It is logical to start with Egypt as the oldest culture in Africa which rose to eminence. The glories of Egypt under the Pharaohs are well known and do not need recounting. At one time, it used to be said or assumed that ancient Egypt was not ‘African'-a curious view which is no longer seriously propounded. However, for the present purposes, it is more relevant to refer to Egypt under Arab and Turkish rule from the 7th century onwards. During that latter period, the ruling class was foreign, and that meant that Egypt’s internal development was tied up with other countries, notably Arabia and Turkey. Colonised Egypt sent abroad great amounts of wealth in the form of food and revenue and that was a very negative factor. But the tendency was for the ruling foreigners to deal with their own imperial masters and to act simply as a ruling elite within Egypt, which became an independent feudal state.
One of the first features of feudalism to arrive in Egypt was the military aspect. The Arabs, Turks and Circassian invaders were all militarily inclined. This was particularly true of the Mamluks who held power from the 13th century onwards. Political power in Egypt from the 7th century lay in the hands of a military oligarchy which delegated the actual government to bureaucrats, thereby creating a situation similar to that in places like China and Indo-China. Even more fundamental was the fact that land tenure relations were undergoing change in such a way that a true feudal class came on the scene. All the conquerors made land-grants to their followers and military captains. Initially, the land in Egypt was the property of the state to be rented out to cultivators. The state then had the right to re-appropriate the land and allocate it once more, somewhat like the head of a village community acting as the guardian of the lands of related families. However, the ruling military elements also became a new class of landowners. By the 15th century, most of the land in Egypt was the property of the Sultan and his military lords.
If there was a small class which monopolised most of the land, it followed that there was a large class of landless. Peasant cultivators were soon converted into mere agricultural labourers, tied to the soil as tenants or vassals of the feudal landlords. These peasants with little or no land were known as the fellahin. In Europe, there are legends about the exploitation and suffering of the Russian serfs or muhzík under feudalism. In Egypt, the exploitation of the fellahin was carried out even more thoroughly. The feudalists had no interest in the fellahín beyond seeing that they produced revenue. Most of what the peasants produced was taken from them in the form of tax, and the tax-collectors were asked to perform the miracle of taking from the peasants even that which they did not have! When their demands were not met, the peasants were brutalised.
The antagonistic nature of the contradiction between the feudal warrior landlords and the fellahin was revealed by a number of peasant revolts, notably in the early part of the 8th century. In no continent was feudalism an epoch of romance for the labouring classes, but the elements of development were seen in the technology and the increase in productive capacity. Under the patronage of the Fatimid dynasty (969 A.D. to 1170 n.n.), science flourished and industry reached a new level in Egypt. Windmills and waterwheels were introduced from Persia in the 10th century. New industries were introduced-paper-making, sugar-refining, porcelain, and the distillation of gasolene. The older industries of textiles, leather and metal were improved upon. The succeeding dynasties of the Ayyubids and the Mamluks also achieved a great deal, especially in the building of canals, dams, bridges and aqueducts, and in stimulating commerce with Europe. Egypt at that time was still able to teach Europe many things and was flexible enough to receive new techniques in return.
Although feudalism was based on the land, it usually developed towns at the expense of the countryside. The high points of Egyptian feudal culture were associated with the towns. The Fatimids founded the city of Cairo, which became one of the most famous and most cultured in the world, seat to the legendary ‘Arabian Knights’. At the same time, they established the Azhar University which exists today as one of the oldest in the world. The feudalists and the rich merchants were the ones who benefitted most, but the craftsmen and other city dwellers of Cairo, Alexandria, etc. were able to participate to some extent in the leisured lives of the towns.
Ethiopia too, at the start of its history as a great power, was ruled over by foreigners. The kingdom of Axum was one o the most important nuclei around which feudal Ethiopia eventually emerged, and Axum was founded near the Red Sea coast by a dynasty of Sabean origin from the other side of the Red Sea. But the kings of Axum were never agents of foreign powers, and they became completely Africanised. The founding of Axum goes back to the lst century n.D. and its ruling class was Christianised within a few centuries. After that they moved inland and participated in the development of the Christian feudal Ethiopian state.
The Ethiopian, Tigrean and Amharic ruling class was a proud one, tracing its descent to Solomon. As a state which incorporated several other smaller states and kingdoms, it was an empire in the same sense as feudal Austria or Prussia. The Emperor of Ethiopia was addressed as ‘Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, Emperor of Ethiopia, King of Kings’. In practice, however, the ‘Solomonic’ line was not unbroken. Most of the consolidation of the inland Ethiopian plateau was carried out in the 12th century by an intruding dynasty, the Zagwe, who made claims to descent from Moses. The Zagwe kings distinguished themselves by building several churches cut out of solid rock. The architectural achievements attest to the level of skill reached by Ethiopians as well as the capacity of the state to mobilise labour on a huge scale. Such tasks could not have been achieved by voluntary family labour but only through the labour of an exploited class.
A great deal is known of the superstructure of the Ethiopian empire, especially its Christianity and its literate culture. History was written to glorify the king and the nobility, especially under the restored ‘Solomonic’ dynasty which replaced the Zagwe in 1270 A.D. Fine illuminated books and manuscripts became a prominent element of Amharic culture. Equally fine garments and jewellery were produced for the ruling class and for the church. The top ecclesiastics were part of the nobility, and the institution of the monastery grew to great proportions in Ethiopia. The association of organised religion with the state was implicit in communal societies, where the distinction between politics, economics, religion, medicine, etc. was scarcely drawn. Under feudalism everywhere, Church and State were in close alliance. The Buddhists were pre-eminent in feudal Vietnam, Burma, Japan and to a lesser extent in China. In India, a limited Buddhist influence was overwhelmed by that of the Hindus and Muslims; and of course in feudal Europe it was the Catholic Church which played the role paralleled by the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia.
The wealth of Ethiopia rested on an agricultural base. The fertile uplands supported cereal-growing and there was considerable livestock raising, including the rearing of horses. Craft skills were developed in a number of spheres, and foreign craftsmen were encouraged. For instance, early in the 15th century, Turkish artisans settled in the country and made coats of mail and weapons for the Ethiopian army. Coptics from Egypt were also introduced to help run the financial administration. No one denies that the word ‘Feudal’ can be applied to Ethiopia in those centuries, because there existed a clear-cut class contradiction between the landlords and the peasants. Those relations grew out of communalism that had characterised Ethiopia much earlier like other parts of Africa.
Feudal Ethiopia included lands that were communally owned by village and ethnic communities as well as lands belonging directly to the crown; but in addition large territories were conferred by the conquering Amharic dynasties on members of the royal family, on soldiers and priests. Those who received huge areas of land became Ras or provincial princes, and they had judges appointed by the emperor attached to them. The peasants in their domain were reduced to tenants who could earn their living only by offering produce to the landlord and taxes to the state (also in produce). The landlords exempted themselves from tax — a typical situation in feudal societies, and one which fed the fires of revolution in Europe when the bourgeois class grew powerful enough to challenge the fact that the feudalists were, using political power to tax everyone but themselves. Ethiopia of course never reached that stage of transition to capitalism. What is clear is that the transition to feudalism had been made.
Nubia was another Christian region in Africa, but one which is not as famous as Ethiopia. In the 6th century A.D., Christianity was introduced onto the middle Nile in the districts once ruled by the famous state of Kush or Meroe. In the period before the birth of Christ, Kush was a rival to Egypt in splendour, and it ruled Egypt for a number of years. Its decline in the 4th century A.D. was completed by attacks from the then expanding Axum. The three small Nubian states which arose some time afterwards were to some extent the heirs of Kush, although after their conversion to Christianity it was this religion which dominated Nubian culture.
The Nubian states (which had consolidated to two by about the 8th century) achieved most from the 9th to the 11th centuries, in spite of great pressures from Arab and Islamic enemies,, and they did not finally succumb until the 14th century. Scholarly interest in Nubia has focussed on the ruins of large red-brick churches and monasteries which had murals and frescoes of fine quality. Several conclusions can be drawn from that material evidence. In the first place, a great deal of labour was required to build those churches along with the stone fortifications which often surrounded them. As with the pyramids of Egypt or the feudal castles of Europe, the common builders were intensely exploited and probably coerced. Secondly, skilled labour was involved in the making of the bricks and m the architecture. The paintings indicate that the skills surpassed mere manual dexterity, and the same artistic merit is noticeable in fragments of painted pottery recovered from Nubia.
It has already been indicated that the church and monasteries played a major role in Ethiopia, and this is worth elaborating on with respect to Nubia. The monastery was a major unit of production. Numerous peasant huts were clustered round each monastery, which functioned very much like the manor of a feudal lord. The wealth that accumulated inside the churches was alienated from the peasants, while the finest aspects of the non-material culture such as books were accessible only to a small minority. Not only were the peasants illiterate, but in many cases they were non-Christians or only nominally Christian — judging from the better known Ethiopian example of the same date. When the Christian ruling class of Nubia was eliminated by the Muslims, very little of the achievements of the old state remained in the fabric of the people’s daily lives. Such reversals in the historical process are not uncommon throughout human experience. Ultimately, the dialectic of development asserts itself, but some ebbing and flowing is inevitable. The Nubian states were not in existence in the 15th century, but they constitute a legitimate example of h e potentialities of African development.
One can go further and discern that Kush was still contributing to African development long after the kingdom had declined and given way to Christian Nubia. It is clear that Kush was a centre from which many positive cultural elements diffused to the rest of Africa. Brass-work of striking similarity to that of Meroe was re-produced in West Africa. and the technique by which West Africans cast their brass is generally held to have originated in Egypt and to have been passed on via Kush. Above all, Kush was one of the earliest and most vigorous centres of iron mining and smelting in Africa, and it was certainly one of the sources from which this crucial aspect of technology passed to the rest of the continent. That is why the middle Nile was a leading force in the social, economic and political development of Africá as a whole.
(d) The Maghreb
Islam was the great ‘revealed’ religion which played the major role in the period of the feudal development of the Maghreb — the lands at the western extremity of the Islamic empires that stretched across Africa, Asia and Europe within years of the Prophet Muhammad’s death in the 7th century of the Christian era. The Arab empire-building under the banner of Islam is a classic example of the role of religion in that respect. Ibn Khaldun, a great 14th century North African historian, was of the opinion that Islam was the most important force allowing the Arabs to transcend the narrow boundaries of small family communities which were constantly struggling among each other. He wrote:
Arab pride, touchiness and intense jealousy of power render it impossible for them lo agree. Only when their nature has been permeated by a religious impulse are they transformed, so that the tendency lo anarchy is replaced by a spirit of mutual defence. Consider the moment when religion dominated their policy and led them lo observe a religious law designed lo promote the moral and material interests of civilisation. Under a series of successors to the Prophet (Muhammad), how vast their empire became and haw strongly was it established.
The above remarks by Ibn Khaldun cover only one aspect of Arab imperial expansion, but it was certainly a crucial one, and attested to the essential role of ideology in the developmental process. That has to be considered in relation w and in addition to the material circumstances. Furthermore, in judging the material conditions at any given time which might form the basis for further expansion of production and further growth of the society’s power, it is also necessary to consider the historical legacy. Like Islamic Egypt and Christian Nubia, the Maghreb of the Islamic dynasties inherited a rich historical and cultural tradition. It was the seat of the famous society of Carthage which flourished between 1200 B.C. and 200 B.C., and which was a blend of foreign influences from the eastern Mediterranean with the Berber peoples of the Maghreb. The region had subsequently been an important section of the Roman and Byzantine empires; and before becoming Muslim the Maghreb had actually distinguished itself as a centre of non-conformist Christianity which went under the name of Donatism.
The striking achievements of Muslim Maghreb were spread over the naval, military, commercial and cultural spheres. Its navies controlled the western Mediterranean and its armies took over most of Portugal and Spain. When the Muslim advance into Europe was turned back in the year 732 A.D., North African armies were already deep into France. In the 11th century, the armies of the Almoravid dynasty gathered strength from deep within Senegal and Mauretania and launched themselves across the Strait of Gibraltar to reinforce Islam in Spain which was being threatened by Christian kings. For over a century, the Almoravid rule in North Africa and Iberia was characterised by commercial wealth and a resplendent literary and architectural record. After being ejected from Spain in the 1230s, the Maghreb Muslims or Moors as they were called continued to maintain a dynamic society on African soil. As one index to the standard of social life, it has been pointed out that public baths, were common in the cities of Maghreb at a time when in Oxford the doctrine was still being propounded that the washing of the body was dangerous act.
One of the most instructive aspects of the history of the Maghreb is the inter-action of social formations to produce the state. A major problem that had to be resolved was that of integrating the isolated Berber groups into larger political communities. There were also contradictions between sedentary groups and nomadic pastoral sectors of the population.
The Berbers were mainly pastoralists organised in patriarchal clans, and in groups of clans connected by a democratic council of all adult males. Grazing land was under communal ownership, and maintaining irrigation was also a collective responsibility for the agriculturalists. Yet, cooperation within kin-groups contrasted with hostility between those who had no immediate blood ties, and it was only in the face of the Arab invaders that the Berbers united-using a nonconformist Kharijite Islam as their ideology. The Kharijite revolt of 739 A.D. is considered in one sense as being nationalistic and in another sense a revolt of the exploited classes against the Arab military, bureaucratic and theocratic elite, who professed the orthodox Sunni Islam. That revolt of the Berber masses laid the basis for Moroccan nationalism, and three centuries later the Almohad dynasty (1147-1270) brought political unity to the whole of Maghreb as a product of the synthesis of Berber and Arab achievements in the sphere of state-building.
Unfortunately, the Maghreb nation did not last; and instead the region was bequeathed with the nuclei of three nation states-Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Within each of the three areas, divisive tendencies were very strong in the 14th and 15th centuries. For instance, in Tunisia the ruling Hafsid dynasty was constantly involved in crushing local rebellions and defending the integrity of the state. It has been noted already that the political state in Africa and elsewhere was a consequence of development of the productive forces, but the state in turn also conditioned the rate at which the economy advanced, because the two were dialectically inter-related. Therefore, the failure of the Maghreb to build a nation state and the difficulties of consolidating state power even within the three divisions of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia were factors holding back the further development of the region. Moreover, political division weakened the Maghreb vis a vis foreign enemies, and Europe was soon to take advantage of those internal weaknesses, by launching attacks from the year 1415 onwards.
The experience of the Maghreb can be drawn upon to illustrate the lengthy nature of transition from the one mode of production to another and the fact that two different ways of organising society could co-exist side by side over centuries. Throughout the period under discussion, a great deal of land in that part of Africa retained its communal ownership and family labour. Meanwhile, considerable socioeconomic stratification had taken place and antagonistic classes had emerged. At the very bottom of the ladder were the slaves or harratine, who were most often black Africans from south of the Sahara. Then came the akhamme or landless peasants who worked the proprietors’ land and gave the latter four-fifths of whatever was produced. Special mention should be made of the position of women, who were not a class by themselves but who suffered from deprivations at the hands of their own menfolk and of the male-controlled ruling class. Therefore, the women in the akhamme class were in a very depressed condition. At the top of the society were the big landowners, who wielded political power along with other devotees of the Muslim religion.
None of the African societies discussed so far can be said to have thrown up capitalist forms to the point where the accumulation of capital became the principal motive force. However, they all had flourishing commercial sectors, moneylenders and strong handicraft industries which were the features which ultimately gave birth to modern capitalism through evolution and revolution. The Maghreb merchants were quite wealthy. They gained from the energies of the cultivators, cattlemen and shepherds; they indirectly or directly mobilised the labour in the mines of copper, lead, antimony and iron; and they appropriated surplus from the skills of the craftsmen making textiles, carpets, leather, pottery and articles of brass and iron. The merchants were a class of accumulators, and their dynamism made itself felt not only in the Maghreb but also in the Sahara and across the Sahara in West Africa. In that way, the development of the Maghreb acted as a factor in the development of what was called the Western Sudan.
(e) The Western Sudan
To the Arabs, the whole of Africa south of the Sahara was the Bilad as Sudan — the land of the Blacks. The name survives today only in the Republic of Sudan on the Nile, but references to the Western Sudan in early times concern the zone presently occupied by Senegal, Mali, Upper Volta and Niger, plus parts of Mauretania, Guinea and Nigeria. The Western Sudanic empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai have become by-words in the struggle to illustrate the achievements of the African past. That is the area to which African nationalists and progressive whites point when they want to prove that Africans too were capable of political, administrative and military greatness in the epoch before the white men. However, a people’s demands at any given time change the kinds of questions to which historians are expected to provide answers. Today the masses of Africa seek ‘development’ and total emancipation. The issues that need resolution with regard to Western Sudanic history are those which illumine the principles underlying the impressive development of certain states in the heart of Africa.
The origins of the empire of Ghana go back to the 5th century A.D., but it reached its peak between the 9th and 11th centuries. Mali had its rime in the 13th and 14th centuries, and Songhai in the two subsequent centuries. None of the three were in exactly the same location; and the ethnic origin of the three ruling classes was different; but they should be regarded as ‘successor states’, following essentially the same line of evolution and growth. They have been called trading states so o ten t at it is almost forgotten that the principal activity of the population was agriculture. It was a zone in which several species of millet were domesticated, along with a species of rice, several other food plants and at least one type of cotton. It was a zone which saw the relatively early introduction of iron in the millennium before the birth of Christ, and iron tools exercised their attendant benefits on agriculture. The open savannah country of the Western Sudan also favoured livestock. Some groups such as the Fulani were exclusively pastoralist, but livestock was to be found in varying degrees throughout the huge region. Cattle were the most significant domesticated animals, followed by goats. The rearing of horses, mules and donkeys was also carried on which was made possible by wide tsetse-free areas. To add further variety, the great Niger river allowed for the rise of specialist fishermen.
Population, the indispensable factor of production, could only have reached the density which it did because of increasing food supplies; while handicraft industry and trade sprang primarily from the products of agriculture. Cotton cultivation led to the making of cotton cloth with such a variety of specialisation that there was internal trade in particular cotton cloths, such as the unbleached fabric of Futa Djalon and the blue cloth of Jenne. Pastoralism provided a variety of products for manufacture, notably cattle hides and goatskins which went into the making of sandals, leather jackets for military use, leather pouches for amulets, and so on. Horses served as a means of transport to the ruling class and made a major contribution to warfare and the size of the state. For the purposes of interbreeding, some horses were imported from North Africa where the Arab bloodstock was of the finest quality. For pack transport, the donkey was of course better fitted; and the Mossi kingdom of Upper Volta for a long time specialised in breeding those pack animals which were associated with long distance trade within the vast region. On the edge of the Sahara, the camel took over-another ‘technological’ asset introduced from the north.
Mining was a sphere in which production was important. Some of the royal clans in the Western Sudan, such as that of the Kante were specialist blacksmiths. In a period of expansion by warfare, the control over iron supplies and over iron-working skills was obviously decisive. Besides, the two most important articles of long distance trade were salt and gold, both obtained principally by mining. Neither the salt supplies nor the gold supplies were originally within the domains of Ghana, but it took steps to integrate them either by trade or by territorial expansion. Ghana struck north into the Sahara, and towards the very end of the 10th century it captured the town of Awdaghast from the Berbers-a town useful for the control of the incoming salt mined in the middle of the desert. Similarly Mali and Songhai sought to secure control of Taghaza which was the largest single centre of salt mining. Songhai took the prize of Taghaza from the desert Berbers and held it for many years in the face of opposition from Morocco. Another crucial but seldom stressed element in the pattern of production was the ownership of copper mines in the Sahara by both Mali and Songhai.
To the south of Ghana lay the important sources of gold on the Upper Senegal and its tributary the Faleme. It is said that Ghana obtained its gold by ‘silent’ or ‘dumb’ barter which was described as follows:
The merchants beat great drums to summon the local natives, who were naked and lived in holes in the ground. From these holes, which were doubtless the pits from which they dug the gold, they refused to emerge in the presence of the foreign merchants. The latter, therefore, used to arrange their trade goods in piles on the river bank and retire out of sight. The local natives then came and placed a heap of gold beside each pile and withdrew. If the merchants were satisfied they took the gold and retreated, beating their drums to signify that the market was over.
The writer of the above lines (E. W. Bovill) a supposed European authority on the Western Sudan, then goes on to say that silent trade or dumb barter was a feature of the Western Sudan’s gold trade throughout all the centuries until modern times. Actually, the only thing dumb about the trade is what he writes about it. The story of dumb barter for gold in West Africa is repeated in several accounts, starting with ancient Greek scripts. It is clearly a rough approximation of the first attempts at exchange of a people coming into contact with strangers, and it was not a permanent procedure. During the rule of Ghana, the people of the two principal goldfields of Bambuk and Boure were drawn into regular trade relations with the Western Sudan. Ghana probably and Mali certainly exercised political rule over the two regions, where the mining and distribution of gold became a very complicated process. During the centuries of Mali’s greatness, extensive mining of gold began in the forest of modern Ghana to supply the trans-Saharan gold trade. The existing social systems expanded and strong states emerged to deal with the sale of gold. The merchants who come from the great cities of the Western Sudan had to buy the gold by weight, using a small accurate measurement known as the benda.
When the Portuguese arrived at the river Gambia and got a glimpse at how gold was traded on the upper reaches of the river, the marvelled at the dexterity shown by the Mandinga merchants. The latter carried very finely balanced scales, inlaid with silver and suspended from cords of twisted silk. The gold dust and nuggets were weighed with brass weights. The expertise of the Mandinga in measuring gold and in other forms of commerce was largely due to the fact that within that ethnic group there was a core of professional traders, commonly referred to as the Dioulas. They were not very wealthy, but were distinguished by their willingness to travel thousands of miles from one end of the Western Sudan to another. They also reached the coast or very near to the coast in Gambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia. Ivory Coast and Ghana. The Dioulas handled a long list of African products — salt from the Atlantic coast and the Sahara, kola nuts from the forests of Liberia and Ivory Coast, gold from Akan country in modern Ghana, leather from Hausaland, dried fish from the coast, cotton cloth from many districts and especially from the central arcas of the Western Sudan, iron from Futa Djalon in modern Guinea, shea butter from the upper Gambia, and a host of other local articles. In addition, the trade of the Western Sudan involved the circulation of goods originating in North Africa, notably fabrics from Egypt and the Maghreb and coral beads from Ceuta on the Mediterranean coast. Therefore, the pattern of Western Sudanic and trans-Saharan commerce was integrating the resources of a wide area stretching from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean.
Long-distance trade across the Sahara had special characteristics. Some scholars have spoken of the camel as the ship of the Sahara, and the towns which the camel caravans entered on either side of the desert were called ‘ports’. In practice, the trans-Saharan trade was as great an achievement as crossing an ocean. Much more than local trade, it stimulated the famous cities of the region such as Walata, Timbuctu, Gao and Jenne; and it brought in the literate Islamic culture. Long-distance trade strengthened state power, which meant in effect the power of the lineages who transformed themselves into a permanent aristocracy. However, it is a gross oversimplification of cause and effect to say that it was the trans-Saharan trade which built the Western Sudanic empires. Ghana, Mali and Songhai grew out of their environment, and out of the efforts of their own population; and it was only after they had a certain status that their ruling classes could express an interest in long-distance trade and could provide the security to permit that trade to flourish.
It is significant that the Western Sudan never provided any significant capital for the trans-Saharan trade. The capital came from the merchants of Fez, Tlemcen and other cities of the Maghreb; and they sent their agents to reside m e Western Sudan. To some extent, it was a colonial relationship because the exchange was unequal in North Africa’s favour. However, the gold trade was at least capable of stimulating the development of the productive forces within West Africa, while the accompanying trade in slaves had no such benefits. Ghana, Mali and Songhai all exported small numbers of slaves, and the empire of Kanem-Bornu gave slave exports a much higher priority because it controlled no gold supplies. Kanem-Bornu used its power to raid for captives to the south as far as Adamawa in modern Cameroons. The negative implications of such policies were to be fully brought out in later centuries, when the steady trickle of slaves from a few parts of West Africa across the Sahara was joined by the massive flow of the continent’s peoples towards destinations named by Europeans.
Though falling considerably short of the feudal stage, state formation was more advanced in the Western Sudan than in most other parts of Africa in the period 500 A.D. to 1500 A.D. part from Ghana, Mali, Songhai and Kanem-Bornu, there were outstanding kingdoms in Hausaland, in Mossi, in Senegal, in the Futa Djalon mountains of Guinea and in the basin of the Benue tributary of the river Niger. The Western Sudanic techniques of political organisation and administration spread out to many neighbouring regions, and influenced the rise of innumerable small states scattered throughout the coastal region from the river Senegal to the Cameroon mountains. Some specific Sudanic features were discernible in many kingdoms, notably the position of the ‘Queen Mother’ in the political structure.
The strengths and weaknesses of the Western Sudanic states attest to the point which they had reached on the long road away from communalism — with respect to social relations and to the level of production. The state held together several clashing social formations and ethnic groups. In the case of Kanem-Bornu, pastoralists and cultivators were even able to integrate the camel nomads of the desert. Elsewhere, the Tuareg nomads were kept at bay, so that cultivators and other sedentary peoples could live their lives in peace. Men, domestic beasts and goods were free to move for thousands of miles in security. However, the state had not yet broken down the barriers between different social formations. The state existed as an institution which collected tribute from the various communities and restrained them from clashing. In periods of weakness, the superstructure of the state almost disappeared and left free scope for divisive political and social tendencies. Each successive great state was a further experiment to deal with the problem of unity, sometimes on a conscious level and more often as an unconscious by-product of the struggle for survival.
Under feudalism, the ruling class in the state for the first time tore away the social institutions which prevented the first embryo states from exercising direct action on each subject. That is to say, feudalism brought about a series of direct obligatory ties between the landed rulers and the landless subjects. In the Western Sudan, that clear-cut class division had not come into existence. By the time of Mali’s pre-eminence in the 13th and 14th centuries, a small amount of local slavery had come into existence, and by the end of the 15th century there were both chattel slaves and ‘domestic slaves’ comparable to feudal serfs. For instance, in Senegal the Portuguese traders found that there were elements in the population who worked most days for their masters and a few days per month for themselves — a budding feudalist tendency. Nevertheless, most of the population still had ample access to land through their kin, and in political terms that means that the authority of the ruling class was exercised over heads of families and clans rather than over each subject.
Although communal egalitarianism was on its way out, communal relations still persisted and had by the 15th century become a brake on the development of the Western Sudan. Such surplus as was being produced by the society over and above subsistence needs came out of tribute from the collective communities rather than directly from the producer to the exploiting class. That gave an incentive for maintaining the old social structures, although they were incapable of increasing labour mobilisation and specialisation to a much greater degree. It was unlikely that there would be a violent social revolution because classes were not yet formed to spearhead a revolution. Under those circumstances, major advances of technology were required to spark off further changes. The degree of economic integration had to be enhanced by greater productivity in various areas — allowing for more trade, more specialisation in the division of labour, and the possibility of surplus accumulation. But wheeled vehicles and the plow stopped in North Africa, and so too did large-scale irrigation. Indeed, through the critical absence of large-scale irrigation, the productive base in the Western u an actually decreased, for the Sahara was advancing. Ghana had stood on fertile agricultural land, but both Mali and Songhai had their centres further south, because the former northern terrain of Ghana was claimed by the Sahara through dessication. Techniques necessary for the control of this hostile environment and for the increase of agricultural and manufacturing capacity had either to evolve locally or to be brought in from outside. In the next phase of African history after the coming of the white men, both of those alternatives were virtually ruled out in West Africa.
(f) The Inter-lacustrine Zone
The high level of social evolution in the Western Sudan has been the cause of lengthy debates as to whether the region had achieved feudalism of the European variety, or whether it should be classed together with the great Asian empires, or whether it created a new and unique category of its own. On the eastern side of the continent, development in the same period was definitely slower. For one thing, the people of East Africa acquired iron tools at a much later date than their brothers in the North and West; and, secondly, the range of their technology and skills was narrower. However, by the 14th century, state formation was well under way, and the principles of development revealed in the process are worth considering. An area of special interest is that of the great lakes of Africa and particularly the zone around the group of lakes which the British thought fit to rename in honour of various members of the British ruling family-Victoria, Albert, Edward, George In that inter-lacustrine zone, several famous states eventually emerged, one of the earliest and largest being that of Bunyoro-Kitara.
Bunyoro-Kitara comprised in whole or in part the regions which today are called Bunyoro, Ankole, Toro, Karagwe and Buganda — all of which fall in Uganda, except Karagwe which is in Tanzania. Historical traditions have been orally preserved by these various peoples who at one time fell within the boundaries of Bunyoro-Kitara; and the traditions concentrate on the ruling dynasty, which is known as the Bachwezi. The Bachwezi were supposedly an immigrant pastoralist group. They introduced long-horned humped cattle, which later became the major species in the inter-lacustrine zone. Posession of these cattle undoubtedly aided them to become a ruling aristocracy in the 14th and 15th centuries. They became a social stratum above the clans which previously existed, and which had narrow territorial bases. The period of Bachwezi pre-eminence is also associated with iron-working, the manufacture of bark-cloth, the technique of sinking well-shafts through rocks, and (most striking of all) the construction of extensive earthwork systems, used apparently both for defence and for enclosing large herds of cattle. The largest of the earthworks was at Bigo, with ditches extending over six and a half miles.
The division of labour between pastoralists and cultivators and the nature of their contacts intensified the process of caste formation and class stratification in the inter-lacustrine area. The pastoralist Bahima had imposed their rule over the cultivators or Bairu. Social classes grew out of a situation of changing labour relations. The earthworks of Bigo and elsewhere are were not built by voluntary family labour, and some form of coercion must also have been used to get the cultivators to produce a surplus for their new lords. For instance, the Bachwezi are said to have established a system by which young men were conscripted into the king’s service and were maintained by Bairu who occupied and cultivated land assigned for the support of the army. They also introduced slave artisans and administrators. When administrative officials were appointed at a local level to rule on behalf of the aristocrats, that was a first step towards setting up feudal fiefs as in Ethiopia; for while the question of land grants had not yet entered the picture, it must be borne in mind that inequality in the distribution of cattle meant in fact unequal access to the means of production.
Much uncertainty surrounds the precise identification of the Bachwezi. It is possible that they were not immigrants. Nevertheless, it is generally held that they were light-complexioned pastoralists coming from the north. Assuming that this was so, it is essential to stress that whatever was achieved in the inter-lacustrine region in the 14th and 15th centuries was a product of the evolution of African society as a whole and not a transplant from outside. In order to place those East African events within the context of universal human achievement, a parallel can be drawn with India. Centuries before the birth of Christ, Northern India was also the recipient of light-complexioned pastoral immigrants known as Aryans. There was a time when everything in Indian culture was attributed to the Aryans ; but then careful scrutiny revealed that the basis of Indian society and culture had been laid by the earlier population known as the Dravidians. Therefore, it is now considered far more sensible to see the achievements of North India as a product of synthesis or combination of Aryan and Dravidian. Similarly in East Africa, one needs to seek the elements of synthesis between the new and the old and that in effect was the path of development in the inter-lacustrine zone in the 14th and 15th centuries.
As has just been noted, the Bachwezi are associated with techniques such as iron working and bark cloth manufacture. It is not at all clearly established that they introduced such techniques for the first time, and it is much more probable that they presided over the elaboration of such skills. Certainly, iron-using societies were known in East Africa several centuries before the Bachwezi period. At Engaruka, just south of the present Kenya/Tanzania border, there are to be found the ruins of a small but impressive iron age society, which flourished sometime before the end of the first millennium A.D. (i.e. before 1000 A.D.). Engaruka was a concentrated agricultural settlement engaging in terracing, irrigation and the construction of walls by the technique known as dry stone building, whereby no lime was required to hold the stones together. In the inter-lacustrine area itself, there had emerged a banana-based agriculture, which was capable of supporting a large sedentary population. That was the sort of pre-condition for moving from communal isolation to statehood.
It is significant that orally-preserved traditions imply the existence of kingdoms in Bunyoro and Karagwe before the Bachwezi. State formation was already in an embryo stage when the outsiders arrived, and the likelihood is that they did not remain outsiders for long. Unlike the Aryans in India, the Bachwezi did not even impose their own language, but adopted the Bantu speech of the local inhabitants. That reflects the dominance of local rather than foreign elements in the synthesis. In any event, the cultural product was African, and was part of the pattern of development through localised evolution combined with the interplay of social formations on a continent-wide scale.
Among the contributions supposedly made by the Bachwezi to the inter-lacustrine kingdoms was the introduction of religion based on the phases of the moon. In all of the situations examined so far, religion played a significant role in promoting the building of the state leading away from the simple organisation of the family community. Christianity and Islam have been most frequently associated with large scale building both inside and outside of Africa. That is to be explained not so much by the actual religious beliefs, but because membership in a powerful universal church gave the ruling class of a young state many advantages. A Christian or Muslim prince had access to a literate culture and a wider- world. He dealt with traders and craftsmen professing that religion he used administrators and churchmen who were literate; and he could travel to parts of the world such as Mecca. Above all, the universal religions replaced ‘traditional’ African ancestral religions in Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, Maghreb and progressively in the Western Sudan because Christianity and Islam were not rooted in any given family community and therefore could be used to mobilise the many communities that were merging into the state. However, religious beliefs which had been accepted by a single clan or ethnic group could be elevated in the same form or in a slightly altered form to become the religion of the whole state. This was the situation in the inter-lacustrine zone, and indeed in most other parts of Africa outside the regions already described.
In Zimbabwe, one of the great constructions in brick (dated around the 14th century) is commonly referred to as ‘temple’ and is felt to have served religious purposes. Even from the scanty evidence, it is clear that the religious aspect of social development was of the greatest importance in serving to cement ties between individuals in that emergent African society. For instance, the ruling class in the 15th century empire of Mutapa in Zimbabwe were pastoralists and their religious ritual included objects that were symbolic of cattle, as was found in the inter-lacustrine kingdoms such as Bunyoro and Karagwe. One can guess that the rituals also symbolised the dominance of the cattle owners, just as they also paid respect to pre-existing ideas of the cultivators in order to effect a stable synthesis. The details of the picture are not available in the present stage of knowledge, but what is required is that any discussion of African religion must seek to present it in a mobile evolutionary manner and to relate it to changing socio-economic forms and institutions. That task being beyond the confines of the present study, it is proposed to examine Zimbabwe as yet another region where the productive base and the political superstructure can be ascertained to have developed appreciably in the last few centuries before Africa was drawn into contact with Europe.
Within the southernmost section of the continent, the area in which striking achievements were registered by the 15th century was that between the rivers Zambezi and Limpopo, covering the territories that were later to be called Mozambique and Rhodesia. Iron-using and state-building peoples were active there from early in the first millennium A .D., and eventually there emerged in the 15th century the empire which Europeans called Monomotapa. The term ‘Zimbabwe’ is being used here to designate the Zambesi / Limpopo cultures in the few centuries preceding the European arrival, because it was from the 11th to the 14th century that there flourished the societies whose most characteristic feature was the building of large stone palaces, known collectively as Zimbabwe.
Much has been written about the buildings which distinguish the Zimbabwe culture. They are a direct response to the environment of granite rocks, being built upon granite hills and of flaked granite. The most famous site of surviving stone ruins is that of Great Zimbabwe, north of the river Sabi. One of the principal structures at Great Zimbabwe was some 300 feet long and 220 feet broad, with the walls being 30 feet high and 20 feet thick. The technique of laying the bricks one on the other without lime to act as a cement was the same style noted in the description of Engaruka in northern Tanzania. It was in fact a peculiar aspect of material culture in Africa, being widely found in Ethiopia and the Sudan. The style of the encircling brick walls at Great Zimbabwe and other sites was also characteristically African in that it was an elaboration of the mud enclosures or kraals of many Bantu-speaking people.
One European archaeologist is reported to have said that there was as much labour expended in Zimbabwe as on the Pyramids in Egypt. That is surely an overstatement, for the Pyramids were raised through an incredible amount of slave labour, which could not possibly have been at the disposal of the rulers in Zimbabwe. However, it is definitely necessary to reflect on the amount of labour which would have been required to construct the buildings within the Zimbabwe region up until the 15th century. The workers may well have been from particular ethnic groups who were subjugated by other ethnic groups, but in the process of subjugation they were acquiring the character of a social class whose labour was being exploited. Nor was it sheer manual labour. Skill, creativity and artistry went into the construction of the walls, especially with regard to the decorations, the inner recesses and the doors.
When Cecil Rhodes sent in his agents to rob and steal in Zimbabwe, they and other Europeans marvelled at the surviving ruins of the Zimbabwe culture, and automatically assumed that it had been built by white people. Even today there is still a tendency to consider the achievements with a sense of wonder rather than with the calm acceptance that it was a perfectly logical outgrowth of human social development within Africa, as part of the universal process by which man’s labour opened up new horizons. The sense of reality can only be restored by making it clear that the architecture rested on a foundation of advanced agriculture and mining, which had come into existence over centuries of evolution.
Zimbabwe was a zone of mixed farming, with cattle being important, since the area is free from tsetse flies. Irrigation and terracing reached considerable proportions. There was no single dam or aqueduct comparable to those in Asia or ancient Rome, but countless small streams were diverted and made to flow around hills, in a manner that indicated an awareness of the scientific principles governing the motion of water. In effect, the people of Zimbabwe had produced ‘hidrologists’, through their understanding of the material environment. On the mining side, it is equally striking that the African peoples in the zone in question had produced prospectors and ‘geologists’ who had a clear idea of where ‘to look for gold and copper in the sub-soil. When the European colonialists arrived in the 19th century, they found that virtually all the gold-bearing and copper-bearing strata had been mined previously by Africans — though of course not on the same scale as Europeans were to achieve with drilling equipment. Among the Zimbabwe people, there also arose craftmen who worked the gold into ornaments with tremendous skill and lightness of touch.
The presence of gold in particular was a stimulus to external trade, and in turn it was external demand which did most to accelerate mining. In the first millennium A.D., there was a gold-using aristocracy at Ingombe Ilede just north of the Zambezi. Presumably, they got their supplies from gold mines further south. However, gold is required in large quantities only in a society which produces a very large economic surplus and can afford to transform part of that surplus into gold for prestige purposes, (as in India) or into coinage and money to promote capitalism (as in Western Europe). The pre-feudal African societies did not have such a surplus nor the social relations which made it necessary for gold to circulate a great deal internally. Hence, it was the presence of Arab traders as far south as Sofala in the Mozambique channel which spurred Zimbabwe to mine more gold for export just about the same time in the 11th century when stonebuilding was beginning. The implication is that a number of factors coincided: namely, the intensification of class stratification, of state consolidation, of production and building techniques, and of trade.
Several different ethnic groups contributed to Zimbabwe society. The earliest populations of the region were the ‘Bushmen’ and Khoisan type of hunters who today are found only in small numbers in Southern Africa. They were incorporated into the physical stock of newcomers from further north speaking Bantu languages, and in fact they made their contribution to the Bantu languages of the area. Among the Bantu speakers, there were also several different groups coming into their own at different times. The material evidence which has been revealed by archaeologists shows various pottery styles, contrasting burial positions and different bone structures among skeletons. Other material artefacts show that over the centuries many societies occupied the region of Zimbabwe. Much of the interpenetration of one group by another was done peacefully, although at the same time, the very existence of the fortified hill-tops and stone defences shows that the largest states were engaged in military struggles for survival and pre-eminence. Furthermore, some ethnic groups must have been permanently relegated to inferior status, so as to provide the labour for agriculture, building and mining. Other clans specialised in pastoralism, warfare and the control of religious apparatus such as divination and rainmaking.
It is believed that the inhabitants of Zimbabwe in the 11th to the 14th centuries were Sotho-speaking ; but by the time the Portuguese arrived a Shona-speaking dynasty had taken control of most of the region. That was the Rozwi clan which set up the state of Mutapa, between the Zambezi and the Limpopo. The ruler was known as the Mwene Mutapa, which apparently meant ‘the great Lord of Mutapa’ to his own followers, but was held to mean ‘the great pillager’, by peoples whom he conquered and wielded together into a single empire. The first individual to hold the title Mwene Mutapa ruled from about 1415-1450, but the dynasty had already been growing prominent before that date. The capital was at first sited at Great Zimbabwe, and later moved north. What was important was that the Mwene Mutapa appointed governors to rule over various localities outside the capital, in a manner comparable to that of the Western Sudanic empires or the inter-lacustrine ‘Bachwezi’ states.
The Rozwi lords of Mutapa did most to encourage production for export trade, notably in gold, ivory and copper. Arab merchants came to reside in the kingdom and the Zimbabwe region became involved in the network of Indian Ocean commerce, which linked them with India, Indonesia, and China. One of the principal achievements of the Rozwi lords of Mutapa was to organise a single system of production and trade. They exacted tribute from the various communities in their kingdoms, which was both a sign of sovereignty and a form of trade, because the movement of goods was stimulated. There is no doubt that the foreign trade strengthened the Mutapa state ; but above all it strengthened the ruling strata which had a monopoly over that aspect of economic activity. In comparison with other African elites at that time, the Rozwi of Zimbabwe still had a long way to go. They were not in the same category as the Amharic nobility of Ethiopia or the Arab/Berber feudal lords of the Maghreb. They did imbibe a few influences from outside, but they did not travel like the rulers of Mali and Songhai who made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Their dress was still mainly animal skins, and such cloth as they utilised were recent imports from the Arab traders rather than the product of the evolution of their own skills in that field. In that respect, Zimbabwe also trailed behind other early African states such as Oyo in Yorubaland, Benin in the same . :. and the 14th-century empire of Kongo (which Europeans referred to as the greatest state in West Africa at the time of their arrival).
It has been considered necessary for the purposes of illustration to consider some (though by no means all) of the outstanding areas of development in Africa before the coming of the Europeans. Nor should it be forgotten that there were innumerable village communities emerging to become states that were small in size, but were sometimes sharply stratified internally and displayed an impressive level of material advance. Those described above should be sufficient to establish that Africa in the 15th century was not just a jumble of different ‘tribes’. There was a pattern and there was historical movement. Societies such as feudal Ethiopia and Egypt were at the furthest point of the process of evolutionary development. Zimbabwe and the Bachwezi states were also clearly on the ascendant away from communalism, but at a lower level than the feudal states and a few others that were not yet feudal such as those in the Western Sudan.