History of Sub-Saharan Africa
is thought that the earliest evolutionary ancestors of humanity
developed in Africa, perhaps learning to stand upright in order to see
over the tall grass of the savannah. The first evidence of homo
sapiens can be dated to 150,000-100,000 years ago.
*The oldest known civilisation in Africa was that of Egypt, which
appeared about 3100 BC. Although it was more involved in the
Middle East and the Mediterranean world than with Sub-Saharan Africa,
Egypt did have contact with the civilisation of Kush.
*The area known as Kush, or Nubia, was around the Upper Nile (in what
is now Sudan), and was inhabited by a series of city-states and
kingdoms since at least 2600 BC. Eventually Kush extended farther
south, to take advantage of iron deposits and wood to fuel blast
furnaces and become one of the first major users of iron in Africa.
*Eventually, parts of Kush (or Nubia) were taken over by the Roman
Empire, and the last remnants were probably conquered by the Kingdom of
Axum (based in northern Ethiopia) around 350 AD.
*The Kingdom of Axum began about 500 BC, and lasted until about 1200
AD, although most later Emperors of Ethiopia (including the current
royal house in exile since 1974) claimed descent from the Kings of
Axum, and through them, from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
*Axum had long had trading ties with the Middle East and with certain
Jewish communities there, especially in Yemen, and Ethiopia still has
Jewish communities who fled there during various times of persecution,
and many Ethiopian Christians follow dietary laws similar to the Kosher
laws of Orthodox Judaism.
*The majority of the Kingdom of Axum converted to Christianity about
325 AD, and Ethiopia has remained a traditionally Christian nation
since then although most of the countries around it later were
converted to Islam (making the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church
the oldest church in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the only major
pre-colonial church). Ethiopia is famous for its monolithic
churches—11 churches cut entirely from one giant rock each. Today
the Ethiopian Church claims to have the Ark of the Covenant in its
*Except for a brief period between 1936 and 1941, Ethiopia would remain
an independent country, and often a very important on in African
politics, although drought, poverty, and civil wars have changed this
since the 1970s.
*In the 700s and 800s, Islam began to spread to Africa, both across the
Sahara Desert and along the east coast of Africa, as Moslem traders
carried their religion with them. By the 1200s and 1300s, Islam
was widespread in much of Northern and Eastern Africa.
*West Africa, a fertile region that had relatively easy trade with
Europe, developed the Ghana Empire about 700 AD. It grew rich on
trade (and taxes on trade) and on the rich deposits of gold found in
the region—later European explorers would call the area south of Ghana
the ‘gold coast.’ Ghana allowed Islam to be taught and practised,
but the kings of Ghana did not convert. Eventually, Moslem
kingdoms around Ghana declared jihad against it.
*About 1240 AD Ghana, already in decline, was replaced by the Mali
Empire, based around the great city of Timbuktu. This was a
Moslem kingdom, and it also grew wealthy from trade, and eventually
created a larger empire than that held by ancient Egypt, although it
did not last as long.
*About 1400, Mali was taken over by the empire of Songhai, but it, in
turn, was taken over in 1591 by the Moroccans, who had gunpowder.
However, the Moroccans were not prepared to control so large an empire,
and they let it go, after which it collapsed into a number of minor
*At one time, most of Central and Southern Africa were populated by the
Khoi-San peoples, but at some point, probably about 700 AD,
Bantu-speaking peoples (related to the Niger-Congo peoples of West
Africa) began to migrate into central and southern Africa, killing,
pushing aside, or absorbing the indigenous Khoi-San. They reached
their fullest extent in the early 1700s, by which time they had become
the main cultural group of all of central and southern Africa outside
*Two of the major Bantu peoples of South Africa today are the Xhosa,
who mixed with the Khoi-San and picked up a few click-consonants, and
the Zulu. These remain two of the most important and influential
tribes in South Africa today.
*Another major Bantu people are the Swahili, who inhabit the east coast
of Africa from southern Somalia to northern Mozambique. Their
language is so wide-spread that it is employed as a second language or
trade language among many east Africa peoples; it has at least 5
million native speakers and 30-50 million people who use it as a second
*The Bantu created several kingdoms, including a great trading empire
around the city of Great Zimbabwe between about 400 and 1629 AD
(initially trading gold, and later slaves).
*The slave trade has always been part of African history. African
tribes had always used prisoners of war as slaves. Since the
800s, Arab traders had brought African slaves back from their missions
to Africa. In the 1500s and 1600s, Europeans began to trade with
Africa, seeking gold, ivory, cloth, and slaves. Eventually slaves
became the most important subject of European trade, with the trade
reaching its peak in the 1800s.
*The United States, one of the major importers of African slaves,
officially outlawed the importation of slaves in 1807, and Britain
banned all slave trading, and used the Royal Navy to enforce that,
although this brought it into conflict with Spain, Portugal, Brazil,
and France. Britain also created the colony of Sierra Leone as a
place to send freed slaves, and the USA created Liberia (Latin:
‘Land of the Free’) as a place to ‘colonize’ freed slaves in
Africa. During the 1800s, the former Spanish colonies of the New
World also outlawed slavery completely, as did Britain in 1833, the
United States in 1865, and Brazil in 1888. Slavery still exists
in parts of Africa today.
*In the 1800s, Africa was slowly divided up among the European
powers. Some areas had already been colonised, notably South
Africa, which had been settled by the Dutch in 1652. The British
seized South Africa in 1797 during the Napoleonic Wars, and officially
created the Cape Colony in 1805. Many of the Dutch farmers,
called Boers, resented this, and fled to the interior in the Great
Trek, where they formed two independent republics, the Orange Free
State and Transvaal. Eventually these were taken over by Britain
as well, in the Second Boer War (1899-1902), and, with Natal and the
Cape Colony, formed the Union of South Africa in 1910.
*The Boers along with other settlers of Dutch descent, became known as Afrikaners, and speak their own language, Afrikaans.
*Between 1856 and 1858 Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke
explored the lakes of equatorial Africa and discovered the source of
the Nile in Lake Victoria.
*Between 1874 and 1877, Henry Morton Stanley explored the Congo River
Basin and claimed it for the King of Belgium, Leopold II. This
meant that now almost all of Africa had been at least somewhat
explored, and, with King Leopold claiming so much territory, everyone
else wanted in on it, too.
*In 1885, the great powers of Europe (as well as the United States) met
in the Berlin Conference to divide Africa among them. Britain and
France got the majority of Africa, with Britain getting much of
southern and eastern Africa and France getting most of West
Africa. Portugal and Spain retained a few colonies along the
coasts, notably Angola and Mozambique for Portugal and Western Sahara
for Spain, although both had a number of other little islands and
enclaves. Germany was awarded what are now Togo, Cameroon,
Namibia, Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda (after World War I, most of
these would go to Britain, although South Africa would hold Namibia as
a League of Nations Mandate until 1990). Italy got parts of Libya
and Somalia. Leopold II was recognised as the legal owner of the
Congo, although eventually his agents’ mistreatment of the people there
became so infamous that he gave the Congo Free State to Belgium.
*Ethiopia remained independent, although Italy tried to take it over in
1896 (and was defeated by king Menelik II’s army) and later did take it
in 1936. Liberia was also allowed to remain independent, because
it was ruled by former American ex-slaves. The Orange Free State
and Transvaal remained independent for the moment, but were later
conquered in the Second Boer War.
*The borders drawn at the Berlin conference (with the exception of some
in North Africa) were mostly created without regard for the existing
cultural, tribal, ethnic, or historical homelands of the African
peoples in the new colonies, so that today, many of the nations of
Africa have serious problems with ethnic tensions, and also with
irredentism (the desire of related people in different countries to be
in one united country, which often has diplomatic complications).
*By the start of World War I, Africa belonged to Europe, which was
rapidly created an extractive colonial economy there even more
pernicious than the old mercantile colonial economies of the
Americas. Africa existed primarily as a source of raw materials
to be shipped back to Europe, so most of Africa’s industries were based
on getting the most out of Africa’s mineral wealth, forests, and wild
game. Most roads and railroads were designed to run to major
seaports, not to link major settlements in the interior.
*Most colonies did not see large numbers of European immigrants, except
in South Africa, Rhodesia, Kenya, and Algeria (and even where they did
come, Europeans were a minority, although a politically powerful
one). The African colonies were places to make a fortune, not to
start a new life.