Lecture 25: Eastern and Southern Africa, the Arrival of Christianity and Islam

Last time we discussed West Africa’s experience with civilization and empire. Two central themes that emerged from this discussion were the centrality of trade and the interaction of Mediterranean religions with native African traditions. Both of these themes will be important for this lecture and you should keep them in mind as you consider the history of sub-Saharan Africa more broadly.
As we did last time, we will begin with a long look backward, though not quite as far into the past. From 50,000 to about 10,000 years ago, Eastern Africa was where the action was. Already 50,000 years ago people were making axes in the areas that are today Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. 10,000 years ago tool-making technology improved, so that stone tools were sharper and easier to make, and in addition fire was mastered. These skills then spread throughout East Africa, making the hunter-gatherer mode of existence possible and effective. By about 3,000 years ago people in this region learned to keep cattle and engaged in early forms of agriculture. This latter skill was imported from the Cushite peoples that I mentioned last time. (I should also note, in keeping with my diatribe against the racialized approach to African history that these people were Caucasian.)
From 3,000 BC on, however, life’s basic outlines in East Africa were set, and only encounters with other peoples brought change and innovation. During the first millennium AD, however, four important things happened that brought change. First, the Bantu peoples arrived, bringing with them, among other things, the knowledge of how to cultivate grains. Second, was the arrival of iron smelting. It is not known when this skill arrived in East Africa, but it probably came along with the Bantu. The third factor was, as I discussed last time, the arrival of the banana, whose cultivation spread northward from its original point of arrival in Madagascar. The final factor was the increase in trade. Merchant traffic with the East African coast was older and more extensive than in any other part of Africa. Merchants came from a variety of places, beginning already in 500 BC. Indian merchants used the rhythmic monsoon season to sail back and forth across the Indian Ocean, while Persian merchants sailed around the Arabian Peninsula. Later, Hellenistic and Roman merchants visited East Africa by sailing down the Red Sea. I already mentioned Malay sailors last time, who settled in Madagascar in the fourth and fifth centuries AD. Trade was relatively limited, however, until the Bantu peoples settled in the region.
The great Bantu migration reached East Africa by the second century AD, and with them came extensive agriculture, animal husbandry, and (probably) metal working. Increased production, particularly of agricultural products, led to the appearance of complex societies and, later, small states. The Bantu colonized large swaths of the coast, as well as coastal islands. They then turned inland and also colonized land in the interior. The coastal dwellers were of fundamental importance for all of East Africa, since they were both producers and traders. These people are called Swahili, which is an Arabic word that means “coasters.” The Swahili were spread from Mogadishu down the coast to Sofala. Their language, called Swahili, is a Bantu tongue that has been heavily influenced by Arabic. Due to the large distances involved in East Africa, Swahili developed many different dialects, but mutual communication remained possible, since the Swahili engaged in so much commerce. As Swahili merchants moved from city to city, they brought with them different words and pronunciations, with the result that Swahili has remained intelligible in many areas, in spite of the great distance over which it has spread.
The Swahili developed important trading connections in the Arab world. By the tenth century Arab traders increasingly called at Eastern ports, to trade for Swahili gold, slaves, ivory, and animal skins. The Muslim merchants trade in exchange things such as pottery, glass, and fine cloth that came from Persia, India, and China. By the tenth and eleventh centuries, trade had increased to such an extent that some local Swahili chiefs became very wealthy. This allowed them to extend their influence outside of their traditional local communities, and gradually power became concentrated in the wealthiest areas. Thus, places like Mogadishu, Lamu, Malindi, Mombasa, Zanzibar, Kilwa, Mozambique, and Sofala developed powerful governments that controlled and taxed the local trade.
The rise in trade had a transformative effect on political relationships in these areas. The cities that provided the most convenient trading connections developed into city-states that could spend lavishly on things such as public monuments and militaries. Whereas, in the tenth century, Swahili cities had been made mostly of mud or wood, by the twelfth century, buildings made of coral began to appear. By the fifteenth century, most Swahili city-states included mosques and other public buildings that were made of stone, which is the most expensive way to build. A merchant elite also appeared that consumed expensive luxury goods such as silk and porcelain from China.
One of the largest and wealthiest city states in East Africa was Kilwa. Until about AD 1000 Kilwa’s residents had relied mostly on the sea and some limited trade to provide life’s necessities. By AD 1200, however, trade and agriculture increased significantly. The locals began importing pottery and other products, while increasing the amount of land under cultivation. Kilwa had become too large to feed on the sea and limited trade alone, and this spurred a rise in agricultural activity. By the thirteenth century, Kilwa boasted multi-story stone buildings and had its own copper currency. Merchant life was lively, as Kilwans imported cotton, silk, perfume, and pearls from India, as well as porcelain from China. In exchange they exported gold, ivory, and slaves that they had acquired from interior regions. The city enjoyed a high standard of living until 1505, when the Portuguese sacked it.
Coastal trade also set inland areas in motion. As wealth acquired from foreign merchants bled into the hinterland, other African kingdoms began to appear. One of the more interesting kingdoms in the interior was the Chwezi. The Chwezi appeared in an area called interlacustria, which is marked by a series of great Lakes, such as Victoria, Kyoga, Albert, Edward, and Tanganyika. These people built great earthwork settlements at Bigo, Mubende, Munsa, Kibengo, and Bugoma, in western Uganda. The largest and most interesting is at Bigo, where a ditch system encloses a large grazing area on a riverbank. Occupied from the mid-14th to the early 16th century, Bigo’s ditch system provided a place for a capital city as well as protection for the community’s main source of wealth, cattle. Like the other great building projects we have discussed, this system could only have been built by a central government that could make policy and that had control over labor. The Chwezi were later superseded by two peoples called the Bito and Hinda. We cannot pursue this history, except to note that many parts of Africa were untouched by European contacts as late as even into the twentieth century.
Now we turn our attention to the south. From about AD 1000 on in the area that is now Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi settlement patterns and lifestyles began to change. Among other things, ironworking improved and spread, copper mining expanded, and building in stone appeared. These changes suggest that more complex state structures had begun to appear that could direct labor and commerce. The roots of these changes ran deeply into the past. Already in the seventh century AD people at Toutswe in eastern Botswana developed new forms of social and economic organization, as large, well-defended hilltop capitals began to appear that dominated access to water over a wide region. Toutswe’s wealth was based on cattle herds, and they kept increasing in size from the seventh century on. Cattle were an important means of storing and exchanging wealth. The increase in cattle herds is an important historical signal, since it indicates that economic specialization and increased trading activity had come to southern Africa. The Toutswe flourished between the seventh and the thirteenth centuries. Similarities between their culture and that of later societies in the Limpopo valley, such as Schroda and Bambandyanalo, and in Zimbabwe suggest that the Toutswe played an important role in setting these regions in motion.

The best known of inland kingdoms appeared in southern Africa and was called Zimbabwe. The word zimbabwe originally meant the place where a chief lived. By the sixth century AD the areas that are today Zimbabwe and Mozambique already had residences for chiefs that were made of wood. By the ninth century, some chiefs were able to build their residences in stone, which suggests that these societies were sufficiently wealthy and organized to invest in a common defense. One stone residence known as Great Zimbabwe appeared near the city of Nyanda and had wall 5 meters thick and 10 meters tall. This zimbabwe was, in fact, a city full of towers, palaces, and public buildings and served as the capital of a kingdom that extended from the Zambesi to the Limpopo Rivers. It may have had a population of as many as 18,000 people at its height in the late fifteenth century, which indicates much prosperity. Much of Great Zimbabwe’s prosperity was, of course, based on trade. Great Zimbabwe’s kings taxed the trade that flowed between the coast and the interior. As usual, this trade included gold, ivory, slaves, and other local products. Great Zimbabwe ended in the second half of the 15th century, being replaced by two kingdoms; one was called Torwa, with its centre at Khami; the other was called Mutapa.
This trade had cultural effects similar to those in West Africa. As happened in the west, trade brought Islam with it. Merchants and political leaders soon converted to Islam, though without giving up local African traditions. Merchants benefited from the improved standing that being Muslim brought with Indian Ocean merchants. Political leaders also found new sources of political legitimacy, as their conversion opened the door to political alliances with other Muslim rulers. Similar to West Africa, Islam was not imposed on the populace, but its association with power and wealth was an inducement to conversion, with the result that Islam became one of East Africa’s most important cultural traditions. I will have more to say about this in a moment.
Having surveyed civilizations in western, eastern, and southern Africa, I will now consider some broader themes that will help put the history of sub-Saharan Africa into a broader context. The first key theme to keep in mind is Africa’s tremendous diversity. No matter where one looks, there are always significant exceptions to broader rules. For example, although much of Africa was changed by external commerce, large regions also remained untouched by the outside world until the 20th century. Along these lines, let’s consider the diversity in state structures. Africa’s larger kingdoms such as Kilwa, Mali, and Songhay were complex and highly stratified societies, with a broad array of elites, commoners, peasants, and slaves. However unique their practices and histories may be, these large societies still look familiar to us, when compared to those of the Mediterranean. Smaller African states, however, cultivated different and strikingly unique forms of organization. Although they had political elites, these elites were more religious in character than was the case for the larger states. Moreover, kinship relations were more important to people’s daily lives in these smaller states than in the large ones. Villagers in small states were first and foremost members of a family or clan, a form of socio-political organization that we have already encountered in the Germanic, Mongol, Turkish, and Saudi Arabian tribes.
Gender relations were also structured by the kinship system, though its effects on men’s and women’s lives differed in accordance with the size of the political unit. In general, however, work was defined through gender relations, with men clearing the land, while women did most of the farming and performed domestic chores. Older men filled the preeminent roles in public life, making the key political decisions and representing their state or community to foreign parts. African women were not, however, completely subordinate to the men. In smaller states they were often the most important merchants, since the men could not bring locally grown products to market. In larger political units aristocratic women played important political roles, and there were even examples of women assuming political leadership. In addition, on the cultural level, women enjoyed great prestige as bearers of life, which gave them an honored, if limited position in social life.
If men and women of all classes had well defined and even honored roles in society, there was one class of people that lived according to different rules, slaves. The institution of slavery had a long history in Africa, dating back into antiquity. Most slaves were captives taken in war, but many people were sentenced to slavery through unpaid debts, or through criminal conviction for theft or witchcraft. In Africa, slaves worked the fields, the mines, or as domestic labor. I mentioned earlier that keeping animals was also a means of storing wealth; the same was true of slaves. Slaves were both producers and repositories of wealth. Slaves could work the fields or could be sold in exchange for other assets. Slavery was, thus, a well established practice in sub-Saharan Africa well before outsiders arrived in search of their own slaves.
The increase in trade with North Africa and the Indian Ocean that I mentioned earlier may have made some African kingdoms rich, but it promised a life of subjection and misery for many Africans. The arrival of Muslim merchants in sub-Saharan Africa opened a large market to African slave traders. Much of the economy in Muslim lands was based on slavery, and as the Muslim economy grew demand soon exceeded traditional supplies in Eastern Europe. This encouraged the development of an extensive network of slave trading within Africa, as slaves were exported to parts north in exchange for luxury goods. This had political effects within Africa, as its large states often became its largest slave traders. Large states would make war on small ones so that they could take captives for the slave market. Mansa Musa, for example, whom we discussed last time, went on his pilgrimage to Mecca with 500 slaves that he distributed as gifts to his hosts along the way.
We have evidence of how widespread this slave trade was in a slave uprising in Mesopotamia called the Zanj Revolt. Zanj was the word for black slaves from the Swahili coast in East Africa. Already by the seventh century AD black slaves were working in sugarcane fields there, and they mounted several revolts that Muslim armies had to put down. In AD 869, a slave named Ali bin Muhammad led the most massive and successful revolt. He gathered an army of slaves that supposedly numbered 15,000 and took the city of Basra, even setting up an independent kingdom. It was not until 883 that the Abbasid Caliphs succeeded in putting this revolt down.
The Muslim trade in slaves was extensive and long-lived. It was most extensive from about AD 750 until 1500, with the coming of the Atlantic slave trade. All told, this slave trade forcibly removed about 10 million people from sub-Saharan Africa and sent them to work in North Africa or the Middle East. The Muslim slave trade set the stage for Europe’s later exploitation of African people, because when the Europeans arrived, a network of slave traders existed that were easily incorporated into what is now known as the Atlantic Slave Trade. The Atlantic trade was more intense, but it also occurred alongside a domestic trade in slaves. Just for comparison, I will note some figures. Between 1700 and 1850, 9 million slaves were landed in the New World. The total number of slaves captured, however, was around 21 million. Of this total, 7 million remained in Africa as part of the domestic slave trade, and 5 million more died before they could be brought to market. Thus, the Atlantic slave trade was part of not only a long tradition of slavery that not only plagued Africa but also domestic and international economies. For a long time, one of Africa’s most important export product was its people.
Before I finish this survey of African history, I also need to note the influence of foreign religions on sub-Saharan Africa. I have already mentioned Islam in various contexts. Here, however, I want to consider Islam’s influence in context with the second of the three “religions of the book,” Christianity. Christianity reached Africa first, during the first century AD, with religious centers such as Alexandria and Hippo playing fundamental roles in Christian life. (St. Augustine, w2ho is the single most important theologian in the Christian church’s history, wrote his great treatises while serving as Bishop of Hippo.)
Nonetheless, Christianity remained a Mediterranean force until the fourth century, when an Ethiopian kingdom called Axum responded to Christian missionary activity by sponsoring extensive conversions in his kingdom. Ethiopia, thus, became an important center of Christian thought and culture. Monasteries appeared throughout the kingdom and the Bible was translated into Ethiopian. Christianity’s influence soon waned, however, as the kingdom of Axum went into decline in the late seventh century. Then with the rise of Islam in the eighth century, an important rival appeared on the scene. Ethiopia’s political fortunes improved in the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries, with the result that Christianity revived and remained a privileged religion there until modern times.
Now, we will change our perspective. Before the modern period, sub-Saharan Africa was most deeply influenced by Islam. Political and business leaders converted to Islam in significant numbers, as we have seen, becoming pious Muslims, though with an African twist. African Muslims built mosques and developed an Islamic cultural zone that prized learning. Africa’s converts, however, brought their own concerns and aesthetic interests to the religion, as had India’s converts. Thus, mosques took on particular forms, often being built with mud and wood, rather than stone. Moreover, practicing Muslims continued to engage in traditional rituals that protected against witches and evil spirits. In addition, Africa’s Muslims defined public life in their own way. African traditions allowed women to speak freely in public to men who were not their husbands. This practice scandalized the famous Ibn Battuta, a Muslim traveler of the fourteenth century, who visited Africa and wrote about his experiences later. African notions of modesty were also something of a problem for traditional Muslims, as women often went out in public wearing nothing more than loincloths. This scandalized some visitors, but that was of no concern to local Muslims, who steadfastly continued in their traditional practices, regardless of foreign criticism.
With that, we have a picture of a diverse continent that both developed its own unique traditions and borrowed heavily from other civilizations. It is, thus, the same story we have encountered before. Africa grew and developed. It spawned empires and small states. It engaged in trade and exchanged knowledge. It also brought war and oppression to many. In that sense, African history is like the history of every other region we have discussed so far.