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West Africa before the Europeans

There were many forms of government in Africa before Europeans knew it, ranging from powerful empires to decentralised groups of pastoralists and hunters. In West Africa, archaeological excavations at Old Jenne (modern Djenné, in Mali) have uncovered a sophisticated urban settlement dating from the 3rd century BC. The ancient kingdom of Ghana was based on the gold trade and flourished from at least as early as the 8th century AD. In the Middle Ages much of modern Senegal and Mali was governed by a confederation of states known as the Mali empire.
Map of early African kingdoms - opens new window
West Africa in 1600

Precious Metals and Arab Traders

West Africans developed an extensive self-contained trading system, based on skilled manufacture. From the 8th century Muslim traders, from North Africa and Arab countries, began to reach the region. Gradually, communities began to convert to Islam. By the end of the 11th century some entire states, and influential individuals in others, were Muslim. At the same time, West African trade slowly expanded towards Egypt and possibly India.

Arab traders were known to have taken West Africans as slaves for many years. However, it was gold that really excited them. Arabic texts mention that from the late 8th century Ghana was considered 'the land of gold'. Mali also possessed great wealth. In 1324-5, when Mansa Musa, its emperor, made a pilgrimage to Mecca, he took so much gold with him that in Egypt, which he also visited, the value of the metal was debased.

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Early Travel Writers

Glossary - opens new windowPliny the Elder wrote about Africa around AD 77. His accounts of the region fascinated later travellers. These explorers in turn wrote their own volumes about their travels to inform the wider world about Africa and its riches. Accounts by African writers such as Ibn Battuta also survive. According to the historian John Iliffe, the narrative of the Arab geographer Al-Bakri tells of the scene at the royal court of Ghana: 'Behind the king stand ten pages holding shields and swords decorated with gold, and on his right are the sons of the [vassal] kings wearing splendid garments and their hair plaited with gold.'


Old Benin was the forest kingdom of the Edo-speaking people. From the early 15th century, the Oba (ruler) of Benin, Ewuare, built up a powerful standing army and expanded Benin towards the Niger Delta and Lagos in the west. The Oba was head of government and established a well-structured society. He collected taxes and owned all the land in the country.

Brass plaque showing the Oba of Benin - opens new window
Oba Surrounded by Attendants
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Ivory Mask worn by the Oba - opens new window
Ceremonial Oba Mask
The people of Benin were highly skilled in the art of making figurines and heads of bronze, brass, copper and ivory, usually in honour of the Oba. Masks played an important role in rituals to ensure the well-being and prosperity of the Edo people.
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The African Conquest of Europe

As early as the 8th century, contact between Africa and Europe increased dramatically with the conquest of Spain and Portugal by Muslim forces from North Africa (and also, later, from Northwest Africa), called Glossary - opens new windowMoors by the Spanish. Their leader was Tarik Ibn al-Walid, who also gave his name to a rocky island off the southern tip of Spain - 'Jabal [mount of] Tarik', or Gibraltar, as it is now known.

The Moors extended their influence via trade into northern Europe. Their political power was centred at Córdoba, which became one of the most important Islamic cultural centres. They were scholars, engineers and also great builders (consequently, Moorish architectural influence is visible in many parts of Spain today). Islamic political power ended in 1492, however, with the conquest of Granada by the Catholic monarchy.

Whilst our knowledge of ancient Africa is sparse, documents uncovered in Portuguese archives have revealed maps of West Africa made before the mass European enslavement of the people. Portuguese explorers travelled along and plotted the West African coast from the 14th century, although the picture of the interior of the region at this time remains unclear.

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References and Further Reading

Ade Ajayi, J. F. and Crowder, M. (eds), Historical Atlas of Africa, Essex and Nigeria, 1985

Connah, G., African Civilizations: An Archaeological Perspective, Cambridge, 2001

Iliffe, J., Africans: The History of a Continent, London, 1995

Shillington, K., History of Africa, London, 1989

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