Empires and Unification

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Empires and Unification


Multi-Ethnic and Multi-Cultural Kingdoms. The large empires of West Africa facilitated trade and political and cultural exchanges among a diverse population. These empires also encouraged millions of people to transcend territorial limits imposed by ethnicity and other primordial ties. Some kingdoms and empires were created through the initiative of a particular ethnic group, but ultimately most of these political entities were a mosaic of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. In some cases, conquered peoples were assimilated by their conquerors. They adopted the cultures, languages, and religions of their rulers. In many cases, however, conquered peoples were allowed to maintain local authority while paying tributes to the new imperial rulers and acknowledging their overlordship. These peoples usually retained not only their political institutions but also their cultures, languages, and religions. The centralized administrative systems instituted by some

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West African states were a means of unifying such disparate peoples.

Socio-Economic Development. While West African states—Ghana, Mali, Songhai, Bornu, Benin, Kebbi, and many others—differed greatly in size and influence, they had several common features. Most were well organized. High officials were appointed to fulfill specific roles or to govern particular territories. Various strategies were devised to raise revenues for running the political systems, including import and export taxes, tributes, and land taxes. Many of the empires that emerged in West Africa from about 750 to 1590 placed a high premium on education. Naturally captivated by the wealth, majesty, and military prowess of the Songhai Empire when he visited in 1513, Leo Africanus also observed the intense demand for learning inTimbuktu and other major West African cities. In Timbuktu, he said, “more profit is made from the book trade than any other line of business.” The empires actively promoted economic development. A variety of economic activities—such as iron smelting, cloth and basket weaving, gold works, agriculture, animal husbandry, fishing, and bronze production—were undertaken to spur growth and development. The general peace and stability engendered by the large West African states facilitated long-distance trade interactions, which in turn promoted economic development in most parts of the region. As a result of such interactions, the large political systems became the birthplaces of new ideas, new technologies, and novel production methods.

Diplomacy. West African states maintained extensive diplomatic contacts. For instance, Mansa Musa, who ruled the Empire of Mali in 1312-1337, opened diplomatic relations with Egypt and Morocco. His pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, his active promotion of Islamic learning, and his close relationship with Muslim scholars helped to establish Mali as a bona fide Islamic state in the eyes of the Muslim leaders of North Africa and the Middle East, enhancing the diplomatic relationship of Mali with the outside world. Sometimes, diplomatic exchanges were facilitated through military victories. In other cases, princes and other royalty from defeated states were held hostage to prevent uprisings against conquerors. For example, Mansa Musa’s soldiers captured two Songhai princes, Ali Kohlen and his brother, and held them hostage to ensure the good behavior of their conquered Songhai people.

The Enslavement of Africans. Between the middle of the fifteenth century and the end of the sixteenth century several factors came together to end the era of prosperity and stability. Berber incursions into West Africa disrupted the trans-Saharan caravan trade and ultimately led to the fall of the Songhai Empire in 1591, while the arrival of Europeans along the southern coastline of West Africa shifted the focus of trade, as well as the locus of power, from the great inland states to the coastal region, where Europeans soon found it more profitable to deal in human

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cargo than in commodities and natural resources. The transatlantic slave trade, through which Europeans, for hundreds of years, captured, enslaved, and transported millions of Africans to the Americas, had a profound impact on the African continent, creating devastation and economic stagnation for Africa and leaving the continent underdeveloped. The process began about 1441 when Antam Goncalvez of Portugal took Africans from the west coast of the continent and gave them to Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal as gifts. Subsequently, other African captives were taken to Europe as household slaves for wealthy Europeans. The voyages of Christopher Columbus, and other European adventurers to the Americas, led to a great demand for labor with which to extract the huge wealth of the Americas. Europeans eventually settled on using Africans as slaves to cultivate sugarcane, tobacco, and cotton and to dig gold and silver. The Portuguese writer Gomes Eannes de Azurara described a group of African captives brought to work on sugar plantations in southern Portugal on 8 August 1444:

Some among them were tolerably light in color, handsome and well-proportioned; some slightly darker; others a

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degree lighter than mulattoes, while several were as black as moles, and so hideous both of face and form as to suggest the idea that they were come from the lower regions. But what heart so hard as not to be touched with compassion at the sight of them! Some with downcast heads and faces bathed in tears as they looked at each other; others moaning sorrowfully, and fixing their eyes on heaven, uttered plaintive cries as if appealing for help to the Father of Nature. Others struck their faces with their hands and threw themselves flat upon the ground. Others uttered a wailing chant after the fashion of their country. … But their anguish was at its height when the moment of distribution came, when of necessity children were separated from their parents, wives from their husbands, and brothers from brothers. Each was compelled to go wherever fate might send him. It was impossible to effect this separation without extreme pain….

Centuries of profitable exploitation of African labor enhanced European industrialization and economic development while greatly retarding the development of Africa.


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