African History and the Atlantic:  An Introduction to Sources and Historical Problems

A noteworthy introductory survey on African history is the UNESCO General History of Africa.  This series was distinguished by the editorial inclusion of African historians who produced new paradigms for the study of African historiography.  Recommended as supplemental reading to the Chapters 9-10 in Tignor, are  Hrbek, ed., General History of Africa:  Volume III.  Africa from the Seventh to the Eleventh Century. (James Currey / UNESCO, 1992);  J. Ki-Zerbo and D.T. Niane, eds., General History of Africa:  Volume IV.  Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century. (James Currey / UNESCO, 1992).  For later periods see  J.F. Ade Ajayi, ed. of Vol. VI, Africa in the Nineteenth Century until the 1880s;  and A. Adu Boahen, editor of Vol. VII, Africa under Foreign Domination 1880-1935.  This series set forth new paradigms that differed with the approach found by a collection of British historians in the Cambridge History of Africa series.

The Iron Age Confederations of South Central Africa

The spectacular and important confederation of town and village complexes that arose in Southern Africa   around the end of the 10th century CE are remarkable for the development of their agricultural, architectural and artistic production. Some of these sites lasted into the 14th and a few into the 17th century before they were abandoned for complex reasons and disruptions caused by the advent and arrival of the Portuguese on the East African coast.   The best preserved of these palace urban complexes with evidence of extensive agriculture, animal husbandry, mining and metalworking is at the complex of the Great Zimbabwe.  As we are mostly reliant upon archaeology for our knowledge of this civilization we'll explore the Global Heritage Network site, the UNESCO World Heritage guide and the guide.  There were other important sites in the region, including the sites of  the ruins of Khami, Zimbabwe near the Bulawayo that was built during the Torwa Dynasty.  For a survey of some of the material art and culture of these civilizations, use the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Mande and the Great Mali Empires in West Africa

After the rise of Islam Networks of trade  reached the great  Malian states and kingdoms  in the Sahel region south of the Sahara desert.  These included the Ghana, Mali, and Songhai empires. High advances in metallurgy and and richly mined deposits of salt, gold, copper and other metals led to the rich development of arts and commodities for trade across the Sahara  to the markets of the Arab cities on the Mediterranean. Commercial contact with Islamic cities to the north influenced conversion of these regions to Islam and a created a syncretetism of African and Islamic traditions. The most famous rulers of the Malian kingdoms was Sundiata (the Lion King) and a later ruler Mansa Musa, whose rich caravan and pilgrimage to Cairo and Mecca circa 1324-25 revealed the unprecedented wealth and status of the Mali empire. Upon his return to Mali he financed and authorized the building of the enormous adobe mosques at Jenne and Timbuktu. These spectacular mosques reflect the use of local materials and decorations that also reflected the extensive support and importance of these institutions in their communities.  We'll use the Archnet internet databases to study these mosques and read reports.

The Spread of Islam in Africa 700-1500 C.E.

The diffusion of Islam into Africa occurred through several separate phases of development.  The initial spread of Islam into Egypt and across North Africa occurred between the late 7th century and early 8th century.  Egypt was conquered by Arabs and converted to Islam between 639 and 642.  Cairo fell to Muslim pressure by about 641.  Muslim armies and merchant based missionaries migrated swiftly across North Africa and gained support for Islam across the entirety of North Africa between 685 to 715.

The spread of Islam across the Sahara to the Sahel, the West African states to East Africa, developed through merchant contacts and long-distance caravan routes of traders to the Arab Muslim cities of northern Africa.  By the 11th century, the Senegalese coastal region converted to Islam as had large areas of the Sahel across to the Sudan.  By the late 13th and 14th centuries, large well established cities in the Sahel and Mali had large Muslim institutions.  The building of large prominent mosques in Timbuktu and other cities in Mali reflect this development.  These West African cities and kingdoms flourished from the prosperous trade in gold, salt, and various metal wares produced by the region.  However the rise of an overland slave trade to northern markets was also present and preceded the introduction of mass slavery in the 16th century.

Among the most prominent of mosques was the Great Mosque of Timbuktu, also known as Djingarey Ber Mosque and originally built in 1327.  This mosque is an example of the Sudano-Sahelian style of building, that is credited to the influence of the Malian king Mansa Musa (r. 1312–37) who upon a return from a pilgrimage to Mecca retained and brought back the architect al-Sahili.

Modern Slavery and its Impact on Western and Central African Kingdoms

The impact of Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and British slave trading and forts along the West and Central African coasts profoundly altered African social and political structures.  The initial intervention of the Portuguese in the 15th century undermined the Trans-Saharan gold trade and production of the Malian kingdom as the markets were diverted toward the coast.  The expansive system of Portuguese trading and buying of favors from local African chiefs enabled the use of internal civil war to procure slaves from rival African societies of the interior.

Portuguese subjugating themselves before the King of the Kongo (referred to as Manikongo by the Portuguese), in order to gain slaves.  Source: 


Map  by Audrey L. Brown, Ph.D., National Park Service. Based on data in David Eltis, “The Volume and Structure of the Transatlantic Slave Trade: A Reassessment,” The William and Mary Quarterly, January 2001. 

Other recommended general survey texts for a discussion of Africa in this period include:

I. Hrbek, ed., General History of Africa:  Volume III.  Africa from the Seventh to the Eleventh Century. (James Currey / UNESCO, 1992)
J. Ki-Zerbo and D.T. Niane, eds., General History of Africa:  Volume IV.  Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century. (James Currey / UNESCO, 1992)

Studies of the history of slavery in Africa is still and underdeveloped field of scholarship.  Some of the more recent works on the subject include:

Paul E. Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa (Cambridge University Press, 2000).  Lovejoy examined how African slavery evolved from from the 15th century.  He begins with a discussion of the rise of the slave trade to Islamic city markets during the Middle Ages and into the early modern period.  He also challenged the notion that African slavery was itself benign or that slaves exposed to internal conditions of African slavery did not automatically become assimilated by the enslaver.  Instead he proposes that African kingdoms that became integrated within the expansive Atlantic slavery system were structurally integrated within modern capitalist slavery.