Background information

The cultural traditions of Africa

Asante weights
Asante weight

Africa has a long and rich history. There were many diverse and powerful kingdoms throughout Africa particularly in the west. They include the kingdoms of Mali, Songhay, Benin and the Asante, all built on wealth from mining gold. Economic networks and craftsmanship characterized these cultures.

The home of humankind

Fossil evidence from East Africa suggests this is where humans first evolved, at least 2-3 million years ago and perhaps even 6-7 million years ago. Africa has been home to a variety of civilizations ever since and is a diverse and rich continent, not a single country. Settled civilizations in Africa date from 12,000 years ago in the Sahara. What is now the Sahara desert, was then a fertile area. This meant people stopped being nomads and settled as farmers. Food was easy to grow and animals could graze all year round. By the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade in the 1500s, Africa was far from being a ?primitive? or ?dark? continent as many early European explorers and writers have suggested.

?The Gold-Coast and Slave-Coast, all who have seen it agree, is exceeding fruitful and pleasant, producing vast quantities of rice and other grain, plenty of fruit and roots, palm-wine, and oil, and fish in great abundance, with much tame and wild cattle. The very same account is given us of the soil and produce of the kingdoms of Benin, Congo and Angola. From all which it appears, That Guinea in general, far from being a horrid, dreary, barren country, is one of the most fruitful, as well as the most pleasant countries in the known world. It is said indeed to be unhealthy. And so it is to strangers, but perfectly healthy to the native inhabitants. These three nations practise several trades; they have smiths, saddlers, potters and weavers. And they are very ingenious at their several occupations. Their smiths not only make all the instruments of iron, which they have occasion to use, but likewise work many things neatly in gold and silver. It is chiefly the women and children who weave fine cotton cloth, which they dye blue and black.?

From John Wesley ?Thoughts upon Slavery? (1773)

Olaudah Equiano in ?The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, 1789?, also reflects on the riches of Africa.

?Our land is uncommonly rich and fruitful, and produces all kinds of vegetables in great abundance. We have plenty of Indian corn, and vast quantities of cotton and tobacco. Our pineapples grow without culture; they are about the size of the largest sugar loaf, and finely flavoured. We have also spices of different kinds, particularly pepper; and a delicious variety of fruits which I have never seen in Europe; together with gum of various kinds, and honey in abundance.?

Olaudah Equiano

Growth of great kingdoms

Although the focus here is on West Africa, the significance of Egypt, united as one Kingdom in about 3000 BCE[1] and which lasted for 3,000 years, cannot be underestimated in considering Africa?s history. A peaceful, long-lasting state, the ancient Egyptians became a highly sophisticated society with advanced scientific, medical and technological knowledge (pre-dating developments in Europe). The introduction of camels in 100 BCE made it possible to cross the desert and goods and skills were spread across the continent.

Throughout the time Western Europeans call the medieval period or Middle Ages, Africa was characterized by a number of powerful kingdoms, particularly Mali, Songhay and Benin. In 600 CE the Ife kingdom of the Yoruba people in West Africa developed and continued reaching its peak in c1400. Islam swept across North Africa around 700 CE and the Soninke people united to form the empire of Ancient Ghana (present-day S.E. Mauritania, not present-day Ghana). Ancient Ghana was at its strongest in about 750 CE. It was the first great West African kingdom and well documented by Muslim historians. The Shona people established the kingdom of Great Zimbabwe in 1000 CE and were actively trading in gold and ivory until 1400.

The kingdom of Mali expanded in 1235 and was at its strongest in about 1350. It was larger than western Europe and reputed to be one of the largest, richest and most powerful states in the world. Sonni Ali the Great became ruler of the Songhay kingdom in 1464 and the famous university of Sankore based in the city of Timbuktu made it a centre of art, learning and trade. The Asante empire of Akan-speaking people united under Osei Tutu on the Gold Coast in 1700. Iron-smelting and metal work, stone and clay working, as well as wealth from mining gold formed the foundation for these civilizations.

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[1] BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era) are used instead of BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini, meaning in the Year of Our Lord). BC and AD are Christian ways of listing dates, and some may prefer not to use the Christian calendar. The dates are unchanged.

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