Africa by Carly Cote and Willie Saltonstall


Economic Backdrop
Africa, since less advanced and explored than Europe, had important natural resources and conditions that could support a sturdy economy. Before the arrival of the Europeans, Africans were mostly nomadic and rural. They raised animals, such as cattle, and grew crops to support their population. This system worked in supporting small tribes, but as the Europeans and traders arrived, new systems quickly developed. European trading companies traded for the unique products of Africa: specifically metals such as gold. Though these were important they quickly discovered that a work force was needed to support their colonies. Thus the Europeans created the slave trade.

The slave trade had many harmful effect on the economy and sent Africa into decline. First off all, it took away from the population and work force in Africa. Second of all, and most importantly, it weakened African governments. Leaders quickly found that guns could yield them power and control, so they decided to engage in war and find prisoners to sell to the Europeans. Overall the system was bad for the Europeans, and they stopped trading, but the Africans continued anyway. The began to trade down south to other Africans, and suddenly slaves were being shipped to India. Overall the slave trade was one of the most important parts of the African economy. 1

Political Backdrop
From the beginning of time, Africa was run in small tribes and chiefdoms with individual rulers commanding small groups of people, usually their families. This system was effective, but soon changed drastically with colonization. As Europeans began to discover the African coasts and explore, they quickly enforced their rules and regulations upon the African people. More importantly was the arrival of the Muslims, who began to teach their religion to the African people. Islam's popular sense of community and protection spread quickly due to Africa's lack of unity. Eventually, Islam became woven into every part of African society, from culture to politics. Though Africa was not all Muslim (the Europeans who came began to spread Christianity), it had a firm grip on lots of African states. Egypt, for example, was under control of the Ottoman Empire. Islam was not only a major part of their lives, but they are one region who spread the religion further, and were in many way the liaison to the Ottoman Empire.

Being cut off from Europe and Asia for so long by the Sahara, Africa was technologically behind. This allowed rulers such as the Ottomans and Europeans to easily walk in with their guns and cultures and either take over or seriously influence the Africans. Ultimately two sides arose: the first being the Muslims, the second being the non-Muslims (mainly Christians). Both sides of rulers used similar tactics to control their people. Throne and altar was very important for their control. Christians and Muslims, but specifically Muslims, used their religion to completely control the people. Since Islam is weaved into all parts of life, leaders were easily able to control their people using it. Second of all, they interacted with the outside (Europe and Ottomans) to gain technology such as guns. This gave them the upper hand over their people.

As conquest and colonization further intruded into African culture, specifically religion, clerics and prophets rose up to defend what they believed in. Two Muslim examples are Ibn abd al-Wahhab and Usman dan Fodio. Ibn abd al-Wahhab was one of the first leaders to step up and defend against what he believed in. Afraid of the change due to trade and conquest, he brought back the older ideals of Islam, and emphasized the importance of Allah. He ultimately created Wahhabism, a group of devoted Muslims who began to spread their beliefs. By making ties to other groups such as the Najdian House of Saud, they quickly gained control, even enough to overthrow Mecca and Medina. Usman dan Fodio was another example of Islam reformation. He was able to unite a group who wanted to bring back older doctrines of Islam, and eventually he took a large part of Africa, ultimately forming an Islamic kingdom. A non-Muslim example is that of Shaka. Shaka was a Zulu who rose quickly through domination and threat. He steadily gained forces, and incorporated his defeated enemies into them. Besides conquest, he would massacre and torture how people to stay in control and show his power. This was known overall as the Mfecane movement. It was groups like this who changed the political sway in Africa and began to exercise their control. 2


Aspects of Culture
Africa developed a mixed culture of European, Islamic, and Native cultures all blended together. The settlement and colonization that took place so often made for new ideas coming in each day. The native people of Africa, since mostly divided from the beginning into tribes, kept their heritage as their identification. Names such as Zulu and Swazi are some examples. These tribes each had their own spiritual religion, as well as their own languages. With the addition of the Europeans and the Ottomans, their old beliefs slowly mixed with new ones being brought in everyday. Above all, the most important part of African culture was the religion.

There were many religions that existed in Africa, but the one that stood out was Islam. It was first introduced to the African people by trade caravans and quickly stuck. The religion was so important for the people in so many ways. First of all, remember the five pillars of Islam. They are: belief in one god, prayer five times a day, fasting during Ramadan, paying tax for the poor, and a pilgrimage. If you look at these, you must realize that they impact all areas of life. One god makes devotion to one place, and prayer five times a day is a huge commitment. Fasting shows major devotion, and tax is very important to society. In so many ways, Islam is extremely important to African society because it is everywhere in daily life. 3

Here is an example of a flute that would be played during this time.

Social Backdrop
Africa had an interesting social organization and structure. Since Africa was influenced by so many people over time, the social backdrop changed often. For centuries, African people were in small groups lead by a chief or king, living basic lives managing the fields or tending to cattle. At the top of the system was the chief, and then at the bottom was the people. With the introduction of the Europeans, new things changed. The ideas of cities and kings began to be introduced, and this added a whole new level of complexity to the simple system of before. The two class system of chiefs and people evolved into an intricate hierarchy with the kings at the top, then the religious leaders, then the whole new merchant class, and finally the farmers. Overtime, everything became further and further specialized.

By the 19th century, trade and urbanism was very important in Africa on the coasts and European settlements, and less important inland with the natives. For the most part, the Africans adopted the Europeans system. The hierarchy became similar, and so did the urban and rural concepts. In terms of men vs women, men were clearly superior, but women did hold substantial roles in the African society. As revolts rose, they rallied strong, and were also active contributors to religion. One fine example is Nana Asma'u, the daughter of Usman dan Fodio, who wrote religious poetry to show her views on the changes of Islam and her understanding of the concepts of the religion. This is one example of the many roles women played in society. In terms of citizenship, Africans played important roles in daily life, each doing their jobs, paying respect to their leader and staying devoted to religion. Since the rulers used throne and altar to control their population, the rulers appeared as the tie from earth to supernatural, and as a result the people were highly devoted. 4

The growing economy and interactions between multiple cultures made it more useful to be literate and receive an education. Especially in the Islamic faith, where Muslim texts are essential for worship, education was even more important. Mali had become the center of culture and education, due to its strong interactions with Islam. If you remember Baghdad, it was considered one of the most advanced places intellectually, as well as the Islam center. Here Muslim scholars worked out impossible problems, proved new theories, and translated religious texts. It would only make sense that in the Islamic center of Mali that knowledge would be spread and then prevailed.

Like any other system, the higher ups such as the rulers and officials were more often educated than the common folk. In any case, the more urban areas had more knowledge than rural and outside areas, but overall, there was no real system of education that was established in Africa. It was in no way enforced or offered to everyone. If somebody in Africa wanted to be educated they had to go to the source of knowledge, and that was the Islamic Center of Mali.

Artistic Innovation

The high status women held in Islamic Africa can be depicted from this picture and this statue. The fact the women were used as a subject of art shows the higher status women held compared to other cultures.

ALLOUARD Henri - Paris (FRANCE) 11 July 1844--12 August 1929. Sculptor. Student of Lequesne and Schanewerck.

Onobrakpeya, Bruce. Fulani Milk Woman

In non- islamic Africa, war played a major role in every day life. This can be seen through the intricate detail of a Zulu warrior’s armor. The elaborate and decorative shields and spears illustrate the importance of war in African culture.

Taken from Robert Tignor's Worlds Together Worlds Apart

Many african people are often compared in animals. Most obvious in masks, like the ones pictured below, anthropomorphism, or technique of comparing animals to humans, is a common theme in African Art.5

Mask (gela) Africa, Ivory Coast

Helmet Mask, Yoruba. Early 20th century

Helmet Mask, Yoruba. Early 20th century


Classic Literary Text

This classic text written by Nana Asma’u, daughter of dan Fodio illusrates the idea’s of Islamic Africa at the time. First, the fact that it is written by a women shows the climb in social status women had during this time and the availability they had to education. Secondly, this poem wishes to convey a better understanding of the Muslim religion, illustrating the importance of religion in day to day Islamic life.

ISLAMIC AFRICA: Started by revolts, most popularly lead by Usman Dan Fodio, the Fulani people created a religious revolution in Western Africa. With the want for a pure form of Islam, most of Western Africa resorted back to early Muslim practices and overthrew the current Hausa rulers, creating a confederation of Islamic emirates. Dan Fodio created a city called “Gudu” where believers could gather. With an Islamic revolution, women also gained respect in the religion. This reform also allowed for communication between Africa and other Islamic regions, like the Arab Peninsula.

NON ISLAMIC AFRICA: In non-Islamic Africa, people depended on a war driven leader to help stabilize the empire, instead of a religion. One of the most famous leader, Shaka, created central and southern Africa governed by monarchies. He is credited with starting the shift from a nomadic culture to permeant settlements. 6


With the exception of the mosque in Mali, as pictured below, monumental architecture wasn't a priority in African culture.
MALI. Sachel. D'Djamena. Sahel Desert. 1986. Oldes West African example of mud mosque. ©Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos

What We Have Learned:Although given a plethora of resources use, this project was difficult. Using Google Search would have made things much easier. Artsor was helpful in providing pictures, but finding specific information through databases and other websites was not an easy task. Alot of reading and researching had to be done in order to complete the project. Through this research we learned about the religious split between non- Islamic and Islamic Africa, how outsiders set up the foundation for African civilization and that architecture wasn't very important to the Africans.


1. World History: The Modern Era, s.v. "Africa," accessed November 14, 2011.
2. Robert Tignor et. al., Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the World Third Edition (London: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2011), 603-605.

3. World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras, s.v. "Five Pillars of Islam," accessed November 14, 2011.
4. Robert Tignor et. al., Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the World Third Edition (London: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2011), 603-605.

5. Burns, James. "African art." In World Geography: Understanding a Changing World. ABC-CLIO, 2000-. Accessed November 13, 2011. __
6. Robert Tignor et. al., Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the World Third Edition (London: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2011), 605.


Burns, James. "African art." In World Geography: Understanding a Changing World. ABC-CLIO, 2000-. Accessed November 13, 2011. __

Robert Tignor et. al., Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the World Third Edition (London: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2011).

World History: The Modern Era, s.v. "Africa," accessed November 14, 2011.

World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras, s.v. "Five Pillars of Islam," accessed November 14, 2011.

All pictures taken from ARTsor unless otherwise noted.