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History of West Africa part I

Updated on August 7, 2017

These notes are much useful for university level or higher learning students. The notes aimed at giving historical information about the people of West Africa and their region.

Source

Geographical Locationand Regional Variation

History expresses mans struggle to master his environment. History is the relationship between man and his environment.

Therefore, history without environment would be like a dead thing. Physical environment that influence production include:

  • Soil
  • Climate
  • Vegetation
  • Mode of production

Much of West Africa depends on the physical environment. West Africa is located between 5-25* due to this location there are two geographical zones; (i) Forest zone (ii) Grassland zone

A. Forest zone and its features

  • Before the contact with whites the people of West Africa were predominantly agriculturalists. They cultivated rice, wheat, and tubers. There was presence of numerous grains like millet, and sorghum which supported the Yoruba, Ibo and Ashanti people.
  • Forests discouraged agricultural settlements; hence people could not stay in the forests. Their social political organization was rooted in kingship organization. There were some kind of trade relations between the forest people and the Savannah people.

B. Grassland of savannah zone and its features

  • The area covered more than three quarters of West Africa in Guinea, Sudan and near Sahara desert. The Savannah area was not preferred hence it was not populated.
  • They kept animals in this area and some parts were highly populated compared to the forest areas.
  • There were some emergence of towns due to trade between West African societies, North Africa and the Mediterranean world, example Ghana, Mali, and Songhai empires.
  • These areas were developed economically and the people found in there were pastoralist.

Sources of historical knowledge in west Africa

The sources of historical information include the following:

  • Written sources
  • Anthropological sources
  • Archaeology
  • Historical sites
  • Oral Tradition

In case of West Africa, there are three major sources of historical knowledge.

Archaeology

This is a study of artifacts that have been dug from the earth. Artifacts are the remains of the material culture made by people in the past. In addition to the artifacts, engraving and paintings found on the caves help in the study of human activities in the past.

The word archaeology came from Greek origin meaning the study old things but also it means a carefully investigation of the material remains of the past include tombs, graves, ancient cities, settlements, tools and past weapons that were used by the past people.

It is done by using common sense approach, advanced laboratory techniques, e.g radio carbon dating techniques.

Archaeology is very useful in obtaining the information of distant past and they do this by excavation. E.g in the Olduvai Gorge (E.A), Kumbi Saleh in ancient Ghana

Oral Tradition

  • Involve the passing of information by word of mouth through talking and listening to people especially elders who transmit the information from one generation to another.
  • Oral tradition has been described as a testimony transmitted from one generation to another. The messages were transmitted orally and preserved by memory.
  • Mbiti J.S (2003) asserts that because most of the African peoples did not invent an alphabet for the art of reading or writing, therefore they could not keep written records of their history, instead; they passed on information from one generation to another by word of mouth. In some societies there have been special keepers of oral tradition, whose duty was to memorize and recite historical and other relevant information up to when that history would be collected, written down and published.
  • According to Ogutu and Kenyanchui (2007), there are five basic forms of oral tradition which are: Formulae (titles, slogans, and ritual), Poetry, Lists, Tales and

Limitation of Oral Traditions

All oral traditions are influenced by culture of the society that produces them. Thus the type of tradition will depend on the political organization of that particular society. Some of the weaknesses of oral tradition include the following:-

  • Lack of accuracy

Some information could be dropped as time passes deliberately or accidentally hence distorting the historical knowledge.

  • Periodization was somehow approximation not exactly
  • It cannot show transformation or changes. It was static and sometimes it was exaggerated.
  • It is difficulty to recover if the narrators die.
  • However, one can verify the information in oral traditions by analyzing the related contribution from written sources. Since the history of African societies is embodied in oral traditions, it is therefore wise for African scholars and historians to write their own history to repudiate the reports of foreign taletellers. It had therefore been important to study all aspects of human life-social, cultural, political as well as economic events so as to come out with a concrete history of Africans.

Written Sources

  • The common source of history to day is the written records of the past. These sorts of records go as far back to the periods of the Greeks and the Romans and they became more popular with the European penetration in the 19th century

Tarikhs and Chronicles

A Tarikh consists of a complete written text of oral traditions. A Chronicle consists of direct records of traditions which previously were preserved orally. Tarikhs and Chronicles primarily concentrate on the role of rulers. Example, Tarikh al- Sudan, Tarikh al- Fattash (of Mali); the Kano Chronicles, and Gonja Chronicles (central Ghana)

Questions

- Discuss the different sources that can help in the process of writing the history of West Africa.

- Examine the various forms of oral tradition and their importance in reconstruction of West African history.

- Discuss the major functions of oral tradition in non-literate society.

Category of Written Sources

(i) The Greek and Roman written sources

Provided scarcity of information of West Africa before the Christian era, though there are private documents and family such as the one written by PTOLEMY the Greek writer who wrote a book, The Periplus of HAMO.

(ii) Islamic Sources

The historical information of West Africa got from Islamic documents. The Arabs appear to have been better informed than their classical predecessors. The introduction of camel across the Sahara facilitated commerce, urban settlement and trade between North Africa and Western Sudan. Some of Arab scholars whose written records are used in the writing of West African history include:

  • El Masudi about 912 AD visited the kingdom of Ghana and wrote accounts praising the kingdom for its gold.
  • El Bakri wrote around 1062 describing the wealth and trade of Ghana Empire.
  • During the reign of Mansa Musa, the famous Arab writer Ibn Batuta visited and wrote an account of what he saw.(14th century)
  • Leo Africanus (al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi) A Moorish born at Fez made two trips to the Sudan and Timbuktu: One in early 1510 and one in 1513. He was 16 years old on his first trip, a companion to his uncle, sent as ambassador to the Sudan. During his two trips, Leo visited several kingdoms. “I visited 15 kingdoms in the land of the blacks, and there are three times as many which I have not seen" he wrote. Leo is credited with proposing that the origin of the word "Africa" comes from Greek meaning "without cold or fear."

Historiography of West Africa

  • Historiography is the study of a process at which historical knowledge is obtained and transmitted. It examines the writing of history and the way it changes in time. It is a study and writing of history. Historiography also deals with recording and interpretation of past events.
  • In this case, every historian uses information according to his/her view but events remain the same.

Types of Historiography in West Africa

(i) Colonial Historiography

(ii) NationalistSchool of Historiography

(iii) Marxist School of Historiography

Colonial Historiography

  • The type of history which was written by colonial anthropologists and colonial historians, it dominated from the time of colonial conquest up to 1940s. Colonial historiography believed in racial superiority of their race. They considered the white race to be superior and the African race inferior.
  • This type of historiography was developed by conservative and racist historians. It came about with the force of capitalism in the 19th century. Prominent scholars in this historiography include MungoPark, Richard Burton, H. M Stanley, Coupland, Cecil Rhodes, Seligman and Sir Harry Johnson,
  • Richard Burton, for example wrote Mission to Ghana, King of Dahomey, where he described Africans as inferior, after his travels between 1821 – 1890

C.G Seligman published a book in 1930 Races of Africa and claimed that civilizations of Africa were not indigenous but it was a work of the Hamites. He regarded the Negroes and Bushmen as people of inferior race.

Views;

  • West Africa had no history before the coming of Europeans, Jews, Arabs and Phoenician
  • Africans were passive to colonial expansion and control; History of Colonization of the African Races (1899) by Harry Johnson
  • Africans were victims of nature, could not control nature.
  • Africans had no culture; they were barbaric e.g engaging into human sacrifices, and secret societies.
  • Many of the African societies were prone to senseless wars, diseases and enslavement.
  • Colonial scholars wrote such a history so as to undermine Africans. Justify colonialism and express European superiority to Africans. The reality of this is outlined by Mungazi (1996) when he writes, “One of the great tragedies of colonialism in Africa is that the white man never understood the potential of the African mind because Europeans were preoccupied with justifying the reasons for colonizing the continent.” Nevertheless, the African mind proved capable of surviving and retaining its distinctive quality in an oppressive and dehumanizing situation.

Marxist Historiography

  • Marxist historiography became popular in 1970s.

Marxist Historiography comprised of the writing of history in the ideas of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. In the writing of history Marx and Engels insist on four major issues:-

  • Social relations within the society. How people interact when they act on nature. i.e social relation in the process of production.
  • Who owns the major means of production, and who controls the profits/ surpluses.
  • They want to know the dynamics within the society. Marxist historians analyze events in relation or interconnection with the other.
  • Give emphasis on internal forces and contradictions within the society. Class struggle between the have and the have-nots, the capitalists and the proletariat (Social contradictions)
  • Resources are not scarce but the capitalist are the ones who make them scarce for their interests.
  • Marxist Historiography is based on the writing of proletarian history that develops at a specific time in the history.

Nationalist Historiography

  • A type of Historiography that was introduced so as to oppose colonial historiography, scholars of this historiography supported African nationalism and glorified pre-colonial African societies. It was popular in 1960s when many African states were struggling for independence.
  • Scholars in this historiography included Ade Ajay, David Fage, and some others who have written extensively on West African history.

Questions

  1. To what extent Colonial historiography was conservative and segregative?
  2. Differentiate Nationalist historiography to Colonial historiography.
  3. Discuss the main tenets of the Marxist historiography.

West African society from antiquity to 7th century AD

Transformation occurs in West Africa from this period. The people of West Africa interacted and involved in various activities like political, economical and social. Therefore the societies in West Africa were not static; they kept on changing and improving in all aspects.

Characteristics

  • The major means of production were owned communally
  • Clan heads were responsible for the land distribution to the rest of the people
  • The community members respected each other and everyone was responsible.
  • The major economic activity was hunting and gathering
  • The nomadic hunter –gatherer had no permanent settlement

Transformation from one mode to another took place as surplus increased. The surplus started around 300 BC.

Activities of Pre-colonial West African Societies

  • Pastoralism,

In West Africa it was done by Fulani people. Other societies include the Beja, the Afar and Baggara of the Sahara.

  • Manufacturing industries

Traditional industries were developed among West African societies such as balk cloth industries and cotton industries in Kano among the Fulani.

  • Pottery, leather and basket making handcrafts were developed by indigenous West African people
  • Science and technology, such as iron smelting. West Africa is considered to be home of ancient iron technology e,g the Nok culture and mining of gold in Bure and Wangara.
  • Agricultural activities

The greatest population in Africa had been practicing agriculture for many centuries. Traditional African agriculture was geared towards subsistence and not towards commercialization.

  • Trade

Local trade and regional trade developed because there was an uneven distribution of resources. In the Trans Saharan trade gold and salt were commodities of trade.

History of trans saharan trade

  • The trade conducted from West Africa to North Africa across Sahara desert. The current features of the Sahara desert are different from the previous Sahara. The previous Sahara was fertile, had rock painting, vegetation, and cattle keeping was taking place in the area. It can be pre-dated as the settlement of the Cathageans under Roman Empire. It is said that trade involved the exchange of goods from West Africa to North Africa through Sahara.
  • The goods included slaves, gold (from Bambuk and Bure), ostrich feathers, ivory, kola nuts were transported to North Africa from West Africa, while in return West Africa received not only salt, but also commodities such as cowrie shells, cloths, figs and dates, horses, guns, beads, and ornaments.

Participants

Participants in that trade were the Berbers from North Africa and the Dyula from West Africa.

Trade routes

  • Western route From Morocco southwards to Timbuktu, this route joined the famous salt centre Taghaza and the gold mining at Wangara
  • The Central route Started at Tunis and proceeded southwards across the Sahara to Timbuktu and finally to Kano and Katsina
  • The Eastern route It started from Tunisia to Tripoli to Alexandria to Ghati to Aghades southwards to Bilma for gold and other commodities.

Caravan left the Barbary states of West Africa between September and October, and departed from the Sudan at the beginning of the rainy season in April or May each year. The size of caravan varied from one consisting only five to one of 200 camels.

Factors for the development of Trans- Saharan trade

  • Both communities of west and north Africa were stable politically which enabled the traders to move from one place to another
  • The Western states provided goods which the people of North Africa and the Mediterranean needed e.g gold, ivory, slaves.
  • Existence of goods in large quantities in West Africa such as kola nuts, fish etc.
  • The Berber of North Africa and the people of West Africa trusted one another.
  • The use of camel as a means of transport encouraged the development of Trans Sahara trade. Camels were able to carry more commodities than horses or human beings porters.
  • Good leadership of the kingdoms of West Africa like Sundiata, Mansa Musa. They arranged fair taxes and tariffs hence traders managed to conduct trade.
  • Security; the strong empires in West Africa ensured harmony, peace and security which are prerequisites for trading activities.
  • Availability of water in the desert. Traders were able to get some water in the oasis.

The collapse of Trans Saharan Trade

  • Change of routes; commodities were no longer exported across Sudan instead they were taken through the Atlantic Ocean
  • As time went on West Sudan lost the monopoly of goods such as salt and gold. People from Europe got them from other parts of the world.
  • The Sahara desert gradually became dry. Due to scarcity of water, traders found it difficulty to cross the Sahara desert.
  • The trade was disrupted by wars between the Christian and Moslems in Morocco. The area became insecure (crusade wars). The Turkish imposed their rule in Morocco.

The impacts of Trans Saharan Trade

There is no doubt that T.S.T had far reaching political, social and economic effects in West Africa. Adu Boahen et al (1986) outline the following impacts of this trade.

  • The trade contributed to the formation of states and kingdoms in West Africa.
  • It created a desire of the local rulers to establish control over the trade routes and over the areas that produced gold, salt, and kola.
  • The T.S.T provided a means for expansion through the provision of effective means of warfare such as horses, guns and metals suitable for the manufacturing of spears, arrowheads, or axes.
  • It increased the power of the rulers, by ensuring regular sources of income through tariffs and tributes on import and exports. The rulers were able to pay the soldiers who protected and expanded the empires.
  • Great improvement in political administration of the kingdoms. Well educated Muslim traders were incorporated in kingdoms as advisers, civil servants and ministers.
  • Economically the trade greatly promoted the exploitation of natural resources. Through T.S.T, West Sudan became known throughout Europe and the Muslim world as gold producing area.
  • Socially, the T,S,T promoted urbanization, that is the development of small villages, towns and cities e.g Taghaza, Takedda, Awdaghost, Kumbi Saleh, Jenne, Timbuctu, Gao, Kano Katsina, Gobir and Zamfara.
  • The development of T.S.T was assisted by Islam but the caravan trade itself greatly accelerated the spread of this religion in West Africa. Clerics or holly men, and teachers were also traders.

In all of these ways, it can be concluded that the Trans Saharan trade did have a very important impact on West Africa.

Questions

  • Examine the contribution of Trans-Saharan trade the state formation and civilization of West Africa.
  • Discuss the impacts of Trans-Saharan trade to the people of West Africa.
  • Give a historical synthesis of the Trans-Saharan trade and highlight the factors for its rise and development.

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