In introducing the concept of development, attention was drawn to the fact that the slow imperceptible expansion in social productive capacity ultimately amounted to a qualitative difference, with the arrival at the new stage sometimes being announced by social violence. It can be said that most African societies had not reached a new stage that was markedly different from communalism, and hence the use in this study of the cautious term, ‘transitional’. It can also be noted that nowhere had there been any internal social revolutions. The latter have taken place in European and world history only where class consciousness led to the massive intervention of people’s wills within the otherwise involuntary socio-economic process. Such observations help to situate African development up to the 15th century at a level that was below mature class-ridden feudalism.
It should also be re-iterated that slavery as a mode of production was not present in any African society, although some slaves were to be found where the decomposition of communal equality had gone furthest. This is an outstanding feature illustrating the autonomy of the African path within the, broader framework of universal advance. One of the paradoxes in studying this early period of African history is that it cannot be fully comprehended without first deepening our knowledge of the world at large, and yet the true picture of the complexities of the development of man and society can only be drawn after intensive study of the long neglected African continent. There is no escaping the use of comparisons as an aid to clarity; and indeed the parallels have been narrowly restricted to Europe when they could also be provided by examples from Asian history. Therein lies the cultural imperialism which makes it easier for the European-educated African to recall names like the (French) Capetians and the (Prussian) Hohenzollerns rather than the Vietnamese dynasties of Id and Tran for the latter are either unknown to him, or would be considered unimportant if known, or might even be judged too difficult to pronounce!
Several historians of Africa have pointed out that after surveying the developed areas of the continent in the 15th century and those within Europe at the same date, the difference between the two was in no way to Africa’s discredit. Indeed, the first Europeans to reach West and East Africa by sea were the ones who indicated that in most respects African development was comparable to that which they knew. To take but one example, when the Dutch visited the city of Benin they described it thus:
The town seems to be very great. When you enter into it, you go into a great broad street, not paved, which seems to be seven or eight times broader than the Warmoes street in Amsterdam....
The king’s palace is a collection of buildings which occupy as much space as the town of Harlem, and which is enclosed with walls. There are numerous apartments for the Prince’s ministers and fine galleries, most of which are as big as those on the Exchange at Amsterdam. They are supported by wooden pillars encased with copper, where their victories are depicted, and which are carefully kept very clean.
The town is composed of thirty main streets, very straight and 120 feet wide, apart from an infinity of small intersecting streets. The houses are close to one another, arranged in good order. These people are in no way inferior to the Dutch as regards cleanliness; they wash and scrub their houses so well that they are polished and shining like a looking-glass.
Yet, it would be self delusion to imagine that all things are exactly equal in Benin and in Holland. European society was already more aggressive, more expansionist and more dynamic in producing new forms. The dynamism within Europe was contained within the merchant and manufacturing class. In the galleries of the exchange at Amsterdam sat Dutch burghers — the ancestors of the modern bourgeoisie of industry and finance. This class in 15th century Europe was able to push the feudal landowners forward or aside. They began to discard conservatism and to create the intellectual climate in which change was seen as desirable. A spirit of innovation arose in technology and transformation of the mode of production was quickened. When Europe and Africa established close relations through trade, there was therefore already a slight edge in Europe’s favour — an edge representing the difference between a fledgling capitalist society and one that was still emerging from communalism.