1. Africa before the Transatlantic Slave Trade
Racist views of Africa
In the last 50 years much has been done to combat the entirely false and negative views about the history of Africa and Africans, which were developed in Europe in order to justify the Transatlantic Slave Trade and European colonial rule in Africa that followed it.
In the eighteenth century such racist views were summed up by the words of the Scottish philosopher David Hume, who said, ‘I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites.
There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual, eminent either in action or in speculation.
No ingenious manufacture among them, no arts, no sciences.”
In the nineteenth century the German philosopher Hegel simply declared ‘Africa is no historical part of the world.’ This openly racist view, that Africa had no history, was repeated by Hugh Trevor-Roper, Regius Professor of History at Oxford University, as late as 1963.
Africa, the birthplace of humanity
We now know that far from having no history, it is likely that human history actually began in Africa. The oldest evidence of human existence and that of our immediate ancestors has been found in Africa.
In July 2002 further evidence of the existence of early hominids in Africa was found with the discovery of the fossilized remains of what has been called Sahelanthropus tchadensis, thought to be between 6-7 million years old, in Chad.
The latest scientific research points to the fact that all human beings are likely to have African ancestors.
Trade, cultures and civilizations in Africa
Africa’s great civilizations made an immense contribution to the world, which are still marveled at by people today.
Ancient Egypt, which first developed over 5,000 years ago, is one of the most notable of these civilizations and one of the first monarchies anywhere in the world.
However, even before the rise of this civilization, the earlier monarchy of Ta Seti was founded in Nubia, in what is today the Sudan.
Egypt of the pharaohs is best known for its great monuments and feats of engineering (such as the Pyramids), but it also made great advances in many other fields too.
The Egyptians produced early forms of paper and a written script. They developed the calendar too and made important contributions in various branches of mathematics, such as geometry and algebra, and it seems likely that they understood and perhaps invented the use of zero. They made important contributions in mechanics, philosophy, irrigation and architecture.
Some historians now believe that ancient Egypt had an important influence on ancient Greece, and they point to the fact that Greek scholars such as Pythagoras and Archimedes studied in Egypt, and that the work of Aristotle and Plato was largely based on earlier scholarship in Egypt.
For example, what is commonly known as Pythagoras’ theorem, was known to the ancient Egyptians hundreds of years before Pythagoras’ birth.
How Europe learned from Africa
Some of the world’s other great civilizations, such as Kush, Axum, Ghana, Mali, and Great Zimbabwe, also flourished in Africa and some major scientific advances were known in Africa long before they were known in Europe.
Towards the middle of the 12th century, the north African scientist, Al Idrisi, wrote, ‘What results from the opinion of philosophers, learned men and those skilled in observation of the heavenly bodies, is that the world is as round as a sphere, of which the waters are adherent and maintained upon its surface by natural equilibrium.’
Africans were certainly involved in trans-oceanic travel long before Europeans and there is some evidence to suggest that Africans crossed the Atlantic and reached the American continent, perhaps even north America, as early as 500 BC.
In the 14th century, the Syrian writer, al-Umari, wrote about the voyage of the Emperor of Mali who crossed the Atlantic with 2,000 ships but failed to return.
Africans in east and south-eastern Africa also set up great civilizations that established important trading links with the kingdoms and empires of India and China long before Europeans had learned how to navigate the Atlantic ocean.
When Europeans first sailed to Africa in the 15th century, African pilots and navigators shared with them their knowledge of trans-oceanic travel.
It was gold from the great empires of West Africa, Ghana, Mali and Songhay, which provided the means for the economic take off of Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries and aroused the interest of Europeans in western Africa.
An early historian in the 9th century wrote ‘the king of Ghana is a great king. In his territory are mines of gold.’
When the famous historian of Muslim Spain, al-Bakri wrote about Ghana in the 11th century, he reported that its king ‘rules an enormous kingdom and has great power.’
The king of Ghana was said to have an army of 200,000 men and to rule over an extremely wealthy trading empire.
In the 14th century, the west African empire of Mali was larger than western Europe and reputed to be one of the largest, richest and most powerful states in the world.
The Moroccan traveler Ibn Batuta wrote about his very favorable impressions of this empire and said that he found ‘complete and general safety’ there.
When the famous emperor of Mali, Mansa Musa visited Cairo in 1324, it was said that he brought so much gold with him that its price fell dramatically and had not recovered its value even 12 years later.
The empire of Songhay was known, amongst other things, for the famous university of Sankore based in Timbuktu.
Aristotle was studied at Sankore and also subjects such as law, various branches of philosophy, dialectic, grammar, rhetoric and astronomy.
In the 16th century one of its most famous scholars, Ahmed Baba, is said to have written more than 40 major books on subjects such as astronomy, history and theology and he had his own private library that held over 1500 volumes.
One of the first reports of Timbuktu to reach Europe was by Leo Africanus. In his book, published in 1550, he says of the town: ‘There you will find many judges, professors and devout men, all handsomely maintained by the king, who holds scholars in much honor.
There too they sell many handwritten north African books, and more profit is to be made there from the sale of books than from any other branch of trade.’
African knowledge and that of the ancient world, was transmitted to Europe as a result of the North African or Moorish conquest of the Iberian peninsular in the 8th century.
There were in fact several such conquests including two by the Berber dynasties in the 11th and 12th centuries.
The Muslim invasion of Europe, and the founding of the state of Cordoba, re-introduced all the learning of the ancient world as well as the various contributions made by Islamic scholars and linked Europe much more closely with north and West Africa. Arabic numerals based on those used in India were introduced and they helped simplify mathematical calculations.
Europe was also introduced to the learning of ancient world mainly through translations in Arabic of works in medicine, chemistry, astronomy, mathematics and philosophy.
So important was the knowledge found in Muslim Spain, that one Christian monk – Adelard of Bath – disguised himself as a Muslim in order to study at the University at Cordoba.
Many historians believe that it was this knowledge, brought to Europe through Muslim Spain, which not only created the conditions for the Renaissance but also for the eventual expansion of Europe overseas in the 15th century.
European views of Africa before the Slave Trade
Before the devastation of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, important diplomatic and trading partnerships had developed between the rulers of European countries and those of Africa who saw each other as equals.
Some of the earliest European visitors to Africa recognized that many African societies were as advanced or even more advanced than their own.
In the early 16th century, the Portuguese trader Duarte Barboosa said of the east African city Kilwa: There were many fair houses of stone and mortar, well arranged in streets. Around it were streams and orchards with many channels of sweet water.’
Of the inhabitants of Kilwa he reported, ‘They were finely clad in many rich garments of gold and silk, and cotton, and the women as well; also with much gold and silver in chains and bracelets, which they wore on their legs and arms, and many jeweled earrings in their ears.’
A Dutch traveler to the kingdom of Benin in the early 17th century sent home this report of the capital.
‘It looks very big when you enter it for you go into a great broad street, which, though not paved, seems to be seven or eight times broader than the Warmoes Street in Amsterdam.
This street continues for about four miles and has no bend in it.
At the gate where I went in on horseback, I saw a big wall, very thick and made of earth, with a deep ditch outside.
Outside the gate there is a large suburb. Inside as you go along the main street, you can see other broad streets on either side, and these are also straight.
The houses in this town stand in good order, one close to the other and evenly placed beside the next, like our houses in Holland.’
Africans and the African continent have made enormous contributions to human history just as other peoples and continents have.
It is the development of Eurocentric and racist views in Europe that have denied this fact and sought to negate the history of Africa and its peoples.