Important African Kingdoms and Empires

Kongo Prince Nicolau
Figure 1.--This is Prince Nicolau son of the reiging king of the Kongo. If we are reading the caption correctly, he visited Portugal (November 1845). His full title was Nicolau de Agua Rosada de Sardonia. He looks very young here, perhaps 12-14 years old. At the time the Atlantic slave trade was winding down, primarily because of British Royal Navy enforcement activities. Portugal was still not copperating fully with international efforts to ehnd the slave trade and there were still some slavers operating, primarily between Angola and Brazil. Nicolau has a place in history as the first African prince to take differences with the Europeans to the European press. Nicolas protested against Portuguese commercial and political activity and military expansion and published a letter in a Lisbon newspaper. Portugal had like other European countrues primarily limited its area of contril to coastal enclaves, but by the mid-19th century were beginning to move inland and exert more control iver African peoples.

As we have worked on HBC histories, several important African kingdoms and empires have surfaced. The histories of these states is not well known, in part because they were pre-literate societies. Some date back to the medieval European era and thus there was no contact with Europe, both because of the daunting Sahara and Muslim control of Nirth Africa. The development of the Sahara Desert since ancient times isolated these states and empires from the rest of the world. Only with the Portuguese maritime outreach did Europeans begin to come into contact with African states. Scolarship on these states is also limited because for the most part, African countries are only now beginning to develop scholars capable of researching their early history. Much of the work on these states has been done by Western scholars. But now as the new independent African countries are becoming more successful you are beginning to see African historical studies emerge. Our assessment of these early states is still limited, but we have begun to do some work. Most of these states were trading empires baed on dominating trade routes. Thus many played inportant roles in the African slav trade, both the Arab trans-Saharan slave trade and the later European trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Important Historical Note

The Sahara Desert effectively cut Sub-Saharan Africa off from the Eurasian Land Mass as Humanoids were populating the world. Civilization and the first powerful states were developing in the Mideast and susequently Egypt. The Egyptian Sahara and the Nile played an important tole in the development of the first civilizations in Africa. There was for an extended period no similar economic and political development in Sub-Saharan Africa. The only important African states wre first Kush (Nile Valley) and then Axum (Ethiopia) to the south east which had trade contacts via ships and camel caracans. Only when the camel was introduded to the Sahara (about 200 AD) did the first major states, first in West Africa and evebtually to the south begin to appear. The first such state was the Ghana Empire (4th century AD). The mechanism was of course the trade that the camel made possible. Camels not only could carry more cargo than than horses and mules, but could carry it faster, and even over vast tracts of desert. The wealth created by the expanding trade made possible the rise of kingdoms and empires in sub-Saharan Africa.


The history of Kush (essentially southern Egypt) is intricatley intertwined with the history of Egypt. Kush was an ancient Nubian kingdom situated on the confluences of the Blue Nile, White Nile and River Atbara in what is now the Republic of Sudan. It is the earliest known African civilization. The Kushite Kingdom in Nubia rose after the Bronze Age collapse and the disintegration of the Egyptian New Kingdom. The first Kuhite kingdom was centered at Napata. For many centuries, Egyptian pharoes controlled large areas of Kush. The major attraction south was gold. After King Kashta ('the Kushite') invaded Egypt (8th century BC), the Kushite emperors ruled as pharaohs of the Egyptian Twenty-fifth dynasty until they were expelled south by the Assyrian invaders under Esarhaddon. The later Kushite imperial capital during classical abtiquity (Greece and Rome) was at Meroe, an islland in the Nile. The Greeks called the Meroitic kingdom Aethiopia. The Romans after seizing Egypt attempted to conquer Kush, but with limited success. Meroe was captured by Beja Dynasty (1st century AD). The Beja tried to revive the empire. The Kushite kingdom with its capital at Meroe persisted (until the 4th century AD). It was weakened and disintegrated by internal rebellion. Meroe was eventually captured and destroyed by the rising Kingdom of Axum.

Axum (3rd century BC- )

The first known Ethiopian kingdom developed around Axum (3rd century BC). Axum developeed from the Semitic Sabean kingdoms in southern Arabia. Here geography was a factor. The Horn of Aftrica shoots out into the Indian Ocean toward Arabia. This provided a natural channel for trade and commuication. Axum came to control the ivory market in northeast Africa. Axum conquered most of Yemen and southern Arabia. The earliest written information on Ethiopian history comes from the Bible when it was reported that the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon (1000 BC). Axum gradually encroached on the Meroe kingdom in modern Sudan, eventually conquering it. A Syrian, Frumentius, grew up in Axum and converted the King and Christianity became the state religion. Frumentius became the first Bishop of Ethiopia (330 AD). Axum survived as an important regional power until the rise of Islam. The Ethiopian Solomonic dynasty exported Nilotic slaves from their western provinces or from conquered areas. After the beginning of the Islamic era, this at time meant Muslims captured in war. [Pankhirst, p.432.] Muslim Ethiopian sultanates also exported slaves, but only non-Muslim Africans capture or obtained in trade. The Adal Sultanate also played a war.


Dahomey was a precolonial kingdom in southastern West Africa. It was located in what is now the southern area of Benin. It was founded as the Wuroeans began to increase their opressure on Africa nd the Trabns-Atlantuc Slave Trade was becoming important (17th century). The Kingdome was an important participanht in the slave trade, reached the height of its power and xtent during the peak of the slave trade (18th and early-19th centuries). Dahomey was ruled by essentially an absolute monarchy. This was not common in Africa. The Dahomey king was surrounded by a royal court. Commoners and slaves lived in a rigidly stratified society. Dahomey involved women in the ruling structure. Every male official had a female counterpart at court who served to monitor the male official activities and reported on him to the king. There were also female soldiers. The Europeans called them called Amazons. They served as royal bodyguards when not in combat. The purpoe of the army was not jut for fighting otherkingdms, but to capture peopled that could be sold to the Europeans as slaves. Dahomey was conquered by French forces from Senegal as France was fiormally colonizing much of West Africa, part of the 19th century Scranble for Africa. Dahomey became the last of the traditional African kingdoms to fall to the European colonial powers.


Ghana--Western Africa (4th-13th centuries)

The earliest known indigenous African empire was Ghana covering a large area of sub-Saharan West Africa beyond the boundaries of the modern country which bears its name. The actual boundaries were not well defined and varied with the level of power exerted by the central power. The center of the Empire was built around rivers which were the primary means of communication and commerce. The major areas of control were the Senegal River and upper Niger. The Empire also had varying degrees of authority over neighboring peoples and exerted tribute. The origins of the Ghanian Empire are murky. It is known to have existed by the 4th century AD, but its origins probably pre-date the Christian era. The Arabs thus encountered a well-established African civilization in West Africa. The political organization appears to be a confederacy of important settlements. The Empire was divided into provinces which were furher sub-divided. The kingship (Tungka) and other high officers were hereditry. Records are limited, but suggest that the Empire was not built primarily by military conquest. The economy was built on agriculture, including gardents and date groves. Sheep and cattle were also raised. The agricultural economy was affected over time by droughts. Here the climate change appears to have been a factor. Trading was also important to the economy and the primary trading partner was with the north. In antiquity this meant the Roman Empire. After the fall of Rome this meant the Vandal kingdom of North Africa and than the Arabs who conquered North Africa. The most important town was Kumbi-Kumbi. The religion was like most of Africa animistic. The Tungka was at the head of the relion. Islamc gradually was accepted by the people and was pronounced by the 10th century. The Arab influence benefitted the economy and this allowed the Empire to expand. The Tunka converted to Islam (11th century). The increased power of the Empire was able to impose control over the trade routes. Ghana imported wheat, fruit, sugar, brass, pearls, and salt. They exported rubber, ivory, slaves, and gold. The Empire reached the peak of its power during the Sisse dynasty. A fanatical Muslim group, the Almoravides invaded the Empire (1076). They captured Kumbi-Kumbi and killed thoe who refused to convert to Islam. The ensuing religious strife and droughts resulted in the decline of the Empire (late-11th century). Invaders destroyed the Empire (12th-13th centuries). [Franlin, pp. 11-13.]

Kanem-Bornu--Central Africa (13th-19th centuries)

The Karem arose in an area that might be called the Sahel or Central Africa. Kanuri tribes began to settle in Kanem (12th century). The Kanuri began to conquer the surrounding tribes (early-13th century). Its origins were a tribal confederation of African peoples. Their great leader was Mai Dunama Dibbalemi (1221-59). He converted to Islam and declared jihad on the surrounding tribes. The result was a war stunningly successful of conquest. The Kanuri controlled an area streaching from Libya to Lake Chad to Hausaland. These were economically strategic areas. Caravans attempting to reach north Africa had to pass through Kanuri territory. Their military and commercial growth of Kanem gradually changed the Kanuri from a nomadic to a sedentary people. Internal rivalries seriously weakened the Empire (late-14th century). Power gradually shifted south from Kanem to Bornu. This was a Kanuri kingdom south and west of Lake Chad. When rival Songhay fell, Bornu expanded very rapidly filling the cacuume. Idris Alawma was able to unite the Kanuri Bornu with the Kanem areas ( (1575-1610). He was a fervent Muslim and woked to building an Islamic state ehich extended west to Hausaland (northern Nigeria). Kanem-Bornu woiuld endure 200 more years. It finally fell to the Hausa (1846). This was just before the British began expanding their colonia holdings.

Kongo--Central Africa (14th-19th centuries)

The Kingdom of Kongo was a powerful African state which deveoped along the Atlantic coast of Central Africa centering on the western area of the Congo River Basin. The present Democratic Republic of Congo the Republique de Congo (Brazzaville-Congo) are named after the Kongo Kingdom, but do not have boundaries similar to the Kingdom. The Kongo Kingdom was founded just before the arrival of the Europeans and would play a major role in the development of the Atlantic slave trade. Because of the extensive contacts with the Europeans, we know much more about the Kongo Kingdom than many of the earlier African empires. The Kongo Kingdom developed as the most powerful of several Africn states along Africa's western (Atlantic) coast. Historians refer to them as the Middle Atlantic kingdoms. The Kongo Kingdom began to grow when a militarized group of Bakongo (Kongo people) crossed the Kongo and moved south (late-14th centurty). They moved into northern Angola, conquering the differet people they encountered. They founded Mbanza Kongo (Mbanza Congo) which became the capital. The Bakongo achieved success in part because they tended to assimilate the conquered tribes rather thn subjct them. The people of the area conquered thus gradually became one people with a sense of identity and were ruled by leaders which had both religious and political authority and legitimacy (mid-15th century). The territory of the Kongo Kingdom varied over time, but was primarily the Atlantic coast and adjacent interiorfrom the present Democratic Republic of Congo south to northern Angola. While a monarchial state, each successive ruler was not necessarily the eldest son, although this was often the case. Each successibe king was elected by a Royal Council, from amongst the descendants of the canonical (Kimpanzu or Kimulazu) clans. The capital city was is Mbanza Kongo. There were six provinces: Mpemba, Mbata, Nsundi, Mpangu, Mbemba and Soyo as well as four vassal Kingdoms: Loango, Cacongo and Ngoye, at the North of the N'Zari river, and Ndongo, at the South of the Congo river.

Mali--Western Africa (13th-17th centuries)

The Mali Empire rose as the Ghanian Empire declined. Its origins as a small, unimportant kingdom are much earlier (7th century). King Baramendana Keita conveted to Islam, convinced Moslems brought rain that ended a drought (middle-11th century). This was before the people of the Sahel were heavily Islamizied. The King made a pilgrimage to Mecca and appointed Muslims to his court and made alliances with Muslim groups to the north. Kangaba was a mere tribal center and gradually expanded to become an imperial capital. Several small states (Soso, Diara, Galam, and others) had risen on the ruins of the old Ghanian Empire. These were conquerd by the Malians. King Sundiate Keita conquered Soso and leveled Kumbi-Kumbi, the old Ghanian capital (1240). The Malian Empire extended over what in the early-20th century was French West Africa, a greater expanse than the Ghanian Empire. The modern country of Mali is only a small part of the Malian Empire. The economy was largely agricultural, but there was also weaving and mining. [Franlin, pp. 14-16.] This new Empire reached its peak under Mansa Musa (14th century). Musa seized Tombouctou and Mali became a center of Muslim scholarship. This was at the same time that the Renaissance was beginning to remake Europe and modern science began to develop. In Mali the focus continued to be on Islam and religious scholarsgip. Tombouctou and Djenné were also key links in the eastern trans-Sahara caravan trade. Over time the Mali Empire declined and by the time the Europeans were beginning to make inroads in coastal areas had desintegrated (17th century). The nomadic Tuareg came to dominate the northern Sagharan area of the former Mali Empire.

Songhay--Western Africa (15th century)

The Songhai Empire at first centered on the Middle Niger Rivert (8th century), but graduually shifted to Gao. The Songhai expanded west as the Mali Empire declined. The Songhai seized Tombouctou (1468). This was a significant event as Tombouctou was such an important trading center and thus source of wealth. The major Songhai rulers at the peak of the Empire were Sonni 'Ali Ber (r.1464–92) and Askia Muhammad I (r.1492–1528). Emperor Sonni Ali Ber (1464–92) expanded the Empire's territory through a series of wars. He reduced many captives taken in war to slavery. The conquered tribes also had to pay tribute and this provided more slaves.

Zimbabwe--Eastern Africa (11th-14th centuries)

The Portuguese in East Africa begn hearing reports of a great stone city, but for years thos was considered lengendary tales. Much later it was found to actually exist, although it took even longer for archeologists to understand that it was a civilation founded by black Africans. The population had ;png ago abandoned their city. Thus it is only the archeologists that tell us about thos great city, presumably an important teafing center. It was built bu Bantu people (11th century). It was built and maintained for some 300 years in a destinctive local style that rejected straight lines and rectilinearity fo rundulating curves. There are about 300 sutes archeologhisrs have found which built strugtures with curvy lines. Great Zimbbwe is the largest sign and unique in the cale of the building, The most formidable edifice, commonly referred to as the Great Enclosure, has walls reaching 36 feet high and extending about 820 feet. It is thus easily the largest ancient structure south of the Sahara Desert. When the first European travelers and English settlers were shocked by reat Zimbabwe's grandeur and its sophisticated workmanship. They were convimved that the local pwople were mot capable of construction on this scale. The name Zimbabwe is not even fully understood. Some suggest that it is a contraction of the Shona phrase 'dzimba dza mabwe' (houses of stone). Other think it may come from 'dzimba woye' (venerated houses), a term commonlu used for the chiefs' houses or graves. The Shona are Bantu people of modern Zimbabwe and southern Mozambique. Archeological work hs found that the monumental walls enclose houses. The walls range from 4-17 feet thick. They are about twice as high as they are wide. Great Zimbabwe was a city with a population of some 12,000-20,000 people. Few traces of the resident's mud houses remain, but the the towering stone walls stand in confirm that a great civilization once flouirshed here. The stone was quarried in nearby granite hills.

Zulu--Southern Africa (18th-19th centuries)

Small tribal groups in southern Africa began grouping together into larger communities (late-18th cntury). This was not a peaceful process, but the conaequence of protracted warfare. The Zulu Kingdom was the largest and most important of the amalgamizing process. The most importaht Zulu chief was Shaka. He was illegitimate son of the Zulu chief Senzangakhona and the young girl Nandi. He belonged to Langeni clan. Shaka as a youth joined the army of Dingiswayo and soon became its leading commander. With the support of Dingiswayo he gained supremacy over his clan, enforcing his claima to leadership over other claimants. Shaka seized control over a number of Zulu clans. He developed successful tactics and training programs and as a result systematically gained territory and expanded his kingdom. Shaka's warriors raided the villages of clans who resisted him. The villages were buned to the ground and the women and children were gored to death. Young men were conscripted and clan chiefs and forced to swear allegiance. Under Shaka's leadership, the Zulus expanded their territory significantly in only a short period of time. He unified all the Zulu clans, ending domestic clan warfare. Aprocess similar to Gengis Khan who unified the Mongol tribes. Shaka had created the most powerful kingdom in the whole of southern Africa (1816). It extended along the coast of the Indian Ocean from the Tugela River in the south to Pongola River in the north. The Zulus came up against both the Afrikaaners moving inland seeking to escape the British and finally the British. The Zulus defeat one British army during the bloody Zulu War (1879). They were stopped by a small, well-armed force at Rorke's Drift until the British could mobilize a substantial force to decisively defeat them. While defeated, the Zulus even today or a political force in South Africa.

Cultural Assessments

Henry Louis Gates Jr., scholar and film maker, has produced a fascinating documentary series aired on PBS (February-March 2017) -- “Africa’s Great Civilizations.” It is a beautifully filmed exploriation of the civilzations that rose in Africa, most of which are unknown or little known to all but the most avid historical reader. It is now well established that humanity originated in East Africa and thn migrated out of Africa. Lest known are the civilizations which developed in Africa, which Gates does an excellent job of decribing and explaining their relationship with better known civilizations in the Mditerranean and Middle Eastern world. It is a very valuable contribution to understanding that Africa produced not only culture, but advanced civilization as well. Gates tell us, “Africa gave us the blueprint for civilization itself." Gates means his documentary as a “profound refutations of the claim that Africans lacked a history before Europeans arrived.” Now here Gates is absolutely correct, but he idea that Africa provided the blueprint for civilization is historically incorrect. Thie blueprint came from Sumeria in Mesopotamia and arose indepedently in China. Annd Gates scates around or ignores some poltically incorrect matters. First, he seriously underplays the role that the slave trade played in the African civilizations that he show cases. He does not ignore it, but gives no idea how important and suggests only small numbers of slaves were involvd. He does not mention, for example, how the Arab Indian Ocean slave trade led to the bloody Zanji Slave War that permanently weakened the Abassid Caliphate (9th century AD). Second, while intricuces us to these civilizations, he never answers, the key question. What came of it. We know that classical cinilization in the West led to the the Renaisance, Reformation, and Enligtenment and modernity -- economic and political freedom (capitalism and democracy). We see nothing coming from the great African civilizations. There have to be reasons that the african civilizations did not avance humanity. And they are not racial. [Diamond]


Diamond, Jared. Guns, Steel, and Germs. Diamond discusses why the West came to dominate the modern world.


Navigate the Children in History Website:
[Return to the Main African history page]
[Return to the Main national history page]
[Return to the Main history page]
[About Us]
[Introduction] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Climatology] [Clothing] [Disease and Health] [Economics] [Freedom] [Geography] [History] [Human Nature] [Ideology] [Law]
[Nationalism] [Presidents] [Religion] [Royalty] [Science] [Social Class]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Children in History Home]

Created: 7:04 PM 3/2/2013
Last updated: 2:48 AM 3/2/2017