History of Africa

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Africa is an enormous continent with a complex history... or some apt generalization about African history here

The following article is an outline of African history. Following the article is a list of articles about the history of particular places in Africa.

Origins of the Name

The word Africa was applied originally to the country in the immediate neighbourhood of Carthage, that part of the continent first known to the Romans, and it was subsequently extended with their increasing knowledge, till it came at last to include all that they knew of the continent. The Arabs still confine the name Ifrikia to the territory of modern Tunisia.

Phoenician and Greek colonization

The valley of the lower Nile was the home in remotest antiquity of a civilization. Egyptian culture had, however, remarkably little direct influence on the rest of the continent, a result due in large measure to the fact that Egypt is shut off landwards by immense deserts.

If ancient Egypt and Ethiopia be excluded, the story of Africa is largely a record of the doings of its Asiatic and European conquerors and colonizers, Ethiopia being the only state which throughout historic times has maintained its independence. The countries bordering the Mediterranean were first exploited by the Phoenicians, whose earliest settlements were made before 1000 B.C. Carthage, founded about 800 B.C., speedily grew into a city without rival in the Mediterranean, and the Phoenicians, subduing the Berber tribes, who then as now formed the bulk of the population, became masters of all the habitable region of North Africa west of the Great Syrtis, and found in commerce a source of immense prosperity.

Both Egyptians and Carthaginians made attempts to reach the unknown parts of the continent by sea. Herodotus relates that an expedition under Phoenician navigators, employed by Necho, king of Egypt, c. 600 B.C., circumnavigated Africa from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, a voyage stated to have been accomplished in three years. Apart from the reported circumnavigation of the continent, the west coast was well known to the Phoenicians as far as Cape Nun, and c. 520 B.C. Hanno, a Carthaginian, explored the coast as far, perhaps, as the Bight of Benin, certainly as far as Sierra Leone. A vague knowledge of the Niger regions was also possessed by the Phoenicians.

Meantime the first European colonists had planted themselves in Africa. At the point where the continent approaches nearest the Greek islands, Greeks founded the city of Cyrene (c. 631 B.C..) Cyrenaica became a flourishing colony, though being hemmed in on all sides by absolute desert it had little or no influence on inner Africa. The Greeks, however, exerted a powerful influence in Egypt. To Alexander the Great the city of Alexandria owes its foundation (332 B.C.), and under the Hellenistic dynasty of the Ptolemies attempts were made to penetrate southward, and in this way was obtained some knowledge of Ethiopia.

Neither Cyrenaica nor Egypt was a serious rival to the Carthaginians, but all three powers were eventually supplanted by the Romans. After centuries of rivalry for supremacy1 the struggle was ended by the fall of Carthage in 146 B.C. Within little more than a century from that date Egypt and Cyrene had become incorporated in the Roman empire. Under Rome the settled portions of the country were very prosperous, and a Latin strain was introduced into the land. Though Fezzan was occupied by them, the Romans elsewhere found the Sahara an impassable barrier. Nubia and Ethiopia were reached, but an expedition sent by the emperor Nero to discover the source of the Nile ended in failure. The utmost extent of geographical knowledge of the continent is shown in the writings of Ptolemy (2nd century A.D.), who knew of or guessed the existence of the great lake reservoirs of the Nile and had heard of the river Niger.

Still Africa for the civilized world remained simply the countries bordering the Mediterranean. The continual struggle between Rome and the Berber tribes; the introduction of Christianity and the glories and sufferings of the Egyptian and African Churches; the invasion and conquest of the African provinces by the Vandals in the 5th century; the passing of the supreme power in the following century to the Byzantine empire--all these events are told fully elsewhere.

North Africa conquered by the Arabs

In the 7th century of the Christian era occurred an event destined to have a permanent influence on the whole continent. Invading first Egypt, an Arab host, believers in the new faith of Islam, conquered the whole country from the Red Sea to the Atlantic and carried the Crescent into Spain. Throughout North Africa Christianity well-nigh disappeared, save in Egypt (where the Coptic Church was suffered to exist), and Upper Nubia and Ethiopia, which were not subdued by the Moslems.

In the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries the Arabs in Africa were numerically weak; they held the countries they had conquered by the sword only, but in the 11th century there was a great Arab immigration, resulting in a large absorption of Berber blood. Even before this the Berbers had very generally adopted the speech and religion of their conquerors. Arab influence and the Mahommedan religion thus became indelibly stamped on northern Africa. Together they spread southward across the Sahara. They also became firmly established along the eastern sea-board, where Arabs, Persians and Indians planted flourishing colonies, such as Mombasa, Malindi and Sofala, playing a role, maritime and commercial, analogous to that filled in earlier centuries by the Carthaginians on the northern sea-board. Of these eastern cities and states both Europe and the Arabs of North Africa were long ignorant.

The first Arab invaders had recognized the authority of the caliphs of Bagdad, and the Aghlabite dynasty--founded by Aghlab, one of Haroun al Raschid's generals, at the close of the 8th century--ruled as vassals of the caliphate. However, early in the 10th century the Fatimite dynasty established itself in Egypt, where Cairo had been founded A.D. 968, and from there ruled as far west as the Atlantic. Later still arose other dynasties such as the Almoravides and Almohades. Eventually the Turks, who had conquered Constantinople in 1453, and had seized Egypt in 1517, established the regencies of Algeria, Tunisia and Tripoli (between 1519 and 1551), Morocco remaining an independent Arabized Berber state under the Sharifan dynasty, which had its beginnings at the end of the 13th century.

Under the earlier dynasties Arabian or Moorish culture had attained a high degree of excellence, while the spirit of adventure and the proselytizing zeal of the followers of Islam led to a considerable extension of the knowledge of the continent. This was rendered more easy by their use of the camel (first introduced into Africa by the Persian conquerors of Egypt), which enabled the Arabs to traverse the desert. In this way Senegambia and the middle Niger regions fell under the influence of the Arabs and Berbers, but it was not until 1591 that Timbuktu--a city founded in the 11th century--became Moslem. That city had been reached in 1352 by the great Arab traveller Ibn Battuta, to whose journey to Mombasa and Quiloa (Kilwa) was due the first accurate knowledge of those flourishing Moslem cities on the east African sea-boards. Except along this sea-board, which was colonized directly from Asia, Arab progress southward was stopped by the broad belt of dense forest which, stretching almost across the continent somewhat south of 10 deg. N., barred their advance as effectually as had the Sahara that of their predecessors, and cut them off from knowledge of the Guinea coast and of all Africa beyond. One of the regions which came latest under Arab control was that of Nubia, where a Christian civilization and state existed up to the 14th century.

For a time the Moslem conquests in South Europe had virtually made of the Mediterranean an Arab lake, but the expulsion in the 11th century of the Saracens from Sicily and southern Italy by the Normans was followed by descents of the conquerors on Tunisia and Tripoli. Somewhat later a busy trade with the African coast-lands, and especially with Egypt, was developed by Venice, Pisa, Genoa and other cities of North Italy. By the end of the 15th century Spain had completely thrown off the Moslem yoke, but even while the Moors were still in Granada, Portugal was strong enough to carry the war into Africa. In 1415 a Portuguese force captured the citadel of Ceuta on the Moorish coast. From that time onward Portugal repeatedly interfered in the affairs of Morocco, while Spain acquired many ports in Algeria and Tunisia.

Portugal, however, suffered a crushing defeat in 1578 at al Kasr al Kebir, the Moors being led by Abd el Malek I. of the then recently established Sharifan dynasty. By that time the Spaniards had lost almost all their African possessions. The Barbary states, primarily from the example of the Moors expelled from Spain, degenerated into mere communities of pirates, and under Turkish influence civilization and commerce declined. The story of these states from the beginning of the 16th century to the third decade of the 19th century is largely made up of piratical exploits on the one hand and of ineffectual reprisals on the other. In Algiers, Tunis and other cities were thousands of Christian slaves.

But with the battle of Ceuta Africa had ceased to belong solely to the Mediterranean world. Among those who fought there was one. Prince Henry "the Navigator," son of King John I, who was fired with the ambition to acquire for Portugal the unknown parts of Africa. Under his inspiration and direction was begun that series of voyages of exploration which resulted in the circumnavigation of Africa and the establishment of Portuguese sovereignty over large areas of the coast-lands.

Cape Bojador was doubled in 1434, Cape Verde in 1445, and by 1480 the whole Guinea coast was known. In 1482 Diogo Cam or Cao discovered the mouth of the Congo, the Cape of Good Hope was doubled by Bartholomew Diaz in 1488, and in 1498 Vasco da Gama, after having rounded the Cape, sailed up the east coast, touched at Sofala and Malindi, and went thence to India. Over all the countries discovered by their navigators Portugal claimed sovereign rights, but these were not exercised in the extreme south of the continent.

The Guinea coast, as the first discovered and the nearest to Europe, was first exploited. Numerous forts and trading stations were established, the earliest being Sao Jorge da Mina (Elmina), begun in 1482. The chief commodities dealt in were slaves, gold, ivory and spices. The discovery of America (1492) was followed by a great development of the slave trade, which, before the Portuguese era, had been an overland trade almost exclusively confined to Mahommedan Africa. The lucrative nature of this trade and the large quantities of alluvial gold obtained by the Portuguese drew other nations to the Guinea coast. English mariners went thither as early as 1553, and they were followed by Spaniards, Dutch, French, Danish and other adventurers. Much of Senegambia was made known as a result of quests during the 16th century for the "hills of gold" in Bambuk and the fabled wealth of Timbuktu, but the middle Niger was not reached. The supremacy along the coast passed in the 17th century from Portugal to Holland and from Holland in the 18th and 19th centuries to France and England. The whole coast from Senegal to Lagos was dotted with forts and "factories" of rival powers, and this international patchwork persists though all the hinterland has become either French or British territory.

Southward from the mouth of the Congo to the inhospitable region of Damaraland, the Portuguese, from 1491 onward, acquired influence over the Bantu-Negro inhabitants, and in the early part of the 16th century through their efforts Christianity was largely adopted in the native kingtom of Congo. An irruption of cannibals from the interior later in the same century broke the power of this semi-Christian state, and Portuguese activity was transferred to a great extent farther south, Sao Paulo de Loanda being founded in 1576. The sovereignty of Portugal over this coast region, except for the mouth of the Congo, has been once only challenged by a European power, and that was in 1640-1648, when the Dutch held the seaports.

Neglecting the comparatively poor and thinly inhabited regions of South Africa, the Portuguese no sooner discovered than they coveted the flourishing cities held by Arabized peoples between Sofala and Cape Guardafui. By 1520 all these Moslem sultanates had been seized by Portugal, Mozambique being chosen as the chief city of her East African possessions. Nor was Portuguese activity confined to the coast-lands. The lower and middle Zambezi valley was explored (16th and 17th centuries), and here the Portuguese found semi-civilized Bantu-Negro tribes, who had been for many years in contact with the coast Arabs. Strenuous efforts were made to obtain possession of the country (modern Zimbabwe) known to them as the kingdom or empire of Monomotapa, where gold had been worked by the natives from about the 12th century A.D., and whence the Arabs, whom the Portuguese dispossessed, were still obtaining supplies in the 16th century. Several expeditions were despatched inland from 1569 onward and considerable quantities of gold were obtained. Portugal's hold on the interior, never very effective, weakened during the 17th century, and in the middle of the 18th century ceased with the abandonment of the forts in the Manica district.


At the period of her greatest power Portugal exercised a strong influence in Ethiopia also. In the ruler of Ethiopia (to whose dominions a Portuguese traveller had penetrated before Vasco da Gama's memorable voyage) the Portuguese imagined they had found the legendary Christian king, Prester John, and when the complete overthrow of the native dynasty and the Christian religion was imminent by the victories of Mahommedan invaders, the exploits of a band of 400 Portuguese under Christopher da Gama during 1541-1543 turned the scale in favour of Ethiopia and had thus an enduring result on the future of North-East Africa. After da Gama's time Portuguese Jesuits resorted to Ethiopia. While they failed in their efforts to convert the Ethiopians to Roman Catholicism they acquired an extensive knowledge of the country. Pedro Paez in 1615, and, ten years later, Jeronimo Lobo, both visited the sources of the Blue Nile. In 1663 the Portuguese, who had outstayed their welcome, were expelled from the Ethiopian dominions. At this time Portuguese influence on the Zanzibar coast was waning before the power of the Arabs of Muscat, and by 1730 no point on the east coast north of Cape Delgado was held by Portugal.

It has been seen that Portugal took no steps to acquire the southern part of the continent. To the Portuguese the Cape of Good Hope was simply a landmark on the road to India, and mariners of other nations who followed in their wake used Table Bay only as a convenient spot wherein to refit on their voyage to the East. By the beginning of the 17th century the bay was much resorted to for this purpose, chiefly by English and Dutch vessels.

In 1620, with the object of forestalling the Dutch, two officers of the East India Company, on their own initiative, took possession of Table Bay in the name of King James, fearing otherwise that English ships would be "frustrated of watering but by license." Their action was not approved in London and the proclamation they issued remained without effect. The Netherlands profited by the apathy of the English. On the advice of sailors who had been shipwrecked in Table Bay the Netherlands East India Company, in 1651, sent out a fleet of three small vessels under Jan van Riebeek which reached Table Bay on the 6th of April 1652, when, 164 years after its discovery, the first permanent white settlement was made in South Africa. The Portuguese, whose power in Africa was already waning, were not in a position to interfere with the Dutch plans, and England was content to seize the island of St Helena as her half-way house to the East3.

In its inception the settlement at the Cape was not intended to become an African colony, but was regarded as the most westerly outpost of the Dutch East Indies. Nevertheless, despite the paucity of ports and the absence of navigable rivers, the Dutch colonists, freed from any apprehension of European trouble by the friendship between Great Britain and Holland, and leavened by Huguenot blood, gradually spread northward, stamping their language, law and religion indelibly upon South Africa. This process, however, was exceedingly slow.

During the 18th century the slave trade reached its highest development, the trade in gold, ivory, gum and spices being small in comparison.

European Explorers in Africa

Although the Napoleonic wars distracted the attention of Europe from exploratory work in Africa, those wars nevertheless exercised great influence on the future of the continent, both in Egypt and South Africa. The occupation of Egypt (1798-1803) first by France and then by Great Britain resulted in an effort by Turkey to regain direct control over that country,5 followed in 1811 by the establishment under Mehemet Ali of an almost independent state, and the extension of Egyptian rule over the eastern Sudan (from 1820 onward). In South Africa the struggle with Napoleon caused Great Britain to take possession of the Dutch settlements at the Cape, and in 1814 Cape Colony, which had been continuously occupied by British troops since 1806, was formally ceded to the British crown.

Meantime considerable changes had been made in other parts of the continent, the most notable being--the occupation of Algiers by France in 1830, an end being thereby put to the piratical proceedings of the Barbary states; the continued expansion southward of Egyptian authority with the consequent additions to the knowledge of the Nile. The city of Zanzibar, on the island of that name, founded in 1832 by Seyyid Said of Muscat, rapidly attained importance. Accounts of a vast inland sea, and the discovery in 1848-1840, by the missionaries Ludwig Krapf and J. Rebmann, of the snow-clad mountains of Kilimanjaro and Kenya, stimulated in Europe the desire for further knowledge.

At this period, the middle of the 19th century, Protestant missions were carrying on active propaganda on the Guinea coast, in South Africa and in the Zanzibar dominions. Their work, largely beneficent, was being conducted in regions and among peoples little known, and in many instances missionaries turned explorers and became pioneers of trade and empire. One of the first to attempt to fill up the remaining blank spaces in the map was David Livingstone, who had been engaged since 1840 in missionary work north of the Orange. In 1849 Livingstone crossed the Kalahari Desert from south to north and reached Lake Ngami, and between 1851 and 1856 he traversed the continent from west to east, making known the great waterways of the upper Zambezi. During these journeyings Livingstone discovered, November 1855, the famous Victoria Falls, so named after the queen of England. In 1858-1864 the lower Zambezi, the Shire and Lake Nyasa were explored by Livingstone, Nyasa having been first reached by the confidential slave of Antonio da Silva Porto, a Portuguese trader established at Bihe in Angola, who crossed Africa during 1853-1856 from Benguella to the mouth of the Rovuma.

H. Miles Stanley, who had in 1871 succeeded in finding and succouring Livingstone, started again for Zanzibar in 1874, and in the most memorable of all exploring expeditions in Africa circumnavigated Victoria Nyanza and Tanganyika, and, striking farther inland to the Lualaba, followed that river down to the Atlantic Ocean--reached in August 1877--and proved it to be the Congo.

While the great mystery of Central Africa was being solved explorers were also active in other parts of the continent. Southern Morocco, the Sahara and the Sudan were traversed in many directions between 1860 and 1875 by Gerhard Rohlfs, Georg Schweinfurth and Gustav Nachtigal. These travellers not only added considerably to geographical knowledge, but obtained invaluable information concerning the people, languages and natural history of the countries in which they sojourned.9 Among the discoveries of Schweinfurth was one that confirmed the Greek legends of the existence beyond Egypt of a pygmy race. But the first discoverer of the dwarf races of Central Africa was Paul du Chaillu, who found them in the Ogowe district of the west coast in 1865, five years before Schweinfurth's first meeting with the Pygmies; du Chaillu having previously, as the result of journeys in the Gabun country between 1855 and 1859, made popular in Europe the knowledge of the existence of the gorilla, perhaps the gigantic ape seen by Hanno the Carthaginian, and whose existence, up to the middle of the 19th century, was thought to be as legendary as that of the Pygmies of Aristotle.


Partition among European Powers

In the last quarter of the 19th century the map of Africa was transformed. After the discovery of the Congo the story of exploration takes second place; the continent becomes the theatre of European expansion. Lines of partition, drawn often through trackless wildernesses, marked out the possessions of Germany, France, Great Britain and other powers. Railways penetrated the interior, vast areas were opened up to civilized occupation, and from ancient Egypt to the Zambezi the continent was startled into new life.

The causes which led to the partition of Africa may now be considered. They are to be found in the economic and political state of western Europe at the time. Germany, strong and united as the result of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, was seeking new outlets for her energies --new markets for her growing industries, and with the markets, colonies. Yet the idea of colonial expansion was of slow growth in Germany, and when Prince Bismarck at length acted Africa was the only field left to exploit, South America being protected from interference by the known determination of the United States to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, while Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain already held most of the other regions of the world where colonization was possible.

For different reasons the war of 1870 was also the starting-point for France in the building up of a new colonial empire. In her endeavour to regain the position lost in that war France had to look beyond Europe. To the two causes mentioned must be added others. Great Britain and Portugal, when they found their interests threatened, bestirred themselves, while Italy also conceived it necessary to become an African power. Great Britain awoke to the need for action too late to secure predominance in all the regions where formerly hers was the only European influence. She had to contend not only with the economic forces which urged her rivals to action, but had also to combat the jealous opposition of almost every European nation to the further growth of British power. Italy alone acted throughout in cordial co-operation with Great Britain.

It was not, however, the action of any of the great powers of Europe which precipitated the struggle. This was brought about by the ambitious projects of Leopold II, king of the Belgians. The discoveries of Livingstone, Stanley and others had aroused especial interest among two classes of men in western Europe, one the manufacturing and trading class, which saw in Central Africa possibilities of commercial development, the other the philanthropic and missionary class, which beheld in the newly discovered lands millions of savages to Christianize and civilize. The possibility of utilizing both these classes in the creation of a vast state, of which he should be the chief, formed itself in the mind of Leopold II even before Stanley had navigated the Congo. The king's action was immediate; it proved successful; but no sooner was the nature of his project understood in Europe than it provoked the rivalry of France and Germany, and thus the international struggle was begun.

Conflicting ambitions of the European powers

King Leopold's ambitions have already been indicated. The part of the continent to which from the first he directed his energies was the equatorial region. In September 1876 he took what may be described as the first definite step in the modern partition of the continent. He summoned to a conference at Brussels representatives of Great Britain, Belgium, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy and Russia, to deliberate on the best methods to be adopted for the exploration and civilization of Africa, and the opening up of the interior of the continent to commerce and industry. The conference was entirely unofficial. The delegates who attended neither represented nor pledged their respective governments. Their deliberations lasted three days and resulted in the foundation of "The International African Association," with its headquarters at Brussels. It was further resolved to establish national committees in the various countries represented, which should collect funds and appoint delegates to the International Association. The central idea appears to have been to put the exploration and development of Africa upon an international footing. But it quickly became apparent that this was an unattainable ideal. The national committees were soon working independently of the International Association, and the Association itself passed through a succession of stages until it became purely Belgian in character, and at last developed into the Congo Free State, under the personal sovereignty of King Leopold.

For some time before 1884 there had been growing up a general conviction that it would be desirable for the powers who were interesting themselves in Africa to come to some agreement as to "the rules of the game," and to define their respective interests so far as that was practicable. Lord Granville's ill-fated treaty brought this sentiment to a head, and it was agreed to hold an international conference on African affairs.

The Berlin Conference of 1884-85

The conference assembled at Berlin on the 15th of November 1884, and after protracted deliberations the "General Act of the Berlin Conference" was signed by the representatives of all the powers attending the conference, on the 26th of February 1885. The powers represented were Germany, Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, the United States, France, Great Britain, Italy, Holland, Portugal, Russia, Sweden and Norway, and Turkey, to name them in the alphabetical order adopted in the preamble to the French text of the General Act. Ratifications were deposited by all the signatory powers with the exception of the United States. It is unnecessary to examine in detail the results of the labours of the conference. The General Act dealt with six specific subjects: (1) freedom of trade in the basin of the Congo, (2) the slave trade, (3) neutrality of territories in the basin of the Congo, (4) navigation of the Congo, (5) navigation of the Niger, (6) rules for future occupation on the coasts of the African continent. It will be seen that the act dealt with other matters than the political partition of Africa; but, so far as they concern the present purpose, the results effected by the Berlin Act may be summed up as follows. The signatory powers undertook that any fresh act of taking possession on any portion of the African coast must be notified by the power taking possession, or assuming a protectorate, to the other signatory powers. It was further provided that any such occupation to be valid must be effective. It is also noteworthy that the first reference in an international act to the obligations attaching to "spheres of influence" is contained in the Berlin Act.

From 1885 the scramble among the powers went on with renewed vigour, and in the fifteen years that remained of the century the work of partition, so far as international agreements were concerned, was practically completed.


Text from 1911 encyclopedia. Please update as needed.

Some history of Africa from about 1885-2000. Not added by an expert, but this history ends too soon.

1900's. Conflict between the UK and Dutch settlers. The Boer War.

Relationship to "Victorian Era" in the UK.

1940's. Pre-WW2 and World War Two in Africa.

North Africa. Deutche Africa Korps. Tank warfare in the desert.
Importance of Egypt to the UK.
US invasion of Algeria.

1940's -- 1990's. Apartheid in South Africa.

Conflict between Afrikaans-speakers and English-speakers.
Establishment of "homelands".
South African military efforts in Angola.
International trade sanctions.
Conflict between ANC and Zulu factions.
End of Aparteid and establishment of new constitution.

1960's. De-colonialization of much of sub-Saharan Africa.

See historical African place names for names not used in present-day states.

Central Africa

Eastern Africa

Northern Africa

Southern Africa

Western Africa

Highlights of this section: History of Egypt

                           Colonization of Africa 

For convenience Africa has been divided into subregions using the present-day political boundaries. However the linked pages are not restricted to the history of the present-day states. To link to a topic that doesn't have an obvious focus within one of the regions below, create a link here at the top level and/or link it within multiple region pages.

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