Chapter Two. How Africa Developed Before the Coming of the Europeans up to the 15th Century
‘Before even the British came into relations with our people, we were a developed people, having our own institutions, having our own ideas of government.’J. E. Casely-Hayford, 1922.African (Gold Coast) Nationalist.
2.1 General Overview
It has been shown that, using comparative standards, Africa today is underdeveloped in relation to Western Europe and a few other parts of the world; and that the present position has been arrived at, not by the separate evolution of Africa on the one hand and Europe on the other, but exploitation. As is well known, Africa has had prolonged and extensive contact with Europe, and one has to bear in mind that contact between different societies changes their respective rates of development. To set the record straight, four operations are required:
(a) Reconstruction of the nature of development in Africa before the coming of Europeans.
(b) Reconstruction of the nature of development which took place in Europe before expansion abroad.
(c) Analysis of Africa’s contribution to Europe’s present ‘developed’ state.
(d) Analysis of Europe’s contribution to Africa’s present ‘underdeveloped’ state.
The second task has already been extensively carried out in European literature, and only passing references need be made; but the others are al] deserving of further attention.
The African continent reveals very fully the workings of the law of uneven development of societies. There are marked contrasts between the Ethiopian empire and the hunting groups of pigmies in the Congo forest or between empires of the Western Sudan and the Khoisan hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari Desert. Indeed, there were striking contrasts within any given geographical area. The Ethiopian empire embraced literate feudal Amharic noblemen as well as simple Kaffa cultivators and Galla pastoralists. The empires of the Western Sudan had sophisticated, educated Mandinga townsmen, small communities of Bozo fishermen and nomadic Fulani herdsmen. Even among clans and lineages that appear roughly similar, there were considerable differences. However, it is possible to distinguish between what was uniquely ‘African’ and what was universal in the sense of being characteristic of al] human societies at a given stage of development. It is also essential to recognise the process of dialectical evolution from lower to higher forms of social organisation; and, in looking at the most advanced social formations, one would appreciate the potential of the continent as a whole and the direction of change.
The moment that the topic of the pre-European African past is raised, many individuals are concerned for various reasons to know about the existence of African ‘civilisations’. Mainly, this stems from a desire to make comparisons with European ‘civilisations’. This is not the context in which to evaluate the so-called civilisations of Europe. It is enough to note the behaviour of European capitalists from the epoch of slavery through colonialism, fascism and genocidal wars in Asia and Africa. Such barbarism causes suspicion to attach to the use of the word ‘civilisation’ to describe Western Europe and North America. As far as Africa is concerned during the period of early development, it is preferable to speak in terms of ‘cultures’ rather than civilisations.
A culture is a total way of life. It embraces w at people ate and what they wore; the way they walked and the way they talked; the manner in which they treated death and greeted the new-born. Obviously, unique features came into existence in virtually every locality with regard to afl social details. In addition, the continent of Africa south of the great Sahara desert formed a broad community where resemblances were clearly discernible. For example, music and dance had key roles in ‘uncontaminated’ African society. They were ever present at birth, initiation, marriage, death, etc., as well as appearing at times of recreation. Africa is the continent of drums and percussion. African peoples reached the pinnacl e of achievement in that sphere.
Because of the impact of colonialism and cultural imperialism (which will be discussed later), Europeans and Africans themselves in the colonial period lacked due regard for the unique features of African culture. Those features have a value of their own that cannot be eclipsed by European culture either in the comparable period before 1500 or in the subsequent centuries. They cannot be eclipsed because they are not really comparable phenomena. Who in this world is competent to judge whether an Austrian waltz is better than a Makonde Ngoma? Furthermore, even in those spheres of culture that are more readily comparable, such as ‘the fine arts’, it is known that African achievements of the pre-European period stand as contributions to man’s heritage of beautiful creations. The art of Egypt, the Sudan and Ethiopia was known to the rest of the world at an early date. That of the rest of Africa is still being ‘discovered’ and rediscovered by Europeans and present-day Africans. The verdict of art historians on the Ife and Benin bronzes is well known. Since they date from the 14th and 15th centuries, they are very relevant to any discussion of African development in the epoch before the contacts with Europe. Nor should they be regarded as unusual, except with regard to the material in which the sculptures were executed. The same skill and feeling obviously went into sculpture and art-work in non-durable materials, especially wood.
African dance and art were almost invariably linked with a religious world-outlook in one way or another. As is well known, traditional African religious practices exist in great variety, and it should also be remembered that both Islam and Christianity found homes on the African continent almost from their very inception. The features of the traditional African religions help to set African cultures apart from those in other continents; but in this present context it is more important to note how much African religion had in common with religion elsewhere and how this can be used as an index to the level of development in Africa before European impact in the 15th century.
Religion is an aspect of the superstructure of a society, deriving ultimately from the degree of control and understanding of the material world. However, when man thinks in religious terms, he starts from the ideal rather than with the material world (which is beyond his comprehension). This creates a non-scientific and metaphysical way of viewing the world, which often conflicts with the scientific materialist outlook and with the development of society. African ancestral religions were no better or worse than other religions as such. But by the end of feudalism, Europeans began to narrow the area of human life in which religion and the church played a part. Religion ceased to dominate politics, geography, medicine, etc. To free those things from religious restraints, it had to be argued that religion had its own sphere and the things of this world have their own secular sphere. This secularization of life speeded up the development of capitalism and later Socialism. In contrast, religion pervaded African life in the period before the coming of the whites, just as it pervaded life in other pre-feudal societies, such as those of the Maoris of Australia or the Afghans of Afghanistan or the Vikings of Scandinavia.
Religion can play both a positive and a negative role as an aspect of the superstructure. In most instances in early Africa, religious beliefs were associated with the mobilisation and discipline of large numbers of people to form states. In a few instances, religion also provided concepts in the struggle, for social justice. The negative aspects usually arose out of the tendency of religion to persist unchanged for extremely long periods, especially when the technology of earning a living changes very slowly. This was the case in African societies, as in al] other pre-capitalist societies. At the same time, the religious beliefs themselves react upon the mode of production, further slowing up progress in that respect. For instance, belief in prayer and in the intervention of ancestors and various Gods could easily be a substitute for innovations designed to control the impact af weather and environment.
The same kind of two-sided relationship also exists between the means of earning a living and the social patterns that arise in the process of work. In Africa, before the 15th century, the predominant principle of social relations was that of family and kinship associated with communalism. Every member of an African society had his position defined in terms of relatives on his mother’s side and on his father’s side. Some societies placed greater importance on matrilineal ties and others on patrilineal ties. Those things were crucial to the daily existence of a member of an African society, because land (the major means of production) was owned by groups such as the family or clan-the head of which was responsible for the land on behalf of al] kin, including fore-parents and those yet unborn. In theory, this pattern was explained by saying that the residents in any community were all direct descendants of the first person who settled the land. When a new group arrived, they often made a pretence that they too had ancestry dating back to the settling of the land or else they ensured that members of the earliest kin groups continued to perform the ceremonies related to the land and water of the region.
Similarly, the labour that worked the land was generally recruited on a family basis. A single family or household would till its own plots and it would also be available to share certain joint farming activities with other members of the extended family or clan. Annual hunts and river fishing were also organised by a whole extended family or village community. In a matrilineal society such as that of the Bemba (Zambia), the bridegroom spent a number of years working for the father of his bride; and many young men who had married daughters of the same household often formed work-teams to help each other. In Dahomey, a young man did not go to live with his wife’s family, but the dokpwe or work team allowed a son to participate in carrying out a task of some magnitude for the father of his wife. In both of those examples, the right of the father-in-law to acquire labour and the obligations of the son-in-law to give labour were based on kinship. This can be contrasted with capitalism where money buys labour, and with feudalism where the serf provides labour in order to have access to a portion of land which belongs to the landlord.
Having been produced on land that was family property and through family labour, the resultant crops and other goods were distributed on the basis of kinship ties. If a man’s crops were destroyed by some sudden calamity, relatives in his own village helped him. If the whole community was in distress, people moved to live with their kinsmen in another area where food was not scarce. In Akan country (Ghana),
clan system was highly organised, so that a man from Brong could visit Fante many hundreds of miles away and receive food and hospitality from a complete stranger who happened to be of his own clan.
Numerous examples could be brought forward to show the dominance of the family principle in the communal phase of African development. It affected the two principal factors of production — land and labour — as well as the system of distributing goods. European anthropologists who have studied African societies have done so mainly from a very prejudiced and racist position, but their researches can nevertheless provide abundant facts relating to family homesteads and compounds, to the extended family (including affinal members who join by association rather than by birth or marriage), and to lineages and clans which carried the principles of kinship alliances over large areas. However, while the exact details might have differed, similar social institutions were to be found among the Gauls of 11th century France, among the Viet of Indo-China at the same date, and virtually everywhere else in the world at one time or another — because communalism is one phase through which all human society passed.
In all African societies during the early epoch, the individual at every stage of life had a series of duties and obligations to others in the society as well as a set of rights: namely, things that he or she could expect or demand from other individuals. Age was a most important factor determining the extent of rights and obligations. The oldest members of the society were highly respected and usually in authority; and the idea of seniority through age was reflected in the presence of age-grades and age-sets in a great many African societies. Circumcision meant initiation into the society and into adulthood. From that moment, a man was placed with others in his own age-group and a woman likewise. Usually, there were at least three age-grades, corresponding roughly to the young, the middle-aged and the old.
In large parts of Europe, when communalism broke down it gave way to widespread slavery as the new form in which labour was mobilised. This slavery continued throughout the European Middle Ages, with the Crusades between Christians and Muslims giving an added excuse for enslaving people. Slavery in turn gave way to serfdom, whereby the labourer was tied to the land and could no longer be sold and transported. Because it took many years for the transition from slavery to feudalism to take place in Europe, it was common to find that feudal society still retained numbers of slaves. Parts of China, Burma and India also had considerable numbers of slaves as the society moved away from elementary communalism, but there was never any time-span when slavery was the dominant mode of production in Asia. In Africa, there were few slaves and certainly no epoch of slavery. Most of the s laves were in North African and other Muslim societies, and in those instances a man and his family could have the same slave status for generations, within the overall feudal structure of the society. Elsewhere in Africa, communal societies were introduced to the concept of owning alien human beings when they made captives in war. At first, those captives were in a very disadvantaged position, comparable to that of slaves, but very rapidly captives or their off-spring became ordinary members of the society, because there was no scope for the perpetual exploitation of man by man in a context that was neither feudal nor capitalist.
Both Marxists and non-Marxists alike (with different motivations) have pointed out that the sequence of modes of production noted in Europe were not reproduced in Africa. In Africa, after the communal stage there was no epoch of slavery arising out of internal evolution. Nor was there a mode of production which was the replica of European feudalism. Marx himself recognised that the stages of development in Asia had produced a form of society which could not easily be fitted into a European slot. That he called ‘the Asian mode of production’. Following along those lines, a number of Marxists have recently been discussing whether Africa was in the same category as Asia or whether Africa has its own ‘African mode of production’. The implications of the arguments are very progressive, because they are concerned with the concrete conditions of Africa rather than with preconceptions brought from Europe. But the scholars concerned seem to be bent on finding a single term to cover a variety of social formations which were existing in Africa from about the 5th century A.D. to the coming of colonialism. The assumption that will underlie this study is that most African societies before 1500 were in a transitional stage between the practice of agriculture (plus fishing and herding) in family communities and the practice of the same activities within states and societies comparable to feudalism.
In a sense, all history is transition from one stage to another, but some historical situations along the line have more clearly distinguishable characteristics than others. Thus under communalism there were no classes and there was equal access to land, and equality in distribution — at a low level¡ of technology and production. Feudalism involved great inequality in distribution of land and social products. The landlord class and its bureaucracy controlled the state and used it as an instrument for oppressing peasants, serfs, slaves and even craftsmen and merchants. The movement from communalism to feudalism in every continent took several centuries, and in some instances the interruption of internal evolution never allowed the process to mature. In Africa, there is no doubt that the societies which eventually reached feudalism were extremely few. So long as the feudal state was still in the making, elements that were communal co-existed with elements that were feudal and with some peculiarities due to African conditions. The transition was also characterised by a variety of social formations: There were pastoralists and cultivators, fishing societies and trading societies, raiders and nomads. They were all being progressively drawn into a relationship with the land, with each other, and with the state, through the expansion of productive forces and the network of distribution.
In feudal societies, there were clashes between the landlord and peasant classes and later on between the landlord and merchant classes. Under capitalism, the principal class contradiction inside Europe was between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Those hostile class relations provided the motive force within the respective societies. African communal societies had differences such as age-grades and differences between ordinary members and religious leaders such as rain-makers. However, those were not exploitative or antagonistic relations. The concept of class as a motive force in social development had not yet come about; and in the communal phase one must look at the fundamental forces of production to understand the process of change.
Using a number of methods and concepts, it is possible to reconstruct the most likely manner in which isolated family living was broken down and production increased. For instance, the rise of age-grades can be seen as responding to the need for greater solidarity, because age-grades included and cut across many families. Similarly, communal labour was entered into by cross-sections of the community to make work more efficient. The dokpwe work-group of Dahomey mentioned above had a wider application in serving the whole community to perform the heavy tasks of clearing land, housebuilding, etc. With the offer of some food and beer or palm wine, a work team or ‘work-bee’ could be mobilised in a short time in most African communities, including those of the light-skinned Berbers of North Africa.
Of course, while the organisation of labour might have helped to produce more, the principal change in the productive forces was that which comprised new techniques — using the word in its broadest sense to include both tools and skills in dealing with the environment and new plant and animal species. The first prerequisite for mastery of the environment is knowledge of that environment. By the 15th century, Africans everywhere had arrived at a considerable understanding of the total ecology — of the soils, climate, animals, plants and their multiple interrelationships. The practical application of this lay in the need lo trap animals, to build houses, to make utensils, to find medicines, and above al] to devise systems of agriculture.
In the centuries before the contact with Europeans, the overwhelmingly dominant activity in Africa was agriculture. In all the settled agricultural communities, people observed the peculiarities of their own environment and tried to find techniques for dealing with it in a rational manner. Advanced methods were used in some areas, such as terracing, crop rotation, green manuring, mixed farming and regulated swamp farming. The single most important technological change underlying African agricultural development was the introduction of iron tools, notably the axe and the hoe, replacing wooden and stone tools. It was on the basis of the iron tools that new skills were elaborated in agriculture as well as in other spheres of economic activity.
The coming of iron, the rise of cereal-growing and the making of pottery were all closely related phenomena. In most parts of Africa, it was in the period after the birth of Christ that those things came about. The rate of change over a few centuries was quite impressive. Millet and rice had been domesticated from wild grasses just as yams were made to evolve from selected wild roots. Most African societies raised the cultivation of their own particular staple to a fine art. Even the widespread resort to shifting cultivation with burning and light hoeing was not as childish as the first European colonialists supposed. That simple form of agriculture was based on a correct evaluation of the soil-potential, which was not as great as initially appears from the heavy vegetation; and when the colonialists started up-setting the thin top-soil the result was disastrous.
The above remarks show that when an outsider comes into a new ecological system, even if he is more skilled he does not necessarily function as effectively as those who have familiarised themselves with the environment over centuries; and the newcomer is likely to look more ridiculous if he is too arrogant lo realise that he has something to learn from the ‘Natives’. However, it is not being suggested that African agriculture in the early period was superior lo that of other continents. On the contrary, African standards of husbandry on the land and with livestock were not as high as those independently evolved in most parts of Asia and Europe. The weakness in Africa seemed to have been the lack of a professional interest in acquiring more scientific knowledge and in devising tools to lighten the load of labour as well as to transform hostile environments into areas suitable for human activity. As far as agriculture in Europe was concerned, this professionalism was undertaken by the class with a vested interest in the land — namely, the feudalist landowners and later the capitalist farmers.
It has previously been stated that development is very much determined by the social relations of production: i.e., those which have to do with people’s functions in producing wealth. Where a few people owned the land and the majority were tenants, this injustice at a particular stage of history allowed the few to concentrate on improving their land. In contrast, under communalism every African was assured of sufficient land to meet his own needs by virtue of being a member of a family or community. For that reason and because land was relatively abundant, there were few social pressures or incentives for technical changes to increase productivity.
In Asia, where much of the land was communally owned, there were tremendous advances in some types of farming, especially irrigated farming. This was because the state m India, China, Ceylon and other places intervened and engaged in irrigation and other hydraulic works on a large scale. This was also true of North Africa, which in most respects followed a pattern of evolution similar to that of Asia. The African land tenure pattern was closer to that of Asia than to that of Europe, but even the most politically developed African states did not p ay the role of initiators and supervisors of agricultural development. One reason may have been the lack of population pressure and hence the scattered nature of settlements. Another may have been state concentration on trading non-agricultural products to the exclusion of other things. Certainly, when African societies became linked up with other social systems outside the continent on the basis of trade, little attention was paid to agriculture.
When it comes Lo t he question of manufacturing in Africa before the time of the white man, it is also essential to recognise where achievements have been underestimated. African manufactures have been contemptuously treated or overlooked by European writers, because the modern conception of the world brings to mind factories and machines. However, ‘manufactures’ means literally ‘things made by hand’, and African manufacture in this sense had advanced appreciably. Most African societies fulfilled their own needs for a wide range of articles of domestic use as well as for farming tools and weapons.
One way of judging the level of economic development in Africa five centuries ago is through the quality of the products. Here a few examples will be given of articles which came to the notice of the outside world. Through North Africa, Europeans became familiar with a superior brand of red leather from Africa which was termed ‘Moroccan leather’. In fact, it was tanned and dyed by Hausa and Mandinga specialists in northern Nigeria and Mali. When direct contact was established between Europeans and Africans on the East and West Coasts, many more impressive items were displayed. As soon as the Portuguese reached the old kingdom of Kongo, they sent back word on the superb local cloths made from bark and palm fibre-and having a finish comparable to velvet. The Baganda were also expert bark-cloth makers. Yet, Africa had even better to offer in the form of cotton cloth, which was widely manufactured before the coming of the Europeans. Well into the present century, local cottons from the Guinea coast were stronger than Manchester cottons. Once European products reached Africa, Africans too were in a position to make comparisons between their commodities and those from outside. In Katanga and Zambia, the local copper continued to be preferred to the imported item, while the same held true for iron ‘in a place like Sierra Leone.
It was at the level of scale that African manufactures had not made a breakthrough. That is to say, the cotton looms were small, the iron smelters were small, the pottery was turned slowly by hand and not on a wheel, etc. Yet some changes were taking place in this context. Under communalism, each household met its own needs by making its own clothes, pots, mats, etc. That was true of every continent. However, economic expansion from there on was associated with specialisation and localisation of industry — people’s needs being met by exchange. This trend was displayed in the principal African manufactures, and notably in the cloth industry. Cotton fibre had to be ginned (separated from the seed), then carded and spun into yarn, before being woven.
Either the yarn or the woven cloth had to be dyed, and the making of the dye itself was a complex process. There was a time when all these stages would be performed by a single family or rather by the women in a single family, as in Yorubaland. But economic development was reflected in the separation of dyeing from cloth-making, and the separation of spinning from weaving. Each separation marked greater specialisation and quantitative and qualitative changes in output.
European industry has been intensively studied, and it is generally recognised that in addition to new machinery a most decisive factor in the growth of industry was the changeover from domestic production to the factory system, with the guild marking an intermediary stage. The guild was an association of specialists, passing on their skills by training apprentices and working in buildings set aside for that purpose. Africa, too, had elements of the guild system. At Timbuctu, there were tailoring guilds, while in Benin guilds of a very restricted caste type controlled the famous brass and bronze industry. In Nupe (now northern Nigeria) the glass and bead industry operated on a guild basis. Each Nupe guild had a common workshop and a master. The master obtained contracts, financed the guild, and disposed of the product. Both his own relatives as well as strangers were free to enter the guild and learn the various specialised tasks within the glass industry. What this amounted to was simply that there was increasing specialisation and division of labour.
Traditional African economies are usually called ‘subsistence’ economies. Often, small villages farmed, hunted, fished, etc., and looked after themselves independently with little reference to the rest of the continent. Yet, at the same time, the vast majority of African communities fulfilled at least a few of their needs by trade. Africa was a continent of innumerable trade routes. Some extended for huge distances like the routes across the Sahara or the routes connected with Katanga copper. But in the main, it was trade between neighbouring or not too far distant societies. Such trade was always a function of production. Various communities were producing surpluses of given commodities which could be exchanged for items which they lacked. In that way, the salt industry of one locality would be stimulated while the iron industry would be encouraged in another. In a coastal, lake or riverain area, dried fish could become profitable, while yams and mi4let would be grown in abundance elsewhere to provide a basis for exchange. The trade so readily distinguishable in every part of the continent between the 10th and 15th centuries was an excellent indicator of economic expansion and other forms of development which accompanied increasing mastery over the environment.
As part of the extension of trade, it was noticeable that barter was giving way to some forms of money exchange. Barter was generally practised when the volume of trade was small and when only a few commodities were involved. However, as trade became more complicated, some items began to be used as the standards for measuring other goods. Those items could be kept as a form of wealth easily transformed into other commodities when the need arose. For example, sa4t, cloth, iron hoes and cowry shells were popular forms of money in Africa — apart from gold and copper, which were much rarer and therefore restricted to measuring things of great value. In a few places, such as North Africa, Ethiopia and the Kongo, the monetary systems were quite sophisticated indicating that the economy was far removed from simple barter and subsistence.
There were many other changes of a socio-political nature accompanying the expansion of the productive forces. Indeed, things such as agricultural practices, industry, trade, money and political structures were inseparable — each interacting with the others. The most developed areas of Africa were those where all the elements converged, and the two socio-political features which were the outstanding indices to development were the increase of stratification and the consolidation of states.
The principles of family and deferment to age were slowly breaking down throughout the centuries preceding the arrival of Europeans in their sailing ships. Changes in technology and in the division of labour made that inevitable. The introduction of iron, for example, gave economic and military strength to those who could make and acquire it. Better tools meant more food and a greater population, but the latter tended to outrun the supplies of material goods, and the possibilities of wealth opened up by the possession of iron were seized upon by a few to their own advantage. Skilled workers in iron, cloth, pottery, leather, salt-making, etc. tended to pass on their skills in closed groups known as castes. That ensured that the division of labour operated in their favour, because their position was privileged and
strategic. Iron workers were particularly favoured in some African societies in which they either became the ruling groups or were very close to the top of the social hierarchy. The division of labour also carried over into non-material spheres, producing professional minstrels and historians. They too had certain special rights and privileges, notably the ability to criticise freely without fear of reprisal. In some circumstances, skilled castes were reduced to very low status. But what was rare, and in any case it does not contradict the general assertion that the tendency was for communalism to give rise to more and more stratification.
Social stratification was the basis for the rise of classes and for social antagonisms. To some extent, this was a logical follow-up of the previous non-antagonistic differences in communal society. For instance, old men could use their control over land allocation, over bride-price and over other traditional exchanges to try and establish themselves as a privileged economic stratum. Secret Societies arose in the area that is now Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, and they permitted knowledge, power and wealth to pass into the hands of the elders and ultimately to the elders of particular lineages.
The contradiction between young men and their elders was not the type that caused violent revolutions. But young men clearly had reasons for resenting their dependence on elders, especially when it came to such vital personal matters as the acquisition of wives. When disgruntled, they could either leave their communities and set up for themselves or they could challenge the principles within the society. In either case, the trend was that some individuals and families were more successful than others, and those families established themselves as permanent rulers. Then age ceased to matter as much because even a junior could succeed to his father, once the notion of royal blood or royal lineage was established.
In the period of transition, while African society retained many features that were undisputably communal, it also accepted the principle that some families or clans or lineages were destined to rule and others were not. This was true not only of cultivators but of pastoralists as well. In fact, livestock became unevenly distributed much more readily van [and; and those families with the largest herds became socially and politically dominant.
An even more important aspect of the process of social stratification was that brought about by contact between different social formations. Fishermen had to relate to cultivators and the latter to pastoralists. There were even social formations such as bands of hunters and food-gatherers who had not yet entered the phase of communal co-operation Often the relationship was peaceful. In many parts of the African continent, there arose what is known as ‘symbiosis’ between groups earning their living in different ways -which really means that they agreed to exchange goods and co-exist to their mutual advantage. However, there was also room for considerable conflict; and when one group imposed itself by force on another, the result was invariably the rise of social classes with the conquerors on top and the conquered at the bottom.
The most common clashes between different social formations were those between pastoralists and cultivators. In some instances, the cultivators had the upper hand, as for instance in West Africa, were cultivators like the Mandinga and Hausa were the overlords of the Fulani cattle en right up 18th and 19th centuries. The reverse situation was found in the Horn of Africa and most of East Africa. Another type of clash was that in which raiding peoples took power over agriculturalists, as happened in Angola and in and around the Sahara, where the Moors and Tuareg exacted tribute from and even enslaved more peaceful and sedentary peoples. The result in each case was that a relatively small faction held control of the land and (where relevant) cattle, mines and long-distance trade. It meant also that the minority group could make demands on the labour of their subjects — not on the basis of kinship but because a relationship of domination and subordination existed
In truly communal societies, the leadership was based on religion and family ties. The senior, members of the society shared the work with others and received more or less the same share of the total product. Certainly, no one starved while others stuffed themselves and threw away the excess. However, once African societies began to expand by internal evolution, conquest or trade, the style of life of the ruling group became noticeably different. They consumed the most and the best that the society offered. Yet, they were least directly involved in the production of wealth by farming, cattle herding, fishing, etc. The ruling class and the kings in particular had the right to call upon the labour of the common man for certain projects and for a given number of days per year. This is known as corvée labour, from a similar procedure followed in feudal France. Such a system meant greater exploitation and at the same time greater development of productive resources.
Social stratification as outlined above went hand in hand with the rise of the state. The notion of royal lineages and commoner clans could not have any meaning except in a political state with a concrete geographical existence. It is significant that the great dynasties of the world ruled over feudal states. To the European or European-trained ear, the names of the Tudors, Bourbons, Hohenzollerns and Romanovs would already be familiar. Japan had its Kamakuras and its Tokugawas ; China had its T'ang and its Ming; India had its Guptas and its Marathas; and so on. All of those were feudal dynasties existing in a period some centuries after the birth of Christ, but in addition there were dynasties which ruled in each of those countries before feudal land-tenure and class relations had fully crystallized. It means that the transition to feudalism in Europe [* In Europe, communalism gave way to slaver and therefore dynasties an strong states were present on the eve of the slavery epoch.] and Asia saw the rise of ruling groups and the state as inter-dependent parts of the same process. In that respect, Africa was no different.
From a political perspective, the period of transition from communalism to feudalism in Africa was one of state formation. At the beginning (and for many centuries), the state remained weak and immature. It acquired definite territorial boundaries, but inside those boundaries subjects lived in their own communities with scarcely any contact with the ruling class until the time came to pay an annual tax or tribute. Only when a group within the state refused to pay the tribute did the early African states mobilise their repressive machinery in the form of an army to demand what it considered as its rights from subjects. Slowly, various states acquired greater power over their many communities of citizens. They exacted corvée labour, they enlisted soldiers, and they appointed regular tax-collectors and local administrators. The areas of Africa in which labour relations were breaking out of communal restrictions corresponded to areas in which sophisticated political states were emerging. The rise of states
was itself a form of development, which increased the scale of African politics and merged small ethnic groups into wider identities suggestive of nations.
In some ways, too much importance is attached to the growth of political states. It was in Europe that the nation state reached an advanced stage, and Europeans tended to use the presence or absence of well-organised polities as a measure of ‘civilisation’. That is not entirely justified, because in Africa there were small political units which had relatively advanced material and non-material cultures. For instance, neither the Ibo people of Nigeria nor the Kikuyu of Kenya ever produced large centralised governments in their traditional setting. But both had sophisticated systems of political rule based on clans and (in the case of the Ibo) on religious oracles and ‘Secret Societies’. Both of them were efficient agriculturalists and iron workers, and the Ibo were manufacturing brass and bronze items ever since the 9th century A.D., if not earlier.
However, after making the above qualification, it can be conceded that on the whole the larger states in Africa had the most effective no political structures and greater capacity or producing food ,clothing, minerals and other material artefacts. It can readily be understood that those societies which
had ruling classes were concerned with acquiring luxury and prestige items. The privileged groups in control of the state were keen to stimulate manufactures as well as to acquire them through trade. They were the ones that mobilised labour to produce a greater surplus above subsistence needs, and in the process they encouraged specialisation and the division of labour.
Scholars often distinguish between groups in Africa which had states and those which were ‘stateless’. Sometimes, the word stateless is carelessly or even abusively used; but it does describe those peoples who had no machinery of government coercion and no concept of a political unit wider than the family or the village. After al], if there is no class stratification in a society, it follows that there is no state, because the state arose as an instrument to be used by a particular class to control the rest of society in its own interests. Generally speaking, one can consider the stateless societies as among the older forms of socio-political organisation in Africa, while the large states represented an evolution away from communalism — sometimes to the point of feudalism.
Again, it must be emphasised that a survey of the scene in Africa before the coming of Europeans would reveal considerable unevenness of development. There were social formations representing hunting bands, communalism feudalism and many positions intermediate between the last two. The remainder of this section will be devoted to a review of the principal features of several of the most developed societies and states of Africa in the last thousand years or so before Africa came into permanent contact with Europe. The areas to be considered are Egypt, Ethiopia, Nubia, Morocco, the Western Sudan, the inter-lacustrine zone of East Africa and Zimbabwe. Each serves as an example of what development meant in early Africa and what was the direction of social movement. To a greater or lesser extent, each was also a leading force on the continent in the sense of carrying neighbours along the same path, either by absorbing them or influencing them more indirectly.