Response to “Africans: The History of a Continent”

Over the next few months while I’m in DRC, I’ll be reading a series of books covering the themes of African History, The Congo Region, Development work in Africa, and Post-Conflict Development. In this first response I’m commenting on the first half of John Iliffe’s “Africans: The History of a Continent”, basically leading up 1870 when Europeans began to colonize en masse.

I’ve chosen to read John Iliffe’s “Africans: The History of a Continent” as a primer to my studies of conflict and development in Africa. While Africa obviously has the longest span of human history, it’s shocking to learn of little is known about what took place inland from the oceans and navigable rivers. This is still great opportunity for archeological work, but the harsh conditions and numerous conflicts of the past century has limited the scale to which it has been undertaken.  Iliffe does provide a decent introduction to the great North African civilizations such as Egypt, along with how Christianity and later Islam spread through the regions, I found the key moment of change to be the arrival of The Black Death in the fourteenth century.

It’s rather common for people to now think of Africa of a continent that, like much of Asia, struggles with overpopulation. But this is a recent phenomenon. In fact, when the Black Death reached Northern Africa in the 1300’s spread quickly and killed off over a third of the population. Unlike in Europe, though, it did not vanish, and outbreak after outbreak continued to kill hundreds of thousands of Africans over the next four centuries. So, while Europe and Asia were increasing in population, Africa remained stagnant. Tack on slavery, which I’ll touch on next, and it goes a long way to understanding how the entire continent of Africa lagged behind the rest of the world.

The Black Death caused massive labor shortages in Africa, but unlike in Europe where the first labor revolutions occurred giving more power to the peasantry, the shortages in Africa re-established the practice of slavery. The idea that this was simply a western practice seems to be a common simplification of a complex economic situation. Many tribes began raids on weaker neighbors in order to pillage and enslave workers for their own fields. This practice was particularly strong in the West-African Savannah, where Mamluk warriors, skilled horsemen, could sweep in quickly without notice.

Understanding how this population shortage helped to cement the practice of slavery within Africa itself helps to explain how the practice spread to Europeans who were beginning to trade with West-African cities. When the Portuguese began looking for slaves, there was already a sort of infrastructure in place to service them. It’s rather cruel to look at Slavery through a purely socio-economic lens, but when you consider the need for labor, both in Africa and in the New World, and those willing to supply that labor through slaves in exchange for European goods, it provides a better explanation than the simply viewing slavery as something the Europeans inflicted upon the African continent.

Something that I thought of while reading through this portion of Africa’s history was how using Slaves as a primary commodity compares to the currently problems in Africa today. Right now, much of Africa supplies only primary commodities such as agricultural goods, oil, or minerals. There are few manufacturing or service-based industries here. Throughout the period of the slave trade, Africa traded for all of its manufactured goods using slaves, gold, rubber and later diamonds, ivory, and oil. While Europe was improving its manufacturing capabilities, African nations remained stagnant relying on outside trade for all modern goods (many of which were already outdated versions of newer technology, particularly when it came to weaponry).

In Economic terms, European nations were going through a period of major capital improvement, building a foundation which would lead to the industrial revolution, while African nations were only using their natural resources to trade for what was desired rather than innovate and improve their own capabilities. As the age of slavery drew to a close, this put Africa in prime position for European takeover through colonization.



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