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10-08-2015, 16:08

Empire Building in Africa

The last of the equatorial regions of the world to be placed under European colonial rule was the continent of Africa. European navigators had first established contacts with Africans south of the Sahara during the late fifteenth century, when Portuguese fleets sailed down the Atlantic coast on their way to the Indian Ocean. During the next three centuries, Europeans established port facilities along the coasts of East andWest Africa to facilitate their trade with areas farther to the east and to engage in limited commercial relations with African societies. Eventually, the slave trade took on predominant importance, and several million unfortunate Africans were loaded onto slave ships destined for the New World. For a variety of reasons, however, Europeans made little effort to pene- trate the vast continent and were generally content to deal with African intermediaries along the coast to maintain their trading relationship. Deeply ingrained in the Western psyche, there developed an image of “darkest Africa”— a continent without a history, its people living out their days bereft of any cultural contact with the outside world. As with most generalizations, there was a glimmer of truth in the Western image of sub-Saharan Africa as a region outside the mainstream of civilization on the Eurasian landmass. Although Africa was the original seedbed of humankind and the site of much of its early evolutionary experience, the desiccation of the Sahara during the fourth and third millennia b.c.e. had erected a major obstacle to communications between the peoples south of the desert and societies elsewhere in the world. The barrier was never total, however. From ancient times, caravans crossed the Sahara from the Niger River basin to the shores of the Mediterranean carrying gold and other tropical products in exchange for salt, textile goods, and other manufactured articles from the north. By the seventh century c.e., several prosperous trading societies, whose renown reached as far as medieval Europe and the Middle East, had begun to arise in the savanna belt in West Africa. In the baggage of merchants came not only commercial goods but also the religion and culture of Islam. Farther to the east, the Sahara posed no obstacle to communication beyond the seas. The long eastern coast of the African continent had played a role in the trade network of the Indian Ocean since the time of the pharaohs along the Nile. Ships from India, the Persian Gulf, and as far away as China made regular visits to the East African ports of Kilwa, Malindi, and Sofala, bringing textiles, metal goods, and luxury articles in return for gold, ivory, and various tropical products from Africa. With the settlement of Arab traders along the eastern coast, the entire region developed a new synthetic culture (known as Swahili) combining elements of Arabic and indigenous cultures. Although the Portuguese briefly seized or destroyed most of the trading ports along the eastern coast, by the eighteenth century the Europeans had been driven out and local authority was restored.