* national histories Africa

National and Imperial Histories: Africa

Figure 1.--Africa began to change in the 20th century. You can see change taking shape in this photograpg taken at a Mission in Gabon during 1923. It is a photographic evidence of the changing clothing in the region which also signals cultyural change. We can see that some boys are wearing shorts and t-shirts, but one of them only a loincloth. Two men in the back are wearing jackets. Some girls and women are wearing dresses, but others cotton cloths wrapped around (or below) the breasts. None of these clothes, however, are orginal. The early European travellers in the region saw that the women wore vegetable skirts and the men loincloths. The children didn't wear any clothing before they reached the puberty. The traditional clothing quickly disappeared among the people that had the cloest relation with the colonialists. Footwear was unknown in the region. Its spread was very slow. Among colonial African populations it became an article of faith that independence would usher in a new era of prosperity and wealth as enjoyed in America and Europe. Independence tragically proved to be a tragic failure. In many countries, living standards actually declined despite billions of dollars of foreign assistance. This occurred largely because the African elites that took power rejected both democracy and free market economics. They saw socialist economics and autocratic rule as the road to the future, both out of ideological commitment and the desire for personal agrandizement. Only in recent years has free market economics began to gain currency in some African countries.

Human history, at least pre-history, began in Africa, a fact thatr was unknown until the mid-20th century. Despite this early start, Africa is the poorest and least developed of all the world's regions. Historians and anthropologists debate the reason for this. A variety of factors may be involved including the native flora and fauna and the extent of endemic diseases. Climate may be a factor. The slave trade conducted by the Arabs and Europeans may have also been another factor. Africans tend to see colonialism as a factor. The colonial experience, however, is mixed. The Africans do indeed have much to complain about. Blameing their problems on colonialism is an easy way of avoiding responsibility and understanding the rel causes. European colonialism that brought Africa into the modern world and many African countries have declined since independence. A report by Oxfam and other charities suggests that one of the factors contributing to poverty in Africa are the constant wars and civil strife that reportedly cost the various countries about $18 billion annually (2007). This certinly is part of the problem, but only one part. A range of other problens including over population, poor educaion, corruption, incompetent leadership, and a lack of economic freedom are also contributing factors to Africa's failure. The failure to address these root problems has meant that billions of dollars in outside assistance has had little positive impact. Here we are developing histories for both early kingdoms and empires as well as modern countries. As the bondaries of the eaky kingdoms andd emo\pores do not reflect modern countries, aseparate list of both are needed.

Important Historical Kingdoms and Empires

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. Also the development of the Sahara Desert isolated these kigdoms and empires from the rest of the world. And 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.


Europe over more than two millenia of over devestating conflict has organized itself along ethnic and linguistic lines. This has not occurred in Africa. Most modern African states reflect the boundareies drawn by European colonial powers in the 19th century during the scramble for Africa. The Europeans commonly ignored tribal and linguistic afinities among African peoples. This mean that tribal groups were often fracrtured and separated by the European imposed boundaries. Thus modern African states commonly are composed of multiple tribal groups. And many tribal groups populate multiple countries. We have begun to collect information on some of these tribal groups. This is not a subject we know much about, but as with much of HBC, wecare interested in leaning more and encourage readers to add their insights.

Modern Independent Countries

Modern African nation states are 20th century creations. Africa was colonized by European countries (beginning in the 15th century). For the most part, European intrusion into African affairs only invollved coastal trading posts. This chnge in the 19th century after the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815). First the French begn colonizing North Africa (1830s). And then the Europeans in the late 19th century launched the colonization of the interior with the Scramble for Africa (1870s). The colonies created are the basis for the modern independent nation states. For the most part, geographic features were used to draw boundaries, although many straight lines developed in negotiations were used. Existing African tribal and ethnic structures were ignored. As a result, ethnic communities today cross many national boundaries. The European colonial powers began to grant independence after World War II. Much of the continent which as governed by Bekgium, Britain, and France became indepndent (1960s). The Portugrse colonies were granted indeoendence in the next decade (1970s). Because of the popularity of Socialist and Soviet ideas and lack of European preparation, decolonization proved a disaster. Only now because of democratic and free market reformns are these new nations beginning to make greater progress in devloping successful societies.

African Conflicts

Our knowledge of conflicts in pre-colonial Sub-Saharan Africa is limited because Africa for the most part was a pre-literate region. Antropolgists can tell us some details such as the Bantu migrations from West Africa. Advanced tribes drove more primitive trives like pygmies and San into marginal areas. Ancient Axum (Ethiopia) provides some written records as do some Arab records. The Arabs iniated what is the great tragedy of Africa, the slave trade, establishing outposts in East Africa (7th century AD). There also began a conflict with Christian Axum/Ethiopia and Arab Islamic powers. Arabs from North Africa drove across the Sahara to become entrenched jn the Sahel and northerregions of West and Central Africa. But for the most part African conflicts before the colonial period are a blank slate. There were numerous conflicts as the European powers gradually expanded their zone of control. And the European Atlantic slave trade began. There were also tribal conflicts such as the Zulu expansion in southern Africa. European expansion culminated in the Scranble for Africa (late-19th century). Colonization was exploitive, but varied from country to country. The most brutal colonial powee was Belgium and Belgian rule in the Congo was a horor story. There were some conflicts leading to de-colonization such as the Mau-Mau insurgency in Kenya, but for the most part except for the Portuguese the Europeans accepted de-colonization with limited military resistabce. South Africa and Zimbabwe resisted black majority control. In the independent countries that emerged, most of the new rulers resisted majority governance as well. A range of conflicts emerged and were internsified as Africa became caught up in the Cold War. There have been between African nations, civil wars, and wars involving non-African nations that took place within Africa. It encompasses secessionist and separatist conflicts. In addition to wars, there have been major episodes of national violence (riots, massacres, and uprisings). In recent years radical Islamic groups like Boko Haram have been responsible for a range of violent actions.


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Created: 7:06 AM 11/23/2007
Last updated: 7:55 AM 10/9/2018