A shrine in Mali.
A shrine in Mali.

Africa’s rich history erased

By Chelsea Lotz Time of article published Dec 9, 2015

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Chelsea Lotz

Africa has a hidden history that has been erased from school textbooks around the world.

Many people falsely assume that Africa was primitive before European colonial invasion.

They believe the fallacy that it was a place of no cities, empires, commerce and in other words, no civilisation. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Africa has a rich and in depth pre-colonial history of magnificent and unspoken wealthy and developed empires and kingdoms.

In the 12th Century, the Mali Empire was larger than Western Europe and regarded as one of the wealthiest states in the world. The Mali Empire existed between c1230 to c1600.

The empire reigned in North West Africa before the Kingdom of Kongo. The Mali Empire was the centre of trade internationally and Mansu Musa was the longest reigning king.

Ancient pre-colonial art shows the African King Musa dressed in fine clothing and gold. The Mali Empire consisted of many libraries and Islamic universities and was known as the academic hub of Africa.

There are records of Ancient Mali that go as far back as 1068 and archeological evidence shows that Mali was an established civilisation since the 6th Century. The genealogy of Mali’s kings can be traced as far back as the 10th century.

The Mali Empire was so wealthy that in the 1300’s King Musa conducted a well documented expedition to Mecca with 200 camels that were laden with 12 tons of pure gold, as well as silver, textiles and food in a pilgrimage displaying the grandest wealth of the century.

Timbuktu was a part of the Mali empire, a city surrounded by desert with over 50 000 inhabitants.

Timbuktu was considered as the academic hub of the world. The region was extensive and ancient art display images of a city that stretches out as far as the eye could see.

The 15th and 16th century was considered the Golden Age in Timbuktu as the region flourished with gold, which was traded with other African regions in exchange for textiles, food and salt.

Timbuktu was also full of scholars and countless libraries. Book were made and published in the region by locals, which were sought after worldwide.

In 1628, René Caillié, a french explorer had reached the city that he had believed was a mythical legend, and wrote: “When I entered this mysterious city, I was overwhelmed by an incredible feeling of satisfaction, I had never felt such a feeling before in my life and my joy was extreme”.

In 1893 the French explorers came back and colonised Timbuktu, stealing and destroying buildings, documents and books. Some remnants of the ancient manuscripts can still be found in French museums.

Dig deep enough into historical archives and you will find that the African Kingdom of Kongo was one of the largest empires in Africa with a population of over half a million inhabitants, centuries before colonialists set foot on the continent.

Diogo Cao was the first European explorer to discover the Kingdom of Kongo in 1483 and was amazed that a progressive civilisation existed.

The Kongo had a centralised political state that was advanced in farming, metalwork, weaving and textiles. The Kongo empire spread over the entire West Africa region (which consists of 18 countries today) and had developed cities with houses, communal areas and had an established legal system.

By 1500 BC, the Kingdom of Kongo was trading with other countries by exporting leather, gold, textiles and cattle. In 1914 the Portuguese overthrew the Kingdom of Kongo, having destroyed the empire.

The Kingdom of Benin was a pre-colonial empire that spread through the region, now Nigeria. The Kingdom (not to be confused with the country Benin) was known as one of the most developed states in ancient Africa, trading in bronze, gold, ivory and iron.

Documents recording political activity in the Kingdom of Benin go as far back as the 1200s and the city was founded in 1180 BC, according to historical records.

Walls surrounded the city and they had a military force to protect its inhabitants. In 1485 Portuguese and British explorers arrived and started stealing and enslaving civilians through the promise of work abroad.

Historical documentation shows us how British colonialists had tried to bargain with the king by asking for control of the city. When the king rejected their offer, they burned the city down in which many valuable historical documents and works of art were destroyed.

By the 1500s the Kingdom of Benin had fallen and by the 1900s the British Empire had officially conquered the once prosperous region.

The Ashanti Empire dominated East Africa in the 1600s – 1800s. The Empire was under the rule of the Ashanti King Osei Tutu, who had established a parliament, government, legal system and military.

Before the 1600s the Ashanti Empire existed as many various states of the Akan people. The empire had an abundance of gold that was used for trading with the other African regions, long before European colonialists had ever stepped foot in the region.

Ashanti architecture was breathtaking, with furniture carved from ivory and wood, they had chairs made out of gold and walls were adorned with tribal patterns, mosaic and bright colours.

In 1884 the grandest palace in the region was burnt down by the British colonialists after the Anglo-Ashanti war. Many of the beautiful pieces of Ashanti furniture and jewels that were stolen, remain in European museums today.

Historical evidence shows us that pre-colonial Africa had multiple empires that existed, trading gold, textiles and spices with each other.

We see how the locals, along with their governmental system and commerce, had built vast cities with unique African architecture.

The notion that Europeans “bought civilisation to Africa” is perhaps one of the greatest myths of the century. It is clear that Africa was abundant and wealthy continent with African rulers who governed their kingdoms, which were burnt, destroyed and brought to ruin by the colonial settlers who tried to claim the cities and empires as their own.

Africa has a phenomenal pre-colonial history that includes law and academia, something that school textbooks fail to mention.

The African furniture and jewellery that we see was created by Africans, having never been inspired by Europeans.

However, that never made Africa inferior, in fact it was because Africa was so superior in the abundance of gold, minerals and textiles that the European colonialists sought to destroy and discredit its legacy.

l Lotz is a freelance writer

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