West African Change & Continuity

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West African Change & Continuity

Describe and analyze the cultural, economic, and political impact of Islam on West Africa between 1000 C.E and 1750 C.E. Between 1000 and 1750 C.E. Islam entered West Africa and increased its trade, many Islamic states rose and fell, but many aspects of African religion and gender roles remained unchanged. Between 1000 and 1700, Islam caused West Africa to experience an increase in trade and economic activity, the rise and fall of several Islamic states and empires, and provided new practices to be blended with the traditional African culture. In the period of 1000 and 1750 C.E Islam increased West African economics by increasing trade. Muslim merchants brought Islam into West Africa and it spreads throughout the rest of Africa. Many aspects of African religion and gender roles remained unchanged, however new practices were blended in with the traditional African culture. African rulers began to adopt Islam while ruling over populations with diverse faiths and cultures.

Many of these rulers blended Islam with traditional and local practices in what is called the mixing phase. Islam impacted West Africa greatly by increasing trade, and blending its culture with West African culture. By 1000 C.E. Bantu cities were governed by kinship groups rather than bureaucracies. A group of villages, based on ethnic loyalties, made up a district, but there usually was no head or chief of a district. Village chiefs resolved district issues. The terms stateless societies or segmentary societies are often used to refer to this type of social organization. After 1000 C.E. though, these kin-based societies faced difficult challenges as population growth strained land resources. Ensuing conflicts encouraged Bantu communities to formally organize first their military and then their governments. The West African kingdoms of Ife and Benin developed as complex city- states during this time.

The kingdom of Kongo emerged as the most tightly centralized Bantu kingdom and as a prosperous trading nation transporting copper, raffia cloth, and nzimbu shells from the Atlantic Ocean. Its central government was based on a king and officials who administered the nation’s judicial, political, and military affairs while provincial governors supervised district rulers who oversaw the local village rulers. This organization effectively ruled for nearly four hundred years, until the arrival of the Portuguese slave traders. Before the arrival of Muslims, the kingdom of Ghana came to be when settled agricultural people were trying to avoid camel- riding nomads of the Sahara. Though the Sahara desert had never been an absolute barrier to trade and communication, only a few nomadic peoples and a handful of merchants regularly crossed it.

The introduction of the camel from Asia and the development of a useful saddle in the seventh century B.C.E., along with the conquest of North Africa by the Arabs in the eighth and ninth centuries C.E., encouraged the development of trade across the Sahara. After the Muslims come to West Africa, Ghana was a regional state. Ghana had developed as a market for copper, ironware, cotton textiles, and salt, grain, and carnelian beads. After the Muslim merchants came trade and traffic across the desert increased dramatically as west Africa became the center for trade in gold, in high demand as a result of surging trade throughout the eastern hemisphere. Through her capital city, Koumbi- Sahel, Ghana controlled the trade and taxes on gold which her kings procured from the river regions of Gambia, Niger, and Senegal. Ghana’s kings used that wealth to enrich and strengthen their realms.

Merchants in Ghana also traded ivory and slaves for horses and salt, which was especially important for survival in the tropics. Ghanaian kings used these taxes to finance large armies to protect their sources of gold, to maintain order throughout the kingdom, and to defend Ghana from nomadic invasions across the Sahara. By about the tenth century, the kings of Ghana converted to Islam which further improved relations with Muslim desert nomads, and with North African merchants and rulers. The Ghanaian kings did not impose Islam on their subjects and even maintained some elements from their traditional religious practices; those Ghanaians involved in trade frequently adopted Islam as well. Merchant mariners had linked east Africa to the larger trading world since as early as 500 B.C.E., but it was not until the tenth century C.E. that Islamic merchants began regular, sustained interaction with the indigenous Bantu people in eastern Africa. These coastal dwellers, at first largely hunters and gatherers, formed the basis of the new Swahili culture.

By the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Swahili were regularly trading gold, slaves, ivory, and other exotic goods from the African interior for pottery, glass, and textiles brought to Africa from Persia, India, and China by Muslim maritime merchants. This trading economy was based in cities lining the east African coast: Mogadishu, Lamu, Malindi, Mombasa, Zanzibar, Kilwa, Mozambique, and Sofala. Each city-state was governed by a powerful king. The tangible wealth of these cities was substantial as they boasted multiple-storied houses made of stone and coral, huge mosques, and large public buildings. Kilwa was one of the most impressive of these cities; travelers like Ibn Battuta remarked on the vast material wealth he saw in the city and on the level of scholarship he appreciated in her people. The importance of the extended family and the lack of a concept of land as private property served as foundations of social and economic organization in kin-based societies.

People identified first as a member of a family. Sex and gender also had a major influence on social roles. Workers like tanners or blacksmiths were almost always men while women in those families might work as potters. Heavy labor was considered man’s work and women handled most domestic chores and took primary responsibility for raising children. Both men and women participated in agriculture. Public authority was usually a man’s realm although some women did rise to positions of power. Aristocratic women had influence in public affairs as a result of their family connections. Women were involved in markets and participated in both local and long-distance trade. Some African societies even allowed women to participate as soldiers. Islam did little to alter the lives of African women. Since the faith spread first to the upper classes, and then slowly to other classes, most African women retained their traditional gender roles, living and working openly and unveiled.

Members of age sets or age grades performed tasks appropriate to their development and bonded to form tight circles of friends and political allies which continued throughout a person’s life. Slave holding and slave trading has been an African tradition since antiquity. As in most societies, slaves came as prisoners of war, debtors, criminals, and suspected witches. Most slaves in Africa worked as agricultural and construction laborers or as porters or miners. Slaves were a form of personal wealth as they enabled a family to increase their agricultural production and hence their wealth. After the ninth century, the demand for slaves increased, as did the demand for all other African “goods.” The demand for slaves in Persia, India, Southwest Asia, and the Mediterranean basin outstripped the supply available from Eastern Europe, previously the main source of slaves.

Slave raiding developed to meet this demand as rulers of large-scale states and empires began to attack the less defended smaller kingdoms and kin-based societies. In east Africa, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama skirmished with local forces in Mozambique and Mombasa on the first journey and demanded tribute from Swahili city-states on the second trip. In 1505, the Portuguese sent naval forces to conquer the cities and went on to build governmental buildings and forts to secure the trade routes for themselves. Although the Portuguese were ultimately unsuccessful, the Swahili states had suffered a mortal blow and they never recovered their prominence in Indian Ocean trade. As sub-Saharan trade networks increased, new kingdoms came to power. Chief among those in central Africa was the kingdom of Kongo which was described extensively in Portuguese records. It emerged in the fourteenth century as a strongly centralized state with a large bureaucracy.

By the late fifteenth century Kongo was so successful that it encompassed the present-day countries of the Republic of Congo and Angola. The Kongo rulers enjoyed the wealth and foreign recognition but their relationship with the Portuguese actually led to their downfall. Initially, the Portuguese traded weapons, textiles, and craft expertise for gold, ivory, and slaves. Not much later, slaves became an almost singular object of trade which led the Portuguese to ally with and depend on other kingdoms in the interior when the Kongo attempted to limit the slave trade. At first, the Portuguese helped the Kongo defend itself but, eventually they joined other states to defeat the Kongo in 1665. In their quest for better trade, the Portuguese moved south while the kingdom of Kongo disintegrated behind them. Indigenous religion continued to be an important part of African societies despite the active evangelism of Islam and Christianity.

While there was a belief in an overarching deity, the major religious concern was with the spirit world of nature-a belief known as animism-as well as the spirits of ancestors who could be benign but were often punishing to their descendants. Most Islamic converts continued to observe their indigenous beliefs as well. Although troubling to Muslim travelers such as Ibn Battuta, most African Muslims were content with their syncretic religion and saw no problem with female nudity and social activity. However, the Fulani herders of West Africa became extremely devout Muslims and attempted to stamp out the heresies. They founded powerful states in today’s Guinea, Senegal, Mali, and northern Nigeria where a more devout form of Islam is practiced to this day. Although there was considerable nation-building in Africa, kinship groups still remained important for political and social organization.

Within larger states, they administered affairs at the local level, but out- side of the states, they allied with each other to control large areas of land. Interaction with Europeans brought changes to this social system as well as many other areas of African life and culture. European manufactured goods became a part of African life while new food crops became a part of the African diet. From the Americas came manioc, maize, and peanuts that supplemented the African staples of rice, bananas, yams, and millet. In particular, manioc was valuable for its adaptation to soils unsuitable for other crops. Bread made from manioc flour led to steady population growth in west and central Africa between 1500 and 1800. It almost doubled in size from thirty-four million to sixty million.

The population growth was all the more remarkable since it coincided with the forced migration of millions of Africans into slavery in the Caribbean and the Americas. However, African beliefs about property affected their view of slavery. Rather than private ownership of land which is- longed to the community, Africans controlled the labor on that land. Thus, individuals with large numbers of slaves would harvest more crops and attain more prosperity. Africans also purchased slaves to enlarge their families and those slaves could be assimilated into the kinship group where they could earn manumission and kinship rights.

After the eighth century, Muslim traders from Persia, Arabia, and North Africa began to purchase African slaves for distribution in the Middle East and Mediterranean world and as far away as India and China. To keep up with the large demand, merchants began to raid villages and sometimes they were even supported by African governments. The Islamic slave trade across the Sahara lasted into the twentieth century and may have involved as many as ten million slaves.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 19 March 2016

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