HistoryBits: Africa

HistoryBits: Africa

Bits and Pieces of History


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Society

Society/Ancient Civilizations

It had been commonly thought that the Sphinx was 5,000 years old, but recent archaeological discoveries now indicate that it’s more on the order of 25,000 years old. What gives here?–that’s back when people were supposedly shaking spears at mastodons! Given the astonishing affluence and sophistication of the Egyptian, Nubian, Kushite, Ghanan, Malian, Songhay, Yoruba, Benin, Nok, and Great Zimbabwean civilizations, I’m given to wonder if time is not the linear event we usually perceive it to be, and whether, if we could reach back into the past far enough, we might not encounter a civilization light years more advanced than our own.

Society/Geography and Civilization

People everywhere are largely a product of their environments. Africa’s environment didn’t give its human inhabitants much of a fighting chance, hemmed in as they were by imponderable deserts and impenetrable jungle, and otherwise relegated to subsistence living by marginal and parched soils. The great expansion of Islam throughout North Africa and its ascetic outlook thrived on conditions that so resembled the harsh environment of its Arabian homeland. Though Egypt for the most part, remained a civilization hermetically sealed off from the outside world, the Horn of Africa thrived as an appendage of Near and Middle Eastern civilizations for thousands of years.

Society/Great Zimbabwe

The mysterious monuments to the lost civilization at Great Zimbabwe would not be uncovered until late in the 19th century. The massive walls and towers that made Great Zimbabwe the biggest monument in Africa after the Pyramids probably date from the 10th century or so, and speak to a powerful and wealthy civilization in southern Africa that flourished for some 500 years, until it fell into decline for reasons unknown. Monuments such as these are meant to make us wonder about all that we don’t know, and should have inspired a certain sense of humility and wonder in those Europeans who Africans as sub-human and merely a source of profit that served their predatory behavior. After all, it’s now believed that the Sphinx—another monument to the talents of a truly brilliant civilization–was built some 25,000 years ago, at a time when Western man was still shaking his spear at the mastodons, so to speak.

Society/Colonialism and Change

The idea of considering the economic and cultural impact of colonialism on Africa seems on par with evaluating the urban re-development impact of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The old boundaries based on tribal and ethnic associations gave way to lines drawn in the sand by Europeans. These same lines cut through and severed traditional African power relations, replacing them with white officialdom. Relations among whites and blacks and Muslims and non-Muslims shifted treacherously depending on the political terrain, and a color line was drawn that would in time become the wall of apartheid. The chieftains whose political authority was sanctioned by the Europeans no longer enjoyed much in the way of moral authority, tribal gods were similarly upended by Christianity’s Holy Trinity, and the shaman’s magic became impotent against the white man’s medicine. The hoped-for markets for European manufactures never materialized, and without them, an African colony rarely paid for its keep. South Africa, with its bounty of gold and diamonds, proved an exception, as did the Congo, whose wealth of rubber invited the tragic exploitation of the Belgians, and led to the deaths of some four million Congolese in what had become King Leopold’s personal plantation. That was as close as Africa got to the drunkard’s dream of the Europeanized Africa envisioned by Cecil Rhodes. More commonly, the economic equation was balanced between a European minority of mine-owners and plantation bosses and an African underclass subsisting brutishly in a nascent trade and cash economy that looked to the moneyed interests, such as they were, to replace the traditional bulwarks of tribal society.

Society/Origins

Several factors contributed to the Europeans’ perception of Africa as the Heart of Darkness. Regrettably, the arrival of Europeans in Africa coincided with the collapse of the once-splendid sub-Saharan kingdoms of Ghana and Mali. With Africa at ebb tide, the Europeans saw nothing by way of a military establishment or technology of any kind in Africa, and seeing the ready acquiescence of local chieftains in the slave trade (even though slavery was a commonplace in Europe for a thousand years), Europeans were encouraged in their view of Africans as sub-human and merely a source of profit that served their own Euro-centric worldview and predatory behavior. After all, the things that people hate in others are most often those things they most hate about themselves. Many African rulers sold their own people into slavery, which only furthered the perception of Africans as sub-human and justified their enslavement. This perception, based in large part upon the African’s lack of technology, infrastructure, and the amenities, suggests what “civilization” has meant to the Europeans. The kingdoms of Africa were some of the most exploited peoples in history. I would urge you to read Adam Hochschild’s book, King Leopold’s Ghost, the story of Belgium’s incredibly cruel colonial exploitation of the Congo during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Some 4 million Congolese were murdered and countless others horribly maimed in King Leopold’s determination to establish Belgium as the world’s Rubber (Robber?) Baron. But the peaceable nature and sophisticated conduct of Congolese civilization at the time of its first encounter with the whites begs the question of who was the civilizer, and who the savage.

Society/Pathologies

It’s as if not just the traditional Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse marched in, but an entire army. Take your pick of political pathologies: war, genocide, and the unsavory legacy of the likes of Idi Amin and the cannibal king Boukassa—and throw in drought, famine, poverty, and a Pandora’s Box of lethal epidemics for good measure… and you have the basket case of modern Africa. Much of the present mess proceeded from the land grab, enslavement, exploitation and rapid depletion of natural resources, and decimation of native peoples that came with colonization. The borders of the new nation-states that arose from the colonial empires of France, Britain, Germany, and Belgium were delineated with little regard to tribal loyalties, leaving government hostage to toxic rivalries and making it impossible for democratic institutions to take root and flourish. As such, Africa finds it difficult to attract investment and reduced to living off its seed-corn, so to speak, leaving its economies to wither away to mere subsistence and their people powerless to prevent their slide into the Heart of Darkness.

Society/Immigrants

Above all, what’s needed is the political infrastructure that allows creativity, free will, and incentive to thrive. But for as long as societies take their guidance from tinhorn tyrants and cruel despots, it will regrettably remain true that people will get the government they deserve.

Society/Khoikhoi

The ways of folks such as the Khoikhoi and the Kalahari Bushmen may well mislead those who are tempted to dismiss Africa as a rustic society of pastoralists; they should acquaint themselves with the long record of African civilizations as advanced—in their way–as any in the West. But more so, seemingly primitive societies could offer us a lesson (if we choose to learn it)—namely, that it’s high time that we changed our mindset from “more and bigger are better” to making better use of “fewer and smaller.”

Culture

Culture/Arts

The arts of Africa—dance, music and song, sculpture, metalwork, oral history and more—speak of a culture that remains vibrant and spirited in spite of the myriad pathologies that the continent has suffered since slavery. Those who are tempted to dismiss Africa as an always-has-been, always-will-be basket case should acquaint themselves with the long record of African civilizations as advanced—in their way–as any in the West.

Culture/David Livingston

What a tragic shame that the intellectual curiosity and pioneering spirit of David Livingston were perverted by the likes of King Leopold, who set up a spurious missionary society for the covert purpose of creating a private empire of murder and greed in the Congo. I would earnestly commend that account to you (King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild) as well as a classic in the African exploration genre, The Source of the Nile, by Richard Burton.

Culture/Griots

Any griot worth his grits will affirm that the more things change, the more they stay the same. That’s why we study history: the reason that history repeats itself is that human nature is so consistent, and we keep making the same mistakes and incurring the same lessons over and over again. And the Africans, who supposedly gave us the first humans, have got lots to go on, don’t they?

Culture/Artisanal Works

The splendid carvings and bronzes of the Yoruba, Benin and Nok speak of a cultural exuberance that flourished back when things were uncomplicated by Africa’s modern-day demons of civil war, tyranny, drought, famine, poverty, and its Pandora’s Box of lethal epidemics. Culture is a luxury that isn’t generally available to those whose every waking moment is consumed by the struggle to keep body and soul together, but the ancient arts of West Africa remind us that a human being’s natural state is not desperation, but joy.

Religion

Religion/Animism

Animism populates the African environment with spirits of countless varieties–much as the Hawaiians did with their 400,000 gods—and reflects the African reverence for nature and the sense of man’s place in the skein of spirits that populate their habitat. The mystical framework of their cosmology shows the Africans to be an extraordinarily imaginative and deeply spiritual people, and the masks and figurines of African animism help bridge the chasm between the physical and metaphysical in a way that the believer can hardly fail to be transported.

Religion/Voodoo

The African psychic environment abounds with spirits of countless varieties–much as the Hawaiian’s did with their 400,000 gods—and voodoo reflects the African reverence for nature and the sense of man’s place in this mystical cosmology. It shows the Africans to be an extraordinarily imaginative and deeply spiritual people, and the ritual arcana of voodoo helps bridge the chasm between the physical and metaphysical in a way that the believer can hardly fail to be transported. While voodoo provides a window into Africa’s most ancient cultural precepts, its core tenet–that everything is inter-related–holds modern implications as well, and the more we shrink into a global village, the more germane that insight becomes.

Power

Power/Cecil Rhodes

Civilization is truly skin-deep, and the civilization that was built in southern Africa by rogues like Cecil Rhodes followed pretty much the same pattern as that which was followed in our own country: land grab, enslavement, exploitation and rapid depletion of natural resources, and decimation of native peoples. Now that we’re sitting pretty in our suburban homes and SUVs, let us at least tip our hats to the memory of all those who made way for us.

Power/Slavery

The loss of some 25 million Africans who were enslaved and sent to work the plantations of the New World and households of the Old World just about offset the gain from Africa’s population growth. The effect was largely felt in coastal Africa, with the interior populations too small or scattered to offer an easy target for the slaver. And in all fairness, it cannot be said that slavery was purely a European evil: it could not have happened without the complicity of tribal chieftains who became active partners in securing new human supplies for their own enrichment and aggrandizement. The firearms that were bought with the proceeds of human trafficking took the whole ugly business of tribal feuding and unending bloodshed to a new level. But even with that said, the very idea of “social and economic impact” upon the victims of slavery seems like discussing the urban re-development impact of the atomic bomb upon Hiroshima. It all begs the question of who was the civilizer, and who the savage.

Power/Obstacles to Conquest

In subduing Africa, the usual knock-out combination of the white man’s military might and his microbes was subverted by an ironic twist, in that Africa’s own diseases made Africa into the graveyard of the white man… until quinine and mosquito control turned the tables. The same environmental obstacles that prevented the development of Africa by the Africans obtained for the white man, whether burning desert, impenetrable jungle, a deficit of natural resources, or just poor soil. In many areas, tribal uprisings and a resurgent Islam made for implacable, though largely ineffectual, hostility toward white settlement. But none of that dissuaded the white man from carving out his place in the hot sun of Africa, with the lion’s share reserved for himself and the leftovers for his benighted brethren. It all begs the question of who was the civilizer, and who the savage.

Power/European Hegemony

With the advent of the 20th century, the usual European contenders had come to understand that it was possible to become a truly Great Power only through the projection of geo-political power onto a much larger and commodious stage than the cramped map of Europe had ever afforded. The usual motives of empire building—gold, glory, God—didn’t obtain to the same extent that they had for the Portuguese and the Spanish. Having enslaved more than 10 million Africans and exhausted the continent’s human wealth over the previous 300 years, the Europeans re-considered Africa in the early 20th century in light of its possibilities for the great colonial land-grab. In subduing Africa, the usual knock-out combination of the white man’s military might and his microbes was subverted by an ironic twist, in that Africa’s own diseases made Africa into the graveyard of the white man… until quinine and mosquito control turned the tables. With that, the white man’s sense of social Darwinism ensured his place in the hot sun of Africa, with the lion’s share reserved for himself and the leftovers for his benighted brethren. It all begs the question of who was the civilizer, and who the savage.

Power/Resistance Movements

It wasn’t that the Africans just lay down and took it. But the uprisings of the Zulu and the Ashanti against the British, as well as the struggle against the Germans in Tanganyika, proved fruitless, much as the Berber insurrection against the French and the Mahdist rebellion in Sudan had. Among the Europeans, only the Italians would prove unable to prevail against the Africans and their fatal propensity for launching themselves—protected only by their fetishes and sheer audacity–against Gatling guns. Once conquered, Africans could resist offer only moral resistance, by retreating to the high ground of their traditional purviews in the villages and outback, ceding the cities and towns to their fellow Africans who had thrown their lot in with the Europeans. It may well be true that ultimately, cultural subversion can only take place with the complicity of one’s countrymen.

Power/Scramble for Africa

The usual motives of empire building—gold, glory, God—didn’t obtain to the same extent for the 19th-century colonial powers in Africa that they had for the Portuguese and the Spanish. Having enslaved more than 10 million Africans and exhausted the continent’s human wealth over the previous 300 years, the Great Powers re-considered Africa in the 19th century in light of its possibilities for the great colonial land-grab. With the regrettable exceptions of the Congo and the Cape Colony, the Europe’s African colonies seldom yielded returns that more than offset the expenses of administration. I would urge you to read Adam Hochschild’s book, King Leopold’s Ghost, the story of Belgium’s incredibly cruel colonial exploitation of the Congo during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Some 4 million Congolese were murdered and countless others horribly maimed in King Leopold’s determination to establish Belgium as the world’s Rubber (Robber?) Baron. The peaceable nature and relatively enlightened values of Congolese civilization at the time of its first encounter with the whites begs the question of who was the civilizer, and who the savage.

Power/Pan-African Unity

The problem with pan-African unity is the same today as it was then: tribalism, which today transcends the borders of nation-states that were in many cases arbitrarily defined by colonial powers (same story in the Middle East).

Power/Boer War

By the way, one of the tradeoffs that the British were forced to make for Boer acquiescence in the New Order was to leave them in control of apartheid, their system of social and economic segregation that persisted until quite recently. This—as the present-day controversy over “blood diamonds” from Angola and other areas of Africa sundered by civil strife—proves once again that morality hold little sway over money.

Power/Zulu War

It wasn’t that the Africans just lay down and took it. But the uprisings of the Zulu and the Ashanti against the British, as well as the struggle against the Germans in Tanganyika, proved fruitless, much as the Berber insurrection against the French and the Mahdist rebellion in Sudan had. Among the Europeans, only the Italians would prove unable to prevail against the Africans and their fatal propensity for launching themselves—protected only by their fetishes and sheer audacity–against Gatling guns. Once conquered, Africans could resist offer only moral resistance, by retreating to the high ground of their traditional purviews in the villages and outback, ceding the cities and towns to their fellow Africans who had thrown their lot in with the Europeans. It may well be true that ultimately, cultural subversion can only take place with the complicity of one’s countrymen.

Power/Slavery

Having enslaved some 25 million Africans and exhausted the continent’s human wealth over the previous 300 years, the Europeans re-considered Africa in the early 20th century in light of its possibilities for the great colonial land-grab. In subduing Africa, the usual knock-out combination of the white man’s military might and his microbes was subverted by an ironic twist, in that Africa’s own diseases made Africa into the graveyard of the white man… until quinine and mosquito control turned the tables. With that, the white man’s sense of social Darwinism ensured his place in the hot sun of Africa, with the lion’s share reserved for himself and the leftovers for his benighted brethren. It all begs the question of who was the civilizer, and who the savage.

Power/Equiano

As I see him in my mind’s eye, making his way across the frozen wastes of the High Arctic in search of a shortcut to India, surely Equiano wouldn’t have traded a personal triumph and drunkard’s dream like this for all the tea in China. With pluck like that, what a wonderful way to spit in the eye of the ogre of slavery.

Power/Impact of Slavery

The idea of considering the economic impact of colonialism on Africa seems on par with evaluating the urban re-development impact of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The hoped-for markets for European manufactures never materialized, and without them, an African colony rarely paid for its keep. South Africa, with its bounty of gold and diamonds, proved an exception, as did the Congo, whose wealth of rubber invited the tragic exploitation of the Belgians, and led to the deaths of some four million Congolese in what had become King Leopold’s personal plantation. That was as close as Africa got to the drunkard’s dream of the Europeanized Africa envisioned by Cecil Rhodes. More commonly, the economic equation was balanced between a European minority of mine-owners and plantation bosses and an African underclass subsisting brutishly in a nascent trade and cash economy that looked to the moneyed interests, such as they were, to replace the traditional bulwarks of tribal society.

Economy

Economy/Gold and Salt

Slaves, gold, and salt—taxes on these greased the wheels for African kings. While African gold was essential to the commerce of Rome and medieval European, salt was almost as prized as gold. How could salt, that commonest of commodities, possibly rank as highly as gold in the esteem of merchants? Try living without it, and you’d soon understand. Which is really the more valuable, then: gold–the measure and store of value–or salt—so essential to life itself?

South Africa


Power/History

What made the situation in South Africa unique was that South Africa—with its wealth of gold and diamond deposits–represented a paying proposition, whereas most colonies elsewhere seldom produced enough revenue to offset the expenses of running them. Another consideration, even though it wasn’t quite unique, was that South Africa and its colonial inhabitants, the Boers, were handed off in the Treaty of Vienna by the Dutch to the British. Displeased with the new terms of endearment, the Boers trekked north, to carve out a new niche for themselves at the expenses of the tribes they bumped off in the bargain. Happy to be rid of them, the British weren’t much interested in where the Boers betook themselves… at least not until gold and diamonds were discovered in the new Boer homeland, at which point the British became very, very interested. The Boer War resulted, and one of the tradeoffs that the British were forced to make for Boer acquiescence in the New Order was to leave them in control of apartheid, their system of social and economic segregation that persisted until quite recently. This—as the present-day controversy over “blood diamonds” from Angola and other areas of Africa sundered by civil strife—proves once again that morality hold little sway over money.

Power/Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela’s career followed an almost traditional pattern—one that we’ve seen with Jomo Kenyatta and Mahatma Gandhi–of apprenticeship/education with the colonial masters of his country; exposure to the injustice of their rule; protest; imprisonment and martyrdom; and triumphant return to popular acclaim and high office. They’ve had their work cut out for them: it’s as if not just the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse marched in, but an entire army of nightmares. Take your pick of political pathologies: war, genocide, and the unsavory legacy of the likes of Idi Amin and the cannibal king Boukassa—and throw in drought, famine, poverty, and a Pandora’s Box of lethal epidemics for good measure… and you have the basket case that is modern Africa. Much of the present mess proceeded from the land grab, enslavement, exploitation and rapid depletion of natural resources, and decimation of native peoples that came with colonization (and which gave rise to Mandela’s generation of leaders). The borders of the new nation-states that arose from the colonial empires of France, Britain, Germany, and Belgium were delineated with little regard to tribal loyalties, leaving government hostage to toxic rivalries and making it impossible for democratic institutions to take root and flourish. As such, Africa finds it difficult to attract investment and has been largely reduced to living off its seed-corn, so to speak, leaving its economies to wither away to mere subsistence and their people powerless to prevent their slide into the Heart of Darkness. In the absence of money and so many other resources, the virtue and wisdom of leaders like Mandela remains the best weapon against the despair that threatens to overwhelm Africa.

Economy/Diamonds

It’s no less amazing to me that a country with such stupendous resources of gold and diamonds could be so poor! Only man could be so ingenious as to devise such poverty amidst such wealth.

Kenya


Power/Jomo Kenyatta

Jomo Kenyatta’s career followed an almost traditional pattern—one that we’ve seen with Nelson Mandala and Mahatma Gandhi–of apprenticeship/education with the colonial masters of his country; exposure to the injustice of their rule; protest; imprisonment and martyrdom; and triumphant return to popular acclaim and high office. They’ve got their work cut out for them: it’s as if not just the traditional Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse marched in, but an entire army of nightmares. Take your pick of political pathologies: war, genocide, and the unsavory legacy of the likes of Idi Amin and the cannibal king Boukassa—and throw in drought, famine, poverty, and a Pandora’s Box of lethal epidemics for good measure… and you have the basket case that is modern Africa. Much of the present mess proceeded from the land grab, enslavement, exploitation and rapid depletion of natural resources, and decimation of native peoples that came with colonization (and which gave rise to Kenyatta’s generation of leaders). The borders of the new nation-states that arose from the colonial empires of France, Britain, Germany, and Belgium were delineated with little regard to tribal loyalties, leaving government hostage to toxic rivalries and making it impossible for democratic institutions to take root and flourish. As such, Africa finds it difficult to attract investment and has been largely reduced to living off its seed-corn, so to speak, leaving its economies to wither away to mere subsistence and their people powerless to prevent their slide into the Heart of Darkness. In the absence of money and so many other resources, the virtue and wisdom of leaders like Kenyatta and Mandala remains the best weapon against the despair that threatens to overwhelm Africa.

Ethiopia

Society/Flies in the Ointment

As the heir to Aksum and cradle of African Christianity, Ethiopia has a tough act to follow. Its festering dispute with Eritrea would seem to anticipate the problems that await many modern African states that were created by the colonial powers with no regard to tribal or ethnic divisions. Tribalism and secession are horseflies in the ointment for pan-African unity—as much today as it was in the olden times.


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