The emergence of states in Africa, 1000 – 1500



The period from 1000 – 1500 saw the emergence of states over much of Africa, crucially assisted by the need to control and secure trading routes and by the wealth which flowed from them. The spread of trade often went hand with the dissemination of Islam. By 1500, sub-Saharan Africa states had made their first contact with European explorers.

This period saw two principal developments in Africa: the spread of Islam and the emergence of organized states throughout the continent. In many places these were linked. By 1000 the Maghreb (northwest Africa) had been in Islamic hands for over three centuries. Between 1000 and 1500 Islam spread south: up the Nile into the Christian kingdoms of Nubia; along the northern and eastern coast of the Horn; and across the Sahara into the states of the “Sudanic belt”, stretching from the Senegal to the Nile.

Musa Mansa and the map of west Africa

Muslim merchants crossed the Sahara with caravans of camels which regularly made the hazardous journey from trading depots on either edge of the dessert, such as Sijilmassa, south of the Atlas Mountains, and Walata in Mali. This dangerous trade carried luxury goods (and, in time, firearms) and salt to the black African lands of the south. In exchange, leather-work, slaves and gold went northwards; by 1250 the economies of both the Muslim Middle East and Christian Europe depended to a great extent upon African gold.

The states of western Africa

Although the beginnings of urbanism in the Sudanic belt can be traced as far back as the last centuries BC, expanding trans-Saharan gave an impetus to the growth of states. Two of the earliest of these were Ghana and Mali. Ghana, an essentially African polity, which flourished from the 8th to the 11th century, was established in the area north of the Senegal and Niger rivers, far from the modern state which has taken its name. Its successor, Mali, extended from the Atlantic across the great bend of the Niger. In 1324 the Mali king Mansa Musa went on pilgrimage to Mecca, and is said to have taken so much gold with his retinue that he caused inflation in Cairo.

The empire of Mali gave way to that of Songhay, centred on the Niger cities of Gao and Timbuktu. East of Mali lay the city states of Hausaland, some of which – Zaria, Kano, Katsina – became extremely prosperous, although they never united to form a single state. Further east was Kanem, founded by desert people to the east of Lake Chad. Their rulling dynasty, the Kanuri kings, retained authority until their final overthrow in the 19th century.

Sunni Ali of Songhay

By the late Middle Ages, at the time of crisis in western Europe, the black kingdoms of the western and central Sudan flourished. A number of African kings, among them Mansa Musa and Sunni Ali (of Songhay), enjoyed renown throughout Islam and Christendom for their wealth, brilliance and the artistic achievements of their subjects. Their capitals were large walled cities with many mosques and at least two, Timbuktu and Jenne, had universities that attracted scholars and poets from far and wide. Their power derived from a mixture of military force and diplomatic alliances with local leaders; their prosperity was based on control of rich local resources; their bureaucracies administered taxation and controlled trade, the life-blood of these empires.

African continent in 15th century

To the south of the Sudanic states, Hausa and Malinke merchants traded among the peoples on the edge of the tropical forests, especially in the gold-producing regions.  The prosperity this trade brought led, by 1500, to the foundation of many forest states, such as Benin. Around this time, also, the first contacts occurred with Portuguese sailors exploring the west African sea lanes.

The states of east and central Africa

In the east, after the decline of Aksum, the centre of political power in Christian Ethiopia shifted southwards, first under the Kushitic-speaking Zagwe dynasty in the 11th century and then, in the 13th century, under the Amharic-speaking Solomonids who later clashed with the Muslim coastal states of the horn of Africa, notably Adal.

Traders approaching the city Timbuktu in Mali

Along the east coast there arose a string of Muslim city states. Kilwa Kisiwani, with its handsome mosques and palaces, prospered as the entrepôt for the gold of Zimbabwe, brought via Sofala. The arrival of the Portuguese there in 1498 marked the beginning of European encroachment in this lucrative system of oceanic trade.

Meanwhile, in the interior of the southern half of the continent, many other African peoples coalesced to form states. These processes are best known in two regions: the upper Lualaba where wealth was accumulated in the form of metal, and south of the Zambezi where, from the 10th century, prosperous cattle-herders gave rise to the polity that was centred at Great Zimbabwe. Other states, many of them Bantu-speaking, emerged in the region south of the lower Congo river, and in the area between the great lakes of east Africa.

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One Response to The emergence of states in Africa, 1000 – 1500

  1. Joshua says:

    This is a very nice one keep it up

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