African History - The Definitive Guide

African History

Africa is home to the first humans and this gives a new meaning to its nickname the motherland. The continent has the longest history. Africans have been around for a very very long time. A huge part of Africa’s earliest history has been lost, which is typical for early humans due to the relatively short time for which writing has existed. Some parts of African history have been distorted and misrepresented. However, there are parts of African history that remain intact, as modern-day discoveries and new emerging facts and methods help to rediscover the lost pasts of the Africa’s past through DNA sequencing, dendrochronology, Accelerator Mass Spectrometer (AMS) dating and various other methods.

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Africans are the most diverse people in the world. Perhaps this has a connection with the fact that they are the earliest humans (founder effect), and it has been proven that humans adapt to the different environments they find themselves in overtime as they migrate. This accounts for the many different skin tones of Africans ranging from very dark to very light, and the thousands of different cultures and languages spread all across the continent.

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Before the arrival of the Europeans, Africans had already travelled to other parts of the world in various “human migration” waves, as archiac humans spreading Achuelean technology, as behaviorally modern humans (BMH) spreading the stone age and tool use, and around 1,000 BCE to 1500 AD not as slaves as many wrongly believe but as respected members of society. Discoveries such as Memnon in the Trojan war, the Ivory Bangle Lady, the beachy head lady, and many other findings prove this fact while giving us an insight into the way of life of much earlier societies.

Ancient Africans were pioneers of early civilisation, many people do not know this, but the facts are there for all to see. Africa is credited with having the oldest history in the world. The origins of several human advancements were from Africa. There is evidence that early African societies excelled in fields such as engineering, mathematics, writing even navigation.

Some notable great African civilisations such as The Great Benin Empire, Ancient Egypt, Empire of Mali, Empire of Songhai, The Nri Kingdom, The Garamantes, Kanem-Bornu Empire, Kingdom of Luba, Kingdom of Makuria, The Land of Punt and so many other great African civilisations had a highly organised society that was developed, excelled in commerce and flourished. You can learn more about them here

Precolonial African civilisations had highly evolved political and leadership systems that supported their various complex and developed societies. Such as the Ibinda system of the Kalenji people of Kenya, the confederacy system of the Kwararafa people, the bureaucratic federal republic system of the Ashanti Empire, the hegemony system of the Songhai Empire, the Gada system of the Oromo, the hereditary theocracy of the Fatimid Caliphate, Monarchical system of the Mossi kingdoms, the theocratic system of the Nri kingdom, and many more developed system of leaderships that you can read about here The monarchical system, however, seems to be the more prominent leadership style for most African societies.

These ancient African civilisations invented and originated their ways of doing things, many of which parallel independent developments around the world. Sadly, Africa is denied credit for most of her contributions. There is clear evidence of sophisticated African cultures from as far back as many thousands of years ago. For instance, there are about 15 ancient African writing styles that predate even Latin, read about them here As far back as 82,000 years ago, Africans had already invented abstract arts and painting. Algorithms which have become an inevitable part of computing today had its roots in Africa. Africans domesticated over 2000 different types of food, some of which today is consumed globally. Africans built the earliest seafaring vessels and you are able to learn on this site about so many other achievements. There were powerful kingdoms and many centres of learning in Africa, such as the University of Sankore.

The only part of African history known to most people has to do with the arrival of the Europeans in Africa. To many, it is almost as if Africa had no history up until that time.

The European age of discovery in the 15th century heralded their exploration of Africa.

This marked a turning point in African history. The transatlantic slave trade is notoriously the highlight of this encounter.

Before the slave trade became full-blown, Europeans traded goods with Africans, commodities like textiles, gold, farm produce, ivory, salt, palm oil, were exchanged.

The Portuguese were the first to officially ship African slaves overseas when they exported about 235 Africans from present-day Senegal around 1444. The Portuguese were also the first to venture deep into Sub-saharan Africa and later joined by Britain, France, and of lesser influence other European countries like Spain, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and Italy.

Previously, trade with sub-Saharan Africa with Europe was only possible through the north Africans who served as middlemen.

The direct trade and interaction with the Europeans had a massive effect across all African sphere of life. There are records of wealthy African merchants sending their children to European universities, as covered in the “Black Tudors: the Untold Story” by Miranda Kaufmann.

The abundance of the rich natural resources of Africa soon led to avarice on the part of the Europeans, and this resulted in a mad scramble for Africa’s resources, including her people. The late 15th century all through to the 19th century saw the exploitation of Africa by European powers. During this period, between 11 and 15 million Africans were shipped overseas and sold into slavery.

Africans and their way of life suffered significant damage. The Europeans imposed their lifestyle and religious beliefs on the African people, traditional African institutions were dismantled or severely weakened, and European proxies set up in its place.

Between 1500 and 1900 an estimated 5.6 million people, mostly Africans, died in wars relating purely to conflicts between European states and African states. For instance, 480,000 on both sides died in the Franco-Algeria wars while 36,000 died in the Italo-Ethiopian Wars. The violent attempts to either feed the lucrative triangular Trans-Atlantic and Trans-Sahara slave trades with captives or to seize Africa’s trade markets for Europe led to instability for refugees and displaced persons.

Unexpectedly, in some minor cases slaves taken to the Americas became explorers in the New World and through their exploits gained them rewards as they played off Spain, against France and against Britain such as Esteban, Juan Valiente, and Juan Garrido. This is covered in “Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions” by Jane Landers.

The Berlin conference of 1884/85 strongly reaffirmed European colonisation of Africa and gave it some form of legal backing.

This encouraged the European powers to strengthen their already established ties and effectively kill off any remaining existing form of African autonomy and self-governance.

The Scramble for Africa benefitted from colonisation efforts in Asia. By the time Africa was colonized, the East India Company already had a strong grip over India and Pakistan.

Indian troops (non-European) were used by Britain as the cannon fodder in India (90%), Burma (1824-1885), Persia (1856-57), China (1839-42 etc.), Afghanistan (1878 – 80), Egypt (1882 – 85), Central Africa (1897 – 1804), West Africa (1840 – 1904), Sudan and South Africa (1860 – 1890).

Size and composition of the Indian colonial armies in British India and the Dutch East Indies from the mid-eighteenth century to 1913, in thousands

Europeans Natives Total Europeans

(% of total)




c. 1850


























































Source: Bouda Etemad, Possessing the World, pp 40

The colonisation of Africa was followed by the creation of colonial troops composed of African sub-ordinates and European officers, styled on similar military units used in India and Indonesia. Prior to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, up a year before world war 1, in 1913, the estimated numbers and composition of regular colonial troops during peacetime stationed in Asia, the Carribean and Africa looked as follows:

Colonial troops

(in thousands)

Proportion of indigenous soldiers in the colonial armies

(% of total force)

Number of colonised people per home country soldier

(in thousands)

Colonial Powers
Germany A 6.5 62.2 4.4
Belgium B 18.3 97.6 24.9
Netherlands C 33.8 69.2 4.8
Italy 47.8 75.8 2.0
Portugal 10.2 69.0 1.8
United States D 18.5 29.7 0.7
France E 101.6 86.7 3.6
United Kingdom F








Total and averages 517.4 69.8 3.3

Source: Bouda Etemad, Possessing the World, pp 47

The following estimates are of manpower contributed by Africa and Caribbeans in the form of service personnel, porters, carriers and excludes Afro-Americans:

Low End Estimates High End Estimates
World War 1 1.6 million 1.7 million
World War 2 1.0 million 1.2 million
Total 2.9 million 3.2 million

It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that Africa began to regain back her autonomy. Autonomy for colonies around the world was one of the conditions of America entering the second world war, codified in the six-point Atlantic charter, since the possession of colonies made European wars a world war, when colonial troops and colonial economic wealth fed world war 1 and world war 2. The six points of the 14th of August 1941 Atlantic Charter set out the following aims: no territorial aggrandizement; no territorial changes made against the wishes of the people (self-determination); restoration of self-government to those deprived of it; reduction of trade restrictions; global cooperation to secure better economic and social conditions for all; freedom from fear and want; freedom of the seas; and abandonment of the use of force, as well as disarmament of aggressor nations.

The effect of centuries of European dominance over Africa has continued to plague the continent and its people. It has resulted in the birth of new cultures which is a mix of both European and African culture. There have been pockets of wars all over the continent since the Europeans left; this is as a result of the actions they took during colonisation. These actions, of course, were for personal gains without regard to the effect it will have on the African people. For instance, existing land boundaries were scrapped and new ones created, people of different ethnicity and culture were forcefully merged to become one people, strange and foreign cultures were introduced, century-old traditional institutions that kept the people in check was scrapped for new foreign ones, etc. All these and many similar such effects led to disagreements and ultimately wars after the Europeans relinquished power. Over the years these wars have metamorphosed into a much more complex and complicated problem.

Not many people know that colonial governments were heavily funded by taxation of African locals. 35% to 45% of government revenue was used to pay for military units by the UK, and the French to suppress independence and democratic movements. Voting was not allowed by locals in many regions. Property and resource theft were prevalent. The excess focus of spending government revenue on the military during the colonial occupation became a problem for many African countries after independence.

Today most of the conflicts have ceased, some African nations are beginning to put their houses in order, and the continent is gradually taking its place in the committee of nations. However, Africa is yet to shake off the effect of colonialism fully.

We hope you find the resources on this website useful for

– Self – discovery, confidence and to awaken alertness

– thinking about concepts continuity, change, cause and consequence, trends, and completeness of historically received media narratives.