Africa is the land where the actual human journey started. Be it our genus Homo, or our species Sapiens – it is Africa where our story begins. And yet, when it comes to turning the pages of history books, Africa is often spared just a snippet of words, compared to two nearby land masses close to Africa – Europe and Asia. For example, when we study history in Nepal, we mostly study about Nepal (understandably) and then a bit about the history of Europe, nothing about Africa at all – and I am pretty sure it is the case for other parts of the world too.
This could give a totally distorted picture for people outside Africa that Africa never had anything to talk about, and hence do not have much history of its own. This is where we need to be extra cautious with our surficial understanding of history, specially of the regions different from our own (less featured), and remind ourselves that just because some places do not have a detailed account in written history – that too mostly written by people of other regions – it does not mean the places never had impactful history of their own, since Africa is not only the continent where our human story started, but is also the continent where some of the important human civilizations developed.
The geography of any place plays a huge role in shaping its history and development. Be it the availability of natural resources, suitability for climate or availability of other flora and fauna, geography often shapes where people live and concentrate, where civilizations, cities and empires can form, and how these concentrations come into contact with each other. In terms of geography shaping a place’s history, it is Africa perhaps that has been most influenced by its land structure and placement. Hence, it would be easier to take the route of geography and take its two geographical landmarks to trace both its geography and history, Sahara Desert – the largest dry desert on earth (taking Antarctica, the cold desert, also into account) and Nile River – the longest river on earth.
Sahara, which literally means desert in Arabic, spans across 15 modern day countries in Africa, and would be the fifth biggest country in the world if it were a nation. So, it is no wonder that Sahara has long shaped the story of Africa in history books. Sahara separates the Northern part of Africa from the rest of its landmass. And as Northern Africa is coastal to the Mediterranean, it was the northern part that was much in contact with influential Mediterranean worlds like Greek and Roman, around which much of the history is written. One of the oldest and greatest civilizations on earth also flourished along the Northern part of Africa – the Egyptian Civilization. And it was Africa’s another geographical landmark that shaped the Egyptian civilization – the Nile River. Hence, the Egyptian Civilization, that gave earth the great pyramids, is also referred to as the Nile Valley Civilization.
But Africa had other important civilizations too, beyond the often featured Egyptian civilization and Northern African Kingdoms, and much beyond the great Sahara. D’mt and Axum civilizations in Eastern Africa (modern day Ethiopia, Eritrea region), Ghana and Mali empire in Western Africa, the kingdom of Kongo in Central Africa, and the kingdom of Zimbabwe in Southern Africa are some of the other important civilizations and kingdoms to have developed in Africa.
Trade routes across the Sahara were instrumental for unifying different regions of Africa. These trade routes were pivotal for the economic activities of Africa, as important goods such as gold, salt and ivories were transported across it through the long trains of camels known as caravans. These routes in particular connected the Northern, Eastern and Western part of Africa, facilitating the spread of ideas, culture and religion across these three regions.
When the Islamic empires spread rapidly after the rise of Islam, it had spread across all of Northern Africa too (all up to Spain beyond Mediterranean). And it is through these northern parts the Islamic influence spread even towards western and eastern regions. The eastern coast in part was heavily influenced by the Islamic empires, as it lies close to and almost parallel to the Arabian Peninsula. It thus developed its culture influenced by both Swahili and Arabic cultures. And while the Northern Africa region had more contact with the European Mediterranean regions, the Eastern Africa region had a long trading history with Indian ocean regions like India and Indies, much beyond the Arabian Peninsula.
But it was the Western African region that stirred up the imaginations of Europeans. Although people in Eurasia didn’t know much about Africa beyond the Sahara, they knew one thing in particular – the Western part of Africa was blessed with Gold. The gold extracted from the gold mines of West Africa were traded across Sahara, and through North Africa traded into Europe. And it was because of these vast riches of gold and ability to control its supply, that powerful empires rose in Western Africa.
The first important empire was the Ghana empire, which emerged around 750 AD. However, it was the Mali Empire and its famous emperor Mansa Musa, considered by some historians as the richest person in history, that oversaw their influence across the Sahara. Mansa Musa’s empire was so big and powerful, that he was able to control half of the world’s gold at the time. His capital in particular, the city of Timbuktu, was considered as one of the most prosperous cities on earth.
Much like Northern Africa and Eastern Africa, Western Africa was also influenced by Islam. Islam was also considered as a religion more conducive for trade, as the Islamic law not only lowered the crime rates, but also provided all the traders with a common language (Arabic) and a sense of brotherhood. Therefore, Mali Empire and its emperors like Mansa Musa also followed Islam. Timbuktu, the capital of Mali empire, was considered as the cultural center of Islamic during its peak. Known for its vast libraries and Islamic Universities, Timbuktu was a hub for prominent scholars and artists all across Africa and the Middle East.
The fame of Mansa Musa and the vast riches of Western Africa went far beyond Sahara and even across Mediterranean, which can also be testified by the fact that the most widely used European map at the time – the famous Catalan Atlas issued in the late fourteenth century – had portrayed the image of Mansa Musa in the Western Africa region, holding a huge nugget of gold.
It was the tales of vast riches of gold beyond the desert that stirred the interest of European traders and explorers for long. And it was Portugal, the country on the wrong side of Mediterranean that we talked about in our previous story, that first began exploration of Africa beyond the Sahara.
Prince Henry the Navigator, a Portuguese king known for his interest in navigation, sent explorers from Portugal to venture into the Atlantic, to initially find a route to the Western African Coast, around modern day Senegal. In the process, Portugal discovered two important Atlantic Islands, Madeira in 1419 and Azores in 1427, where they eventually started Sugar Plantations.
During the 1480s, Portugal managed to reach even the Central Africa region, coming in contact with the Kingdom of Kongo (the modern name Congo comes from the Kingdom of Kongo). The Kingdom of Kongo was a powerful kingdom in the Central Africa region. So, the Portuguese chose to be allies with them, spreading Christianity through their Catholic Missionaries. Christianity thus entered inner Africa.
Although the Portuguese could not find as much gold as they had expected so as to extract profit from its trade, they benefited by focusing on another trade, one that would go on to have a far severe impact on human history. The Portuguese decided to trade their guns with the Kingdom of Kongo in exchange for the slaves captured by the kingdom in war. The slaves were used not only in their own Sugar Plantations, but also traded far across for profits.
It is here we need to digress a little and talk about the origin of Slavery. No, the Portuguese or Europeans for that matter, did not start Slavery. Slavery has long been part of the human history, long since the ancient days of Pyramids, to the days of Jesus, to the days of Islamic empires. But it was the European-led slavery that had the biggest impact in history, even till today, which is why the European-led slave trading in Africa is often associated with slavery.
Slavery was to take its extensive form, like never known as before, in a land never known before. And that was to happen because of further explorations down the road that was to come next.
Remember, the ultimate goal for Portuguese and the Europeans was to find the sea routes to the Indie – the land of Spices and the ultimate path to riches. And that ultimate breakthrough would come in 1487 when the Portuguese were finally able to round the edge of Africa. The Portuguese explorers first called that edge Cape of Storms, as the edge experienced heavy storms due to its close proximity to the meeting point of the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean. The edge was later renamed as the Cape of Good Hope, as it was the cape that gave Portuguese the hope that the sea access to the Indies – the much coveted land of spices – was possible.
Finally, in 1498, a Portuguese exploration team led by Vasco De Gama reached the coast of Calicut in the Southern tip of India. And hence the route to connect the East through sea was discovered.
Portugal’s Iberian neighbor Spain was not to be left behind. It also soon followed the exploration race and discovered the Canary Islands in the Atlantic. In fact, Spain discovered the route to India or the Indies even before Portugal. Or at least, they thought so at first!
As Portugal had a strong hold of the African ports, the Spaniards had to engineer a different way to discover their route to the East. And it was a certain Italian descent explorer who helped Spaniards in engineering this new route. Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer who believed he could find the route to the East from Europe by sailing towards the West, rather than circumventing Africa. Although the knowledge that earth was round was a common knowledge then, it was still considered as an outrageous idea to sail towards the West to reach the East, for no one knew how long it would take to reach East going West, or even what lay in between.
When Portugal passed the opportunity to sponsor the trip of Christopher Columbus, he reached out to the Spanish Monarchs, writing to them a letter with the words “Concerning the lands of India, and a Prince called Gran Khan.”
Thus, in 1492, with the promises to reach the land of Indies and the great eastern kingdom of Great Khan, Columbus led a team of Spanish explorers to find the East by sailing toward the West. And it was when he finally landed on an island, that he believed he had found the route to the Indies for Spain, even before the Portuguese and Vasco De Gama in 1492.
The new found land was an island known as San Salvador, present-day Bahamas, and the new found land would later be known as the New World.
Before venturing forward with what happened with the journey of Columbus when he landed on this new found land, it is at this point where we need to pause a little and contemplate on the word ‘discovery’. Was it really a ‘discovery’ when Christopher Columbus found the ‘new world’? Or even further, was the new found land actually a ‘New World’ at all?
Next up, we learn about the ‘New World’, before continuing to find out what happened with the journey of Columbus.