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Issues in African History by Prof. James Giblin
Like the art of all peoples, the art of Africans expresses values, attitudes, and thought which are the products of their past experience. For that reason, the study of their art provides a way of learning about their history. Through the study of African art we can study the questions which have long preoccupied historians of Africa. This essay -- written by a historian who studies the African past -- presents an introduction to these questions. Its purpose is to encourage students to use their knowledge of African art to think about issues in African history.

As students of African art begin to consider the African past, they must also consider how Western conceptions of "race" and "racial" difference have influenced our notions of the African past. These ideas, which have usually contrasted the presumed inferiority of black peoples with the superiority of whites, arose in Western societies as Europeans sought to justify their enslavement of Africans and the subsequent colonization of Africa. Historians now recognize that ideas of racial inferiority have inspired the belief that in the past African peoples lived in a state of primitive barbarism. At the same time, they have realized that many of the European writings which they use to reconstruct the African past -- such as accounts by nineteenth-century missionaries and travelers, for example -- are themselves tainted by these same notions of African inferiority.

This realization has led historians to seek out alternative sources of information less influenced by European preoccupation with racial difference. These alternative sources include writings by Africans (which are found in only a few portions of Sub-Saharan Africa before the twentieth century), the much fuller bodies of oral tradition which are found throughout Africa, the vocabularies and structures of African languages themselves, and the physical artifacts uncovered by archaeologists. African art is also one of these alternative sources of information. Like the other alternative sources, it helps us to understand African history not from the standpoint of Europeans, but from the perspective of Africans themselves.

As historians have better understood the fallacy of Western ideas about racial inferiority, they have begun to seek other ways of thinking about differences between African and European history. Today, many historians combine ideas of difference and similarity in their interpretation of African history. They may regard African cultures as devising unusual solutions to problems which confront all human societies. For example, the eminent British historian Basil Davidson argues that Africans dealt with a problem found in all human communities -- the need to avoid tyranny -- by restricting the authority of rulers and by promoting the autonomy of small communities. Other historians explain difference not on racial grounds, but by considering other factors which affect social change.

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One example of this approach is found in the work of another British historian of Africa, John Iliffe. For Iliffe, the factor which most strongly shapes the character of African cultures is the African environment. Iliffe believes that Africans inhabit an environment whose aridity, infertile soils and profusion of diseases create particularly difficult challenges for humans. He sees the history of Africa as a process by which Africans surmount these challenges through agricultural innovation and sheer hard work. Of course, other historians disagree with the views of Davidson and Iliffe, and instead seek other factors which help to explain differences between Africans and other human societies. Thus part of the task of students who study African art is to ask themselves whether they see in it expressions of values and ideas which are unique, or whether they see manifestations of a common human spirit.

Human history in Africa is immensely long. In fact, both archaeological re and genetic studies strongly support the theory that the evolution of the modern human species (Homo sapiens sapiens) occurred in Africa. The earliest members of the hominid family of species to which we belong, the Australopithecines, separated from the ancestors of modern chimpanzees between four and six million years ago. The earliest archaeological evidence of Australopithecines comes from northern Ethiopia, and is about 4.4 million years old. The more dramatic evidence of these early human ancestors, however, are the famous Australopithecine footprints, made perhaps by parent and child about 3.5 million years ago at Laetoli, Tanzania. Traces of a more advanced hominid species, the stone tool-making Homo habilis, date to about two million years ago. Shortly thereafter, another human species, Homo erectus (so named for its ability to walk upright) emerged and developed more refined skills, including possibly the use of fire.

Early members of Homo sapiens lived in Africa perhaps 400,000 to 300,000 years ago, although anatomically modern humans whose skeletons cannot be distinguished from ours did not appear until about 140,000 years ago. Thereafter, these Homo sapiens sapiens spread rapidly throughout Africa and the rest of the world, reaching Europe perhaps 40,000 years ago and America no later than 15,000 years ago. Not only were these modern humans more successful than earlier hominid species in colonizing vast areas, but they made rapid progress in developing language, stone-tool technology, and artistic expression. As they spread across the globe, argues a famous authority on human evolution, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, modern humans adapted to very different environments by developing the slight genetic variations which produce differences in skin color, hair, body type and facial features. Cereal-eating inhabitants of colder northern climates developed fair skins, argues Cavalli-Sforza, because this trait allowed them to compensate for a dietary deficiency by absorbing vitamin D from sunlight. Other populations, however, including both fish-eating peoples of the northern hemisphere as well as Africans, derived no advantage from lighter skins, and instead developed the darker complexions which provide greater protection against ultraviolet rays.

Early communities of Homo sapiens, like older hominid species, lived by hunting, fishing and gathering undomesticated plants. However, change in the African climate appears to have prompted a fundamental transformation in African human life. Beginning about nine or ten thousand years ago, as much of Africa (including very arid regions of the Sahara desert and eastern Africa) developed a much wetter climate, Africans found new ways of obtaining their subsistence. As lakes and rivers became larger and more numerous, humans settled around them. At first, their purpose was to fish, collect relatively abundant plant foods along lake shores, and hunt the animals which congregated around water sources. When these communities eventually outgrew the food supplies which could be obtained by these methods, however, they began the very gradual process of learning how to cultivate crops and domesticate animals.

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In time, the advantages of farming and livestock keeping would become very great, because these skills provided more abundant and reliable supplies of food, and allowed more rapid population growth. Nevertheless, the adoption of these methods quite likely occurred as a response to crisis caused either by environmental degradation or by population growth. Farming and livestock-keeping would have been adopted only reluctantly because they required much more work than earlier methods of obtaining food. Moreover, these new methods of food production exposed humans to many new diseases, including infections contracted from domesticated animals.

Because archaeological evidence of early farming and animal domestication is very difficult to uncover, and even more difficult to interpret with certainty, scholars continue to disagree about when food production began, and about the processes which brought it into being. In particular, they disagree about whether the skills of farming and livestock-keeping were obtained from other parts of the world (particularly the Middle East), or whether these skills were developed independently in Africa. However, most scholars would agree that farming and livestock-keeping existed in portions of northern Africa no later than 7000 years ago. They also believe that as the African climate changed once again after about 3000 BC, abruptly introducing drier conditions, agricultural peoples moved southward into wetter areas, taking with them the skills of cultivation and livestock-tending.

The retreat of agricultural peoples away from the increasingly inhospitable Sahara led to the emergence of the fabulous Egyptian civilization which flourished from about 3100 BC to 332 BC. Without a doubt, the population of ancient Egypt was African. The clearest sign of its African origin is language, for the speech of ancient Egyptians belonged to the language group called Afroasiatic, a family of languages which originated probably in the southeastern Sahara. It includes not only ancient Egyptian, but also modern African languages such as Berber and Hausa, as well as Arabic and Hebrew. Egypt was populated probably by farming peoples who, having migrated from areas to the west of the Nile, developed highly productive agriculture in lands moistened and fertilized by its annual floods. Egypt's agricultural productivity was the basis of its cultural and material achievements. Its intensive agriculture freed a sizable portion of its population from food production so that they could invest their labor in monumental architecture (such as the pyramids), and specialize in political, military and religious affairs.

Whether the achievements of ancient Egypt had a major influence on the rest of Africa remains a controversial issue. One of Africa's most famous twentieth-century scholars, Cheikh Anta Diop of Senegal, has long maintained that, just as Greece was the birthplace of Western civilization, so too ancient Egypt was the cradle of African civilization. He and others see close resemblance between the languages, religious beliefs and art of Egypt and Sub-Saharan Africa. Other scholars find such comparisons unpersuasive, and instead point to numerous differences between ancient Egypt and the cultures of Sub-Saharan Africa. Perhaps the most notable contrast is between the highly centralized nature of ancient Egypt, and the tendency in many African societies to favor local autonomy. These scholars would prefer to see Sub-Saharan African culture not as the legacy of ancient Egypt, but rather as the indigenous achievement of western, eastern and southern Africa.

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While African agriculturalists retreating from increasingly drier regions were reestablishing themselves in Egypt, similar population movements were taking agriculture into western and eastern Africa. Cattle-keeping speakers of languages which belonged to the Nilo-Saharan family moved into the Rift Valley and highlands of East Africa. Meanwhile, speakers of Niger-Congo languages living in what is today eastern Nigeria and western Cameroon developed a new form of farming which, because it relied on yams and plantains (bananas) which flourish in moist, humid environments, was well adapted to the forests in which they lived. Some speakers of Niger-Congo would move west throughout present-day Nigeria. Another branch of the Niger-Congo family, the "Bantu" languages (so called because these languages share the same word for "person": ntu or its variants) would spread throughout central, eastern and southern Africa.

Today few issues in African history are as contentious as this so-called "Bantu migration," but not long ago many historians felt that its story was straightforward. They thought that the inhabitants of the Niger/Cameroon borderlands had developed a uniquely diverse range of skills (they liked to speak of this as a "tool kit") which included the ability to cultivate forest crops as well as iron-working. Knowledge of iron-working, they believed, had been acquired from the Middle East, and had been refined between about 500 and 300 BC by metal workers of the Nok culture (famous among African art historians for its terra-cotta busts) in central Nigeria. Equipped with this "tool kit," believed historians, speakers of Bantu languages colonized remarkably diverse environments across the southern half of the continent.

Today, however, historians place much less confidence in this story. They now realize that the spread of Bantu languages (which they think may have begun about 3000 BC) was a long and immensely complicated development. It probably occurred not only through the movement of Bantu-speaking migrants, but also through the adoption of Bantu languages (perhaps as trade lingua franca) by previously-established populations. Moreover, migration itself was a more complex process than historians once thought, for whereas they formerly imagined a rapid movement of conquering colonizers, historians are now more likely to speak of a very gradual, generation-by-generation spread of farming communities in of fresh soils.

Scholars also now believe that the original Bantu-speaking communities did not practice iron-working. Instead, Bantu communities appear to have acquired this skill only after they had reached the Great Lakes region of eastern Africa, where iron-working may have been practiced in Rwanda and northwestern Tanzania as early as 800 BC. If this date is correct (and not all archaeologists agree with it), it would mean that East African iron-working surely developed independently of any Egyptian or Eurasian influence. Iron-working undoubtedly contributed to the further spread of Bantu-speaking farmers throughout eastern and southern Africa. Iron tools facilitated the domestication of millets and sorghums -- Sub-Saharan Africa's most important cereals before the twentieth century -- because they enabled farmers to cut the grain-bearing heads of these plants away from their tough stalks. Thus by about 400 AD, Bantu-speaking cultivators and iron-workers were well established along the East African coast (where some Bantu words would be recorded about this time by seafarers from the Mediterranean) and in South Africa as well.

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Perhaps no idea about the African past is as persistent and misleading as the idea that Africans traditionally lived in isolated and homogenous "tribes." This idea implies that connections among different societies, language groups and regions were unimportant. It also implies that Africans lived in a politically undeveloped condition, for "tribes" are usually assumed to be based on kinship and genealogical descent (they might be thought of as very large extended families). Thus African "tribal" life might be regarded as being governed not, as in Western societies, by sophisticated political institutions, but rather by primordial bonds of kinship and affinity. An additional implication of this "tribal" conception of African life is that difference and conflict existed between different "tribes" (hence the idea of "tribal" warfare), but not within tribes. Consequently, the "tribal" model of the African past leads us to overlook the importance of inter-regional connections, to underestimate the political sophistication of African cultures, and to ignore the importance of conflict between social classes, genders, and generations in African life.

In recent decades, historians have questioned the "tribal" model by investigating inter-regional connections, political institutions, and the multiplicity of social identities which existed in the African past. Historical re has been particularly effective in demonstrating that, far from living in isolated "tribes," Africans developed institutions which maintained political, social and economic relationships across wide regions. Consequently, African identities were shaped by both village life and the world of road and market, and by highly localized concerns as well as inter-regional relationships. This historical re poses a formidable challenge for students of African art history. It not only challenges them to seek manifestations of these aspects of social life in African art, but also forces them to ask whether we should be satisfied with the conventional ethnic or "tribal" classification of African art.

We might expect the "tribal" model of isolated ethnic groups to be nowhere more appropriate than in the great equatorial forest of modern-day Zaire. This vast and densely-vegetated region would appear to be the African environment most likely to impose isolation by impeding travel. Yet, forest peoples were never isolated. Using the great river systems of the Zaire basin as their highways, they maintained vibrant commercial and cultural relationships over wide areas. Drawing upon their common Bantu culture, the peoples of Zaire developed ingenious political institutions. This is well illustrated by the Kuba kingdom, which developed a political system capable not only of bringing about cultural change (its political institutions altered patterns of marriage and increased agricultural productivity), but also of supporting a magnificent artistic tradition. Elsewhere, political authority and commerce were regulated by a remarkable institution called the "drum of affliction," an association devoted to the treatment of certain illnesses which maintained contacts across great distances.

Similar inter-regional networks of trade and political authority existed in southern Africa. One regional system, centered on Mapungubwe, a site located south of the Limpopo River in modern South Africa, maintained trade contacts between the Indian Ocean coast, where Mapungubwe obtained glass beads and other Asian products, and pastoral communities of the eastern Kalahari Desert, where it found the products of cattle-keepers. As its wealth and power increased after 900 AD, Mapungubwe developed a social elite which, as a sign of its status, occupied hill tops and built high stone walls to distinguish its space from that of the common people who lived on lower ground.

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These developments would later be elaborated at Great Zimbabwe, a site in present-day Zimbabwe. Great Zimbabwe became important at about the time Mapungubwe was declining in the early 1200s. Like Mapungubwe, it was apparently a center of both political authority and long distance trade. Its rulers appear to have controlled the export of gold to Indian Ocean ports in modern-day Mozambique and Tanzania. Drawing on the tradition of social signification from Mapungubwe, its rulers built imposing structures, apparently to symbolize their political and religious authority. Yet, we must doubt that this process of creating centers of authority and networks of trade proceeded without dispute and disagreement, for we know that at the shrines where Zimbabweans venerated their ancestral spirits, spirit mediums gave voice to grievances against political leaders who threatened the autonomy of local communities.

The inter-regional networks which grew up around Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe were linked, in turn, to other regional networks. Evidence of one such network comes from a famous burial site in the Zambezi Valley (southern Zambia) at Ingombe Ilede, whose treasures show that in the 14th and 15th centuries, communities traded the mineral wealth of this region, particularly its gold and copper, for products of the wider Indian Ocean world. This trade would later contribute to the rise of the famous Luba states in the savannas just south of Zaire's equatorial forest.

The networks based at Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe also maintained connections with the East African coast. For here, along a coastline stretching from southern Somalia all the way to Mozambique, another remarkable African civilization -- that of the Swahili -- developed from about the 8th century. Moving from their original homeland in northern coastal Kenya, Swahili-speaking seafarers ventured south along the coast, pausing at islands, inlets and sheltered beaches to establish fishing villages which would eventually grow into important trading ports. Between 1000 and 1500 AD, as the trading networks of southern Africa began to send their products to the Indian Ocean coast, the Swahili towns grew larger and much more wealthy. They served as commercial entrepots, attracting products (especially gold and ivory) which would then be sold to Arabian merchants for a variety of prized imports, including cotton cloth, Persian glass beads, and Chinese porcelain. In this way, the Swahili cities became the linchpin between eastern and southern Africa and the Asian trade networks which extended from the Mediterranean to China.

In important Swahili towns such as Lamu in Kenya and Kilwa in southern Tanzania, a wealthy and cosmopolitan culture took shape. Its crowning achievement was stately public and residential architecture which utilized coral stone and mangrove poles. This was a culture which combined local and international elements -- for while Swahili people gloried in their urbane sophistication and embraced the Islamic faith of their Arab trading partners, they also honored eloquence in their own language, created a copious body of Swahili oral epics, and zealously guarded the independence of their small city-states. Their healing practices, political organization and structures of kinship drew much more heavily from their Bantu heritage than from their Arabian and Asian contacts.

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A not dissimilar urban, commercially-oriented culture also developed in West Africa, though here the greatest ports lay not by the sea, but along the southern margins of the Sahara desert. Rather than sheltering ships and seafarers, these West African ports received great camel caravans from North Africa. Yet, Arab and African geographers would have readily recognized the parallels between Indian Ocean ports and the desert-side cities of West Africa. In fact, the Arabic term which they applied to the "Swahili" coast was the very same word with which they referred to the "Sahel" -- the semi-arid West African region stretching along the southern margin of the Sahara. Recently, historians' understanding of these desert-side cities has been revolutionized. For many years, historians had believed that the famous Sahelian cities such as Timbuktu had emerged only after North African traders had established commercial contacts with West Africa from the 8th century AD. In other words, historians believed that North Africans had taken the initiative to open up trade with West Africans.

All of this has changed as the result of recent archaeological re at Djenné in Mali. Djenné was situated advantageously, for aside from its location on the Niger -- a great navigable river rich in fish -- it also lay within the Niger's "inland delta," where annual floods carry moisture and fertile silt onto farmlands. A town had already developed here by the 3rd century BC, and over succeeding centuries would become the hub of a steadily-expanding trade network. Initially, Djenné served as a market for local products from the inland delta and adjacent areas, but by about 400 AD it had begun attracting traders from distant desert and forest regions. Thus Djenné has changed our understanding of West African history by showing that long before Islamic North African merchants began regularly traversing the Sahara, already West Africa had developed trading networks which facilitated exchanges of products from desert, savanna and forest environments.

And yet, while West Africa developed great trading networks whose riches would eventually persuade the merchants of Islamic North Africa to make dangerous desert crossings, West Africans also guarded vigilantly their local autonomy. This was true even though Sahelian West Africa witnessed the rise of successive empires -- Ghana (located not within the modern nation of Ghana, but rather in modern Mauritania and Mali), Mali, Songhay, and Kanem-Borno. Each of these empires was actually founded upon small clusters of villages which, except when royal cavalry forces periodically demanded tribute, remained essentially autonomous. The West African forest and coastal regions stretching from Senegal to Cameroon also produced numerous small states, including Jolof and Waalo in Senegal and Benin in present-day Nigeria. At the same time, however, many societies, including most famously the Igbo communities of southeastern Nigeria, stubbornly resisted political centralization.

Politically decentralized societies were no less capable than states of great cultural achievement. West Africa's artistic traditions demonstrate this, for while a state such as Benin might celebrate its 15th and 16th century rulers in magnificent brass sculptures, and the Yoruba kingdom of Ife in southwestern Nigeria might from the 12th to 15th centuries create a great tradition of naturalistic sculpture in terra-cotta and brass, so too the politically decentralized Igbo produced the fabrics and bronze artifacts which would be buried with a 9th-century notable at Igbo-Ukwu.

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The aspects of African societies which we have discussed in the preceding section encouraged artistic expression and other cultural achievement. Utilizing a diversity of materials made available through inter-regional trade, artists celebrated the aesthetic and ethical values of their societies, including the value which African cultures placed on personal achievement, industriousness, and responsibility. Tragically, however, Africa's extensive trading systems and its predominantly small-scale and decentralized political structures made Africa sadly responsive to European demand for slaves.

Between about 1450 and 1880, roughly twelve million Africans, torn from homes and families from Senegal to Angola, reached the Americas as slaves. Countless others, perhaps millions, died either during the course of enslavement in Africa or en route to the Americas. Most slaves were taken to the plantation and mining regions of the Caribbean and South America; indeed, the tiny sugar-plantation island of Barbados imported as many slaves as the United States. The slave trade reached its peak during the 18th century when American plantation production expanded and over six million slaves reached the Americas. However, the rapid expansion of slavery increased the threat of slave revolt (a threat realized at the end of century when rebellious Haitian slaves established the first African-ruled republic in the Americas), and at the same time made Europeans increasingly aware of the inhumanity of the slave trade. Consequently, led by the British decision in 1807 to abolish its slave trade, most European nations outlawed slave trading during the first quarter of the 19th century. Nevertheless, the slave trade continued on a diminished scale, and about 3.3 million slaves were exported to the Americas after 1800.

Historians have long debated both the causes and consequences of the slave trade, and much disagreement remains. Few scholars would deny that Europeans bear major responsibility. It was they, after all, who purchased Africans and employed them in their American colonies. At the same time, however, historians of Africa have long realized that the slave trade required cooperation between Europeans and Africans. Europeans were prevented, both by African military power and by tropical diseases against which they had no immunological resistance, from invading Africa and kidnapping its inhabitants. Consequently, European slavers relied on African merchants, soldiers and rulers to acquire slaves and make them available for purchase in sea ports. The dominant pattern of enslavement was well described by Olaudah Equiano, who in his 18th-century autobiography described his capture as a young boy in southern Nigeria, and his subsequent sale and resale to a succession of African masters, before finally being sold to Europeans.

Why Africans participated in the slave trade remains one of the most vigorously debated questions in African history. Among the answers which historians have offered are that Africans living in small-scale political units sought to profit by raiding neighboring societies for slaves; that the lack of centralized political authority prevented internecine conflict; that Africans were driven by famine and other disasters to enslave themselves and others; and that, because slavery and slave trading had long existed in much of Africa (though perhaps in forms less brutal than the slavery practiced in the Americas), Africans were untroubled by selling slaves to Europeans. Answering this question leads us to consider not only what was different about Africa, however, but also the qualities of human nature that Africans share with other humans. For, like most human communities, African societies were divided into rich and poor, men and women, powerful and powerless. As in other societies, the powerful often succumbed to the temptation to exploit the weak.

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Only slightly less controversial are the consequences of the slave trade for Africa. Some historians have argued that the slave trade caused devastation, depopulation and political disruption. Others have argued that Africans engaged in this commerce precisely because its harmful effects were minimal. One argument is that the slave trade worsened the condition of women because men were more often exported, leaving women to assume the labor of missing men, and increasing the practice of polygyny. Recent re has suggested that while the slave trade did not cause an overall decline of African population (though certain regions of West Africa indeed suffered loss of population), the slave trade prevented the growth of population which would have occurred otherwise. Consequently, Africa's population in 1850 was only half the size that it would have attained in the absence of the slave trade.

Thus the slave trade can be blamed for having left Africa underpopulated, and for having transferred African labor to the Americas, where it contributed to American, rather than African, economic growth. The slave trade can also be seen as one stage in a very long-term process by which Africa came to be integrated into a European-dominated global economy. For as the slave trade gradually died out after 1807, Africans, rather than breaking their ties with Europe, now employed slaves, who could no longer be sold abroad, in the production of agricultural goods for sale to Europe. One final aspect of the slave trade involves its impact on African thought and morality. Some historians have suggested that the slave trade made African societies more violent, more interested in personal aggrandizement, and less caring about human life. While this issue is important, the scarcity of documentary and oral evidence from the slave trade era leaves historians poorly equipped to address it. Certainly one challenge for students of African art is to consider whether African reflection on their involvement in the slave trade is expressed in art.

Africa's integration into a European-dominated economy has shaped its history since the 1880s. During the last quarter of the 19th century, Europe became increasing interested in exerting direct control over the Africa's raw materials and markets. European heads of state laid down ground rules for the colonial conquest of Africa at the Congress of Berlin in 1884-5. Over the next twenty years, all of Africa except Ethiopia and Liberia was violently conquered, despite many instances of African resistance. The British and French established the largest African empires, although the Portuguese, Belgians and Germans claimed major colonial possessions as well.

Under colonialism, African economies were completely subordinated to the interests of Europe. Africa served primarily as a source of minerals and agricultural commodities, and as a market for European manufacturers. Consequently, colonial rulers made little effort to build diversified economies in their colonies, and introduced little manufacturing. The result is that modern Africa remains almost entirely dependent on external sources of manufactured goods. Because these colonial economies required cheap rather than skilled labor, colonial administrators had little motivation to provide either education or health care for Africans. Indeed, Europeans preferred to employ migrant laborers, who left their rural homes for only relatively brief periods to work in mining or plantation regions, rather than employing permanently urbanized workers. African colonies were governed by quite small corps of European officials; most local-level administration was provided by African employees and appointees of the colonial government. Nevertheless, colonial government was profoundly undemocratic, for public policy was made entirely by European officials, and Africans enjoyed no political rights.

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For most Africans (and this was particularly true for women), the colonial period was deeply frustrating, because they had little opportunity to obtain the new forms of knowledge and economic opportunity which were being introduced by colonialism, and instead were confined to menial, poorly-paid occupations. African frustration was compounded by the inconsistency between, on the one hand, universalistic Christian ideals (for Christianity spread widely during the colonial period, as did Islam) and liberal political ideas which colonialism introduced into Africa, and, on the other hand, the discrimination and racism which marked colonialism everywhere. This discrepancy deepened during the Second World War, when the British and French exhorted their African subjects to provide military service and labor for a war effort which was intended, in part, to uphold the principle of national self-determination. Post-war Africans were well aware that they were being denied the very rights for which they and their colonial masters had fought.

This deepening sense of frustration and injustice set in motion the events which would lead to national independence for most of Africa by the mid-1960s. As the Cold War came to dominate world affairs from the late 1940s, Western Europe worried that its restive African subjects would adopt Communism. This fear was intensified by a series of armed revolts (most notably the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya, but also rebellions against French rule in Algeria, Madagascar, Cameroon), and by the rise of powerful, though non-violent nationalist movements. Persuaded that colonialism could be preserved only through unacceptably costly military and economic investment, more interested in the post-war reconstruction of their own economies, and increasingly confident that a Western-educated African elite would have little sympathy with Communism, the Europeans began to concede independence to Africans in the late 1950s, beginning with the independence of Ghana in 1957 under its charismatic president Kwame Nkrumah.

Although much of the continent was free of colonial rule by the mid-1960s, European domination of southern Africa seemed unshaken until the mid-1970s, when liberation movements in Angola and Mozambique expelled the Portuguese, paving the way for the Zimbabwe liberation struggle which triumphed finally in 1980. Nevertheless, the most brutal and implacable form of white domination in Africa -- South Africa's apartheid regime -- would survive into the 1990s. The historic election of Nelson Mandela as President of South Africa in 1994 marked not only African victory in a long and terror-filled struggle against apartheid, but also the conclusion of the struggle against white rule which dominated African history through the second half of the twentieth century. Thus the dawn of the twenty-first century would bring a new era when Africans would confront persistent economic and political stability, rapid population growth, increasing environmental degradation, and forms of external domination which continued to be exerted by Western governments and financial institutions. Their long history of achievement suggests, however, that they would find ways of overcoming these dilemmas.                                                   Back to top       <Home

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Introduction: Diffusion and other Problems in the History of African States by Prof. James Giblin
A discussion of the following African States:


In the study of the African past, attributing innovation to outside origins and influences has been very common. Sometimes developments are said to be the work of people who came from outside Africa, while other changes are credited to Africans from other regions. The development of states ­ institutions which create centralized government, exercise political authority through bureaucracy and armies, and integrate territories into unified economic systems - is one of the aspects of African history which has frequently been explained in this way. Writers have often claimed, for example, that the idea of the state first developed in Africa among Egyptians during the era of the pharaohs, and thereafter spread to the rest of Africa. Because these explanations remain influential, historians have been particularly interested in what might be called the "pre-history" of African states, that is, the developments which led African societies to create centralized political systems.

Historians and archaeologists have learned a great deal about the developments which preceded the emergence of states in Africa. They can now say with confidence that in most cases, Africans developed states in response to local conditions and opportunities. Rarely does the diffusion of ideas from distant sources seem to have been important in bringing about the formation of a state. Today historians do not think that the history of African states is a story of the spread of influences from Egypt, Europe or Asia into the rest of Africa. Instead, the story they see involves African people living in a great variety of locations who use their political skills and wisdom to create for themselves centralized systems of government.

Besides learning about the local origins of African states, historians have found that states were most likely to arise in regions endowed with fertile soils, abundant rains, lakes or rivers rich in fish, and mineral deposits, and in societies which enjoyed plentiful opportunities to trade. In fact, the four societies discussed below possessed famous traditions of art precisely because they had productive economies and vibrant commercial systems which allowed artists and craft workers freedom from scarcity, and provided access to metals, woods, clays and other media. Finally, historians have also learned that African states created sophisticated institutions of government, although, as has been true in all human societies, greed and love of power have often caused political instability and social crisis. The following sections, therefore, concentrate on the local conditions which led to the creation of states and the creation and destruction of political institutions.

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The Yoruba and the States of Ife and Oyo

The Yoruba-speaking people of southwestern Nigeria are heirs both to an ancient and cultured civilization, and a tragic history. Yoruba culture is known for its artistic triumphs, extraordinary oral literature, complex pantheon of gods, and urban lifestyle. Yet, it is also a civilization which sent millions of its men, women and children to the Americas as slaves. Their numbers and cultural impact were so great that their religion and culture have remained important in modern Brazil and Cuba, and are found today in the cities of the eastern United States. This combination of cultural triumph and human tragedy makes the Yoruba experience one of the most fascinating subjects of historical study in Africa.

The world, say traditions of the Yoruba people, began at Ife, a city of great historical and religious significance in the heart of Yoruba country. The earth was completely covered with water, these traditions tell us, when the Creator, Olodumare, equipped a party of messengers with five pieces of iron, a lump of soil, and a chicken. The party found a site where they could set down the iron, place the soil on it, and allow the chicken to begin spreading the soil with its feet. From this beginning, farm land spread across the world.

While the precise date of initial human settlement in Yoruba country remains unknown, many historians find in these traditions important aspects of early Yoruba history. First, Yoruba tradition can be forgiven for having seen the beginning of Yoruba culture as the creation of the world, for Yoruba culture is indeed old. The language of the Yoruba separated from that of some of their nearest neighbors at least 5000 years ago; from their linguistically most closely-related neighbors, the Igala, they separated 2000 years ago. (The relatively close linguistic relationship between Yoruba and Igala has led some scholars to suggest that Yoruba country may have been settled by migrants who came from the region where the Igala now live, near the confluence of the Niger and Benue rivers.)

Yoruba traditions remind us that farmland was not merely discovered, but was created by agriculturists, and that iron-working must have played a crucial role in its creation. Surely the great achievement of early Yoruba-speaking communities was carving open spaces for farming out of the forests which dominate most of Yoruba country. Probably as long as 2000 years ago, Yoruba agriculturists were already using iron tools. Early farmers would have relied upon the varieties of yams and cocoyams indigenous to West Africa. By about 2000 years ago, farmers would have begun to adopt plantains (bananas) which, having been brought to East Africa from Malaysia, were spreading across the continent.

Just as the evidence available to historians allows them to say relatively little about when and how farming peoples occupied the forests of southwestern Nigeria, so too they are not certain about their early political development. Some historians have suggested that the oldest political communities were villages, and that villages consolidated together to form states. Yoruba traditions, however, speak about the diffusion of kingship from Ife not only throughout Yoruba country, but also to neighboring regions, including Benin (see below). They say that it was the sons of Oduduwa, the leader of the group sent by the Creator to establish land, who dispersed and created kingdoms.

These traditions have led historians to wonder whether they mean that Ife, the place where Oduduwa settled, was also the site of the first Yoruba kingdom. Scholars have long known that besides occupying a central place in Yoruba cosmology, Ife has had great symbolic importance in Yoruba politics. Even though Ife has not in recent centuries held political and military power, one of the ways in which a Yoruba leader won legitimacy in the eyes of subjects and fellow kings was by gaining recognition as a "son" of the king of Ife. Thus the king of Ife was considered the "father" of all legitimate Yoruba kings.

Yet, only in recent decades has archaeological re established the antiquity of Ife beyond doubt. Artifacts from Ife have shown that it has been occupied at least since the 6th century, and that from the 9th to 12th centuries it was "a settlement of substantial size," with houses featuring potsherd pavement. From this period date some of the terracotta sculptures and bronze castings which among students of African art are synonymous with Ife. The most famous Ife terracottas, which are believed to date from the 12th to the 14th centuries, along with the great bronze castings of the 14th and 15th centuries, mark the culmination of an artistic tradition at Ife which was several centuries old.

The study of Ife¹s famous Œbronze¹ castings has reminded historians about the importance of trade in Yoruba history. Finding that the so-called Œbronzes" are in fact composed of either brass or copper, scholars have been led to wonder about the source of the copper used by the artisans of Ife. They have speculated that copper may have reached Ife through trade routes extending to northwest Africa or central Europe. More recently, however, historians have realized that copper may have reached Ife from nearby deposits in southern Nigeria. If so, this would mean that copper was one of the many items, along with cloth, kola nuts, palm oil, fish, and many other goods, which were traded not only among the Yoruba themselves, but also between the Yoruba and their neighbors.

Trade was also a crucial factor in one of the most important political developments in Yoruba history: the rise of the kingdom of Oyo. A settlement at Oyo, which is located in the far north of Yorubaland, already existed about 1100 A.D. It appears to have developed into a small kingdom in the late 14th or early 15th century. Some Yoruba traditions say that Oyo was founded by Oranyan, the son or grandson of Oduduwa; other traditions say that Oyo was founded by Sango, who became the Yoruba god of Thunder and Lightning. Whomever was responsible, its emergence as the dominant political power in Yorubaland occurred in the 17th century, and was hastened by Oyo¹s acquisition of horses. Undoubtedly the horses came to Oyo from savannah and Sahel regions to the north. Oyo traded various goods, including kola nuts and palm products, in return for horses and salt.

Using horses to create cavalry forces, the rulers of Oyo conquered much of Yorubaland in the 17th century, and expanded their empire to its greatest extent when, between 1730 and 1748, they forced the powerful state of Dahomey to the west of Yorubaland to become their tributary. Oyo also took control of the seacoast between Whydah and Badagry, and expanded trade with Europeans. Its merchants sold slaves to Europeans in return for cloth and other goods. Sadly, as exports of slaves from Oyo reached about 20,000 per year between 1680 and 1730, this portion of the West African coast became known as the "Slave Coast."

The empire of Oyo collapsed during the first two decades of the 19th century. The increase of slave-holding likely played an important role. Enslavement had undoubtedly increased as slave trading expanded to meet European demand, and slave-holding probably increased further as a result of the British decision in 1807 to outlaw slave trading, for the gradual decline of European demand reduced the price of slaves, bringing them within the means of local purchasers. The increasing importance of slavery may have helped cause a revolt by an important military commander named Afonja in 1823. Afonja won support by appealing to Oyo¹s enslaved population. A 19th-century history of the Yoruba described Alfonja¹s rebellion in this way: "All the Hausa slaves in the adjacent towns hitherto employed as barbers, rope-makers and cowherds, now deserted their masters and flocked to Ilorin under the standard of AfonjaŠ and were protected against their masters.

With the collapse of Oyo, Yorubaland plunged into protracted warfare, leaving a landscape of ruined towns and huge numbers of refugees and captives. Perhaps 500,000 people migrated from the savannahs of the north, formerly the most densely populated portion of Yorubaland, to the forests and coastal areas of the south, where they founded new towns such as Ibadan and Abeokuta. This catastrophe may have prompted interest in new faiths. Christianity became important during the 19th century, and Abeokuta became the center of Yoruba Christianity. Its spread was largely the work of formerly enslaved Yoruba who returned home from Brazil and Sierra Leone. Internal conflict, however, prevented resistance against European colonial conquest. The British established a protectorate over the port of Lagos in 1861, and forced Ibadan to accept a resident administrator in 1893. Colonialism began a process which eventually would integrate Yorubaland into the Nigerian nation.

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Benin Kingdom

The Benin Empire was located in southern Nigeria, east of Yorubaland and west of the Niger River. It was populated by speakers of a group of closely related languages called Edo. Benin is one of the states of southern Nigeria which claim to have obtained kingship from the Yoruba city of Ife. Archaeological re at Benin has shown, however, that important developments preceded the foundation of the empire. In the countryside around Benin City lies an extraordinary complex of walls, thirty feet high in places and stretching perhaps 10,000 miles in length. Because they are older than the walls of the city which became the capital of the Benin Empire, historians believe that the region was the home of a large population before the emergence of a centralized state.

Historians of Benin believe that its first kingdom developed in the 12th or 13th century. They think, however, that the densely forested region around Benin City was still divided into perhaps several dozen tiny and quarrelsome chiefdoms when, about 1300, it found unity. According to Benin tradition, when the chiefs decided to unify they invited Oranyan (or Oranmiyan) from Ife to become their leader. Oranyan stayed in Benin only long enough to father a child with a daughter of a local chief. Their son, Eweka, is considered the first king, or oba, of Benin. Some historians have suggested that the tale of a marriage between Oranyan and a chiefly family of Benin may conceal the unpleasant truth that Benin was at this time conquered by outsiders who became its rulers.

During the 15th century, the famous Oba Ewuare increased his power by making important reforms. He tried to reduce the influence of the uzama, a body of hereditary chiefs who participated in the selection of the oba, by instituting primogeniture, the rule that a father should be succeeded by his son. He also tried to find a political counterweight to the uzama by creating new categories of chiefs, the "palace chiefs" and "town chiefs" whom he appointed himself. Ewuare is also credited in Benin tradition with having built a monumental system of walls and moats around Benin City. In addition, Ewuare vastly increased the territory under the control of Benin. He and his son, Ozolua, extended the sway of Benin from the Niger River in the east to the eastern portions of Yoruba country in the west.

Ewuare¹s reforms created a government based on checks and balances. It allowed the oba to play off different factions of chiefs against each other as "palace" and "town" chiefs competed with the uzama to gain influence. Yet, while they were appointed by the oba, the "palace" and "town" chiefs kept independent sources of power. Because they collected tribute (paid twice annually in palm oil, yams and other foodstuffs) provided by all the villages and districts to the court, the oba relied on the chiefs for his revenue. Moreover, Benin¹s political institutions created endless opportunities for individuals to compete for advancement through grades of seniority and authority. Even free male commoners enjoyed opportunities for advancement by competing for the chiefly titles awarded by the oba. Slaves, however, were denied these opportunities.

When Portuguese mariners became the first Europeans to visit this part of West Africa in 1486, the obas were able to benefit from trade with them. Ozolua¹s son, Esigie, who ruled from about 1504 to 1550, established close contacts with the Portuguese and, according to some accounts, learned to speak and read Portuguese. The obas established a royal monopoly over trade in pepper and ivory with Europeans. Benin also became an important exporter of cloth. However, Benin prevented the depletion of its own population by prohibiting the export of males slaves during the 16th and 17th centuries, although it did import slaves purchased by Europeans elsewhere in West Africa, and resold some of them to the region which is now Ghana (see section on  below).

Wealthy and powerful obas became the patrons of artists and craftspeople. Ewuare divided Benin City into two wards, one for the palace and the other for guilds of artists and craftworkers. Under Esigie the artists of Benin produced their most famous work. Because trade brought copper and brass into the kingdom, metalworkers were now able to refine techniques of bronze and brass casting which had been known in Benin since the 13th century. They produced a remarkable series of bronze bas-reliefs lining the walls of the oba¹s palace. The bas-reliefs, writes the historian Elizabeth Isichei, "recreate the world of the courtŠ The oba, his regalia, his attendants, a Portuguese hunter with his crossbow, and the bird he has shot, a royal drummer, naked palace attendantsŠ As a record of past events, one is tempted to compare them with the Bayeux tapestry.

Historians have described the century following the death of Esigie in 1550 as a period when the obas withdrew from politics, yet it is not altogether certain that they were unable to influence politics even while remaining behind palace walls. Historians of Benin know relatively little about the kingdom¹s history during the 18th century, although they recognize that slaves supplanted cloth as Benin¹s major export after it abolished the prohibition on slave exports. Yet, they have been able to say little about how the slave trade of the 18th century affected the kingdom¹s economy and society.

The 19th century is often described by historians as a period of steady decline culminating in the conquest of Benin by the British in 1897. Like much of West Africa, Benin¹s economy was disrupted by the decision of the British in 1807 to abolish the slave trade. Meanwhile, militarily formidable Islamic states to the north of Benin posed a new threat; one of them, Nupe, seized control of Benin¹s northern peripheries. To the west, the Yoruba state of Ibadan menaced Benin. As the nineteenth century wore on, European traders also established an increasingly threatening presence.

This context of decline and external menace has been used by historians to explain an infamous aspect of Benin¹s history, the practice of human sacrifice. They have suggested that, faced with dwindling profits from trade and besieged by enemies on all sides, the obas resorted to ritual sacrifice as a way of overawing their subjects. "The intensification of human sacrifice in Benin City from the late 1880s," writes the Nigerian scholar A.I. Asiwaju, "has been interpreted by some as evidence of the desperation of the rulers seeking ritual solution to the political problem of an imminent collapse."

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Much of the modern West African nation of Ghana was dominated from the late 17th through the late 19th century by a state known as Asante. Asante was the largest and most powerful of a series of states formed in the forest region of southern Ghana by people known as the Akan. Among the factors leading the Akan to form states, perhaps the most important was that they were rich in gold. In the 15th and 16th centuries, gold-seeking traders came to Akan country not only from the great Songhay empire (in the modern Republic of Mali) and the Hausa cities of northern Nigeria, but also from Europe. After the Portuguese built the first European fort in tropical Africa at El Mina in 1482, the stretch of the Atlantic coast now in Ghana became known in Europe as the Gold Coast.

Akan entrepreneurs used gold to purchase slaves from both African and European traders. Indeed, while Europeans would eventually ship at least twelve million slaves to the Americas, they initially became involved in slave trading by selling African slaves to African purchasers. The Portuguese supplied perhaps 12,000 slaves to Akan country between 1500 and 1535, and continued selling slaves from Sao Tome and Nigeria to the Gold Coast throughout the 16th century. Before Benin imposed a ban on slave exports (see above), a Portuguese slave trader reported that at Benin they purchased, "a great number of slaves who were bartered very profitably at [El] Mina.

The labor of these slaves enabled the Akan to expand gold production by developing deep-level mining in addition to panning alluvial soils. Even more importantly, slave labor enabled the Akan to undertake the immensely laborious task of clearing the dense forests of southern Ghana for farming. The most prominent historian of Asante, Ivor Wilks, suggests that while some farming on a very limited scale had probably been practiced in the Ghanaian forests for millennia, only when the Akan began importing slaves in the 15th and 16th centuries were they able to shift from an economy which relied primarily on hunting and gathering to one which became primarily agricultural.

As this transition to agriculture took place, Akan communities not only planted more of their traditional crops - plantains, yams, and rice - but also adopted a wide variety of new crops from the Americas, including maize (corn) and cassava, which were brought to Africa by Europeans. Farming led to rapid increase of population in the forest region. As the population grew, small groups migrated across the Ghanaian forest, ing for good farm land. Often these groups were led, believes Wilks, by entrepreneurs who used slave labor to do the initial work of clearing forest. Later, these entrepreneurs would invite free settlers to join them, and in this way new communities were created throughout the forest.

These developments set the stage for state-building in the 17th and 18th centuries. Politically ambitious groups sought not only to establish control over gold production and trading, but also to impose their authority on the new farming communities in the forest. Consequently, formerly independent villages combined together in growing states. Whereas in the late 1500s Akan country contained at least 38 small states, by the mid-1600s it had only a handful, and by 1700 only one state ­ Asante ­ reigned supreme. The events which led to the foundation of Asante began with the rise of Denkyira, a state which waged wars to gain control of the Akan gold trade between 1650 and 1670. These wars led many refugees to flee into uninhabited forest regions. Among the refugees were the clan of Oyoko, who settled at Kumasi, the town which would later become famous as the Asante capital.

Initially the small town of Kumasi had no choice but to become a vassal of powerful Denkyira, a situation which required not only that it pay tribute, but also that it send a hostage to live in the court of the Denkyira ruler as his servant. The chief of Kumasi chose a nephew, Osei Tutu, to become this hostage. According to Akan traditions, after becoming a distinguished general in the Denkyira army, Osei Tutu rebelled against the Denkyira king by refusing to hand over gold booty which he had captured in war. Then Osei Tutu fled home to Kumasi. His action must have marked him as a man of exceptional courage and leadership, for when the Kumasi chief died, probably in the early 1680s, the people of Kumasi selected Osei Tutu as his successor.

Osei Tutu soon expanded his authority, initially by placing the communities within a radius of about fifty miles of Kumasi under his control, and eventually by challenging Denkyira itself. In wars from 1699 to 1701, he defeated the Denkyira king and forced numerous Denkyira subchiefs to transfer their allegiance to Kumasi. In the remaining years before his death in 1717, Osei Tutu consolidated the power of his state. Osei Tutu was succeeded by Opoku Ware, who increased Asante¹s gold trade, tried to reduce dependence on European imports by establishing local distilling and weaving industries, and greatly increased the size of Asante. At his death in 1750, his realm stretched from the immediate hinterland of the Gold Coast to the savannahs of present-day northern . By this time it controlled an area of about 100,000 square miles and a population abbout 100,000 sq miles and a population of two to three million.

As Asante grew, it developed an administrative structure modeled on that of its predecessor Denkyira. Historians sometimes speak about Asante's "metropolitan" and "provincial" spheres. "Metropolitan" Asante consisted primarily of the towns in a fifty-mile radius around Kumasi. The rulers of these towns, many of whom shared membership in the Oyoko clan, participated in the enthronement of Asante kings, served on the king's advisory council, and retained considerable autonomy. By contrast, outlying Akan regions were more clearly subordinate and were forced to pay tribute to the Asante rulers. The most distant districts of the state which were populated by non-Akan people annually sent thousands of slaves to Kumasi." "Opoku Ware and his successors tried to centralize power in the hands of the king, or asantehene. They placed all trade under state agencies controlled by the asantehene, and created a complex bureaucracy to govern and collect taxes. They curbed the power of the military by creating a palace guard whose commanders were chosen by the asantehene himself. Asante achieved a high degree of administrative efficiency (its well-maintained roads, for example, were famous) and the ability to implement sophisticated fiscal policies. Nevertheless, the asantehene and his state always had many opponents. Opoku Ware himself barely survived a revolt by military leaders in 1748, while towns around Kumasi resisted interference by the asantehene¹s bureaucracy. Much of the opposition to the king came from a class of wealthy traders.

The nineteenth century brought new adversaries: British traders and colonial officials who wished to end Asante control of coastal towns and trade routes. Between 1801 and 1824, Asantehene Osei Bonsu resisted the spread of British influence, and led the defense of Kumasi when the British attacked in 1824. Although Asante had exported slaves to the Americas throughout its history, when Europe gradually ended its slave trade in the 19th century Asante was able to compensate for the decline in slave exports by increasing sales of kola nuts to savannah regions to the north. Like virtually all African societies, however, Asante was unable to prevent European colonization. Its independence ended in 1874, when a British force, retaliating for an Asante attack on El Mina two years earlier, sacked Kumasi and confiscated much of its wealth, including its artistic treasures.

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Luba and Kuba

Central Africa witnessed the emergence of important states in both the great forest of the basin of the Zaire River, and the savannah grasslands to the south of the forest. Here we discuss two of these states. First we look at the Luba empire, which arose in the marshy grasslands of the Upemba depression in what is now the southern Democratic Republic of the Congo. We then turn to the Kuba kingdom, which was situated further north, in the forest of the Zaire basin. Both of these societies produced famous traditions of art.

According to an historian of the Luba, Thomas Q. Reefe, the marshy environment of the Upemba depression, the source of the Zaire River, encouraged the formation of a state. It demanded that its inhabitants develop forms of large-scale cooperation if they were to maintain a secure and productive lifestyle. In the Upemba environment of lakes, marshes and river channels, they needed dikes to protect homes against seasonal flooding, drainage channels, and dams to retain lake waters for dry-season fishing. Reefe believes that the need for large-scale cooperation in public works projects led the people of Upemba to develop political unity.

There is no doubt that the inhabitants of the Upemba depression found ways of managing their environment effectively, for archaeological re shows the region has been occupied continuously since at least the 5th century. By the 6th century, fishing people lived on lakeshores, worked iron, and traded palm oil. Soon thereafter, they began trading dried fish to inhabitants of adjacent forest regions who lacked sources of protein. By the 10th century, the people of Upemba had diversified their economy, combining fishing, farming and metal-working. Metal-workers relied on traders to bring them copper and charcoal which they needed in smelting. Traders exported salt and iron items, and imported glass beads and cowry shells from the distant Indian Ocean.

Oral tradition suggests that Luba state formation was associated both with economic diversification and the need for effective government described by Reefe. Two of the characters credited by Luba traditions with having played crucial roles in the creation of states, Nkongolo and Kalala Ilunga, are linked with salt and iron respectively. Traditions say that Nkongolo conquered the original inhabitants of important salt marshes, and that Kalala Ilunga introduced iron-working into Luba society. Kalala Ilunga also seems to have introduced better government, for Nkongolo, the king whom he is said to have overthrown, was a famous drunkard. Historians are not sure whether Nkongolo and Kalala Ilunga were real historical actors or simply mythical characters. They are also unsure when Luba states came into existence, for they may have begun to emerge anywhere between the 15th and beginning of the 18th centuries.

Eventually several Luba kingdoms developed, and trade contributed to their growth. Luba traders linked the Zaire forest to the north with the mineral-rich region in the center of modern Zambia known as the Copperbelt. Copper supplies became so abundant among the Luba that the dead were often buried holding copper crosses. From forest regions to the north came a variety of products, including raffia cloth. The trade routes passing through Luba territory were also connected with wider networks extending to both the Atlantic and Indian Ocean coasts. Ultimately, however, long-distance trade destroyed the Luba kingdoms. In the 1870s and 1880s, traders from East Africa began ing for slaves and ivory in the savannahs of central Africa. Tempted by the lure of quick profits, ruthless warriors began slave raiding and rapidly destroyed the unity of the Luba kingdoms.

One of the trading partners of the Luba was the kingdom of Kuba, located in the forests to the northwest of Luba country. The Kuba state developed east of the confluence of the Sankuru and Kasai rivers, a region whose mixture of forest, savannah and rivers, and variety of vegetation and animal life, attracted settlers from the less diverse forest environment north of the Sankuru. Settlers gradually drifted into the Kuba region between 1000 and 1500 A.D., initially forming small communities. About 1600, a dynamic leader named Shyaam migrated into Kuba country from the west, and established a new kingdom. Throughout the remainder of the 17th century, Shyaam¹s successors increased the size of their realm. They established a government which balanced power among the royal family, aristocrats and the bureaucrats who collected taxes and presided over courts.

The leading historian of the Kuba, Jan Vansina, has shown how the kingdom created a dynamic economy capable of supporting a remarkable artistic culture. During the 17th century, farmers adopted numerous new crops, including maize (corn), cassava, peanuts, sweet potatoes, chili peppers and tobacco, which were brought to Africa from the Americas by European slave traders. For even though the Kuba lived far from the Atlantic ports where Europeans traded, long-distance trade routes brought these crops to them. Like the leaders of modern states, Kuba rulers used taxation to force their citizens to become more productive. Kuba farmers responded by reorganizing their agricultural calendar to allow two or three maize harvests per year, modifying the division of labor between men and women, and allowing men to marry at a younger age. Because unmarried men did not farm, changing the age of marriage drew young men into agricultural work.

Vansina believes that these changes doubled the output of farming communities, and improved the standard of living of the entire Kuba population. Production of an agricultural surplus allowed the Kuba to increase their trade. Not only did they participate in trade networks which reached the Atlantic coast, but also traded with the peoples of the forests to the north and the savannahs of the south, including the Luba. To the Luba they sent cloth, ivory, mats, camwood and smoked meat and fish, and received in return slaves, copper, pottery and medicines. Kuba involvement in commerce continued to increase until they fell under the colonial rule of Belgium in the early 1900s.

Economic growth fostered the development of Kuba art and crafts. As the economy became more productive and diverse, and as the division of labor within it became more elaborate, so too artists and craft workers became specialized and refined their skills. In the manufacture of smoking pipes, for example, some carvers specialized in the bowls of pipes while others concentrated on the stems. At the same time, economic growth made the Kuba elite wealthy and allowed it to patronize fine art. Kings, aristocrats and bureaucrats become consumers of art and patrons of artists and craftspeople. Moreover, taxation and tribute payments brought a great variety of valuable resources from outlying districts to the royal capital, making metals and prized woods available to the artists and craftworkers who lived at the capital under royal patronage.

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