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African Americans in the British New World

6a. West African Society at the Point of European Contact

Benin Head
Art, such as this bronze head from Benin, is used to recount the history of the kingdom and its rulers.

Powerful kingdoms, beautiful sculpture, complex trade, tremendous wealth, centers for advanced learning — all are hallmarks of African civilization on the eve of the age of exploration.

Hardly living up to the "dark continent" label given by European adventurers, Africa's cultural heritage runs deep. The empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay are some of the greatest the world has ever known. Timbuktu, arguably the world's oldest university, was the intellectual center of its age.

Although primarily agricultural, West Africans held many occupations. Some were hunters and fishers. Merchants traded with other African communities, as well as with Europeans and Arabs. Some West Africans mined gold, salt, iron, copper or even diamonds. African art was primarily religious, and each community had artisans skilled at producing works that would please the tribal gods.

The center of African life in ancient and modern times is the family. Since Africans consider all individuals who can trace roots to a common ancestor, this family often comprised hundreds of members.

African Slave Trade Regions
The slave trade that brought millions of men and women to North America unwillingly, also affected many areas of Africa. This map shows some of the regions involved in the African slave trade.

Like Native American tribes, there is tremendous diversity among the peoples of West Africa. Some traced their heritage through the father's bloodline, some through the mothers. Some were democratic, while others had a strong ruler. Most African tribes had a noble class, and slavery in Africa predates the written record.

The slavery known to Africans prior to European contact did not involve a belief in inferiority of the slaves. Most slaves in West Africa were captured in war. Although legally considered property, most African slaves were treated as family members. Their children could not be bought or sold. Many achieved high honors in their communities, and freedom by manumission was not uncommon. Plantation slavery was virtually unknown on the African continent.

The impending slave trade brings ruin to West Africa. Entire villages disappear. Guns and alcohol spread across the continent. Tribes turn against other tribes as the once-fabled empires fade into history. The Diaspora of African peoples around the world had begun.

On the Web
Kingdoms of the Medieval Sudan
Histories of Songhay, Kanem-Bronu, Hausaland, and Mali and overviews of trade and the influence of Islam are offered on this website. Pop quizzes test what you have learned, and a gallery of photos of the region in modern times is exceptional.
Tabala Wolof: Sufi Drumming of Senegal
Islam blended with rather than destroyed many traditional African customs. This page explains how traditional drum rhythms were incorporated into Sufi prayer rituals in the 1700s. There are a few pictures and a sound clip.
The Saharan Trade
This website explores the trade routes that developed across the Sahara Desert up until the 1400s. The first routes were established primarily to trade gold from the gold-rich Ghana area from salt from North Africa. Egypt became a trading partner in 1235 C.E.
Now that's traveling in style! Mansa Musa, the most famous ruler of the Mali Empire, spent and gave so much gold during his celebrated hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) in 1324 that he severely lowered the value of the precious metal in Egypt.
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Salt was such a valuable commodity in Sudanic Africa, that chunks of salt broken from large salt bars from mines in the Sahara were actually used as currency.
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