Africa has often been referred to as the cradle of world civilization. Well, that’s some great profile, right? Over time,the continent has been home to great Empires and complex civilizations. Not only that, Africa is well known for its rich biodiversity driving its economy and preserving our planet Earth. It’s quite sad that all that is now forgotten black history. One question often asked is why Africa? Going down memory lane, the continent has experienced the rise and fall of numerous Empires and dynasties. Ancient African history began with the early men. Since it’s been recorded that many parts of the Continent were surrounded by harsh environments, the earliest men were forced to move inland towards the areas around the Nile Valley. This is the very dawn of civilization itself.
Time has radically altered the rich historical and cultural heritage of the Black race. From the Ancient period of the Egyptian Pharaohs, down to our modern day era, we have constantly seen changes to Mother Africa.
This Article focuses on some of the fundamental events that shaped and distorted African history especially the early African Civilization, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Colonialism, The Civil Rights Struggle in the United States of America and of course, and the Policy of Apartheid in South Africa. The article also focuses on reminding us of our forgotten Black history.
Talking about civilization, we need to ask ourselves how mankind came about. We all know what scientists like Charles Darwin have told us on the evolution of mankind. The early man is said to be very primitive but it didn’t just end there. He has constantly evolved and this resulted into civilization itself. It’s quite interesting to note, that the earliest civilization began in Africa, but more importantly, the need to also know how and where it all began is more compelling. The earliest men were mostly nomadic and scavengers of food. By the 10th Millennia, most of their Nomadic lifestyles had been replaced by early African culture.
One of the earliest civilizations that graced Africa began in Egypt around the Nile Valley area. They introduced early agriculture and further developed their societies into organized complex structures. With time, these complex societies led to inventions like writing – known as hieroglyphics. By 3150 BC, Egypt had been unified by a ruler called Menes, leading to the first kingdom of Egypt.
The first kingdom paved the way for more advanced civilization led by the Pharaohs. They built massive pyramids, traded with other kingdoms and assembled huge armies. During the new Kingdom roughly around 1550 BC, Egypt expanded as far south as the Kingdom of Kush – sometimes known as Nubia- actively involved in trade. It remained a strong power until conquered by the Persians, Greeks and later the Romans.
The Kingdom of Kush
While Egypt is generally seen as the foundation of civilization in Africa, one cannot ignore the existence of other notable ancient kingdoms that equally contributed to the story. One of them is the Kingdom of Kush – also known as Nubia- which lay south of Egypt. The Kingdom of Kush, lasted over 1,400 years after gaining independence from Egypt.
The Kingdom of Kush was very similar to Ancient Egypt in many ways including government, culture, and religion. Like the Egyptians, the Kushites built pyramids at burial sites, worshiped Egyptian gods, and mummified the dead. The ruling class likely considered themselves Egyptian in many ways.
Gold and Iron were the most important resources present in the Kingdom of Kush. They traded these with other kingdoms especially with the Egyptians making them very wealthy. Also, they used iron to make weapons to defend their nation.
Like the Egyptians, religion played an important role in the lives of the Kushites. They believed strongly in the afterlife. Outside of the Pharaoh and the ruling class, the priests were the most important social class in Kush. They made the laws and communicated with the gods.
Another prominent empire was Axum. Located in the modern day Ethiopia, and well known as a major trade center. Merchants would travel from central Africa, Persia, India, and Egypt bringing their goods to Axum. It had access to several different trade routes including major waterways like the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Nile River.
Axum was one of the more advanced cultures of ancient Africa. They developed a written language and minted their own coins. They also developed terraced farming and irrigation, making their land more productive. Due to its location and role in international trading, the culture turned out to be a blend of many throughout the region. They were majorly influenced by the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Arabs. However, after 325 CE, Christianity became the primary religion and consequently had a major influence on the culture as well.
Axum wasn’t left out in the area of architecture and art. Unlike their northern neighbors of Egypt, they did not build pyramids. Instead, Axum is famous for building tall towers elaborately carved with inscriptions.The most famous of these towers is the Obelisk of Axum which was one of the looted artifacts by Italian soldiers upon conquering Ethiopia in 1937. Egypt, Kush and Axum weren’t the only civilizations to develop in early Africa.
Nok was also one of the prominent early African civilizations. It flourished during the Iron Age around South-Western Africa – modern day Nigeria-. Famous for its distinctive terracotta sculptures of human figures and perhaps the first known culture to produce such art and perfect iron smelting technology. The remains of some iron-smelting furnaces were discovered at Taruga alone (55 km southeast of Abuja, Nigeria). Durable iron tools such as hoes, hand-axes were put to good use to boost agricultural efficiency.
Nok farmers were able to grow crops (which were represented in terracotta). Nok art, and culture in general, is believed to have influenced later cultures in the Niger River forest areas, notably Igbo-Ukwu and Ife. Certainly, the discovery of the fine artworks produced by the Nok culture provided a helpful precedent that convinced any lingering doubters that the works of those later cultures were indeed that of indigenous black Africans.Other notable civilizations include the Songhai, Mali, Ife, Oyo, Benin and the Central African Empires.
The Pre-Slavery Era
The peoples of Africa had a rich Cultural history long before European slavers arrived. They had a broad varieties of political arrangements within the kingdoms and city-states, each with its own distinct languages and culture. Cities like Timbuktu had been centuries-old. Timbuktu, best known for its prestigious Sankore University, which attracted scholars from all over the world. With an estimated enrollment of twenty five thousand students, Timbuktu become the headquarters of Islamic intellectual development in Africa.
The Songhai Empire, the kingdoms of Mali, Benin, the great Zimbabwe and Kongo were all large, and powerful with monarchs heading the complex political structures governing hundreds of thousands of subjects.
Art, learning and technology flourished and Africans were especially skilled in subjects like medicine, mathematics and astronomy. As well as domestic goods, they made fine luxury items in bronze, ivory, gold and terracotta for local use and trade.
Early, in the 16th Century, the major European powers started colonizing the Americas and other territories. They set up numerous plantations where the labor force comprised of paid workers. With the growing demand for European raw materials for European industries, the plantations swelled in number and size. This spelled the need for a larger and cheap labor force. They turned their attention to Africa where it was pretty easy to secure slaves who were equally pretty cheap and easy to acquire anyway.
The major slave trading nations like the British and French Empires built forts on the African coasts from where they traded in slaves. They often purchased slaves who at first were mostly prisoners of war, others were kidnapped and taken away. Most of the Slaves were kept under horrific conditions and shipped to the Americas or islands in the Mediterranean. This trend continued into the 17th Century. By now, plantation owners wanted more slaves for labor in order to satisfy the ever increasing demand for sugar, cotton and other cash crops in Europe. This gave birth to the infamous Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
One would agree that whenever the issue of slave trade springs up, the European Slave traders are heavily blamed. We sometimes fail to realize that African Chiefs at the time were equally culpable, many grew rich from the proceeds of the slave trade. Slavery was largely prevalent in many parts of Africa for several centuries even before the Europeans arrived. But the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was the most horrific, and the largest in volume and intensity. The African Continent was indeed bled of its human, mineral and natural resources via all possible routes.
It resulted in a vast and still unknown loss of life for African Captives. Millions lost their lives as a result of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The brutal and savage nature of the trade led to the destruction of African individuals and cultures. The historian Milton Meltzer placed the overall mortality rate at 12.5 percent. The deaths were a resultant effect of the brutal treatment meted out on the Africans. They were packed into tight unsanitary spaces on ships for months at a time. The conditions onboard also resulted in the spread of diseases causing a great deal of deaths during the long voyage.
The presence of European Slavers affected the manner in which the legal code in African societies responded to offenders. Offenses originally punishable by other forms of punishment became punishable by enslavement or sale to slave traders. By the 18th Century, the number of persons exported as slaves swelled immensely, resulting in depopulation in many parts of the Continent. Manikongo Nzinga Afonso, fearing that someday there would be no able bodies men and women to carry on with procreation in his kingdom, promptly wrote to the King João III of Portugal to send Missionaries only, rather than Slavers with merchandise to the Kongo State.
Abolition of Slavery
Any reasonable man would expect that the oppressed and downtrodden would always stand up to the oppressor someday. Well, that was the case with Africans. In Britain, America, Portugal and other parts of Europe, opposition began to grow against the slave trade. Crusaders like William Wilberforce worked tirelessly to bring slavery to an end. Denmark was the first to abolish it in 1803, Britain followed in 1807. The British Royal Navy Squadron was very instrumental in bringing Slavery to an end. They achieved this by arresting and detaining many ships carrying slaves. The United States of America equally passed laws which eventually abolished it in 1865 at the end of her Civil War.
The European Colonialists decided to rule Africa for a number of reasons which includes; the search for riches, Imperialism, Religion, and perhaps the desire to exploit the rich biodiversity and mineral resources present in Africa.
Life under Colonialism generally for Africans was tough. They suffered serious discrimination as a result of the ideologies behind imperialism. It has been argued that the poverty still experienced today in many parts of Africa are as a result of the lasting effects of Colonialism. This is in sharp contrast to the flourishing kingdoms of old Africa.
At the Berlin conference of 1885, major European powers selfishly partitioned the African continent among themselves without a single African in attendance. Africans had no say in how they wanted to be governed. They used their African colonies for their own selfish gains.Exploiting the mineral resources –Gold from the Gold Coast (modern day Ghana),Diamonds from Sierra Leone and South Africa and even petroleum from Nigeria. What about the constant poaching that has depleted our diverse wildlife? Hundreds of thousands of elephants and other wildlife were slaughtered for ivory, their skins, bones and a lot more. It is evident that the industrial revolution of Western Europe was majorly sponsored by the Africa.
At least, a million Africans were sent to the front lines, fighting on the side of the Allied Powers during the world wars. But what did they get in return? Absolutely nothing.
By the end of World War II, Pro-independence Africans, realizing it was time to stand up for their right to self rule, started the agitation for self rule from the Colonialists. Some established their own Churches, others formed associations and political movements to champion their cause. Eventually, the struggle paid off and Africa was free.
One can never imagine the horrendous events that marred the history of South Africa.The most brutal forms of racial discrimination in the world took place there. Existing policies on segregation were already in place, the whites only government only needed to enforce these policies through a system of legislation which became known as Apartheid (an Afrikaans word for apart).
Non-white South Africans –especially blacks,the majority of the population- were forced to live in separate areas from the Whites, forced to make use of separate public facilities and there was little contact between the two groups. By 1950, marriages and sexual relations between the whites and people of other colors had been banned. Series of land laws set aside more than 80 percent of the country’s land to the minority Whites. Non-whites were required to carry a pass at all times in restricted areas. The government also limited the activities of labor unions and non-whites were not allowed participation in the national government.
Opposition to Apartheid
The policies of Apartheid became so harsh, the non-whites were forced to act. This started with peaceful protests to armed resistance. In 1952, the South Indian National Congress together with the African National Congress organized a mass meeting.Attendees burned their passbooks there. The meeting was broken up and at least 150 persons were arrested and charged for Treason by the government. Another incident occurred in 1960 at Sharpeville claiming the lives of at least 65 Persons.
By 1961, most resistance leaders had been sentenced to long prison terms or executed. Nelson Mandela, the founder of the military wing of the ANC –the African National Congress- was imprisoned from 1963 to 1990. His incarceration helped garner international attention and support against the system.The United Nations General Assembly denounced it in 1973, the UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo on South Africa and in 1985, the United Kingdom and the United States of America imposed economic sanctions on South Africa. The year 1989 ushered in F. W. de Clerk’s government which repealed most of the legislation forming the legal basis for Apartheid. Consequently, Nelson Mandela was released from jail. A new constitution which enfranchised blacks and other racial groups, took effect from 1994 and fresh general elections ushered in a new government led by Nelson Mandela, marking an official end to Apartheid.
The American Civil Rights Struggle
The typical African American life has not always been what it is today. For so many years, Africans and people of African descent have suffered harsh racial, social discrimination at the hands of whites all over the world. The descendants of former slaves in North America were not an exception to this degrading treatment.
During the Reconstruction of America, blacks took on prominent leadership roles like never before. Well, as expected, majority of white American especially in the South, were unhappy that people they had once enslaved were now on an equal footing with them. In order to suppress the blacks, “Jim Crow” laws were introduced in the South in the late 19th century. This sparked the racial segregation in America. Almost every facility, service and opportunities like housing, schools, transportation, medical care et al, were set aside along racial lines. Signs were used to indicate where Non-whites could legally walk, talk, eat, drink, rest or live.Even the U.S. Armed forces had Black Units separated from the whites. Segregation further deepened in the South by 1896, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared that facilities for blacks and whites could be separate but equal.
A Ray of Hope
By the end of World War II -during which many Black men and women fought heroically, several movements for the actualization of racial equality began to spring up. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., played a vital role which would place him at the fore front of the Civil Rights struggle. Several protests like the Boycott of the Montgomery Bus System, led to the Supreme Court ruling which outlawed segregated seating.
In 1954, the civil rights movement gained momentum when the United States Supreme Court made segregation illegal in public schools in Brown v. Board of Education. Other notable dividends of the Civil Rights struggle would the promulgation of the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Assassination of Civil Rights Leaders
The Civil Rights Struggle suffered tragic consequences when some of its leaders notably Malcolm X and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were murdered. These events however did not reverse the progress made.By 1968,the Fair Housing Act was Passed into law,prohibiting housing discrimination based on race, sex, national origin and religion. It was also the last legislation of the civil rights era. As a result of the struggle, people like former President Barack Obama, Judge Constance Baker Motley, Mohammed Ali – to mention a few- have all broken racial barriers and rewritten black history in America.
How did time change the history of Africa?
The arrival of Europeans on the shores of Africa distorted its historical heritage in many ways. The Slave trade made a mockery of the pride of African citizens, making the Europeans seem superior. If there was no slave trade, perhaps there wouldn’t be any talk of segregation in America. If the Europeans had not come to Africa, we probably would not have experienced Apartheid.
Colonialism didn’t come alone -it came along with Christianity, Western Education and Technological advancements -. It is common knowledge that it had some positives like the introduction of technological innovations, western education, medical science – but the negatives far outweighed the positives. A great deal of African children today do not speak their mother tongue. Rather, Africans fully embrace the culture of the white man. What happened to our very own African traditional institutions? Where are the moral values passed from our ancestors?
What happened to our rich and forgotten black history? Consider the beautiful artifacts stolen from our continent by the Europeans. The story of the white men who torched the kingdom of Benin and looted thousands of its precious artworks to pay for their expeditions. The theft of the Benin bronze sculptures has became a symbol of everything Nigeria lost to the British colonialism. Should these and thousands of other stolen artifacts not be reparated to Africa? What about the natural resources drained from the land?
Africa has lost a great deal of its diverse species, as a result of poaching and indiscriminate felling of trees. It’s funny to think that Africa, which was once in harmony with nature will now need laws to prevent practices that dishonor nature. Ironically, from a Western perspective, the Europeans were doing Africans a favor, but it is quite obvious that they have done more harm than good. Even as we remember our forgotten Black history, we should also be working to address these problems on their own terms and no one else’s.