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READ: Sub-Saharan Africa

We often think of Africa in 1750 as either a wilderness of “tribes” or an unspoiled paradise. In reality, this vast continent was a patchwork of large states, confederations, and independent communities. They were tied to each other and to other continents by complex networks of trade and exchange.

Sub-Saharan Africa

By Trevor Getz
We often think of Africa in 1750 as either a wilderness of “tribes” or an unspoiled paradise. In reality, this vast continent was a patchwork of large states, confederations, and independent communities. They were tied to each other and to other continents by complex networks of trade and exchange.

What is "sub-Sharan Africa"?

In this unit, you have been reading about vast single states like the Ottoman Empire and Qing Dynasty, as well as regions made up of many small states, like Europe in 1750. In this article, we are looking at sub-Saharan Africa, a region that (even without North Africa) is about three times the size of Europe, but that was similarly made up of many, small states.
Map of sub-Saharan Africa, 2007. By WHP, CC BY-NC 4.0.
Now, let’s consider how Africa is often described. We normally place Africa into neat categories, seeing it as either populated by bands and “tribes” on the one hand, or under foreign, colonial rule, on the other. But the history of sub-Saharan Africa around 1750 does not fit these categories. In this era, the continent was not covered by hunter-gatherer bands or tribes. Some foraging communities still existed. But that way of life had not been dominant across the continent for over a thousand years. Yet this was also not yet the era of colonial domination. In fact, Europeans controlled very little of the continent. Instead, this was an era of great diversity. This vast and populous continent had many different types of societies, from small, independent villages to vast, centralized states.
But if sub-Saharan African societies were so diverse in this era, why is it useful to study them together? Historians have traditionally placed all of this region in one bucket. They imagined the people were all closely related – “black Africans”. But in fact, this region’s genetic diversity was greater than that of all the rest of the world combined. This is because Africa is the ancestral homeland of all humans. Because only a small set of our African ancestors left for other regions, most genetic diversity remained in Africa.
Sub-Saharan African societies also had diverse cultures. Yet there were some big connections between many of them that make it logical to study them together. In particular, there were societies across the middle of the continent that shared Bantu-speaking languages and culture. Also, historically, it made sense to study this region together because it had three outside barriers that limited interaction with the rest of the world. These three barriers were the Atlantic and Indian Oceans to the west and east, and the Sahara Desert to the north.
But by 1750, all three of the great barriers separating sub-Saharan Africa from other regions had turned into great trading zones. Caravans traversed the Sahara, and ships crisscrossed the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. Millions of Africans had migrated – willingly or not – across them. People from Europe and Asia had also come to live in Africa to some degree. African societies in different regions were affected by these vast trading networks.
Internally, few Africans at this time felt especially connected to people in other parts of the continent, just as very few people in Europe in 1750 thought of themselves as “European.” Similarly, very few people in this zone thought of themselves as African! They instead tended to think of themselves based on their religious, state, or community identities.
So, does it make sense to study this region together? Maybe, because there were several shared experiences that characterize this large region around 1750.

African communities and states, c.1750

Many different communities lived in sub-Saharan Africa around 1750. We should discuss them first. Some communities were quite small and egalitarian (people were considered mostly equal). There was little difference between rich and poor and only limited political structures. The Khoisan in southern Africa were a group who tended to live in relatively egalitarian groups. Unfortunately for them, they were located quite close to the Cape of Good Hope. This was an area of early European settlement. As a result, they suffered from diseases that Europeans brought with them. They were also persecuted and enslaved. By 1750, many Khoisan bands nearest European settlement had been wiped out, had become enslaved, or had been forced to move.
BaKongo masks, Kongo region. By Ndoto ya Afrika, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Other communities were larger and more formally organized, but lacked a single head or leader. Igbo communities, in the south of what is today Nigeria, were an example. Igbo society didn’t really have “chiefs” or “kings” at this time. Instead, they tended to be governed by councils in each village. Several villages often tied together into confederations that helped each other. Instead of wanting to become “chief”, wealthy Igbo men competed to become “nobles.” These titles were bestowed upon them by the collective community. Becoming a noble gave a person honor, if not necessarily power to rule. It could be achieved partly by giving away great wealth to the community. This tended, again, to reinforce some equality of wealth across the community.
Of course, some sub-Saharan African societies took the form of large, centralized states. One of these was Kongo. Here wealthy, powerful ruling families displayed their wealth in fine clothing and goods much like in the court of European rulers at the time. But cultural rules against greed tended to keep individual wealth in check. Moreover, by 1750, Kongo was suffering from the effects of the Atlantic slave trade, which tended to break down large states.

Social identity within and between societies

Within the Kongolese society, the culture limited individual wealth. This was also true of many other African communities. For many, wealth and authority were held by the family. Many sub-Saharan African societies emphasized kinship (membership in the family) as an important value and identity. This could mean that people who did not have families, or whose families had fallen apart, were vulnerable. However, kinship in these societies was often assimilative. This means that new people (sometimes including enslaved people who were purchased) could become “adopted” as members over time.
Religion was another important marker of identity. Local religions tied people to each other, to ancestors, and to the land in many cases. Christianity and Islam had long histories in Africa. They both played an important part in how and with whom people connected. In northeast Africa, especially Ethiopia, Christianity was an important part of individual daily experience. It also helped connect people to the Ethiopian kings and to each other through a system of priests and monasteries. But Islam was probably numerically the largest religion in Africa at this time. In West Africa, Islam was slowly turning from a religion of rulers to a religion of peasants. In fact, some forms of Islamic brotherhoods were helping peasants to band together with each other against slave raiders and the threat of encroachment by Europeans. In East Africa, Islam was very much a religion of trade. It connected Africans along the coast to Muslims in Arabia and India in a vast trading network.

Production and trade

Trade was very important to sub-Saharan Africa in this period. Long trading routes connected people from the interior to the coast. They exchanged different goods, including some imported from outside of the region. A common currency across much of the region helped. This currency was the cowrie shell, a seashell that was valuable because it was rare, much like gold today. Iron was another currency. Instead of long caravans travelling along these trade routes, different people would carry goods back and forth in short intervals before selling them to the next person along the route.
Caravan in the Sahara, Morocco, 2013. By Sergey Pesterev, CC BY-SA 4.0.
Trade also crossed the three “oceans”. The Sahara Desert was considered an ocean of sand. The two other oceans were the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Much of the trade that crossed here was luxury goods. It included hunted products like ivory, some mined metals, and spices grown in large plantations, especially along the East African coast. Of course, there was also a great trade in enslaved people from Africa. Slavery in 1750 was quite common in many parts of the world. Africans were enslaved for purchase in North Africa and Arabia as well as in the Americas. The Atlantic slave trade was managed by European corporations. It was larger and more highly organized than anything that had come before. In just the 50 years leading up to 1750, more than two and a half million Africans had been enslaved through this system. This, of course, had an enormous impact on the continent. It had a particular impact in small regions that were intensively enslaved, like Igbo communities and the area around Kongo. The economic impact was an immediate decrease in productivity. Many workers (especially the most productive young people) were taken away overseas. It also had a political impact. The wars and kidnappings collapsed many African states into anarchy. In other regions, autocratic warlords arose. These powerful men could protect their people. They did this partly by raiding others to enslave them for sale to Europeans in exchange for guns and ammunition. In this way, the slave trade introduced warlordism (rule by powerful individuals rather than complex systems and groups) into many regions of Africa.
Of course, most people in Africa in this period remained farmers. They produced food for themselves and some surplus for sale. Many of them were untouched by the slave trade or the beginnings of European settlement and colonialism. Still, parts of Africa in 1750 were already suffering from the ill effects of this system. It would go on to hurt the continent’s productivity and stability for the next centuries.
Author bio
Trevor Getz is Professor of African and World History at San Francisco State University. He has written or edited eleven books, including the award-winning graphic history Abina and the Important Men, and co-produced several prize-winning documentaries. He is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.

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