Modern African nationalist historians correctly stress that Africa had a meaningful past long before the coming of Europeans. They also stress that Africans made their own history long after coming into contact with Europe, and indeed right up to the period of colonisation. That African centred approach to the continent’s past is quite compatible with one which equally emphasises the transformatory role of external forces, such as overseas trade in slaves, gold, ivory, etc. The reconciliation of the two approaches is facilitated by bearing in mind the following three factors:
(a) The external (and mainly European) impact up to 1885 was very uneven in geographical terms, with the coasts being obviously more exposed.
(b) Commerce with Europeans affected different aspects of African life in varying degrees, with the political, military and ideological apparatus being virtually untouched.
(c) Dynamic features of independent African evolution and development (as illustrated in chapter 2) continued to operate after 1500.
It has already been argued that it would be misleading to try and compartmentalise Africa into areas that were affected by slave trading and those which were not, for the continent as a whole had to bear the costs. However, for present purposes, it is enough to make the crude distinction between those parts of Africa which were directly caught up in European-generated activities and those parts which to all appearances continued in the traditional manner.
Developments continued in certain areas such as south Central Africa,, because the population there was free to pursue a path dictated by the interplay between African people and the African environment in the particular localities. Besides, there were achievements even in those societies under the heaviest bombardment of slaving. Slave trading led to the commercial domination of Africa by Europe, within the context of international trade. In very few instances did Europeans manage to displace African political authorities in the various social systems. So African states in close contact with Europe in the pre-colonial era nevertheless had scope for political manoeuvre, and their evolution could and did continue.
Military conquest of Africa awaited the years of the imperialist Scramble. In pre-colonial centuries of contact with Europe, African armies were in existence, with all the socio-political implications which attach to an armed sector in society. Equally important was the fact that direct imports; from Europe in the cultural and ideological spheres were virtually nil. Christianity tried sporadically and ambivalently to make an impact on some parts of the continent. But most of the few missionaries in places like the Congo, Angola and Upper Guinea concentrated on blessing Africans as they were about to be launched across the Atlantic into slavery. As it was, Christianity continued only in Ethiopia, where it had indigenous roots. Elsewhere, there flourished Islam and other religions which had nothing to do with European trade. As before, religion continued to act as an element of the superstructure, which was crucial in the development of the state.
So long as there is political power, so long as people can be mobilised to use weapons, and so long as society has the opportunity to define its own ideology, culture, etc., then the people of that society have some control over their own destinies, in spite of constraints such as those imposed as the African continent slipped into orbit as a satellite of capitalist Europe. After all, although historical development is inseparable from material conditions and the state of technology, it is also partially controlled by a people’s consciousness at various stages. That is part of the interdependence of base and superstructure alluded to at the outset.
Revolution is the most dramatic appearance of a conscious people or class on the stage of history; but, to greater or lesser extent, the ruling class in any society is always engaged in the developmental process as conscious instruments of change or conservatism. Attention in this section will be focussed on the political sphere and its power companion, the military. In those areas, Africans were able to excel even in the face of slave trading.
Politico-military development in Africa from 1500 to 1885 meant that African social collectives had become more capable of defending the interests of their members, as opposed to the interests of people outside the given community. It also meant that the individual in a politically mature and militarily strong state would be free from external threat of physical removal. He would have more opportunities to apply his own skill in fields as diversified as minstrelry and bronze-working, under the protection of the state. He could also use his creativity and inventiveness to refine the religion of his people, or to work out a more manageable constitution, or to contribute to new techniques of war, or to advance agriculture and trade. Of course, it is also true that the benefits of all such contributions went mainly to a small section of African society, both within and without the zone of slaving; for, as communalism receded, the principle of egalitarian distribution was disregarded. These various points can be illustrated by concrete historical examples drawn from all over the continent during the pre-colonial period in question.
(a) The Yoruba
In a previous discussion, the Yoruba state of Oyo was merely listed as one of the outstanding representatives of African development up to the eve of European arrival in the 15th century. The remarkable 14th- and 15th-century artistic achievements of Oyo, of its parent state of life, and of the related state of Benin have been well studied, because of the preservation of ivory, terracotta and bronze sculptures. It is clear that the earliest bronzes were the best and that there was a deterioration in execution and sensitivity from the 16th through to the 18th century. However, politically, states such as Oyo and Benin did continue to prosper for a very long time after the arrival of Europeans on the West African coast. Since Oyo and the Yoruba people were within an intensive area of slave trading, their fate between 1500 and 1885 is of considerable significance.
The kingdom of Oyo kept fairly clear of any involvement with slave trading until the late 18th century. Instead, its people concentrated on local production and trade, and on the consolidation and expansion of the trade. Indeed, although the nucleus of the Oyo kingdom had already been established in the 15th century, it was during the next three centuries that it expanded to take control of most of what was later termed Western Nigeria, large zones north of the river Niger and the whole of what is now Dahomey. In effect, it was an empire, ruled over by an Alafin in conjunction with an aristocracy. It was in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries that the subtle constitutional mechanisms which regulated relations between the Alafin and his principal subjects and between the capital and the provinces were crystallised.
In so far as Oyo had an interest in the coast, it was as an outlet more for cloth than for slaves. Being some distance inland, the Yoruba of Oyo concentrated on relations with the hinterland, thereby connecting with the Western Sudanic trading zone. It was from the North that Oyo got the horses which made its armies feared and respected. Oyo is a prime example of that African development which had its roots Jeep in the past, in the contradictions between man and environment. Its people continued to develop on the basis of forces which they did not consciously manipulate, as well as through the deliberate utilisation of political techniques.
Early in the 19th century, Oyo and Yorubaland in general began to export captives in considerable numbers. They were obtained partly by military campaigns outside Yorubaland, but also through local slave procuring. Local slave procuring involved kidnapping, armed raids, uncertainty and disunity. Those features, together with internal constitutional tensions and an external threat from the Islamic North, brought about the downfall of the Oyo empire by about 1830. The famous Yoruba ancestral home of Ife was also despoiled and its citizens turned into refugees, because of quarrels among the Yoruba over kidnapping for sale into slavery.
But it was testimony to the level of development in that part of Africa that, within a few years the inhabitants were able to reconstruct new political states: notably those of New Oyo, Ibadan, Ijaye, Abeokuta and Ijebu — each centred on a town, and with enough land for successful agriculture. Until the British arrived to kindly impose ‘order’ in Nigeria, the Yoruba people kept experimenting with various political forms, with heavy emphasis on the military, and keeping to the religion of their forefathers.
Being conscious of territorial boundaries, the inhabitants and rulers of any given state invariably become involved in clashes with neighbouring states. The state in the feudal epoch in Europe and Asia was particularly concerned with its military capacity. The ruling class comprised in whole or in part the professional fighting forces of the state. One rationalisation by which they justified their enjoyment of the major portion of the surplus of society was that they offered armed protection to the ordinary peasant or serf. This generalisation was as true of 19th-century Yorubaland as it was of Prussia and Japan. Without a doubt, Africans in that region were proceeding along the line of development leading to social organisation comparable to feudalism in Europe, Asia and parts of Africa such as Ethiopia and the Maghreb, which were at that stage some centuries earlier.
In the Oyo empire, the civil power was dominant, and the military generals were servants of the king. Subsequently, however, the military took over effective political power. For instance, the Ajaye state was founded by Kurunmi, said to have been the greatest Yoruba general of those troubled times following the fall of Oyo. Kurunmi established a personal military ascendancy in Ajaye. Ibadan was slightly different, in that there it was a group of military officers who collectively formed the political elite. Efforts to put civilians back in power were half-hearted and unsuccessful. After all, the town itself grew out of a military encampment.
The city-state of Abeokuta perhaps made the most consistent effort to make the military an arm of the civil state. But, what mattered most was the defence of the townships within the fortified walls of Abeokuta. Abeokuta’s fortified walls became famous as the place where many a rival army met disaster; and, under those circumstances, the Ologun or war-chiefs were the social and political powers.
While the militarisation of politics was going on in Yorubaland, changes were taking place in the structure of the society, which brought about sharper class stratification. Numerous captives were taken in war, most of whom were sold to Europeans, so that Yorubaland became notorious as a slave supplying region right up to the 1860s. But many war prisoners were retained locally, in conditions approximating either to slavery or to serfdom, depending on whether or not they were first-generation captives. Sometimes, refugees fleeing from destroyed towns also had no option other than to become clients or serfs of other free Yoruba. Such refugees were made to give service to their new overlords by farming the land, in return for armed protection. However, serfs were also used as soldiers, which means that they had access to the means of production (the land) only through meeting an obligation in military labour. That is a measure of the extent to which the principle of kinship had been weakened, and it indicates that, in contrast to the typical communal village, states such as those in 19th-century Yorubaland allocated roles and rewards to their citizens on the basis of reciprocal obligations characteristic of feudalism.
During the period under discussion, the division of labour among the Yoruba was extended with the rise of professional soldiers or ‘war-boys,’ as they were called. The professional soldiers, who were sons of aristocrats, left farming disdainfully to prisoners and serfs-the large number of whom ensured agricultural plenty. Other branches of economic activity also flourished, notably the making of cloth and palm oil and the trade in various products. These things were true, in spite of the fact that by that time some labour was being lost both in the form of slaves exported and in the form of labour power devoted to capturing people for export. European visitors to Yorubaland in the middle of the 19th century could still admire the level of its material culture, along with the highly colourful and impressive aspects of its non-material culture such as the annual ‘Yam Festivals’ and the ritual of the religious cults of Shango, Ogboni, etc.
One item of European technology that was anxiously sought by Africans and that was fairly easily obtainable from Europeans was the firearm. From the 1820s onwards, the Yoruba acquired European firearms in large numbers, and integrated them into the pattern of trade, politics and military strategy. On the eve of colonial rule, Yoruba generals were reaching out for breech-loading rifles and even rockets; but Europe stepped in too quickly for that move to get very far. Through a series of actions which started as early as 1860 in Lagos (and which included missionary infiltration as well as armed invasion) the British managed to bring that part of Africa under colonial rule.
Economic development is a matter of an increasing capacity to produce, and it is tied up with patterns of land tenure and class relations. These basic facts were well brought out both positively and negatively in Yoruba history, in the decades before independence was lost. So long as agricultural production was not disrupted, then for so long any given Yoruba state remained in a strong position. Ibadan was once the greatest military power in Yorubaland, selling captives as well as retaining many for use as labourers for its own benefit. But Ibadan’s farming areas were hit by war, and Ibadan’s rulers also started removing prisoners farming the land and selling them instead to Europeans. That became necessary because Ibadan needed firearms, and those could be obtained only by selling slaves. It was at that point that the undermining effect of the presence of European slave buyers on the coast became really paramount.
By selling its own captives and serfs, Ibadan was undermining its own socio-economic base. If the prisoners were to develop into a true serf class, then those prisoners would have had to be guaranteed the right to remain fixed on the soil and protected from sale. That was one of the reasons why slavery as a mode of production in Europe had to give way to serfdom and feudalism; and, under normal circumstances, Yoruba society did rapidly guarantee the irremovability of those captives who were integrated into the local production pattern. But, forces unleashed by the European presence as slave buyers were too great to be withstood, and any hope of solving the problem disappeared with the loss of political power under colonialism.
Too often, historians lay undue emphasis on the failure of 19th-century Yoruba states to unite and produce an entity as large as the former empire of Oyo. But, firstly, the size of a political unit is not the most important criterion for evaluating the achievement of its peoples. And, secondly, a given people can disintegrate politically and later integrate even more effectively. The Yoruba states of Ibadan, Abeokuta, Ijaye, etc., had populations of up to 100,000 citizens — as large as most of the city-states, principalities and palatinates of feudal Germany. That is a comparison which is worth bringing to light, and it is one that struck European observers who happened to visit Yorubaland in the middle years of the 19th century.
Germany has long had a common culture and language, and there was a form of political unity under the Holy Roman Empire from the 12th to the 15th century. However, after the Reformation and the break-up of the Holy Roman Empire, the German people were divided into as many separate political entities as there are days in the year, some of them being hardly bigger than a public park. Yet, the internal class relations and productive forces continued to develop throughout Germany, and ultimately by 1870 unity was again achieved, with feudalism giving way to a powerful capitalist nation state. Similarly, the Yoruba were a widely spread cultural entity with a single language. After the fall of the Oyo empire the developmental processes were slowed down by both internal and external factors, but they were not stopped. It took the arrival of European colonialism to do that.
Within the sphere of West and Central African slaving, state building continued with varying degrees of success. For instance, the Akan state system grew up in a manner as impressive as that of the Oyo empire. Fortunately for the Akan, slave exports reached alarming proportions only during the first half of the 18th century. By that time, a state such as Asante had sunk roots deep enough to withstand the adverse effects of slaving. It continued to be incorporated with the heartlands of the Western Sudan, and by the 1870s when the British tried to dictate to Asante, these famous African people did not give up without heroic armed struggle.
Asante’s connection with the export of slaves in the 18th century led its rulers to concentrate on expansionism of the type which would bring in captives through wars, raids, tribute, and as articles of trade from regions where they had been made prisoner. Besides, since the 15th century, Akan country was building up rather than exporting its human resources. Captives were incorporated locally into the society; and on the eve of colonialism a substantial proportion of Asante society was made up of Odonko-ba — the descendants of one-time captives, who were the labouring population on the land. Development had come not through exporting and losing labour but by increasing and maximising it.
Asante’s eastern neighbour beyond the Volta river was Dahomey. Since Dahomey was more deeply involved in the European slave trade and for a much longer period, its experiences shall be cited at a greater length.
Throughout the 18th and 19th century, Dahomey had a stagnant if not declining population, and an economy that had virtually no props other than slave exports. What Dahomey succeeded in doing in spite of all that is a tribute to the achievements of man inside the African continent. It should be made clear that the groundwork far the socio-political development of the Aja or Fon people of Dahomey was laid down in the period preceding the influence of Europe on West Africa. By the 15th century, the Aja states of Allada and Whydah were already in existence, having a loose connection with the Yoruba of Ife. Dahomey was an offshoot from Allada in the 16th century, and by the early 18th century it expanded to incorporate both Allada and Whydah.
The kings of Allada and Whydah had made the mistake of either failing to protect their own citizens from enslavement or of actually conniving at their enslavement. Dahomey never followed such a policy, which was directly antagonistic to the very maintenance of the state. Instead, Dahomey eventually became the classic raiding state of West Africa, after failing to get Europeans to accept any products other than human beings. To achieve that, Dahomey had first to build up a tightly organised military state, whose monarch came much closer to an authoritarian or despot than did the Alafin of Oyo or the Asantehene of Asante. Secondly, Dahomey invested a great deal of time and ingenuity on its army, so as to protect its own citizens and wage war abroad.
Within European history, the state of Sparta stood out as one that was completely dedicated to the art of war. Europeans in Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries invariably referred to Dahomey as a Black Sparta. Throughout the 18th century, the cavalry of Oyo was more than a match for Dahomey’s foot soldiers, and Dahomey remained a tribute-paying portion of the Oyo empire. But with the fall of Oyo, Dahomey became the supreme military state in that region, and indeed wreaked vengeance on its former Yoruba overlords. Warfare was necessary for securing slaves outside of Dahomey and for obtaining firearms. It was in fact essential for survival.
Dahomey’s profound pre-occupation with militaristic activities can be illustrated in many ways. Their value system rewarded the brave and the victorious, while ruthlessly despising and even liquidating the cowardly and the unsuccessful on the battlefield. The two chief ministers of the king were the commanders of the ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ armies, and other military officers held political appointments. Then, too, the artistic media constantly harped upon the theme of war. Beautiful mosaics and paintings appeared on the walls of the palaces of Dahomey — all dealing with military victories. Historical accounts, as rendered by professional reciters, reflected the same bias; and the cloth workers busied themselves making emblems, ‘colours’, and umbrellas for the generals and the regiments.
Two unique innovations set Dahomey off from its African neighbours and even gives it a special claim within the context of feudal or semi-feudal military organisation. Firstly, Dahomey encouraged young boys to become apprentices of war. By the age of 11 or 12, a boy would be attached to a veteran soldier-helping to carry his supplies, and observing battle. The second innovation (and the one that was more widely commented upon) was Dahomey’s utilisation of its female population within the army. Apparently, the wives in the royal palace started off as a ceremonial guard in the 18th century, and then progressed to become an integral part of Dahomey’s fighting machine, on terms of complete equality of hardship and reward. Dahomey’s population in the 19th century was probably no more than 200,000; and the state consistently managed to send 12,000 to 15,000 actives on its annual campaigns. Of those, it was estimated in 1845 that some 5,000 were women — the so-called ‘Amazons of Dahomey’, who were feared for their ferocity in battle.
In the long run, the trade in slaves cast a blight on Dahomey. Slaving campaigns were costly and not always rewarding in terms of captives. European buyers failed to turn up during certain years, depending on European conditions. E.g., during the American War of Independence, the French Revolution and the subsequent revolutionary wars, there was a lull in Dahomian slave exports, because far fewer European ships could be spared for the trade in slaves. Without selling captives to get firearms to carry on more warfare for slaves, Dahomey felt its glory and military honour was slipping. Resort to human sacrifice was one attempt to compensate for the diminishing reputation of the state and its monarch as was the case with the Oba of Benin in the 19th century.
Even so, the story of the reputed savagery of Dahomey was exaggerated incredibly. The Dahomian state created such refinements as a population census; it conducted diplomacy far and wide, with all the niceties and the protocol that one usually hears of only in connection with ‘civilised’ European states; and it built up a system of espionage and intelligence as an essential ingredient in its own security. Above all, attention should be focussed at least briefly on the role of the artist in Dahomian society. Much of African art springs from elaboration of things functional, such as pottery and cloth. However, both religion and the state power also stimulated art. For instance, the brasses and bronzes of Ife were executed on behalf of the religious cults and were associated with the Oni of Ife and the royal family. Indeed, it is a most widespread phenomenon that the feudal ruling class gave its protection to artists, along with sustenance and recognition. This was true in Mandarin China with pottery makers and theatre artists; it was true of 16th century Italy of the Renaissance; and it was true of Dahomey from the 17th to the 19th centuries.
No one now knows which Dahomian is to be credited with any given artistic achievement of the independent pre-colonial period. However, in that time, particular individuals were being given the opportunity for self-discovery and self-development and of serving the society as a whole. Their task was to give pleasure and to capture the hopes and ambitions of the people in palace wall paintings, in wrought-iron sculptures, in the stamped patterns of hand-woven cloths designed for royalty, on the intricately carved heads of the safe-conduct staffs of the king’s ambassadors, and in the lively tales of how the founder of the Dahomian kingdom came out of the belly of a leopard. It was art that centred around royalty and noble families, but it was also a national product and a point of identification for the people as a whole. Subsequently, such artistic skills either disappeared or became debased to serve the curiosity of philistine colonialists.
It is still held in some quarters that Dahomey’s development in certain spheres must be credited to slave trading. To demonstrate conclusively that African political and military development through to the 19th century was an extension of groundwork already laid in an earlier epoch, it is best to turn to zones where foreign influence was non-existent. The interlacustrine zone of East Africa is one such.
(c) The Eastern Inter-Lacustrine States
In an earlier discussion, attention was directed to Bunyoro-Kitara as the most advanced socio-political formation in East Africa up to the 15th century. Its ruling dynasty, the Bachwezi, declined for reasons that are not clear, and they were overwhelmed by new immigrants from the north. While there is some doubt as to whether the Bachwezi had an Ethiopian origin, it is clearly established that the 16th century immigrants were Luo peoples from a section of the Nile that flows through the Sudan.
Following upon Luo migrations, a new line known as the Babito dynasty, was placed in power over Bunyoro proper. Other branches of the same dynasty were enthroned in several places, sometimes breaking off from the main line. As late as the 19th century, a separate Babito kingdom was carved out in Toro. Meanwhile, the Bachwezi or Bahima had staged a comeback in regions to the south, in the form of a clan known as the Bahinda. The Bahinda were one of the pastoralist clans of the old Bunyoro-Kitara state, and in the period from the 16th century onwards their stronghold was in Ankole and Karagwe.
Obviously, the new Babito ruling class immediately sought to take control of the land, but in accordance with settled African customs, they later tried to project themselves as the original owners of the land, rather than usurpers. In Busoga, where there were several small Babito kings, a researcher reported the following dialogue about land between a member of a royal clan and a commoner:
Royal clan member — ‘We found this place empty and made something of it. You fellows later came round begging for land, so we were generous and gave you some. Naturally you're now our slaves.’
Commoner — ‘Oho! What a lie! We were here long before you. You took your power by trickery. You princes have always been scoundrels!’
At no stage in the independent history of these interlacustrine states did land become purely a personal possession, to be monopolised by a given class, as in the classic European feudal model. Scholars frequently demand this feature before they concede that feudalism has arrived; but they fail to take into account the reality of the distribution and usufruct (or produce) of the land being in the hands of a few, and they fail to realise that where cattle were a dominant form of wealth then private ownership of herds was also part of a process by which producers were separated from the means of production. To be specific, those who owned the herds were usually the Bahinda or other Bahima or the new Babito families, while those who tended them were clients and virtually serfs of the owners. As far as land was concerned, the peasant who farmed it paid a heavy tax in crops to the clan heads and ruling authorities, to allow the latter to live without resort to agricultural work.
It is necessary to recall that in the process of independent evolution on all continents, the increase in productive capacity was accompanied by increasing inequality at all stages except socialism. To say that the inter-lacustrine zone continued developing uninterruptedly up to the eve of colonialism is to highlight the expanded productive capacity of the states and at the same time to recognise frankly that it was the result of increased exploitation not only of natural resources but also of the labour of the majority. The latter were disenfranchised and oppressed to get them to toil in the interests of a few who lived in palaces.
The inter-lacustrine kingdoms fell mainly in what is now Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. Only in the north-east of Tanzania are there representatives of the inter-lacustrine complex of states. North-east Tanzania was the most developed portion of the country in the pre-colonial epoch, because the rest of mainland Tanzania comprised numerous small kingdoms that had not decisively left behind the communal stage. But north-east Tanzania was also the corner of the country in which problems arose when a new ideology of egalitarianism was being preached after the end of the colonial era, because there was already a regime of inequality in the distribution of land and produce and in the rights granted to individuals. In fact, in any meaningful political sense, the area was feudal.
There is some disagreement as to the origins of the important inter-lacustrine state of Buganda. Some traditions give it the same Luo origin as Bunyoro, while others tend to hold that it was a Bachwezi survival. Its social structure certainly paralleled that of Babito Bunyoro closely. Unlike in Ankole, in Buganda the Bahima did not have the reins of political power. They were only associated with the cattle-owning ruling class, very often in the junior capacity of herdsmen. In any event, Buganda’s history was one of gradual expansion and consolidation at the expense of Bunyoro and other neighbours. By the 18th century, it had become the dominant power in the whole region.
The Buganda state had a sound agricultural base, with bananas as a staple and with cattle products being available. Their craftsmen manufactured bark-cloth for export, and local production of iron and pots was supplemented by imports from neighbouring African communities. Their lack of salt was a big stimulus to the extending of their trade network to obtain the necessary supplies; and, as was true of the Western Sudan, such an extension of the network of commerce was in effect integrating the productive resources of a large area. Carl Peters, the advance agent of German colonialism in East Africa remarked that ‘in estimating the political and commercial affairs of East Africa too little stress is laid on this internal trade among the tribes. The barter trade of Buganda defies all direct calculation.’ In Buganda’s case, the absence of slave trading must have been important in expanding internal production and trade, and therefore providing a sound base for the political superstructure.
The kings of Buganda set up a small permanent armed force, which served as a bodyguard; and the rest of the national army was raised when necessary. The political administration was centralised under the Kabaka, and district rulers were appointed by the Kabaka and his council, rather than left to be provided by the clans on a hereditary family basis. Great ingenuity went into devising plans for administering this large kingdom through a network of local officials. Perhaps the best tributes to the political sophistication of Buganda came from the British, when they found Buganda and other East African feudalities in the 19th century. They were the best tributes because they were reluctantly extracted from white racists and culturally arrogant colonialists, who did not want to admit that Africans were capable of anything.
Actually, Europeans were so impressed with what they saw in the inter-lacustrine zone that they invented the thesis that those political states could not possibly have been the work of Africans and must have been built at an earlier date by white ‘Hamites’ from Ethiopia. This myth seemed to get some support from the fact that the Bachwezi were said to have been light-skinned. However, in the first place, had the Bachwezi come from Ethiopia they would have been black or brown Africans. And secondly, as noted earlier, the cultures of East Africa were syntheses of local developments, plus African contributions from outside the specific localities. They were certainly not foreign imports.
Assuming that the Bachwezi or Bahima were from Ethiopia, then they lost their language and became Bantus-peaking like their subjects. The same thing happened to the Babito dynasty of Luo extraction, indicating that they had been absorbed by the local culture. Furthermore, the Babito and the Bahima/Bahinda also forged close connections from the 16th to the 19th centuries. In effect, out of different ethnic groups, castes and classes, a number of ‘nationalities’ were emerging. The ‘nationality’ group is held to be that social formation which immediately precedes the nation state, and the definition applies to the peoples of Buganda, Bunyoro, Ankole, Karagwe and Toro, as well as to those in Rwanda and Burundi.
The western most portion of the inter-lacustrine zone comprised the kingdoms of Rwanda and Burundi. The two countries which today bear those names are centred around the old kingdoms. The experiences of Rwanda will be instanced here.
Like the old Bunyoro-Kitara kingdom and like its north-eastern neighbour state in Ankole, Rwanda was split into two major social groups. Though the great majority of the population were cultivators known as the Bahutu, political power was in the hands of Batutsi pastoralists, comprising about 10% of the population. An even smaller minority were the Batwa (about 1 %), who were at a very low level of pre-agricultural social organisation.
The relative physiques of the three social segments in Rwanda offers an interesting commentary on the development of human beings as a species. The Batutsi are one of the tallest human groups in the world; the Bahutu are short and stocky; and the Batwa are pygmies. The differences can be explained largely in terms of social occupation and diet. The Batwa were not living in settled agricultural communities : instead, they wandered around in small bands, hunting and digging roots, thereby failing to assure themselves of plentiful or rich food. At the other extreme, the Batutsi pastoralists were subsisting on a constantly accessible and rich diet of milk and meat. The Bahutu were more socially advanced than the Batwa; they ate more and more regularly than the latter because Bahutu agriculture meant that they did not live entirely on the whims of nature, following scarce game like the Batwa. However, the quality of their food fell short of the protein-rich Batutsi diet. Thus, the development of man, the physical being is also linked in a broad sense to the expansion of productive capacity and the distribution of food.
In any event, it was their political and military achievements rather than their height which distinguished the Batutsi from a historical viewpoint. Their contribution to the kingdom of Rwanda goes back to the 14th century, to a period contemporaneous with the Bachwezi. There were indeed striking parallels and actual links between Rwanda and Ankole and between Karagwe and Burundi. But unlike Bunyoro-Kitara, Rwanda in the 14th and 15th centuries, was far from being a single political entity. There were several small chiefdoms, and it was the expansion of a central Rwanda Tutsi clan which gradually created a small compact state in the 17th century. Later still, that central Rwanda state extended its frontiers; and it was still doing so when the colonialists arrived. For instance, rulers in Mpororo (Ankole) were already paying tribute to Rwanda, which was growing at Ankole’s expense.
At the head of the Rwanda kingdom was the Mwami. Like so many other African rulers, his powers were sanctioned by religious beliefs and his person surrounded by religious ritual. Feudal kings in Europe often tried to get their subjects to believe that royal authority emanated from God and that the king therefore ruled by ‘divine right’. Subjects of African kings like those of the Mwami of Rwanda often accepted something quite close to that proposition. Of course, in addition, the authority of the king had to be based on real power, and the Mwami of Rwanda did not overlook that fact.
Rujugira was a famous Mwami of the 18th century, and the last of the independent line was Rwaabugiri (known also as Kigeri IV), who díed in 1895. Gahindiro is another whose praises were sung by the court musicians and historians. Each of them was associated with one or more contributions to refining and elaborating the power structure of the state, which meant that they each embodied certain historical, class and national forces.
The Mwami Rujugira in the 18th century took the step of placing his frontier zones under the exclusive authority of a military commander, and stationing strong contingents of soldiers -there. The move was significant because in any young and growing state the most uncertain areas are those on the frontiers, known as the ‘marcher provinces’ in European feudal terminology. Rujugira was in effect placing the marcher provinces under military law, and he also put permanent military camps at strategic places.
Early in the 19th century, Mwami Gahindiro overhauled the civil administration. In each province, there was created both a land-chief and a cattle chief-one being responsible for farm rents and the other for cattle dues. Besides, there were smaller district authorities or ‘hill chiefs’ within all the provinces, all members of the Batutsi aristocracy. Whether by accident or design, it turned out that administrators responsible for different areas and different matters were jealous of each other, and that kept them from uniting to conspire against the Mwami. The ‘hill chiefs’ were for a long time hereditary within given Batsutsi clans or lineages; but under Rwaabugiri they became appointive-another move which strengthened central government. Meanwhile, the civil servants and councillors (collectively known as Biru) were given grants of land which were free from the intervention of the land- and cattle-chiefs, thereby cementing the loyalty of the Biru to the throne.
The system of social relations which emerged in Rwanda were more completely hierarchical and feudal than in most other parts of Africa. Hierarchy and socio-legal interdependence of classes and individuals were features found in the army, the civil administration and in the social fabric itself. The key to everything else was the control over cattle, through an institution known as ubuhake. This meant that the poor (in cattle) and those of low status (by birth) could approach anyone with more cattle and more respected status, and offer his physical labour services in return for cattle and protection. The cattle were never given as outright property, but only the usufruct was handed over to a client. Therefore, the client could have the use of the cattle for so long as he reciprocated by handing over milk and meat to his overlord, and for so long as he remained loyal. Of course, the peasant on the land also had to perform labour services and provide tribute in the form of food.
The Batutsi aristocracy fulfilled their function of offering ‘protection’ partly by making representations at the Mwami’s court or by defending their dependents in legal cases. Above all, however, the protection came through specialisation in the military art. Ever since the 15th century, there was compulsory military service for certain Batutsi lineages. Sons of the Batutsi aristocracy became royal pages, receiving all their educational training within a military context. Each new Mwami made a fresh recruitment to add to existing forces. Some Bahutu were associated with particular regiments to provide supplies, and the Batwa were also incorporated as specialist archers (with poisoned arrows).
Of course, the ‘protection’ which the Batutsi gave the Bahutu was a myth, in the sense that what they were guarding was their exploitation of the Bahutu. They defended them from external enemies, so that the population became dense and plentiful. They conserved the Bahutu, so that the latter could exercise their highly developed agronomical knowledge to produce surplus. Furthermore, the top stratum of Batutsi were the cattle owners, and they left their cattle to the lesser Batutsi to tend, thereby exploiting the labour and profound empirical knowledge which the common cattle herders possessed. As in Europe and Asia, such was the socioeconomic base which supported a life of leisure and intrigue among the Batutsi aristocracy.
There was little inter-marriage between Batutsi and Bahutu, and hence they are regarded as castes. The Batwa, too, can be similarly categorised; but since the castes were hierarchically placed one over the other, it was also a situation of class, and there was upward and downward mobility from one class to another to a certain extent. At the same time, Batutsi, Bahutu and Batwa together evolved as the Rwanda nation, having common interests to defend against even the Batutsi, Bahutu and Batwa who comprised the kingdom of Burundi. The people of Rwanda were not unique in developing a state and a sense of national consciousness, while at the same time experiencing the rise of more sharply differentiated classes and castes in society. The important thing is that they were free to develop relatively unaffected by alien influence, and certainly free from direct ravages of slave trading.
The same freedom from slave trading was operational in South Africa, for West African exports of capotes began in Angola and East African exports came from Mozambique and zones further north. The area south of the Limpopo was one that had some of the simpler social formations in Africa up to the 15th century. The eastern side was sparsely peopled up to a late date by the Khoi Khoi herdsmen, who were slowly edged out by Bantu speakers. When European ships touched on the Natal coast in the 16th century, it was still a region of widely-scattered homesteads; but in the years to come the population became denser and important politico-military development took place.
Anyone with a nodding acquaintance with the African past would have heard the name of Shaka, the Zulu leader who most embodied the social and political changes which took place in the eastern portion of South Africa. One biographer (a European) had this to say of Shaka:
‘Napoleon, Julius Caesar, Hannibal. Charlemagne . . . such men as these have arisen periodically throughout the history of the world to blaze a trail of glory that has raised them high above the common level. Such a man was Shaka, perhaps the greatest of them all.’
The above praise-song appeared on the back-cover of the biography in question; and, since capitalist publishers treat books just like boxes of soap-powder, one has admittedly to be suspicious of any advertisement designed to sell the book. Nevertheless, all commentators on Shaka (both African and European) frequently compare him favourably with the ‘Great Men’ of European history. It is therefore appropriate to examine Ama-Zulu society up to the 19th century with a view to understanding the role of the leader in relationship to the development of society as a whole.
Shaka was born about the year 1787, and the impressive achievements attributed to him in his 40-year life span can only be briefly enumerated here. By 1816, he was head of a small Ama-Ngoni clan, the Ama-Zulu. Within a few years, he had re-organised it militarily — both in terms of weapons and the tactics and strategy of war — so that the Ama-Zulu clan became a feared fighting force. Through warfare and political manoeuvring , he united and commanded the Ama-Ngoni who had previously been divided into dozens of independent or semi-independent clans. At one point, it seemed as though Shaka was about to unite under one rule the whole of the region that is now Natal, Lesotho and Swaziland. That task was not accomplished when he met his death in 1828, nor were his successors able to maintain Shaka’s sway. But the territory belonging to the Ama-Zulu nation in the late 19th century was 100 times greater than the 100 sq. miles of the original patrimony of the Ama-Zulu clan as inherited by Shaka in 1816. It was a diminished and less powerful AmaZulu that was still capable in 1876 of inflicting upon the British one of the most crushing defeats in their history of overseas adventuring — at the battle of Isandlwana.
Shaka grew up at a time when the questions of unity and of effective armies were being posed seriously for the first time among the Ama-Ngoni. Previously, the clans (which generally coincided with chiefdoms) displayed a tendency to segment or break into smaller and smaller units. As the eldest son of a clan head grew to adulthood, he went off to settle his own kraal; and a new junior clan was born, for his father’s clan remained senior and its headship passed to the eldest son of the ‘great wife’. That pattern of segmentation was possible so long as population density was low and land was plentiful for farming and-grazing. Under those circumstances, there was little competition for resources or political power; and wars were hardly any more dangerous than a game of football in Latin America. Usually a clan had traditional rivalry with another given clan. They knew each other well, and their champions fought in a spirit of festivity. One or two might have been killed, but then everyone went home until the rematch.
Early in the 19th century, the casual tempo of Ama-Zulu life and politics had changed considerably. A greater population meant less and less room for junior members to ‘hive off’ on their own. It meant less grazing land for cattle, and disputes over cattle and land. As the Ama-Zulu began to fight more frequently, so they began to feel the necessity to fight more effectively. At the same time, senior clan heads began to recognise the need for a political structure to ensure unity, the maximisation of resources and the minimisation of internecine conflict.
Shaka addressed himself to both the military and political problems of Zululand, which he saw as two sides of the same coin. He thought that the centralising political nucleus should achieve military superiority and demonstrate it to other sectors. That would generally lead to peaceful acceptance of the greater political state, or else the dissidents would be thoroughly crushed.
The era of conflict and warfare in Zululand in the early 19th century brought troops face to face much more often, but the pattern of military encounter still remained that of the long-distance hurling of light Umkhonto or spears. For close fighting, a weapon grasped in the hands is much more damaging-as feudal armies discovered in Europe and Asia, and therefore resorted to sword and pike. Shaka, while serving as a young soldier, came up with the solution of devising a heavy short assegai, which was used purely for stabbing rather than throwing. In addition, he discarded the loose sandals so as to achieve more speed in closing with the enemy and more dexterity at close quarters. Through experience, Shaka and his fellow youth then discovered the specific techniques of using their shields and assegais to best effect.
Of course, warfare comprises not just the encounter of individual soldiers, but (more importantly) a pattern of tactics and strategy in relationship to the opposing forces taken as a whole. This aspect of war also attracted Shaka’s attention, and his outstanding innovation came in the form of izimpi (regiments) deployed so as to allow for a reserve behind the fighting vanguard and for two wings or ‘horns’ capable of encircling the enemy’s flanks. Finally (and most importantly), an army has to be trained, disciplined and organised so that it is a meaningful unit in peace and in war. Shaka created new regiments to include men up to 40 years of age. He kept his izimpi on constant exercises and ‘fatigues’, so that the individual soldier was fit and proficient, while the army as a whole synchronised in accordance with the wishes of its commanders.
The Zulu army was more than a fighting force. It was an educational institution for the young, and an instrument for building loyalties that cut across clans and could be considered as national. Promotion came through merit, and not through clan or regional origin. The enforced use of the Zulu branch of the family of Ngoni languages also worked in the direction of national consciousness. Over an area of 12,000 sq. miles, citizens came to call themselves ‘Ama-Zulu’, and to relegate their clan names to second place. Over a much larger area still, Zulu influence was profoundly felt. Policies such as curbing the excesses of witchcraft diviners (izanusi) and the fact that Zululand became free of internal struggles led to an influx of population from outside its boundaries — a positive contribution to the resources of the Zulu state.
European travellers who have left written accounts of Zululand in Shaka’s time were impressed by the cleanliness (as they were in Benin in the 15th century) and they were equally struck by the social order, absence of theft, sense of security, etc. (just like the Arabs who travelled in the Western Sudan during its period of imperial greatness). In actual fact, both the cleanliness and the security of life and property were part of Zulu life from long before, and under Shaka what was impressive was the scale on which these things extended, owing to the protective umbrella of the state. The people being impressed were Europeans; and European evidence is the best evidence in that it can scarcely be said to have been pro-African propaganda. One white visitor who saw a march-past of fifteen of Shaka’s regiments, wrote that:
‘it was a most exciting scene, surprising to us, who could not have imagined that a nation termed “savages” could be so disciplined and kept in order.’
A great deal more could be added concerning Ama-Zulu political institutions and its army. But what is relevant here is to understand why a Shaka was possible in Africa in the 19th century, before the coming of colonial rule.
Had Shaka been a slave to some cotton planter in Mississippi or some sugar planter in Jamaica, he might have had an ear or a hand chopped off for being a ‘recalcitrant nigger’, or at best he might have distinguished himself in leading a slave revolt. For the only great men among the unfree and the oppressed are those who struggle to destroy the oppressor. On a slave plantation, Shaka would not have built a Zulu army and a Zulu state — that much is certain. Nor could any African build anything during the colonial period, however much a genius he may have been. As it was, Shaka was a herdsman and a warrior. As a youth, he tended cattle on the open plains — free to develop his own potential and apply it to his environment.
Shaka was able to invest his talents and creative energies in a worthwhile endeavour of construction. He was not concerned with fighting for or against slave traders; he was not concerned with the problem of how to re-sell goods made in Sweden and France. He was concerned with how to develop the Zulu arca within the limits imposed by his people’s resources.
It must be recognised that things such as military techniques were responses to real needs, that the work of the individual originates in and is backed by the action of society as a whole, and that whatever was achieved by any one leader must have been bounded by historical circumstances and the level of development, which determine the extent to which an individual can first discover, then augment and then display his potential.
To substantiate the above points, it can be noted that Shaka was challenged to create the heavy stabbing assegai, when he realised that the throwing spear broke when used as a stabbing weapon. More important still, what Shaka came up with depended upon the collective effort of the Ama-Zulu. Shaka could ask that a better assegai be forged, because the Ama-Ngoni had been working iron for a long time, and specialist blacksmiths had arisen within certain clans. It was a tribute to the organisational and agricultural capacity of the society as a whole that it could feed and maintain a standing army of 30,000 men, re-equip them with iron weapons, and issue each soldier with the full-length Zulu shield made from cattle hide.
Because the scientific basis and experimental pre-conditions were lacking in Zulu society, Shaka could not have devised a firearm — no matter how much genius he possessed. But, he could get his people to forge better weapons, as we explained above; and he found them receptive to better selective breeding practices when he set up special royal herds, because the people already had a vast fund of empirical knowledge about cattle and a love of the cattle herding profession.
In the politico-military sphere, Shaka was following in the footsteps of his original protector, Dingizwayo, and to some extent in the footsteps of Zwide, who was a rival to both Dingizwayo and Shaka. Dingizwayo opened up trade with the Portuguese at Delagoa Bay in 1797 (mainly in ivory), and he stimulated arts and crafts. His most distinguished innovation was in the army, when he instituted a system of recruiting regiments according to age grades. Previously, each locality tended to dominate within a given regiment; and, in any event, people were accustomed to fighting side by side with members of their own kraal, locality and clan. However, when all men in a given age-grade were brought into the same regiment, this emphasised a greater national feeling and also increased Dingizwayo’s power vis-a-vis the smaller clan heads.
Dingizwayo was head of the important Ama-Mthethwa clan, and he succeeded in establishing his paramountcy in what later became the southern portion of Zululand. In the north, Zwide of the Ama-Ndwandwe was also engaging in political consolidation. Shaka served in one of the junior age-grade regiments of Dingizwayo, and remained faithful to the latter’s centralising power, until Dingizwayo met his death at the hands of Zwide in 1818. Thereafter, Shaka took up many of the military and political techniques of Dingizwayo and greatly improved them. That is development: It is a matter of building upon what is inherited and advancing slowly, provided that no one comes to ‘civilise’ you.