African Empires

The history of Black Africa has attracted far less attention from those interested in the development of the nation-state than from scientists engaged in the study of cultural anthropology. Whether or not this involved a degree of ethnic bias among academicians is subject to considerable debate. We are only now beginning to appreciate the considerable role of African societies in the ascent of man and advance of civilization.

In the study of Western civilization, the northern Africans -- though dark in skin color -- have received greater attention by Western-oriented scholars because of their dominant role among Mediterranean societies and their impact on Eurasian civilization. Among the ancient empire-builders, northern Africans ruled over vast territories from their centers of power in Egypt and Carthage.

During the earliest period of human migrations from northeastern Africa, small groups traveled westward and to the south; others in larger numbers moved northward and eastward. Over tens of thousands of years the descendants of these people formed new tribes, developed distinct languages and inherited individualized physical characteristics that distinguished them in appearance from one another. By 4000 B.C. both the domestication of animals and agriculture were well established in the lower Nile valley and throughout much of northern Africa. Changes in climate forced large numbers of people from this region, leaving only small groups that survived by migratory herding of animals in conjunction with the arrival of dry and wet periods. From around 2000 B.C., when the Sahara region reached the stage of an expanding desert, the southern African population adapted to a tropical existence and established large settlements along the continent's riverbanks and inland lakes. Along the Nile, the Egyptian Pharaohs ruled over a vast, centralized empire that stretched northward from the Nile's tropical origins.

The inhabitants of the Nile valley -- possibly as long as forty centuries before Christ -- cleared the encroaching jungles and drained swamps to establish agriculture. By 4000 B.C. the intermarriage of peoples from several tribal groups resulted in the emergence of what we think of as Egyptian culture. Egyptian merchants gradually became an important factor in Mediterranean commerce, and mining generated much of the wealth upon which the Pharaohs built their dynasties. All of Egypt was claimed as the personal property of the Pharaoh, and the land was dispensed in feudal fashion to the Pharaoh's favorites. At the bottom were the peasants, tied to the land and taxed heavily for the privilege of producing food. Such was the state of Egyptian society that historian Will Durant wondered "that a civilization so ruthless in its exploitation of labor should have known -- or recorded -- so few revolutions." The empire declined after the priests acquired virtual secular power in the twelfth century B.C. A Nubian (Ethiopian) army invaded Egypt from the south in the eighth century B.C., ruling over Egypt until the Assyrians displaced them a century later. Persian invaders soon followed and remained until defeated by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C., after which Alexandria was constructed on the Mediterranean coast and became the Egyptian capital.

One important result of these tribal invasions and wars was that in this part of Africa the cultures of Black Africa, the Arabian peninsula and the Mediterranean interacted and influenced one another in greater or lesser degrees. This long-term contact among the sub-Saharan tribes is thought by some analysts to have brought about the monarchical socio-political structure that swept the adjacent regions. In any event, the pattern of settlement and dependence on agriculture resulted in the warrior-protector dominated hierarchy that arose in similar fashion throughout the Mediterranean and Eurasian tribal societies. The collection of tribute from the producers as well as subversion of their rights under feudal arrangements followed.

What changed the course of history for Africans was, in part, the collapse of the Roman empire, which resulted in a long period of isolation of Europeans from African affairs. Contact was renewed only at the beginning of the European Renaissance by Venetian and other Italian traders after the Crusades. Italian wealth was then employed in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to construct the ocean-going vessels capable of exploiting the possibilities of trade with the peoples of western Africa. The Portuguese, after defeating the Moors, were anxious to secure a foothold on the African continent and in 1415 attacked and captured Ceuta on the Moroccan coast. Spain followed in the sixteenth century; however, the Moors successfully limited their penetration to a few coastal areas. The Portuguese king, John I, appointed his youngest son, Henry, as governor over Ceuta. From this base on the African continent, Henry began an aggressive campaign to explore the Atlantic coast of Africa and in doing so became known as the Navigator.