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2.4: Africa at the Outset of the Age of Discovery and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

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    Africa takes a central role in any discussion of increasing globalization during the Age of Discovery. First, emerging European explorations and global trade networks began with European contact with and exploration of Africa. Early Portuguese exploration started trade networks in gold, ivory, and slaves that invigorated the European economy. Later, trade expanded to incorporate the Americas, transforming into the Triangle Trade that encompassed the Trans-Atlantic slave trade network. In many ways, contact and trade with Africa created the Atlantic World, the network of connections that linked the Americas, Europe, and Africa economically, politically, culturally, religiously, and environmentally. The transformations of the Age of Discovery began in Africa.

    At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Africa was a continent of tremendous diversity and home to hundreds of cultures, languages, and political states. Different regions in Africa experienced the changes of the era in different ways. Western and Central Africa were greatly influenced by the changes wrought by the slave trade. Southern Africa was the first region to experience the phenomenon of European migration when the Dutch established Cape Colony in 1652. Northern and eastern Africa had been linked to the wider world through trade networks such as the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean, as well as through the spread of Islam and Christianity. However, the expansion of Europe through trade and political networks contested African control over their territory and European participation in the Indian Ocean trade.

    Medieval West Africa: The Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay

    In the mid-fifteenth century, European countries like Portugal and Spain sought an all-water route to the cultures of the Indian Ocean in order to enjoy their spices, silks, and cottons without having to pay the exorbitant rates of the Arab traders who controlled the overland routes; these routes began in Indonesia and wound their way along the coasts of southeast Asia and India and then up either the Persian Gulf or the Red Sea toward the eastern Mediterranean. Monarchs like Prince Henry the Navigator sponsored fleets along the western coast of Africa, rounding the Cape of Good Hope and sailing northward toward the Indian Ocean. Africa was not, however, just a way station on the route to the Indian Ocean; the continent was invaluable for the goods it contributed to world trade: ivory, tortoise shells, dried coconut, animal skins, cowrie shells, and porcelain from East Africa and from West and South Africa, gold, palm oil, and slaves.

    In the centuries before the Age of Discovery, Africa saw the rise to preeminence of a number of impressive kingdoms: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay in the west, the city states of the East African coast, and in the south, Great Zimbabwe. Located in West Africa, Ghana was inhabited by the Soninke people whose rulers were called “Ghana.” Most of the territory called Wagadou by the Soninke was non-arable and thus unfit for agriculture. It was only the southern region that enjoyed measurable rainfall that enabled the growth of crops abundant enough to support a population of around 200,000. Ghana’s monarchy was not unlike those of Europe during the same century. The king held all power, religious, judicial, military, and political, although unlike European monarchies, the crown was passed matrilineally though the eldest sister of the ruling monarch.

    Much of what we know about Ghana comes from Al-Bakri, an eleventh century Spanish Muslim geographer whose Book of Highways and Kingdoms details the workings of the country. The king and his advisors were non-Muslims who practiced the animist religion of their ancestors, though by 1000 CE there was a large Muslim population, and many of the Ghana’s advisors were Islamic. Al-Bakri explains that the capital city of Ghana, Koumbi Saleh, consisted of “two towns lying on a plain.” One of these cities was inhabited by Muslims and “possessed” twelve mosques, while the other, six miles from the Muslim town, was the “residence of the King;” it consisted of a “palace and a number of dome-shaped dwellings, all of them surrounded by a strong enclosure, like a city wall.” The city also contained one mosque for “the convenience of those Muslims who came on diplomatic missions.” In the judicial matters, over which the king presided, trial was by ordeal, not unlike the technique used by medieval European kings. As was also true of medieval European kingdoms, the monarch controlled all trade, and the social hierarchy placed the king, his court and Muslim administrators on the top rung, followed by a merchant class, and below them farmers, herders, and artisans. There is no doubt as to the wealth of the rulers of Ghana, as al-Bakri wrote: “When [the king] holds court…he sits in a pavilion around which stand ten horses wearing golden trappings; at his right are the sons of the chiefs of the country, splendidly dressed and with their hair sprinkled with gold.”

    Screenshot (197).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Great Friday Mosque at Jenne | Mansa Musa established control over Jenne, and upon his return from the pilgrimage to Mecca, he brought an Egyptian architect by the name of al-Saheli whom Mansa Musa paid to create mosques at several cities; the Friday Prayers Mosque was one of these. Mansa Musa also built a royal palace (or Madugu) in Timbuktu. The mosque was completed in the late fourteenth/early fifteenth century. Author: United States Department of Agriculture Source:

    By 1200, the kingdom of Ghana was in decline as political disintegration saw the rise of several petty kingdoms led by warlords. Eventually one people, the Mandinka, asserted themselves over the others and created a new kingdom, Mali, built on the foundations of Ghana. Historians usually point out that the strength of Mali lay in part in the accession to the throne of two powerful leaders: Sundiata Keita and Mansa Musa. It was through the efforts and resourcefulness of these two men that a strong, vibrant kingdom was created.

    The founder of Mali, Sundiata Keita (1230-1255), ruled over an empire that was larger, more agriculturally successful, and wealthier than Ghana. Technically, Mali was an Islamic state, though its religious practices mixed Islam and the more traditional African ceremonies; although the leaders participated in the pilgrimage and ritual prayers, they also followed ancient pagan practices of eating unclean meat, drinking strong beverages, selfabasement before the ruler, and “scanty female clothing.” Sundiata chose Niani as the capital of his empire and before his death had turned the city into an important trading center and had expanded his empire to include the trading cities of Gao, Jenne, and Walata.

    The expansion of the empire of Mali continued under Sundiata’s descendent, Mansa Musa (r. 1312-1337); mansa means emperor in the language of the Mandinka) to include Timbuktu and territory westward to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. The empire Mansa Musa created was twice the size of Ghana and contained about 8,000,000 people. Mansa Musa was different from Sundiata in that he became a devout Muslim, though the majority of his subjects did not. Musa is perhaps best known for his fourteenth century pilgrimage to Mecca (1324-1325) on which he was accompanied by 500 slaves each carrying a six-pound staff of pure gold and 100 elephants bearing 100 pounds of gold. He stopped in Egypt for three months before moving on to Mecca and Medina, during which his visit was recorded by al-Omari, the Egyptian sultan’s scribe:

    This man, Mansa Musa, spread upon Cairo the flood of his generosity: there was not person, officer of the court or holder of any office of the Sultanate [of Egypt] who did not receive a sum of gold from him. The people of Cairo earned incalculable sums from him, whether by buying and selling or by gifts.

    During Mansa Musa’s reign, Timbuktu became a center of international trade and education. The king brought Arab scholars to the city, as well as architects, astronomers, poets, lawyers, mathematicians, and theologians. Over one hundred schools and eighteen universities were established (for men only, of course) for Islamic studies.

    The Muslim geographer, Ibn Battuta, visited Mali during the despotic reign of Mansa Musa’s unpopular brother, Mansa Sulayman, remarking that in Mali there was “complete security in the land” as the mansa “shows no mercy to anyone guilty of the least act of [violence].” The inhabitants were pious Muslims:

    Another of their good qualities is their habit of wearing clean white garments on Fridays. Even if a man has nothing but an old worn shirt, he washes it and cleans it, and wears it to the Friday service. Yet another is their zeal for learning the Koran by heart. They put their children in chains if they show any backwardness in memorizing it, and they are not set free until they have it by heart. I visited [the emperor] in his house on the day of the festival. His children were chained up, so I said to him, ‘Will you not let them loose?’ He replied, ‘I shall not do so until they learn the Koran by heart.’

    He remarks, however, that the practice of nakedness persisted among the women, which he, as a devout Muslim, looked upon with dismay:

    Among their bad qualities [is] the following: The women servants, slavegirls, and young girls go about in front of everyone naked, without a stitch of clothing on them. Women go into the sultan’s presence naked and without coverings, and his daughters also go about naked.

    As was true of other empires in history, the empire of Mali was dependent on the strength and success of the mansa. When Mansa Musa died, he was followed by his unpopular and despotic brother, who was in turn followed by a series of weak rulers whose reigns were short-lived. During this period, the provinces began to break away and slowly the Mali Empire disintegrated; it was followed in the mid-fourteenth century by the third great empire of West Africa: the Songhay.

    The empire of the Songhay people took in the territories that had been controlled by Ghana and Mali and extended them east and north to become one of the largest empires in African history. Basing their military success on armies of mounted horsemen, the Songhay warriors took one Mali city after another until by the mid-fifteenth century they controlled the important cities of Timbuktu and Jenna. As was true in Mali, the sources of income came from tribute, the royal farms, and tariffs on trade. The exports in greatest demand were similar to those of Mali: gold, ivory, and slaves. Politically, Songhay was more centralized than Mali, and with every territory taken, the local kings or chieftains were removed and replaced by governors appointed by the emperors. A young traveler calling himself “Leo Africanus” gave his readers an idea as to the wealth of one of the local governors, who had “many articles of gold and [keeps] a magnificent and well-furnished court. When he travels anywhere he rides upon a camel which is led by some of his noblemen…Attending him he has always three thousand horsemen, and a great number of footmen armed with poisoned arrows.” Though generally, while the ruling classes were very wealthy, the majority of the citizens were “very poor.”

    South Africa

    By the mid-fifteenth century, the east African coast was dotted with city states which have left no written records of their history and society. The city states had served as trading depots as early as the fifth century, and after the death of Mohammed and the spread of Islam across North Africa, Arab traders established small cities, whose local peoples (called the “Zanj” by the Arabs) were ruled by local kings and practiced ancient animistic religions. As the centuries progressed, more and more Arabs and Indonesians settled along the coast, creating a culture called “Swahili.” By the early fourteenth century, Kilwa had become the most important city in the region, whose culture was described in great detail by Ibn Battuta:

    [Kilwa] is a large city on the seacoast, most of whose inhabitants are Zinj [sic], jet black in colour. They have tattoo marks on their faces. Kilwa is a very fine and substantially built town, and all its buildings are of wood. Its inhabitants are constantly engaged in military expeditions, for their country is contiguous to the heathen Zanj. The sultan at the time of my visit was Abu’l-Muzaffar Hasan, who was noted for his gifts and generosity. He used to devote the fifth part of the booty made on his expeditions to pious and charitable purposes, as is prescribed in the Koran, and I have seen him give the clothes off his back to a mendicant who asked him for them.

    When the Portuguese made it around the Cape of Good Hope in the late fifteenth century and encountered the East African coastal societies, they were amazed at the wealth of these cities. Some of the cities created manufactures for export, while others focused on natural products like leopard skins, tortoise shell, ivory, and gold, as well as slaves.

    Until the late nineteenth century, the society of South Africa known as Great Zimbabwe was unknown to the European world; in 1867 a German explorer named Adam Renders came across ruins that archaeologists consider the most impressive ruins south of the Nile Valley: Great Zimbabwe. The city was the capital of a vast empire stretching across South Africa by the first century CE; it continued to thrive as a gold producing area until the fifteenth century, when due to soil exhaustion it was unable to support its large population.

    Transatlantic Slave Trade

    The Portuguese first traded for African slaves in 1441. They did not create the slave trade; Africans had held slaves and traded them long before the Europeans entered the market. African peoples throughout West Africa took captives in warfare and kept slaves as a means of incorporating foreigners into the society. African slavery therefore differed greatly from the European norms of slavery that became established in the New World. For instance, slaves in Africa were not property; they retained some rights as a person and as an individual. The condition of slavery was not inherited; if a slave had children, then the children were born free. Moreover, the condition of slavery might not last an entire lifetime but instead a period of years.

    The Trans-Atlantic slave trade emerged with the colonization of the New World. As the need for labor grew, so too did the trade. At first, some Europeans tried to use force in acquiring slaves, but this method proved impracticable on any scale. The only workable method was acquiring slaves through trade with Africans, since they controlled all trade into the interior. Typically, Europeans were restricted to trading posts, or feitorias, along the coast. Captives were brought to the feitorias, where they were processed as cargo rather than as human beings. Slaves were kept imprisoned in small, crowded rooms, segregated by sex and age, and “fattened up” if they were deemed too small for transport. They were branded to show what merchant purchased them, that taxes had been paid, and even that they had been baptized as a Christian. The high mortality rate of the slave trade began on the forced march to the feitorias and in a slave’s imprisonment within them; the mortality rate continued to climb during the second part of the journey, the Middle Passage.

    Screenshot (198).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Atlantic Triangle Trade | The Triangle Trade linked Europe, Africa, and the Americas as part of a greater Atlantic World. Author: Jon Chui Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

    The Middle Passage, the voyage across the Atlantic from Africa to the Americas, comprised the middle leg of the Atlantic Triangle Trade network, which traded manufactured goods such as beads, mirrors, cloth, and firearms to Africa for slaves. Slaves were then carried to the Americas, where their labor would produce items of the last leg of the Triangle Trade such as sugar, rum, molasses, indigo, cotton, and rice, to name a few. The Middle Passage itself was a hellish experience. Slaves were segregated by sex, often stripped naked, chained together, and kept in extremely tight quarters for up to twenty-three hours a day; as many as 12-13 percent died during this dehumanizing experience. Although we will likely never know the exact number of people who were enslaved and brought to the Americas, the number is certainly larger than ten million.

    Kingdom of Dahomey

    The Age of Discovery brought many changes to West Africa. In some areas, the slave trade had the effect of breaking down societies. For instance, in the early nineteenth century the great Yoruba confederation of states began to break down due to civil wars. Conflicts escalated as participants sold slaves to acquire European weapons; these weapons were then used to acquire more slaves, thus creating a vicious cycle. Other groups grew and gained power because of their role in the slave trade, perhaps the most prominent being the West African kingdom of Dahomey.

    The Kingdom of Dahomey was established in the 1720s. Dahomey was built on the slave trade; kings used profits from the slave trade to acquire guns, which in turn were used to expand their kingdom by conquest and incorporation of smaller kingdoms. Most slaves were acquired either by trade with the interior or by raids into the north and west into Nigeria; Dahomey took advantage of the civil wars among the Yoruba to gain access to a ready source of captives.

    European trade agents were kept isolated in the main trade port of Whydah. Only a privileged few were allowed into the interior of the kingdom to have an audience with the king; as a result, only a few contemporary sources describe the kingdom. Like his European counterparts, the king of Dahomey was an absolute monarch, possessing great power in a highly centralized state. All trade with Europeans was a royal monopoly, jealously guarded by the kings. The monarchs never allowed Europeans to deal directly with the people of the kingdom, keeping all profits for the state, and allowing this highly militarized state to grow and expand.


    On the eve of the sixteenth century, Africa was a continent of tremendous diversity and home to hundreds of cultures, languages, and political states. Most of the empires of the past two centuries were in decline, though the demand for their goods continued and the city states of East Africa were viable trading depots. The trans-Saharan trade routes, in place since the earliest years of the Common Era, still linked East Africa, West Africa, and the Islamic sultanates in the North. It is not surprising, however, that the various regions in Africa experienced the changes brought by the Age of Discovery in different ways. Western and Central Africa were greatly influenced by the slave trade. The Kingdom of Dahomey provides an example of one of the ways that African groups were influenced by and participated in both the Age of Discovery and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

    The Trans-Atlantic slave trade was the middle portion of the Atlantic Triangle Trade network. At least ten million Africans were enslaved and forced to make the Middle Passage across the Atlantic to the New World. Mortality rates for the Middle Passage averaged around 12-13 percent.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    The region of Africa most directly involved in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was

    1. North Africa
    2. West Africa
    3. South Africa
    4. East Africa


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    True/False: The Middle Passage was a part of the Indian Ocean trade network.

    1. True
    2. False


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    Which of the following empires was not in West Africa?

    1. Great Zimbabwe
    2. Ghana
    3. Mali
    4. Songhay


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    Much of what we know about the cultures of East Africa comes from the writings of:

    1. Leo Africanus
    2. Sundiata Keita
    3. Mansa Musa
    4. Ibn Battuta


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{5}\)

    5. The empire of Mali was created by which of the following?

    1. Mansa Musa
    2. Sundiata Kieta
    3. Mansa Suleyman
    4. Leo Africanus


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{6}\)

    The Kingdom of Dahomey controlled the slave trade in their region by

    1. refusing to trade with anyone but the Dutch.
    2. keeping Europeans confined to the port at Whydah.
    3. making European merchants trade with only the king and no others.
    4. B and C.
    5. all of the above.


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