game Okwe (a variant of mancala).

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I've tried to avoid all the clichés here, including any talk of the anglo-zulu war, Omdurman, Mansa Musa, the Masai, Egypt etc.

I have been successful some of the time I think.

Edit: my views on literature about the continent are spelled out in the tags.

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Good tags, that reminds me to talk about Far Cry 2 and Spec Ops: The Line in the games subforum.


Also it's good to have a look at some chronically underappreciated history.

The fact that you can have an entire civilization rise and fall without ever being noticed blows my mind - partly because I suspect that this how history will remember us.

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The fact that you can have an entire civilization rise and fall without ever being noticed blows my mind - partly because I suspect that this how history will remember us.


I rather doubt that. I think we'll be considered relevant for a while if only as the answer to "where have all the resources gone?". We'll probably end up more like the early modern period or the great game period in that people know of us but we aren't the sort of immediate thing that all the pop history focuses on.

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Necro for Sturg and Collin enjoying Tella again (a yearly tradition!), and finding a rare podcast touching on the topic:




Edit: this is all of the other african history episodes of this series:








As always, there is very little information out there that isn't 'lol blacks living in grass huts for all history'.

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