The Empire of Ghana is one of the earliest known political formations in West Africa. Within the context of a growing trans-Saharan trade, Arabic sources begin to mention “Ghāna,” the name of a ruler as well as of the city or country he ruled, in the 9th century. Repeatedly named in connection with fabulous riches in gold, Ghāna had acquired a preeminent role in the western Sahel and was a leader among a large group of smaller polities. Ghāna’s influence waned, and by the mid-14th century its ruler had become subordinate to the Empire of Mali. Over the course of a complex history of research, the Empire of Ghana became equated with the Soninké people’s legend of Wagadu and the archaeological site of Kumbi Saleh in southern Mauritania was identified as its capital. Yet between historical sources, oral traditions, and archaeological finds, little is known with certainty about the Empire of Ghana. Most questions on this early West African empire remain unanswered, including its location, development, the nature and extent of its rule, and the circumstances of its demise.
The Mali Empire is one of the largest and most widely known precolonial African states. It has featured in films, video games, works of fiction, and its memory is still a profound force in the articulation of social and political identities across Mande West Africa. Founded in the 13th century in the south of modern Mali, it quickly grew from a small kingdom to a vast empire stretching from the Senegambia in the west to Ivory Coast in the south. Before its disintegration in the late 16th century, its connections to distant trade networks stretched from Europe to China and its rulers became famous across the Old World for their wealth. In the absence of indigenous written histories, knowledge of the Mali Empire has been based on a complex combination of oral traditions, medieval Arabic chronicles, European accounts, oral histories, and archaeology. Through a critical analysis of these sources, it has been possible to learn much about Mali’s history, including aspects its social organization, political structure, belief systems, and historical evolution. However, there is much we still do not know, including the location and nature of its capital(s).
Between 1800 and 1900, West Africa’s coastal states struggled to maintain autonomy in the face of imperial overtures from European trade partners. Simultaneously, these states coped with an overwhelming buildup of domestic slaves, some of whom rose to unprecedented higher political and economic positions. One particular individual, King Jaja of Opobo, came to the fore as an extreme example of how slaves became more capable of taking advantage of the changing political, religious, and economic landscape of the Eastern Niger Delta during this period. Born Mbanaso Ozurumba in the Igboland village of Umuduruoha in 1821, Jaja, as he would become known to his European trading partners, traversed the domestic slave systems of Southeastern Nigeria and arrived in the Delta trading state of Bonny in 1833. He obtained tremendous wealth and political influence through the burgeoning palm oil trade, ultimately becoming the head of one of Bonny’s most influential canoe-houses. Due to an internal dispute with a rival canoe-house in the late 1860s, Jaja removed his followers to a previously uninhabited island and cut off Bonny’s access to the lucrative interior oil markets. From 1871 on, Jaja monopolized the palm oil trade in the region to become the most influential trader from his new position as king of the island community, which he would name Opobo. However, by 1884, the relationship between Jaja and his British trade partners deteriorated, leading to Jaja’s exile in the West Indies. Political pressure forced the British to return Jaja to Opobo. Unfortunately, the once-powerful slave-turned-king died while trying to return home in 1891.
Perspectives on southern Africa’s past in the eras before the establishment of European colonial rule have been heavily shaped by political conflicts rooted in South Africa’s history as a society of colonial settlement. The archive of available evidence—archaeological finds, recorded oral materials, and colonial documents—together with the concepts used to give them meaning are themselves products of heavily contested historical processes. Archaeological evidence indicates that Homo sapiens, descended from earlier forms of hominin, was present in southern Africa at least 200,000 years ago, but many members of the South African public reject evolutionary notions of the past. From about 200 bce onward, groups of hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, and farmers were in constant contact in southern Africa. A widespread European settlerist view, based on deep-seated stereotypes of warring races and “tribes,” is that they were permanently in conflict: historical evidence shows that in fact they interacted and intermingled in a range of different ways. Interactions became yet more complex from the mid-17th century as settlers from Europe gradually encroached from the southwest Cape Colony into most of southern Africa. In some areas, settler graziers sought to wipe out groups of hunter-gatherers, and to break up pastoralist groups and enserf their members; in other areas, particularly in the shifting colonial frontier zone, mixed groups, including settlers, made a living from raiding and trading. In the 19th century, groups of settler farmers sought to subjugate African farmers, and seize their land and labor. Contrary to a common view, they had only limited success until, in the later 19th century, Britain, the major colonial power in the region, threw its weight decisively behind British settler expansion. Other Europeans—traders and missionaries in particular—worked with Africans to make profits and save souls. Some Africans sought to resist loss of land and sovereignty; others sought to take advantage of the colonial presence to seek new political allies, loosen ties to chiefs, find wage work, produce for the market, join churches, seek a book education, and incorporate Christian ideas into their politics. Even before they came under colonial domination, many chiefs sought to move from a long-established politics based on alliance making to a politics based on what Europeans called “tribal” rule.
Over centuries, a variety of decentralized societies and centralized states have formed in territories across the western Sahel and southwest Sahara, and along the Niger and Senegal river valleys. Women have played central yet often unacknowledged roles in building these communities. By the late 11th century, some were rulers, as tombstones from the Gao region seem to suggest. A travelogue describing the Mali empire, and a chronicle from Songhay, tell stories of women who plotted political dissent or staged rebellions in the 14th–16th centuries. By and large, everyday women’s reproductive and productive labor sustained their families, and structured life in agricultural, pastoral, fishing, or trading communities. In the 1700s in Segu, women brewed mead, cultivated crops, dyed textiles, and participated in the building of fortifications. In Masina in the 1800s, girls attended qurʾanic school, and a woman was the custodian of the caliph’s library. Women also suffered great violence stemming from conflicts, forced displacement, and slavery. By the end of the 19th century, they made up a considerable portion (at times the majority) of enslaved individuals in the region. After the European conquest and creation of the French Soudan colony, the French administration imposed an export-oriented wage economy, in which women worked to supply crops and sustain infrastructure projects. From the regions of Kayes, Kita, and Nioro, many migrated to groundnut- or gold-producing regions of Senegambia. While women’s labor and migrations were seldom accounted for in administrative records, their attempts to leave unhappy marriages or escape enslavement do appear in court records. However, colonial domination was gendered: the administration ultimately shunned women’s emancipation efforts, seeking to channel its rule by reinforcing patriarchal authority in communities. In 1960, the Republic of Mali achieved independence. Under the democratic and military governments that followed, women built pan-African and transnational alliances. In 1991 and beyond, they fought to achieve more rights, and greater political power and representation. Their labor and migrations have continued to sustain a large portion of the economy. Post-2011, they have been both active participants in, and victims of, the conflicts that have engulfed the country, suffering displacement, loss of livelihood, and sexual violence, for which many have yet to receive justice.