The History of West Africa

I don’t know about you, but if I had never lived in Africa until I was sixteen, I would not have known anything about African history. And I’m grateful every day that I learned British, Dutch and African history (also specifically Gambian history). Because of this, I thought I’d try to write a crash course on African history. However, I can’t promise this won’t be divided into two parts.

At first, I was planning to write this article about the empires of all regions of Africa, that is West, East, Central, North and South. However, I was already at over 1500 words and I was not even done with West Africa yet. And since this is where I spent my childhood, I decided to be biassed and keep this article to that region. I would like to disclaim that this is a general overview, focussing mostly on the empires of 600-1800 C.E. (current era). There are 16 countries in this area of Africa, and each has a rich history of their own, which I unfortunately cannot go into detail in this article. These countries include Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Côte D’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo .

I would love to write as many articles as there are countries (in Africa, in general) but that may be a bit overambitious. Anyway, I digress. Let’s get into it.

How It All Started

Before I get into the specifics of West Africa, I would like to give a brief overview of the continent’s history. The history of Africa of course begins at the emergence of human beings. Since that is something else entirely, we’ll just keep it simple: (East) Africa is where human beings first emerged as we know them today. The earliest known records of history are from Egypt, which, yes, is in Africa. News flash. 

Sarcasm aside, African history is very much entwined with that of the Middle East and Southern Europe, as following the desertification of the Sahara, a phenomenon called the Bantu Expansion occurred. This is where a major migration of the Prontu-Bantu group occurred. They moved from central-African to sub-Saharan Africa. The original core of this group was settled in the southern regions of (what is now) Cameroon. The change that occurred can be tracked mostly linguistically: most of the languages spoken throughout sub-Equatorial Africa are quite similar. Kind of like German and Dutch. 

It is during the Middle Ages in which Islam spread from Arabia throughout Africa, as before this the indigenous tribes mostly worshipped ancestors, and they believed that objects could hold the power to possess spiritual essence. However, this is an entirely different topic on itself and would take too much time getting into. Perhaps it is a topic for another article.

The Empires

Before European world exploration and colonisation, Africa had built up multiple civilisations of its own. By the word civilisations you might get a picture of a small group of indigenous people in a narrow stretch of land, but that is far from the truth. In this section, I will be introducing and giving a brief summary of the empires that made up the African continent. I will be leaving aside most of the smaller dynasties and kingdoms, as there are many and this will take time, but if this interests you, there are many sources to be found online. 

As Africa is a massive continent, it being the second largest with its 30 million square foot, and can easily fit Europe in it thrice, I will be looking at only the empires and kingdoms of West Africa. As there are quite many of these as well, I will cover the most influential. 

Empires may seem as a thing of the far past, but the last standing empires of the African continent actually had its greatest surge in power alongside the Atlantic Slave Trade. Once this declined due to the abolition of slave trade, so did the power of the empires. Some great empires of the period are: the Mali empire, the Ghana empire, and the Benin empire. 

Image 1: An overview of the African empires (and regions) and their locations from 900-1500 C.E.
Image 2: The African continent as it is today.

Ghana Empire (300-1300 C.E.)

The first empire to form in Africa was the Ghana Empire, which, as can be seen on the first map, was smaller than the other two empires which will be discussed later (as they formed after the Ghanaian empire). Although it may lack in size (footage-wise), do not mistake this as a sign of a lack of greatness. Don’t mistake it for the modern day Ghana as we know it now: the country lies further to the south, while the empire was situated with the Sahara desert to the north and the rainforests to the south, which now would be where Mauritania and Mali meet. For a proper comparison, you can compare map 1 and map 2 with each other. 

The empire was mostly composed of the Soninke (also known as the Sarakole) people. They spoke an indigenous language called Mande (now known as Mandingo). All the indigenous languages in Africa have developed to have various names throughout history, as Mandingo is referred to as Mandinka in Gambia, and the Sarakole people are known as Serahules, now two different tribes. As both these originate around the Niger River and the Senegal River, which is where the Ghana empire was situated nearby, it is most likely that these tribes were first one, and eventually split up. Kind of like the Dutch and Belgian people, I guess. 

The Ghana empire flourished due to its wealth; (West Central) Africa is well-known for its diamonds, copper and gold. They had a well-trained army, occupied camels which they used for the transport of goods and people, which is how the Soninke people started to thrive. The entire empire was composed of a handful of villages, which were ruled by a king (fun fact, Ghana actually means strong warrior king) who was the state’s head of justice and religion. 

Its decline began when their capital was sacked by the Almoravids of North Africa, as the rulers of the Ghana empire tried to gain access to trade by Saharan commercial centres. Eventually, the development of new trade routes towards the east started becoming a significant threat, and drought started to sweep over the lands. As Islam had begun to spread throughout this period, there were also multiple civil wars due to the religious difference between the Muslim and animist followers. A series of misfortune, it seems, was all it took to take down one of the longest-standing empires of the African continent. 

The Mali Empire (1300-1600 C.E.)

The rise of the Mali Empire is actually quite a funny story, one that many might retell as a life lesson to never underestimate the (appearing to be) weak. A name that is important here is that of Sundiata Keita.

After the dissolution of the Ghana empire, there were particular states that wanted to take advantage of this collapse, such as the Kingdom of Susu. They sensed a rivalry with a smaller territory, the Kingdom of Kangaba, which was located on the Upper Bakoy River in the northern (former) Ghana Empire. 

Sensing a potential rivalry with the Kangaba, the Susu cemented it by killing 11 out of the 12 heirs to the throne of the other kingdom. Why didn’t they kill the 12th, you ask? Because they found them to be too sickly and weak to bother killing. This remaining heir was Sundiata Keita, who ended up becoming one of the greatest rulers in West African history.

The Kangaba Kingdom grew as Sundiata surrounded himself with mercenaries (after overcoming his disabilities) and rose to power by initiating brutal wars on his neighbours. This small Kingdom turned into the powerful Mali Empire (as seen above, it consisted of what was once the Ghana empire, as well as the Senegambia region). 

The richest man in the history of the world actually grew rich due to the gold trade that surged during the time of the Mali Empire. His name was Mansa Musa, and he was the ninth king (mansa) of the Empire, from 1312 to 1337. You might have heard of the place Timbuktu from various comics, etc. Mansu Musa was the one to expand the Mali territory to include this place, and influenced the growth of the city, eventually making it a scholarly centre in Africa, specifically for Islam. It supported an important book trade and was home to the campuses of Sankore Madrasah, an Islamic university. After the Mali empire fell, Timbuktu was also absorbed by the Songhai Empire.

Songhai Empire (1464-1591 C.E.)

The Songhai Empire existed before the Mali Empire fell, unlike how the Mali Empire only grew after the collapse of the Ghana Empire. The Songhai Empire had its base in what is now central Mali, but took advantage of the weakening of the Mali Empire and also conquered several of the latter’s territories. Its capital city was Gao (a city in modern day Mali, on the Niger River), which is where the Songhai people settled around 800 C.E., but they did not regard it as their capital until the beginning of the 11th century.

Eventually, the empire fell to the hands of the Moroccan army during the Moroccan war. 

Kingdom of Benin (1201-1897 C.E.)

The Kingdom of Benin was situated in a forest area in what is now southern Nigeria. The Kingdom was established through quite an interesting way: before the formation of the Benin Kingdom, the Edo people were ruled by a dynasty of semimythical kings, also known as the ogisos. Taking matters into their own hands, the people invited Prince Oranmiyan from Ife (a town in south-western Nigeria) to rule over them. His son, Eweka, is regarded as the first oba, or king, of Benin. However, authority remained for a long time under a hereditary order of local chiefs. 

Late in the 13th century, royal power began to manifest itself under the oba Ewedo and was more firmly asserted under the most famous oba, Ewuare the Great (reigned c. 1440-80). He was described as a great warrior and magician, and helped expand the territory from the Niger River delta to what is now Lagos in the west. Fun fact: Lagos was founded by a Benin army and continued to pay tribute to the oba of Benin until the end of the 19th century. For those who do not know, Lagos is the current capital city of Nigeria. 

A brass sculpture head of an oba

The kingdom was mostly famous for its ivory and wood carvers, as well as its brass smiths (see the brass sculpture above) and bronze casters.

Another important name is Ozulua the Conqueror (reigned c. 1481- c. 1504), who enjoyed good relations with the Portuguese and sent ambassadors to their king. His son, Esigie (reigned c. early to mid-16th century), maintained these good relations. Through these relations, they traded in ivory, palm oil and pepper with the Portuguese, as well as with the Dutch. The Benin people served as a link with tribes in the interior of western Africa. They profited greatly from the slave trade because of this. 

The Kingdom eventually started to weaken due to succession struggles between members of the royal dynasty, resulting in civil wars. Benin’s leaders increasingly relied on supernatural rituals and large-scale human sacrifices to protect the state from further territorial encroachment. 

Human sacrifices only stopped after Benin City (the Kingdom’s capital) was burned down in 1897 by the British. The demise of the last remaining parts of the Benin Kingdom evolved into British Nigeria. Amazingly enough, the descendants of Benin’s ruling dynasty still occupy the throne in Benin City (although the present day oba has only an advisory role in government).

There is much more history to Africa, specifically the other regions which I was not able to fit into this article. Hopefully, I will have the privilege to continue writing articles on African History, as I found I quite enjoyed looking into this. After reading this article, you can officially say you know something of African history!

Written by Vivian Van Klaarbergen



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