History of Africa

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A world map showing the continent of Africa.

The continent of Africa was the cradle of human life. Each stage in the development of humankind can be traced in the African record. The ancient civilization of Egypt flourished there. In the classical world of Greece and Rome, Africa was regarded as a source of wisdom. Many great yet viable kingdoms and states once thrived on the African continent. Much of South and Central Africa's history took place in comparative isolation from the rest of the world, while sub-Saharan Africa traded with the North Mediterranean and North East Africa traded with the Middle East and with India.

European attitudes towards Africa changed with the Christianization of Europe so that by the Middle Ages, Africa became associated with darkness and heathen religious practices. In 1454 and 1483, the Pope ceded much of Africa to the emerging maritime colonial powers, Spain and Portugal. In the nineteenth century, the northern European colonial powers divided the rest of Africa among themselves. Exploitation followed of the continent's wealth and people, with few resources being invested for the continent's own benefit. The decolonization process during the twentieth century saw the emergence of nation-states with artificial borders, often crossing tribal boundaries and with limited infrastructure. Political instability and economic crises characterized much of Africa during the second half of the twentieth century. Presidents tended to be "for life" and political freedom was rare. However, such leaders led countries that lacked a solid civil society foundation upon which democracy could be built. Many of these authoritarian leaders accumulated vast fortunes for themselves while they impoverished their countries and increased their countries' financial indebtedness to the West.


At the beginning of the 21st century, it could be argued, European nations began to accept some moral responsibility for the plight of Africa due to centuries of exploitation and underdevelopment and to make its development a political priority. For many, Africa represents a moral challenge to humanity and a test of humanity's commitment to create a more just, more equitable world.

Animated Africa
Satellite photo of Africa.

Evolution of hominids and Homo sapiens in Africa

Africa is widely held to have been the birthplace of both the hominin subfamily and the genus Homo, including eight species of which only Homo sapiens remains.

According to the latest paleontological and archaeological evidence, hominids were already in existence at least five million years ago. These animals were still very much like their close cousins, the great African apes, but had adopted a bipedal form of locomotion, giving them a crucial advantage in the struggle for survival, as this enabled them to live in both forested areas and on the open savanna, at a time when Africa was drying up, with savanna encroaching on forested areas.

By three million years ago, several australopithecine hominid species had developed throughout southern, eastern, and central Africa.

The next major evolutionary step occurred approximately two million years ago, with the arrival of Homo habilis, the first species of hominid capable of making tools. This enabled H. habilis to begin eating meat, using his stone tools to scavenge kills made by other predators, and harvest cadavers for their bones and marrow. In hunting, H. habilis was probably not capable of competing with large predators, and was still more prey than hunter, although he probably did steal eggs from nests, and may have been able to catch small game, and weakened larger prey (cubs and older animals).

Around one million years ago Homo erectus had evolved. With his relatively large brain (1,000 cc), he mastered the African plains, fabricating a variety of stone tools that enabled him to become a hunter equal to the top predators. In addition Homo erectus mastered the art of making fire, and was the first hominid to leave Africa, colonizing the entire Old World, and later giving rise to Homo floresiensis. This is now contested by new theories suggesting that Homo georgicus, a Homo habilis descendent, was the first and most primitive hominid to ever live outside Africa.

The fossil record shows Homo sapiens living in southern and eastern Africa between 100,000 to 150,000 years ago. The earliest human exodus out of Africa and within the continent is indicated by linguistic and cultural evidence, and increasingly by computer-analyzed genetic evidence (see also Cavalli-Sforza).

The rise of civilization and agriculture

Sun over Sahara Desert

At the end of the ice age around 10,500 B.C.E., the Sahara had become a green fertile valley again, and its African populations returned from the interior and coastal highlands in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, the warming and drying climate meant that by 5000 B.C.E. the Sahara region was becoming increasingly drier. The population trekked out of the Sahara region towards the Nile Valley below the Second Cataract where they made permanent or semi-permanent settlements. A major climatic recession occurred, lessening the heavy and persistent rains in Central and Eastern Africa. Since then dry conditions have prevailed in Eastern Africa.

The domestication of cattle in Africa precedes agriculture and seems to have existed alongside hunter-gathering cultures. It is speculated that by 6000 B.C.E. cattle were already domesticated in North Africa.[1] In the Sahara-Nile complex, people domesticated many animals including the pack ass, and a small screwhorned goat which was common from Algeria to Nubia.

Agriculturally, the first cases of domestication of plants for agricultural purposes occurred in the Sahel region c. 5000 B.C.E., when sorghum and African rice began to be cultivated. Around this time, and in the same region, the small guinea fowl became domesticated.

According to the Oxford Atlas of World History, in the year 4000 B.C.E. the climate of the Sahara started to become drier at an exceedingly fast pace.[2] This climate change caused lakes and rivers to shrink rather significantly and caused increasing desertification. This, in turn, decreased the amount of land conducive to settlements and helped to cause migrations of farming communities to the more tropical climate of West Africa.[3]

By 3000 B.C.E., agriculture arose independently in both the tropical portions of West Africa, where African yams and oil palms were domesticated, and in Ethiopia, where coffee and teff became domesticated. No animals were independently domesticated in these regions, although domestication did spread there from the Sahel and Nile regions.[4] Agricultural crops were also adopted from other regions around this time as pearl millet, cowpea, groundnut, cotton, watermelon and bottle gourds began to be grown agriculturally in both West Africa and the Sahel Region while finger millet, peas, lentil, and flax took hold in Ethiopia.[5]

The international phenomenon known as the Beaker culture began to affect western North Africa. Named for the distinctively shaped ceramics found in graves, the Beaker culture is associated with the emergence of a warrior mentality. North African rock art of this period depicts animals but also places a new emphasis on the human figure, equipped with weapons and adornments. People from the Great Lakes Region of Africa settled along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea to become the proto-Canaanites who dominated the lowlands between the Jordan River, the Mediterranean and the Sinai Desert.

By the first millennium B.C.E., ironworking had been introduced in Northern Africa and quickly began spreading across the Sahara into the northern parts of sub-Saharan Africa[6] and by 500 B.C.E., metalworking began to become commonplace in West Africa, possibly after being introduced by the Carthaginians. Ironworking was fully established by roughly 500 B.C.E. in areas of East and West Africa, though other regions didn't begin ironworking until the early centuries C.E. Some copper objects from Egypt, North Africa, Nubia and Ethiopia have been excavated in West Africa dating from around 500 B.C.E. time period, suggesting that trade networks had been established by this time.[7]

Neolithic prehistoric cultures

North Africa

Neolithic rock engravings, or "petroglyphs" and the megaliths in the Sahara desert of Libya attest to early hunter-gatherer culture in the dry grasslands of North Africa during the glacial age. The region of the present Sahara was an early site for the practice of agriculture (in the second stage of the culture characterized by the so-called "wavy-line ceramics" c. 4000 B.C.E.). However, after the desertification of the Sahara, settlement in North Africa became concentrated in the valley of the Nile, where the pre-literate Nomes of Egypt laid a base for the culture of ancient Egypt. Archeological findings show that primitive tribes lived along the Nile long before the dynastic history of the pharaohs began. By 6000 B.C.E., organized agriculture had appeared.

From around 500 B.C.E. to around 500 C.E., the civilization of the Garamantes (probably the ancestors of the Tuareg) existed in what is now the Libyan Desert.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Linguistic evidence suggests the Bantu people (for example, Xhosa and Zulu) had emigrated southwestward from what is now Egypt into former Khoisan ranges and displaced them during the last 4000 years or so, during the transition from the paleolithic to the iron age, which happened very suddenly in Africa south of Egypt. Bantu populations used a distinct suite of crops suited to tropical Africa, including cassava and yams. This farming culture is able to support more persons per unit area than hunter-gatherers. The traditional Congo range goes from the northern deserts right down to the temperate regions of the south, in which the Congo crop suite fails from frost. Their primary weapons historically were bows and stabbing spears with shields.

Ethiopia had a distinct, ancient culture with an intermittent history of contact with Eurasia after the diaspora of hominids out of Africa. It preserved a unique language, culture and crop system. The crop system is adapted to the northern highlands and does not partake of any other area's crops. The most famous member of this crop system is coffee, but one of the more useful plants is sorghum; a dry-land grain called teff is also endemic to the region.

Ancient cultures existed all along the Nile, and in modern-day Ghana.

History of Sub-Saharan Africa until 1880 C.E.

The Bantu expansion

The Bantu first originated around the Benue-Cross rivers area in southeastern Nigeria and spread over Africa to the Zambia area. Sometime in the second millennium B.C.E., perhaps triggered by the drying of the Sahara and pressure from the migration of Saharans into the region, they were forced to expand into the rainforests of central Africa (phase I). About 1,000 years later they began a more rapid second phase of expansion beyond the forests into southern and eastern Africa. Then sometime in the first millennium, new agricultural techniques and plants were developed in Zambia, likely imported from Southeast Asia via Malay speaking Madagascar. With these techniques another Bantu expansion occurred centered on this new location (phase III).

West Africa

There were many great empires in Sub-Saharan Africa over the past few millennia. These were mostly concentrated in West Africa where important trade routes and good agricultural land allowed extensive states to develop. These included the Nok, Mali Empire, Oba of Benin, the Kanem-Bornu Empire, the Fulani Empire, the Dahomey, Oyo, Aro confederacy, the Ashanti Empire, and the Songhai Empire.

Also common in this region were loose federations of city-states such as those of the Yoruba and Hausa.

Trans-Saharan trade

Trade between Mediterranean countries and West Africa across the Sahara Desert was an important trade pattern from the eighth century until the late sixteenth century. This trade was conducted by caravans of Arabian camels. These camels would be fattened for a number of months on the plains of either the Maghreb or the Sahel before being assembled into caravans.

Southern Africa

Large political units were uncommon but there were exceptions, most notably Great Zimbabwe and the Zulu Empire. By about 1000 C.E., the Bantu expansion had reached modern day Zimbabwe and South Africa. In Zimbabwe the first major southern hemisphere empire was established, with its capital at Great Zimbabwe. It controlled trading routes from South Africa to north of the Zambezi, trading gold, copper, precious stones, animal hides, ivory, and metal goods with the Swahili coast.

Portugal took no steps to acquire the southern part of the continent. To the Portuguese the Cape of Good Hope was simply a landmark on the road to India, and mariners of other nations who followed in their wake used Table Bay only as a convenient spot wherein to refit on their voyage to the East. By the beginning of the seventeenth century the bay was much resorted to for this purpose, chiefly by British and Dutch vessels.

In 1620 C.E., with the object of forestalling the Dutch, two officers of the East India Company, on their own initiative, took possession of Table Bay in the name of King James, fearing otherwise that British ships would be "frustrated of watering but by license." Their action was not approved in London and the proclamation they issued remained without effect. The Netherlands profited by the apathy of the British. On the advice of sailors who had been shipwrecked in Table Bay, the Netherlands East India Company, in 1651, sent out a fleet of three small vessels under Jan van Riebeeck which reached Table Bay on the April 6, 1652, when, 164 years after its discovery, the first permanent white settlement was made in South Africa. The Portuguese, whose power in Africa was already waning, were not in a position to interfere with the Dutch plans, and Britain was content to seize the island of Saint Helena as its half-way house to the East. Until the Dutch landed, the southern tip of Africa was inhabited by a sparse Khoisan speaking culture including both Bushmen (hunter-gatherers) and Khoi (herders). Europeans found it a paradise for their temperate crop suites.

In its inception the settlement at the Cape was not intended to become an African colony, but was regarded as the most westerly outpost of the Dutch East Indies. Nevertheless, despite the paucity of ports and absence of navigable rivers, the Dutch colonists, including Huguenots who had fled persecution in France, gradually spread northward.

Ethiopia and Nubia

Ethiopia, closely linked with North Africa and the Middle East, had centralized rule for many millennia and the Aksumite Kingdom, which developed there, had created a powerful regional trading empire (with trade routes going as far as India).

At the period of her greatest power, Portugal also had close relations/alliances with Ethiopia. In the ruler of Ethiopia (to whose dominions a Portuguese traveler had penetrated before Vasco da Gama's memorable voyage) the Portuguese imagined they had found the legendary Christian king, Prester John for whom they had long been searching. A few decades later, the very existence of a Christian Ethiopia was threatened by Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi of Adal, backed by Ottoman cannons and muskets, while the Ethiopians possessed but a few muskets and cannons. With the aid of 400 Portuguese musketmen under Cristóvão da Gama during 1541–1543, the Ethiopians were able to defeat the Imam and preserve the Solomonic dynasty. After da Gama's time, Portuguese Jesuits traveled to Ethiopia in hopes of converting the populace from Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. While they failed in their efforts to convert the Ethiopians to Roman Catholicism (though Emperor Susenyos did so briefly) they acquired an extensive knowledge of the country. Pedro Paez in 1605 and, 20 years later, Jerónimo Lobo, both visited the sources of the Blue Nile. In the 1660s, the Portuguese were expelled from the Ethiopian dominions and Emperor Fasilides ordered all of the books of the "Franks" burned in 1665. At this time Portuguese influence on the Zanzibar coast faded before the power of the Arabs of Muscat, and by 1730, no point on the east coast north of Cabo Delgado was held by Portugal.

East Africa

Kakamega Forest, Kenya, East Africa.

Historically, the Swahili could be found as far north as Mogadishu in Somalia, and as far south as Rovuma River in Mozambique. Although once believed to be the descendants of Persian colonists, the ancient Swahili are now recognized by most historians, historical linguists, and archaeologists as a Bantu people who had sustained important interactions with Muslim merchants beginning in the late seventh and early eighth century C.E. By the 1100s, the Swahili emerged as a distinct and powerful culture, focused around a series of coastal trading towns, the most important of which was Kilwa. Ruins of this former golden age still survive.

One region that saw considerable state formation due to its high population and agricultural surplus was the Great Lakes region where states such as Rwanda, Burundi, and Buganda became strongly centralized.

Neglecting the comparatively poor and thinly inhabited regions of South Africa, the Portuguese no sooner discovered than they coveted the flourishing cities held by Muslim, Swahili-speaking people between Sofala and Cape Guardafui. By 1520 the southern Muslim sultanates had been seized by Portugal, Moçambique being chosen as the chief city of Portugal's East African possessions. Nor was colonial activity confined to the coastlands. The lower and middle Zambezi valley was explored by the Portuguese during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and here they found tribes who had been in contact with the coastal regions for many years. Strenuous efforts were made to obtain possession of the country (modern Zimbabwe) known to them as the kingdom or empire of Monomotapa (Mutapa), where gold had been worked from about the twelfth century, and whence the Arabs, whom the Portuguese dispossessed, were still obtaining supplies in the sixteenth century. Several expeditions were dispatched inland from 1569 onward and considerable quantities of gold were obtained. Portugal's hold on the interior, never very effective, weakened during the seventeenth century, and in the middle of the eighteenth century ceased with the abandonment of their forts in the Manica district.

European exploration

During the fifteenth century, Prince Henry "the Navigator," son of King John I, planned to acquire African territory for Portugal. Under his inspiration and direction Portuguese navigators began a series of voyages of exploration which resulted in the circumnavigation of Africa and the establishment of Portuguese sovereignty over large areas of the coastlands.

Portuguese ships rounded Cape Bojador in 1434, Cape Verde in 1445, and by 1480 the whole Guinea coast was known to the Portuguese. In 1482, Diogo Cão reached the mouth of the Congo, the Cape of Good Hope was rounded by Bartolomeu Dias in 1488, and in 1498 Vasco da Gama, after having rounded the Cape, sailed up the east coast, touched at Sofala and Malindi, and went from there to India. Portugal claimed sovereign rights wherever its navigators landed, but these were not exercised in the extreme south of the continent.

The Guinea coast, as the nearest to Europe, was first exploited. Numerous European forts and trading stations were established, the earliest being São Jorge da Mina (Elmina), begun in 1482. The chief commodities dealt in were slaves, gold, ivory, and spices. The European discovery of America (1492) was followed by a great development of the slave trade, which, before the Portuguese era, had been an overland trade almost exclusively confined to Muslim Africa. The lucrative nature of this trade and the large quantities of alluvial gold obtained by the Portuguese drew other nations to the Guinea coast. English mariners went there as early as 1553, and they were followed by Spaniards, Dutch, French, Danish and other adventurers. Colonial supremacy along the coast passed in the seventeenth century from Portugal to the Netherlands and from the Dutch in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to France and Britain. The whole coast from Senegal to Lagos was dotted with forts and "factories" of rival European powers, and this international patchwork persisted into the twentieth century although all the West African hinterland had become either French or British territory.

Southward from the mouth of the Congo to the region of Damaraland (in what is present-day Namibia), the Portuguese, from 1491 onward, acquired influence over the inhabitants, and in the early part of the sixteenth century through their efforts Christianity was largely adopted in the Kongo Empire. An incursion of tribes from the interior later in the same century broke the power of this semi-Christian state, and Portuguese activity was transferred to a great extent farther south, São Paulo de Loanda (present-day Luanda) being founded in 1576. Before Angolan independence, the sovereignty of Portugal over this coastal region, except for the mouth of the Congo, had been only once challenged by a European power, and that was in the period from 1640-48 when the Dutch held the seaports.

African slave trade

The earliest external slave trade was the trans-Saharan slave trade. Although there had long been some trading up the Nile River and very limited trading across the western desert, the transportation of large numbers of slaves did not become viable until camels were introduced from Arabia in the 10th century. At this point, a trans-Saharan trading network came into being to transport slaves north. Unlike in the Americas, slaves in North Africa were mainly servants rather than laborers, and an equal or greater number of females than males were taken, who were often employed as chambermaids to women of harems. It was not uncommon to turn male slaves into eunuchs.

The Atlantic slave trade developed much later, but it would eventually be by far the largest and have the greatest impact. Increasing penetration of the Americas by the Portuguese created another huge demand for labor in Brazil, for sugar cane plantations, farming, mining, and other tasks. To meet this, a trans-Atlantic slave trade soon developed. Slaves purchased from black slave dealers in West African regions known as the Slave Coast, Gold Coast, and Côte d'Ivoire were sold into slavery as a result of tribal warfare. Mighty black kings in the Bight of Biafra near modern-day Senegal and Benin sold their captives internally and then to European slave traders for such things as metal cookware, rum, livestock, and seed grain.

History of North Africa (3500 B.C.E.-1850 C.E.)

Ancient Egypt

Africa's earliest evidence of written history was in Ancient Egypt, and the Egyptian calendar is still used as the standard for dating Bronze Age and Iron Age cultures throughout the region.

In about 3100 B.C.E., Egypt was united under a ruler known as Mena, or Menes, who inaugurated the first of the 30 dynasties into which Egypt's ancient history is divided: The Old, Middle Kingdoms and the New Kingdom. The pyramids at Giza (near Cairo), which were built in the Fourth dynasty, testify to the power of the pharaonic religion and state. The Great Pyramid, the tomb of Pharaoh Akhufu also known as Khufu, is the only surviving monument of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Ancient Egypt reached the peak of its power, wealth, and territorial extent in the period called the New Empire (1567–1085 B.C.E.).

The Egyptians reached Crete around 2000 B.C.E. and were invaded by Indo-Europeans and Hyksos Semites. They defeated the invaders around 1570 B.C.E. and expanded into the Aegean, Sudan, Libya, and much of the Levant, as far as the Euphrates.

The importance of Ancient Egypt to the development of Africa has been disputed. The earlier generation of Western Africanists generally saw Egypt as a Mediterranean civilization with little impact on the rest of Africa. The more recent historians based in Africa take a very different view, seeing Egypt as important to the development of African civilization as Greece was to the development of European civilization. It has been demonstrated that Egypt had considerable contact with Ethiopia and the upper Nile valley, south of the cataracts of the Nile in Nubian Kush. Links and connections to the Sahel and West Africa have been proposed, but are as of yet unproven.

Phoenician, Greek and Roman colonization

Separated by the 'sea of sand', the Sahara, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa have been linked by fluctuating trans-Saharan trade routes. Phoenician, Greek and Roman histories of North Africa can be followed in entries for the Roman Empire and for its individual provinces in the Maghreb, such as Mauretania, Africa, Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, Aegyptus, and so on.

In Northern Africa, Ethiopia has been the only state which throughout historic times has (except for a brief period during World War II) maintained its independence. Countries bordering the Mediterranean were colonized and settled by the Phoenicians before 1000 B.C.E. Carthage, founded about 814 B.C.E., speedily grew into a city without rival in the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians subdued the Berber tribes who, then as now, formed the bulk of the population, and became masters of all the habitable region of North Africa west of the Great Syrtis, and found in commerce a source of immense prosperity.

Greeks founded the city of Cyrene in Ancient Libya around 631 B.C.E. Cyrenaica became a flourishing colony, though being hemmed in on all sides by absolute desert it had little or no influence on inner Africa. The Greeks, however, exerted a powerful influence in Egypt. To Alexander the Great the city of Alexandria owes its foundation (332 B.C.E.), and under the Hellenistic dynasty of the Ptolemies attempts were made to penetrate southward, and in this way was obtained some knowledge of Ethiopia.

The three powers of Cyrenaica, Egypt and Carthage were eventually supplanted by the Romans. After centuries of rivalry with Rome, Carthage finally fell in 146 B.C.E. Within little more than a century Egypt and Cyrene had become incorporated in the Roman empire. Under Rome the settled portions of the country were very prosperous, and a Latin strain was introduced into the land. Though Fezzan was occupied by them, the Romans elsewhere found the Sahara an impassable barrier. Nubia and Ethiopia were reached, but an expedition sent by the emperor Nero to discover the source of the Nile ended in failure. The utmost extent of Mediterranean geographical knowledge of the continent is shown in the writings of Ptolemy (second century), who knew of or guessed the existence of the great lake reservoirs of the Nile, of trading posts along the shores of the Indian Ocean as far south as Rhapta in modern Tanzania, and had heard of the river Niger.

Interaction between Asia, Europe and North Africa during this period was significant. Major effects include the spread of classical culture around the shores of the Mediterranean; the continual struggle between Rome and the Berber tribes; the introduction of Christianity throughout the region; and, the cultural effects of the churches in Tunisia, Egypt and Ethiopia.

Dark Ages

The classical era drew to a close with the invasion and conquest of Rome's African provinces by the Vandals in the 5th century, although power passed back briefly in the following century to the Byzantine Empire.


In the seventh century C.E. occurred an event destined to have a permanent influence on the whole continent. Beginning with an invasion of Egypt, a host of Arabs, believers in the new faith of Islam, conquered the whole of North Africa from the Red Sea to the Atlantic and continued into Spain. Throughout North Africa Christianity nearly disappeared, except in Egypt where the Coptic Church remained strong partly because of the influence of Ethiopia, which was not approached by the Muslims because of Ethiopia's history of harboring early Muslim converts from retaliation by pagan Arab tribes. Some argue that when the Arabs had converted Egypt they attempted to wipe out the Copts. Ethiopia, which also practiced Coptic Christianity, warned the Muslims that if they attempted to wipe out the Copts, Ethiopia would decrease the flow of Nile water into Egypt. This was because Lake Tana in Ethiopia was the source of the Blue Nile which flows into the greater Nile. Some believe this to be one of the reasons that the Coptic minorities still exist today, but it is unlikely because of Ethiopia's weak military standing against the Afro-Arabs.

In the 11th century there was a sizable Arab immigration, resulting in a large absorption of Berber culture. Even before this the Berbers had very generally adopted the speech and religion of their conquerors. Arab influence and the Islamic religion thus became indelibly stamped on northern Africa. Together they spread southward across the Sahara. They also became firmly established along the eastern seaboard, where Arabs, Persians and Indians planted flourishing colonies, such as Mombasa, Malindi and Sofala, playing a role, maritime and commercial, analogous to that filled in earlier centuries by the Carthaginians on the northern seaboard. Until the 14th century, Europe and the Arabs of North Africa were both ignorant of these eastern cities and states.

The first Arab immigrants had recognized the authority of the caliphs of Baghdad, and the Aghlabite dynasty—founded by Aghlab, one of Haroun al-Raschid's generals, at the close of the eighth century—ruled as vassals of the caliphate. However, early in the 10th century the Fatimid dynasty established itself in Egypt, where Cairo had been founded 968 C.E., and from there ruled as far west as the Atlantic. Later still arose other dynasties such as the Almoravides and Almohades. Eventually the Turks, who had conquered Constantinople in 1453, and had seized Egypt in 1517, established the regencies of Algeria, Tunisia and Tripoli (between 1519 and 1551), Morocco remaining an independent Arabized Berber state under the Sharifan dynasty, which had its beginnings at the end of the thirteenth century.

Under the earlier dynasties Arabian or Moorish culture had attained a high degree of excellence, while the spirit of adventure and the proselytizing zeal of the followers of Islam led to a considerable extension of the knowledge of the continent. This was rendered more easy by their use of the camel (first introduced into Africa by the Persian conquerors of Egypt), which enabled the Arabs to traverse the desert. In this way Senegambia and the middle Niger regions fell under the influence of the Arabs and Berbers.

Islam also spread through the interior of West Africa, as the religion of the mansas of the Mali Empire (c. 1235–1400) and many rulers of the Songhai Empire (c. 1460–1591). Following the fabled 1324 hajj of Kankan Musa I, Timbuktu became renowned as a center of Islamic scholarship as sub-Saharan Africa's first university. That city had been reached in 1352 by the great Arab traveler Ibn Battuta, whose journey to Mombasa and Quiloa (Kilwa) provided the first accurate knowledge of those flourishing Muslim cities on the east African seaboards.

Except along this seaboard, which was colonized directly from Asia, Arab progress southward was stopped by the broad belt of dense forest, stretching almost across the continent somewhat south of 10° North latitude, which barred their advance much as the Sahara had proved an obstacle to their predecessors. The rainforest cut them off from knowledge of the Guinea coast and of all Africa beyond. One of the regions which was the last to come under Arab rule was that of Nubia, which had been controlled by Christians up to the fourteenth century.

For a time the African Muslim conquests in southern Europe had virtually made of the Mediterranean a Muslim lake, but the expulsion in the eleventh century of the Saracens from Sicily and southern Italy by the Normans was followed by descents of the conquerors on Tunisia and Tripoli. Somewhat later a busy trade with the African coastlands, and especially with Egypt, was developed by Venice, Pisa, Genoa and other cities of North Italy. By the end of the fifteenth century Spain's Reconquista had completely removed the Muslims, but even while the Moors were still in Granada, Portugal was strong enough to carry the war into Africa. In 1415, a Portuguese force captured the citadel of Ceuta on the Moorish coast. From that time onward Portugal repeatedly interfered in the affairs of Morocco, while Spain acquired many ports in Algeria and Tunisia.

Portugal, however, suffered a crushing defeat in 1578, at al Kasr al Kebir, the Moors being led by Abd el Malek I of the then recently established Saadi Dynasty. By that time the Spaniards had lost almost all their African possessions. The Barbary states, primarily from the example of the Moors expelled from Spain, degenerated into mere communities of pirates, and under Turkish influence civilization and commerce declined. The story of these states from the beginning of the sixteenth century to the third decade of the 19th century is largely made up of piratical exploits on the one hand and of ineffectual reprisals on the other.

European exploration and conquest

An 1812 map of Africa by Arrowsmith and Lewis

Nineteenth century European explorers

Although the Napoleonic Wars distracted the attention of Europe from exploratoration in Africa, those wars nevertheless exercised great influence on the future of the continent, both in Egypt and South Africa. The occupation of Egypt (1798–1803) first by France and then by Great Britain resulted in an effort by Turkey to regain direct control over that country, followed in 1811 by the establishment under Mehemet Ali of an almost independent state, and the extension of Egyptian rule over the eastern Sudan (from 1820 onward). In South Africa the struggle with Napoleon caused the United Kingdom to take possession of the Dutch settlements at the Cape, and in 1814 Cape Colony, which had been continuously occupied by British troops since 1806, was formally ceded to the British crown.

Meantime, considerable changes had occurred in other parts of the continent, the most notable being the occupation of Algiers by France in 1830, an end being thereby put to the piratical activities of the Barbary states, and the continued expansion southward of Egyptian authority with the consequent additions to the knowledge of the Nile. The city of Zanzibar, on the island of that name rapidly attained importance. Accounts of a vast inland sea, and the discovery in 1840–1848, by the missionaries Johann Ludwig Krapf and Johann Rebmann, of the snow-clad mountains of Kilimanjaro and Kenya, stimulated in Europe the desire for further knowledge.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Protestant missions were carrying on active missionary work on the Guinea coast, in South Africa and in the Zanzibar dominions. It was being conducted in regions and among peoples little known, and in many instances missionaries turned explorers and became pioneers of trade and empire. One of the first to attempt to fill up the remaining blank spaces in the map was David Livingstone, who had been engaged since 1840 in missionary work north of the Orange. In 1849, Livingstone crossed the Kalahari Desert from south to north and reached Lake Ngami, and between 1851 and 1856, he traversed the continent from west to east, making known the great waterways of the upper Zambezi. During these journeys Livingstone discovered, in November 1855, the famous Victoria Falls, so named after the Queen of the United Kingdom. In 1858–1864, the lower Zambezi, the Shire and Lake Nyasa were explored by Livingstone, Nyasa having been first reached by the confidential slave of Antonio da Silva Porto, a Portuguese trader established at Bihe in Angola, who crossed Africa during 1853–1856, from Benguella to the mouth of the Rovuma. A prime goal for explorers was to locate the source of the River Nile. Expeditions by Burton and Speke (1857–1858) and Speke and Grant (1863) located Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria. It was eventually proved to be the latter from which the Nile flowed.

Henry Morton Stanley, who had in 1871 succeeded in finding and succoring Livingstone, started again for Zanzibar in 1874, and in one of the most memorable of all expeditions in Africa circumnavigated Victoria Nyanza and Tanganyika, and, striking farther inland to the Lualaba, followed that river down to the Atlantic Ocean—reached in August 1877—and proved it to be the Congo.

Explorers were also active in other parts of the continent. Southern Morocco, the Sahara and the Sudan were traversed in many directions between 1860 and 1875 by Gerhard Rohlfs, Georg Schweinfurth and Gustav Nachtigal. These travelers not only added considerably to geographical knowledge, but obtained invaluable information concerning the people, languages and natural history of the countries in which they sojourned. Among the discoveries of Schweinfurth was one that confirmed the Greek legends of the existence beyond Egypt of a "pygmy race." But the first Western discoverer of the pygmies of Central Africa was Paul du Chaillu, who found them in the Ogowe district of the west coast in 1865, five years before Schweinfurth's first meeting with them; du Chaillu having previously, as the result of journeys in the Gabon region between 1855 and 1859, made popular in Europe the knowledge of the existence of the gorilla, perhaps the gigantic ape seen by Hanno the Carthaginian, and whose existence, up to the middle of the nineteenth century, was thought to be as legendary as that of the Pygmies of Aristotle.

Partition among European powers

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century the map of Africa was transformed, in what was called the Scramble for Africa. Lines of partition, drawn often through trackless wildernesses, marked out the possessions of Germany, France, Britain, and other powers. Railways penetrated the interior, vast areas were opened up to Western conquest.

The causes which led to the partition of Africa can be found in the economic and political state of western Europe at the time. Germany, recently united under Prussian rule as the result of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, was seeking new outlets for its energies, new markets for its growing industries, and with the markets, colonies.

Germany was the last country to enter into the race to acquire colonies, and when Bismarck—the German Chancellor —acted, Africa was the only field left to exploit. South America was protected from interference by the United States based on its Monroe Doctrine, while Britain, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain had already split up most of the other regions of the world between themselves.

Part of the reason Germany began to expand into the colonial sphere at this time, despite Bismarck's lack of enthusiasm for the idea, was a shift in the worldview of the Prussian governing elite. Indeed, European elites as a whole began to see the world as a finite place, one in which only the strong would predominate. The influence of Social Darwinism was deep, encouraging a view of the world as essentially characterized by zero-sum relationships.

For different reasons, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was also the starting point for France in the building of a new colonial empire. In its endeavor to regain its position lost in that war, France had to look beyond Europe. Britain and Portugal, when they found their interests threatened, also bestirred themselves, while Italy also conceived it necessary to become an African power.

It was not, however, the action of any of the great powers of Europe which precipitated the struggle. This was brought about by the projects of Léopold II, king of the Belgians. The discoveries of Livingstone, Stanley and others had aroused especial interest among two classes of men in western Europe, one the manufacturing and trading class, which saw in Central Africa possibilities of commercial development, the other the philanthropic and missionary class, which beheld in the newly discovered lands millions of "savages" to Christianize and "civilize." The possibility of utilizing both these classes in the creation of a vast state, of which he should be the chief, formed itself in the mind of Léopold II even before Stanley had navigated the Congo. The king's action was immediate; it proved successful; but no sooner was the nature of his project understood in Europe than it provoked the rivalry of France and Germany, and thus the international struggle was begun.

Conflicting ambitions of the European powers

In 1873, Zanzibar, the busiest slave market in Africa, closed.

The part of the continent to which King Léopold directed his energies was the equatorial region. In September 1876 he took what may be described as the first definite step in the modern partition of the continent. He summoned to a conference in Brussels representatives of Britain, Belgium, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy and Russia, to deliberate on the best methods to be adopted for the exploration and Westernization of Africa, and the opening up of the interior of the continent to commerce and industry. The conference was entirely unofficial. The delegates who attended neither represented nor pledged their respective governments. Their deliberations lasted three days and resulted in the foundation of the "International African Association," with its headquarters in Brussels. It was further resolved to establish national committees in the various countries represented, which were to collect funds and appoint delegates to the International Association. The central idea appears to have been to put the exploration and development of Africa upon an international footing. But it quickly became apparent that this was an unattainable ideal. The national committees were soon working independently of the International Association, and the Association itself passed through a succession of stages until it became purely Belgian in character, and at last developed into the Congo Free State, under the personal sovereignty of King Léopold.

After the First Boer War, a conflict between the British Empire and the Boer South African Republic (Transvaal Republic), the peace treaty on March 23, 1881, gave the Boers self-government in the Transvaal under a theoretical British oversight.

For some time before 1884, there had been growing up a general conviction that it would be desirable for the powers who were interesting themselves in Africa to come to some agreement as to "the rules of the game," and to define their respective interests so far as was practicable. Lord Granville's ill-fated treaty brought this sentiment to a head, and it was agreed to hold an international conference on African affairs.

Map of Africa 1890

The Berlin Conference of 1884-85

The Berlin Conference of 1884–85 regulated European colonization and trade in Africa during the New Imperialism period, and coincided with Germany's sudden emergence as an imperial power. Called for by Portugal and organized by Otto von Bismarck, the first Chancellor of Germany, its outcome, the General Act of the Berlin Conference, is often seen as the formalization of the Scramble for Africa. The conference ushered in a period of heightened colonial activity on the part of the European powers, while simultaneously eliminating most existing forms of African autonomy and self-governance. From 1885 the scramble among the powers went on with renewed vigor, and in the 15 years that remained of the century, the work of partition, so far as international agreements were concerned, was practically completed.

Twentieth century: 1900-1945

Africa at the start of the twentieth century

Map of Africa just before World War I (larger image (456 kB))

All of the African continent was claimed by European powers, except for Ethiopia (then called Abyssinia) and Liberia (a country for former slaves set up by the U.S.).

The European powers created a variety of different administrations in Africa at this time, with different ambitions and degrees of power. In some areas, parts of British West Africa for example, colonial control was tenuous and intended for simple economic extraction, strategic power, or as part of a long-term development plan.

In other areas, Europeans were encouraged to settle, creating settler states in which a European minority came to dominate society. Settlers only came to a few colonies in sufficient numbers to have a strong impact. British settler colonies included British East Africa (now Kenya), North and South Rhodesia (later Zambia and Zimbabwe), and South Africa, which already had a significant population of European settlers, the Boers. In the Second Boer War, between the British Empire and the two Boer republics of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (Transvaal Republic), the Boers unsuccessfully resisted absorption in to the British Empire.

France planned to settle Algeria across the Mediterranean and eventually incorporate it into the French state as an equal to its European provinces.

In most areas, colonial administrations did not have the manpower or resources to fully administer their territories and had to rely on local power structures to help them. Various factions and groups within the indigenous societies exploited this European requirement for their own purposes, attempting to gain a position of power within their own communities by cooperating with Europeans. One aspect of this struggle included what has been termed the "invention of tradition." In order to legitimize their own claims to power in the eyes of both colonial administrators and their own population, local Africans would essentially manufacture "traditional" claims to power, or ceremonies. As a result many societies were thrown into disarray by the new order.

During World War I, there were several battles between the United Kingdom and Germany, the most notable being the Battle of Tanga, and a sustained guerrilla campaign by the German General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.


After World War I, the former German colonies in Africa were taken over by France and the United Kingdom.

During this era a sense of local patriotism or nationalism took deeper root among African intellectuals and politicians. Some of the inspiration for this movement came from the First World War in which European countries had relied on colonial troops for their own defense. Many in Africa realized their own strength with regard to the colonizer for the first time. At the same time, some of the mystique of the "invincible" European was shattered by the barbarities of the war. However, in most areas European control remained relatively strong during this period.

In 1935, Benito Mussolini's Italian troops invaded Ethiopia, the last African nation not dominated by a foreign power.

World War II

Africa, especially North Africa, was an important theater of war. French colonies in Africa supported the Free French. Many black Africans were conscripted to fight against the Germans. Italy had a presence in Libya and also in Ethiopia. In the North African campaign, the Deutsches Afrika Korps under General Erwin Rommel were eventually defeated at the Second Battle of El Alamein. The Allies used North Africa as a jumping off point for the invasions of Italy and Sicily in 1943. Germany wanted to expand its interests in Africa, while Britain was anxious to protect its interests in Egypt and the route to the east.

Postcolonial era: 1945-present


Dates of independence of African countries.

Decolonization in Africa started with Libya in 1951 (Liberia, South Africa, Egypt, and Ethiopia were already independent). Many countries followed in the 1950s and 1960s, with a peak in 1960 with the independence of a large part of French West Africa. Most of the remaining countries gained independence throughout the 1960s, although some colonizers (Portugal in particular) were reluctant to relinquish sovereignty, resulting in bitter wars of independence which lasted for a decade or more. The last African countries to gain formal independence were Guinea-Bissau from Portugal in 1974, Mozambique from Portugal in 1975, Angola from Portugal in 1975, Djibouti from France in 1977, Zimbabwe from Britain in 1980, and Namibia from South Africa in 1990. Eritrea later split off from Ethiopia in 1993.

Because many cities were founded, enlarged and renamed by the Europeans, after independence many place names (for example Stanleyville, Léopoldville, Rhodesia) were again renamed.

Effects of decolonization

In most British and French colonies, the transition to independence was relatively peaceful. Some settler colonies however were displeased with the introduction of democratic rule.

In the aftermath of decolonization, Africa displayed political instability, economic disaster, and debt dependence. In all cases, measures of life quality (such as life expectancy) fell from their levels under colonialism, with many approaching precolonial levels. Political instability occurred with the introductions of Marxist and capitalist influence, along with continuing friction from racial inequalities. Inciting civil war, black nationalist groups participated in violent attacks against white settlers, trying to end white minority rule in government.

Further violence occurred with disagreements over the partitions made during the colonization. Despite widespread acceptance of these partitions, border disputes such as those between Chad and Libya, Ethiopia and Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, and Nigeria and Cameroon remain unresolved today.

Decolonized Africa has lost many of its social and economic institutions and to this day shows a high level of informal economic activity. In another result of colonialism followed by decolonization, the African economy was drained of many natural resources with little opportunity to diversify from its colonial export of cash crops. Suffering through famine and drought, Africa struggled to industrialize its poverty stricken work force without sufficient funds.

To feed, educate, and modernize its masses, Africa borrowed large sums from various nations, banks and companies. In return, lenders often required African countries to devalue their currencies and attempted to exert political influence within Africa. The borrowed funds, however, did not rehabilitate the devastated economies. Since the massive loans were usually squandered by the mismanagement of corrupt dictators, social issues such as education, health care and political stability have been ignored.

The by-products of decolonization, including political instability, border disputes, economic ruin, and massive debt, continue to plague Africa to this present day.

Due to on-going military occupation, Spanish Sahara (now Western Sahara), was never fully decolonized. The majority of the territory is under Moroccan administration; the rest is administered by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

In 2005, the European Union agreed to a Strategy for Africa including working closely with the African Union to promote peace, stability and good governance. However, inter-tribal war in Rwanda during the genocide of 1994, in Somalia over more than 20 years, and between Arabs and non-Arabs in Sudan indicates to some observers that Africa is still locked in tribalism and far from ready to assume its place at the global table of mature, stable and democratic states.

The Cold War in Africa

Africa was an arena during the Cold War between the U.S., Soviet Union, and even China and North Korea. Communist and Marxist groups, often with significant outside assistance, vied for power during various civil wars, such as that in Angola, Mozambique and Ethiopia. A Marxist-oriented president, Julius Nyerere, held in power in Tanzania from 1964-85, while from 1955-75, Egypt depended heavily on Soviet military assistance. The communist powers sought to install pro-communist or communist governments, as part of their larger geostrategy in the Cold War, while the U.S. tended to maintain corrupt authoritarian rulers (such as Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire) as the price to keep countries in the pro-democracy camp.


In 1964, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was established with 32 member states. It aimed to:

  1. Promote the unity and solidarity of the African states;
  2. Coordinate and intensify their cooperation and efforts to achieve a better life for the peoples of Africa;
  3. Defend their sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence;
  4. Eradicate all forms of colonialism from Africa; and,
  5. Promote international cooperation, having due regard to the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In 2002, the OAU was succeeded by the African Union.

Several UN peacekeeping missions have been either entirely composed of (what are now called) African Union forces, or they have represented a significant component as the strategy of Africans policing Africa develops. These include Liberia (2003); Burundi (2003); Sudan (2004)[8]. Others speculate that since the U.S. withdrew its UN peacekeepers from Somalia—after 18 soldiers died, with 70 wounded, in Mogadishu, Somalia in October 1993—the Western powers have been very reluctant to commit ground forces in Africa. This may explain why the international community failed to intervene during the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, stationing less than 300 troops there with orders "only to shoot if shot at."

East Africa

The Mau Mau Uprising took place in Kenya from 1952 until 1956, but was put down by British and local forces. A state of emergency remained in place until 1960. Kenya became independent in 1963 and Jomo Kenyatta became its first president.

The early 1990s also signaled the start of major clashes between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi. In 1994 this resulted in the Rwandan Genocide, a conflict in which over a million died.

North Africa

In 1954 Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power in Egypt and was opposed to the United States; his successor, Anwar Sadat, improved relations with the U.S. An anti-American regime came to power in Libya in 1969 with Moammar al-Qadhafi. As of 2009, Qadhafi remains power, but has improved ties with the U.S.

Egypt was involved in several wars against Israel, and was allied with other Arab states. The first was upon the founding of the state of Israel in 1947. Egypt went to war again in 1967 (the Six-Day War) and lost its Sinai Peninsula to Israel. They went to war yet again in 1973 in the Yom Kippur War. In 1979, Egyptian president Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin signed the Camp David Accords, which returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in exchange for Egypt's recognition of Israel. The accords are still in effect today.

South Africa

In 1948, the apartheid laws were implemented in South Africa by the dominant party, the National Party, under the auspices of Prime Minister Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd. These were largely a continuation of existing policies, for example, the Land Act of 1913. The difference was the policy of "separate development." Where previous policies had only been disparate efforts to economically exploit the African majority, apartheid represented an entire philosophy of separate racial goals, leading to both the divisive laws of "petty apartheid," and the grander scheme of African homelands. Homelands were created for different African tribes, racially segregated from white areas. The international community eventually responded with economic sanctions against South Africa, while the African National Congress (ANC), headed by Nelson Mandela led resistance—sometimes violent, but for much of the time non-violent—against the white regime. Anglican Archbishop, Desmond Tutu, and other religious leaders were in the forefront of the struggle against the racist system, demanding justice but also calling for reconciliation and forgiveness. Some rivalry between Zulu factions and the ANC meant that opposition to the white regime was sometimes compromised.

In 1994, apartheid ended in South Africa, and Mandela, after 27 years in prison, was elected president in the country's first multiracial elections. Tutu, who calls post-apartheid South Africa the "rainbow nation," was appointed chair of its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This brought victims and victimizers together to seek forgiveness and reconciliation instead of revenge, so that black and white could build a new nation in partnership.

West Africa

Following World War II, nationalist movements arose across West Africa, most notably in Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah. In 1957, Ghana became the first sub-Saharan colony to achieve independence, followed the next year by France's colonies; by 1974, West Africa's nations were entirely autonomous. Since independence, many West African nations have been plagued by corruption and instability, with notable civil wars in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Côte d'Ivoire, and a succession of military coups in Ghana and Burkina Faso. Many states have failed to develop their economies despite enviable natural resources, and political instability is often accompanied by undemocratic government.


  1. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (NY: Norton, 1999, ISBN 9780792292555), 167.
  2. Patrick K. O'Brien (ed.), Oxford Atlas of World History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, ISBN 978-0965025577), 22-23.
  3. O'Brien, 22-23.
  4. Diamond, 100.
  5. Diamond, 126-127.
  6. Phyllis Martin and Patrick O'Meara, Africa, 3rd Ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995, ISBN 9780253302106).
  7. O'Brien, 22-23.
  8. Esther Pan, African Peacekeeping Operations, Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved March 24, 2007.


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