Most of the slaves who were shipped to the Caribbean came from a section of West Africa between the Senegal and the Congo rivers. The Northern part of this area is covered with Savannah, open grassland which stretches for hundreds of kilometres. As you move south through the Savannah, the rainfall increases and the grass is mixed with woodlands. You also enter the region infested with tsetse fly which means that cattle will not survive. Further south still you come to the tropical forests of the Guinea Coast, and the Congo River. When the slave trade began in the 15th century, the Savannah and tropical forests were each home for Africans with different skills, technologies and political organisation.
Socities of the Savannahs
Technology and Skill
The farmers of these fertile grasslands grew peanuts, millet, yams,and many green vegtables. North of the tsetse line they also rear goats, cattle and sheep. The foods, leather and wool were plentiful enough to support the many people who were not farmers. Across the Savannah there were families where the knowledge of iron-working, leather-working or weaving passed from father to son. Farmers traded with these craft communities but even more of their products went to towns on the Northern frindge of the Savannah: Timbuktu, Kumbi, Saleh, Walata and Jenne. There were potters, weavers, metal and leather workers in these towns and there were also the merchants, known as dyula. Dyula usually worked in small companies that moved about with their own escorts of mounted guards. The town had grown up at the end of trading routes that crosses the sahara to the coast of North Africa. The Dyula's caravans of camels set off along these routes loaded with the finely worked cloth and leather articles made by the Savannah craftmen but the had even more valuable trades. They collected gold from the skilled miners of the Senegal and Niger valleys, brought it to their towns, paid taxes on it, and then took it to the North. On their return journeys they brought salt which they could sell at very high prices to the forest peoples of the south-but only after they had paid taxes on each load.
The taxes on gold,salt and other traded goods enriched the treasury of local rulers. There were able to pay their many officials and tax collectors as well as large number of warriors who kept the peace and protected the caravan routes. As a result, powerful empires arose. When slave trading began in the 15th century, nearly all the West African Savannah was a part of the vast Songhai Empire. Two hundred years earlier they had replaced the Mali Empire which had enlarged the first Savannah empire, Ghana, which had begun as early as the fourth century.
From Mali times the Savannah rulers and many of the merchants and warrior classes had accepted the Muslim faith. The religion was learned from their Berber Arab trading partners on the coast and it spread rapidly among the Savannah townspeople. Schools of Muslim learning grew up to teach the civil laws that were used to regulate trade and business. Outside the towns, farmers, craftsmen and miners were more likely to keep to their traditional African beliefs or to combine these with some ideas and customs borrowed from Islam.
Savannah People on the Plantations
Planters in the caribbean knew little about the achievements of the Savannah people in trade, governments and learning. They seem to have been unaware that many slaves came with high levels of skill and wide experience of complex societies. Some would have learned the skills involved in trade from their dealings with the dyula. Even more would have come from advanced farming communities who were used to exchanging their surplus food for goods made by other people. Many slaves would have belonged to families with long traditions of skills in iron and copperwork, in fishing or in mining. Most would probably have been far more finely dressed than they were in the Caribbean when they were doled out simple petticoats and coarse Osnaburg pant, made from cloth first manufactured in Germany.
Peoples of the Forest
Technology and Skills
In the dense tropical forests the only link between settlements were footpaths. The cascading rivers were too dangerous for canoes, and work animals could not be kept because of the tsetse. Poor communications kept the people of West African forests separated. Yet, in most of them, experienced village farmers could produce a food surplus. An important skill in forest farming was to know how to use land properly. Many forest communities kept part of their land unplanted to allow it to recover its fertility. Others shifted their village every few years to a new site cleared in the forest. Another skill was to know how to combine crops. Root crops such as yam and cassava could be protected by banana fronds while the banana could be shaded by tall forest trees. With these skills and a careful use of wood-ash and animal manure such as chicken, pig, goats and guinea fowl were kept.
The food surplus supported the craftsmen of the forest regions. There were many centres for pottery, carpentry and cloth weaving. Sixteenth-century Europeans were impressed by the African skill in dyeing cloth with brilliant colours which there were not able to match for 200 years. In some places salt was dried and prepared for sale. However, metal-working was probably the most important and widely spread skill in the forest areas.
It involved large number of men working in different specialism. Right across the forest region there were miners digging for iron ore. In the centre of the Ashanti lands, miners also brought out enough gold ore to produce many hundreds of tons of gold between 1350-1500. After the miners, there were the workers who crushed and smelted the ores in charcoal furnaces. Blacksmiths then turned the iron into tools and weapons, and other items such as hinges and bolts. Goldsmiths performed more delicate work, beating gold into thin leaf or turning it in yet another branch of metalwork. They made brass and bronze from copper and tin. Sculptors in the forest town such as Ife and Benin turned these into fine figures and models using the complicated "lost-wax" method.
Because there was so much exchange of food of food for other goods, many people of the forest region took part in trade. for some it was mostly a matter of knowing how to find their way along jungle paths with the aid of the sun and stars. But many goods went North to the Savannah empires. After the Portuguese found the sea route to West Africa there were new trading partners to deal with. Merchants dealing with these export trades had to understand a great deal of the world outside West Africa, to have knowledge of the value of many goods and to be able to keep records and accounts.
Few Africans could write because their own languages had no written forms. But as Africans of the Savannah learned the Arabic scripts of the Muslim scholars, some officials and traders in the forest towns could write in the language of the Portuguese who became their trading partners in the fifteenth century.
West African Society Before 1515Savannah States
- Ghana, Borno, Mali and SonghaiForest States
- Oyo, Benin, Dahomey and Ashante
Despite the wide variety of cultures in West Africa, there are general similarities in dress, Food , music and culture that are not shared extensively with groups outside the geographic region.
Islam was the predominant religion in West Africa
The domestication of the camel
allowed the development of a cross-Saharan trade with cultures across the Sahara, including Carthage
and the Berbers
; major exports included gold
, cotton cloth, metal ornaments and leather goods, which were then exchanged for salt
, textiles, and other such materials. Localleather, cloth, and gold also contributed to the abundancy of prosperity for many of the following empiresSavannah States
· Monarchy- headed by a King
· King acted as a religious leader, chief judge and Military commander
· He headed a large bureaucracy ( Governors, mayors and administrators)
· The wealth of the empire largely rest with the emperor/King as only he was allowed to own gold nuggets
· Taxed surrounding states however left the running of those states to their local chief as long as their taxes were paid up and only intervened whenever it was necessary.
· With the spread of Islam many people accepted Islam along with their traditional religion. (not fully converted)
· With the Introduction of Islam, literacy also spread as they had to learn to read and speak in Arabic in order to study the Quran.
· Leaders were succeeded mainly by their sons and with the introduction of Islam, leaders sought the advice of Islamic religious leader, leaders were overthrown if they were not practicing the Islamic faith.
· Had a good justice system
· Education was encourage- universities were built in Timbuktu
· Art, learning and technology flourished and Africans were especially skilled in subjects like medicine, mathematics and astronomy. As well as domestic goods, they made fine luxury items in bronze, ivory, gold and terracotta for both local use and trade. People were skilled artists, writers, advanced in agricultural practices, traders & farmers,
Ghana and Mali are two modern African States, but they were are names as well as Songhai of Powerful Medieval States in Africa before European made contact in the 15th Century. They all had strong governments, prosperous economies and trading contact with with Europe via the Mediterranean. The modern boundaries for these states have been redrawn . These empires had monarchy, whereby the supreme power was held by one person (King). The military was an important part of these system of government as it was the military that ensured the expansion of each kingdom.
Although most of its people were engaged in
agriculture, the basis of Ghana’s power was its ability to tax goods passing through, and
its monopoly of the gold trade from Bambuk, at the headwaters of the Senegal River.
Revenues from trade funded the army and bureaucracy of the state. Over time, the
empire was built through conquest over lesser states, both north toward the Sahara and
south toward the gold fields. Ghana’s system of government expanded as well, with
subordinate areas ruled by local governors who funneled taxes to the central
The Mali Empire flourished because of trade above all else. It contained three immense gold mines within its borders unlike the Ghana Empire, which was only a transit point for gold. The empire taxed every ounce of gold or salt that entered its borders. By the beginning of the 14th century, Mali was the source of almost half the Old World
exported from mines in Bambuk
There was no standard currency throughout the realm, but several forms were prominent by region. The Sahelian and Saharan towns of the Mali Empire were organized as both staging posts in the long-distance caravan trade and trading centers for the various West African
products. At Taghaza
, for example, salt was exchanged; at Takedda
, copper. Ibn Battuta
observed the employment of slave labor
in both towns. During most of his journey, Ibn Battuta traveled with a retinue that included slaves, most of whom carried goods for trade but would also be traded as slaves.
Government Upper classes in society converted to Islam while lower classes often continued to follow traditional religions. Sermons emphasized obedience to the king. Timbuktu was the educational capital. Sonni Ali established a system of government under the royal court, later to be expanded by Askia Muhammad, which appointed governors and mayors to preside over local tributary states, situated around the Niger valley. Local chiefs were still granted authority over their respective domains as long as they did not undermine Songhai policy.
Tax was imposed onto peripheral chiefdoms and provinces to ensure the dominance of Songhai, and in return these provinces were given almost complete autonomy. Songhai rulers only intervened in the affairs of these neighboring states when a situation became volatile; usually an isolated incident. Each town was represented by government officials, holding positions and responsibilities similar to today's central bureaucrats.
Under Askia Muhammad, the Empire saw increased centralization. He encouraged learning in Timbuktu by rewarding its professors with larger pensions as an incentive. He also established an order of precedence and protocol and was noted as a noble man who gave back generously to the poor.
Like Ghana and Mali, Songhay brought together multi-ethnic populations which
nevertheless shared broad cultural similarities. These common elements both helped to
make political unification possible, and also were reinforced through the circulation of
people and ideas that took place in the big empires.
Despite great differences in vocabulary, these languages are similar in systems of sound, grammar and semantics, so that people could become multi-lingual fairly easily.
Traditional western African societies also shared similar types of social
organization, which made it easier for members of different kingdoms and chieftaincies
to relate to each other.
Religious beliefs and ceremonies were broadly similar among the peoples of West
Islam spread gradually in this religious context, carried by traders and scholars and
concentrated in the cities. Rulers of West African kingdoms were glad to have Muslim
administrative help (particularly since Muslims were the only people who were literate),
but royal power also rested on traditional African religion, which held that spirits of the
land ensured agricultural success and ancestors made contacts with spirits of the land.
Most West Africans who had contact with Islam simply added Allah to the existing
religion, without seeing any contradiction. The result was a spectrum of beliefs which
rulers patronized in the interests of social and political harmony. Forest StatesPolitical Organization
For most African the village was still the most important organization.
Each village managed its own affairs through a council of elders headed by a chief headman. However the Igbo political life was very democratic. Very adult men had a right to voice his opinions in the village assembly. Elders had to accept the will of these assemblies.
All Igbos shared a common language and Igbo’s choose their wives from another village.
Whenever there is a dispute about trades the villagers would send elders to consult the priest at one of the shrines were oracles were kept. The greatest of these oracles was an orachuku. After listening to the dispute, the priest would give a judgment which all Igbo communities would respect.
The political organization of the Akan people on the gulf of guinea started with groups of villages in a small area where people believed they had the same ancestors. In the 15th century most Akans people still lived in these independent village group or clan.
Among them was a few strong states ruled by people who had conquered their neighbors such as the Fante and denkirya. In future centuries many of the small states were brought into one state by another Akan people the Ashanti.
The Yoruba political life was similar to the igbos except it was centered on forest towns rather than villages. Farmers prefer to live in the town and travel to their farm in the field.
The town made up a community equal to a collection of igbo villages for it held farmers, priests, traders and craftsman’s
Each small town kingdom was ruled by a king or obo, thus they had a less democratic form of government than the Igbo.
Similarities between the Igbo and the Yoruba are that they shared common culture, a language and their trade. Another powerful bond was the belief that all yorubo shared a common ancestor, oduduwa the first king of life.
Edo people: The political organization of the Yoruba was copied and then developed by the edo people. Like the yorubu kings the rulers of Benin called themselves obas. Social bonds
In many African societies it was accepted that there were three groups of people in a village
1. The living
2. The ancestors who the living joins at death
3. Those waiting to be born.
The dead were not thought of as separate from the community and were often called on to give advice ESP in times of trouble.
When an edo elder died it was his eldest son’s duty to see that he was buried with the equipment he would need to join the other spirits of the clan and become a spirit elder. At the same time a shrine was set up so that the living could show respect to the leadership and guidance he had given when alive.
Like many African societies the society of living edos was grouped into grades according to age. In this case there were headmen and elders and below them the younger men who were warriors and organized the villages farming and trade. Finally the youth who were the village workers.
- What are some of the similarities seen in the different Empires of West Africa?
Similar government, language, culture
- How did Ghana’s Gold-Salt Trade work?
West African states had Gold however need salt which was essential to their diet so they traded Gold for salt. Arab and Berbers traders crossed the desert with camels caravans loaded with salt, cloth, weapons and manufactured goods from the ports on the Mediterranean. African traders brought gold from the forest regions. Merchants met in big cities, where they exchange goods under the watchful eyes of the king’s tax collectors.
- Identify the system of government that existed in these empires. Monarchy,
However the king appointed ministers over provinces and administrators to control finance, defense and foreign affairs.
- Can you identify some West African cultures that were passed down to the Caribbean?