Episode 3: Africa in Historical Context


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Africa in Historical Context — Introduction:

In this episode, we look at Africa in historical context and the events leading up to the Atlantic slave trade. Black Studies is a response to widespread misrepresentation of the history of the African continent and people of African descent, but what does an alternative context look like? Do we simply glorify Africa in response? If, in fact we are to look to Africa’s glorious past as an alternative, then how did things go from a wealthy Africa to the Atlantic Slave Trade and European colonization? We will explore rise and fall of powerful and wealthy African kingdoms as well as the fateful path they took that ultimately led to the Atlantic slave trade -the trafficking of millions of human beings from West Africa to the Americas.

Throughout history, civilizations have risen and fallen. By the 16th century, Europe is in a state of expansion. Europe was in the midst of an age of Renaissance and Exploration and at that particular time Africa happens to be in a state of decline. But backing up the timeline to, say the 4th and 5th century, Rome is declining; Europe is in the Dark Ages, you see feudalism, warlordism, disease, black plague, bubonic plague and various kingdoms that are vying for what’s left of the crumbling Roman Empire. As it happens, at that particular time Africa is thriving. So, how we go from wealthy West African kingdoms to the Africa that exists at the time of European colonization. There is a very complex chain of events that takes place with some key players that helps to explain how that process unfolds.

One of the first key players influencing the African continent as a whole is Egypt. Egypt sits on some prime real estate. The 2nd two major players on the scene, Greece and Rome, are very quickly going to realize that in order to get what they need to survive they need to somehow go through Egypt. That’s the reason why Alexander the Great in 322 BC conquerors Egypt and makes it a Grecian province — the same thing with Rome for the same reason. They’re going to capture much of North Africa and the gateway to the Middle East, which means access to China in order to get what they need to survive.

By the time Rome conquers much of North Africa, they have already established a relationship with the folks in the trans- Sahara. So already folks in West Africa and the trans-Sahara are linked into this global network of trade that Rome has established for its own reasons because they need access to trade in China.

Around the 6th century A.D., Islam is starting to expand across North Africa, across Egypt — the Mameluk Empire. Coincidentally you have a subsequent decline in Rome, partly because access to trade with Asia has now been blocked by the Muslims. As Rome starts to crumble we see bubonic plague, middle ages, feudalism, warlordism — it’s a very violent time not a very pleasant place to live.

Also as Rome declines, West Africa begins to expand to fill that vacuum that Rome has left. A series of large and powerful West African kingdoms will going to dominate events in West Africa for the next several hundred year. Until about the 1600s, the kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai dominate the sub-Saharan region of West Africa and trans-Saharan trade routes.

In 1453 Constantinople was conquered by the Muslims and it became Istanbul. It was the fall of Constantinople that prompted Spain to hire Christopher Columbus to sail all the way around the world to try to get to Asia and it prompted the Portuguese to try to circumnavigate Africa. When Portugal circumnavigates Africa? Africa is cut out of the picture and the trans-Saharan trade comes into disuse.

Slavery is nothing new in human history and tends to go hand-in-hand with conquest. The Egyptians would conquer their neighbors and they would make slaves of them. The Greeks conquered their neighbors and made slaves of them as did the Romans and virtually every other human civilization in one form or another. As West Africa began to fall apart the one thing that they have plenty of — slaves as a result of conflict — is the one thing that expanding Europeans are in need of. There had been a trans-Saharan slave trade in West Africa centuries before Europeans arrived on the scene. When Europeans arrived on the scene the slave trade continued – only not over the trans-Sahara, but across the Atlantic.


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