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Studies of French decolonization in West Africa have traditionally treated it as a planned and reasonably smooth process. It has therefore been portrayed as a successful decolonization that stands in stark contrast to the much more conflictual decolonization processes in Indochina (1947–1954) and Algeria (1954–1962), which were marked by prolonged wars. This approach has tended to give pride of place to the role of individuals—members of France’s governing elites and African political leaders—who are portrayed as having successfully managed the transition to independence. While the importance of such individuals cannot be denied, it is important to recognize that French decolonization in West Africa was a contingent process. Shaped by the particular nature of French colonial rule in the region, the new international context after 1945, events on the ground, and—on the French side—the perceived need to maintain empire at all costs in order to restore French grandeur after the humiliation of defeat and occupation in the Second World War, it was a process that involved a multiplicity of French and African actors who were not in control of the policy agenda but who were, on the contrary, operating in a highly constrained context and constantly being forced to react to rapidly unfolding events. De Gaulle finally decided to grant independence in 1959, and within a year all the territories of former French West Africa had gained their political independence. However, political independence did not mean French withdrawal and the end of French dominance. There were many continuities between the colonial and postcolonial periods, which have been analyzed in a burgeoning literature on French neocolonialism in sub-Saharan Africa. Decolonization should therefore be seen as a process that started well before French rule formally ended in 1960 and that is—arguably—still ongoing.
Pedro Aires Oliveira
The dissolution of Portugal’s African empire took place in the mid-1970s, a decade after the dismantling of similar imperial formations across Europe. Contrary to other European metropoles, Portuguese rulers were unwilling to meet the demands for self-determination in their dependencies, and thus mobilized considerable resources for a long, drawn-out conflict in Angola, Guinea, and Mozambique from 1961 to 1974. Several factors can explain Lisbon’s refusal to come to terms with the “winds of change” that had swept Africa since the late 1950s, from the belief of its decision-makers that Portugal lacked the means to conduct a successful “exit strategy” (akin to the “neocolonial” approach followed by the British, the French, or the Belgians), to the dictatorial nature of Salazar’s “New State,” which prevented a free and open debate on the costs of upholding an empire against the anti-colonial consensus that had prevailed in the United Nations since the early 1960s.
Taking advantage of its Cold War alliances (as well as secret pacts with Rhodesia and South Africa), Portugal was long able to accommodate the armed insurgencies that erupted in three of its colonies, thereby containing external pressures to decolonize. Through an approach that combined classic “divide and rule” tactics, schemes for population control, and developmental efforts, Portugal’s African empire was able to soldier on for longer than many observers expected. But this uncompromising stance came with a price: the armed forces’ dissatisfaction with a stalemate that had no end in sight. In April 1974, a military coup d’etat put an end to five decades of authoritarianism in the metropole and cleared the way for transfer of power arrangements in the five lusophone African territories. The outcome, though, would be an extremely disorderly transition, in which the political inexperience of the new elites in Lisbon, the die-hard attitude of groups of white settlers, the divisions among the African nationalists, and the meddling of foreign powers all played critical roles.
Noémia de Sousa (1926–2002) is traditionally designated as the founding mother of Mozambican national poetry. She was the only woman poet in Mozambique to play a major role in shaping the cultural imaginary of the Portuguese African nationalisms that emerged in the 1940s and 1950s. Her early life as a woman of mixed African, European, and Goan racial heritage, and the education this racial status afforded her, drew her into writing and journalism in opposition to the colonial regime of the Portuguese New State. Her first and only poetry collection, Sangue Negro (Black blood), was completed and circulated clandestinely in 1951. She was subsequently exiled to Lisbon, and from there to Paris, returning to Portugal in 1973, shortly before the April 1974 Revolution. The contents of Sangue Negro were circulated, in the original and in translation, largely through specific selected poems in African nationalist anthologies. Divided into five sections, the poems of Sangue Negro mix oral and literary tropes and influences. They deal with issues of racial hybridity and colonial assimilation, African American and Pan-Africanist influences in Mozambique, Portuguese Neorealism and Marxist resistance, autobiographical memories and testimonies, and the specificity of women’s political voice. The literary establishment’s reception of de Sousa in 1960s Mozambique was generally dismissive. Her work was also afforded relatively minor status in foundational anglophone accounts of the Lusophone African canon, such as those by Russel Hamilton and Patrick Chabal. The Marxist sociologist critic, Alfredo Margarido was an important exception in this regard and an early champion of her work. In the 1990s, de Sousa was progressively validated and incorporated into the canonization of black, Pan-Africanist, and Negritudinist writers by critics such as Pires Laranjeira in Portugal. Since the 1990s she has received more in-depth, gender-informed attention in Mozambique, Portugal, Brazil, the United States, and the United Kingdom, consolidating her international status as a pioneering woman’s voice in Africa’s literary history of national liberation struggle. Her poetry collection Sangue Negro was reprinted by the Mozambican Writers’ Association (AEMO) in a new edition in 2001, for the first time since the 1951 original.
The West African savannas are a major area of independent plant domestication, with pearl millet, African rice, fonio, several legumes, and vegetable crops originating there. For understanding the origins of West African plant-food-producing traditions, it is useful to have a look at their precursors in the Sahara during the “African humid period” between 10,500 and 4,500 years ago. The Early and Middle Holocene Saharan foragers and pastoralists intensively used wild grasses for food but did not intentionally cultivate. Due to increasing aridity in the late 3rd millennium
The robust, sustained interest in the history of the transatlantic slave trade has been a defining feature of the intersection of African studies and digital scholarship since the advent of humanities computing in the 1960s. The pioneering work of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, first made widely available in CD-ROM in 1999, is one of several major projects to use digital tools in the research and analysis of the Atlantic trade from the sixteenth through the mid-nineteenth century. Over the past two decades, computing technologies have also been applied to the exploration of African bondage outside the maritime Atlantic frame. In the 2010s,
The Horn of Africa has an exceptional cultural heritage, starting with its manuscript sources, which are among the most important on the continent. It is a heritage that is rich but scattered throughout the region and not always easily accessible, prompting researchers to rely on cutting-edge technology. Since the 1970s, photography and microfilm have been key for preserving this especially valuable heritage. In the Horn of Africa, the “digital turn” has been the latest development in the close relationship between technology and research. For Ethiopian manuscript studies, the advent of digitization has meant more than simply improving old techniques. A new generation of projects is experimenting with innovative methods of research made possible by digital technology. The purpose is no longer just to provide digital copies of manuscripts but to explore the possibilities that computerization offers to study documents and other historical sources.
Increasingly competitive prices and low operating costs have made the digital revolution attractive even for African institutions, which, in recent years, have sought answers to the pressing needs of preserving and enhancing their historical sources. These technological developments have significantly broadened the range of sources investigated. While important, manuscripts represent only a part of the documentary heritage of the Horn of Africa. Numerous archives and a long-overlooked print culture offer equally interesting access points for studying the region.
The experience gained, though temporally circumscribed, has highlighted a number of more or less predictable problems. The projects to date, although they have often yielded only partial results, have highlighted the wealth of sources still present in the Horn of Africa and the way in which digital technology is making a valuable contribution to their preservation. Access remains perhaps the most critical issue. In the Horn of Africa, as in other African regions, digitization does not necessarily lead to Internet access.
There are copious resources for the study of African history on the internet. They include manuscripts and documentary archives, maps, museum collections, newspapers, printed books, picture collections, and sound and moving images. The websites of European institutions provide a good proportion of this content, reflecting the long, entangled, and troubled histories that connect Europe and Africa, as well as new partnerships with African institutions.
This plethora of digital resources enables both specialized researchers and the public to access information about Africa more quickly and easily, and on a larger scale than ever before. Digitization comes with a strong democratic impulse, and the new technology has been instrumental in making libraries, archives, museums, and art galleries much more open. But all is not smooth sailing, and there are two particular aspects of which researchers should be aware.
The first is that there are still huge collections, or parts of collections, that have not been digitized, and that resources have been—on the whole—most focused on items with visual appeal. The twin brakes of cost and copyright restrain the process, and researchers need to understand how what they can get online relates to what still exists only in hard copy.
The second consideration is that digitized resources can be difficult to find. Information about the riches of the web in this area is very fragmented, and exclusive use of one search engine, however dominant, is clearly not enough. As a counter to this fragmentation, a listing of the major websites for African history in Europe is given in a handy guide for researchers, which covers these resources by format and by region of Africa. The listing also provides websites in two particular areas of interest to historians and to the public: the transatlantic slave trade, and the liberation struggles in southern Africa.
James L.A. Webb, Jr.
Research in the field of historical epidemiology involves a multidisciplinary approach that integrates evidence from the biomedical and public health sciences with other sources for historical analysis. Its principal goal is the understanding of the distribution of disease over time and space and the ways in which disease control efforts have had an impact on disease transmission. Based in part on microbiological data and analysis, the historical burdens of infectious disease for human beings and domesticated livestock in early tropical Africa appear to have been high relative to other world regions. Although Africans developed indigenous treatments that provided relief for many human diseases (and, in the case of smallpox, used variolation with smallpox matter to induce immunity), it was only in the 20th century that major scientific advances in disease control and treatment through the use of antibiotics and vaccines began to substantially reduce the overall burden of human and animal infectious disease. The advances in Western biomedicine did not displace African systems of indigenous medicine, and in most African contexts, different systems of medicine coexist.
The goal of African history is not only to establish a chronology of events but also to recover the past from the local African perspective. The challenge is how to recover local ways of knowing and being in societies far different from the perspectives of both the contemporary scholar and the authors of many of the sources used to write history. For written documents, the question is how to extract meaningful data from sparse, biased, or unreliable texts. In a historical context, a documentary source is writing, whether ink or inscription, on material such as paper, papyrus, ceramic, stone, or any of the other surfaces upon which, in relation to Africa, Africans and travelers to Africa have chosen to write the continent’s history. While more and more written evidence from precolonial Africa is coming to light, the relative dearth of documents remains a major challenge for scholars seeking to investigate Africa’s past. This paucity also means that those sources available should be examined especially carefully with an eye to bias and to context. Such careful, grounded examination has not always been a strength of the field, which was initially divided between scholars who dismissed documentary sources (perceived as written by outsiders) as unreliable, and those who uncritically accepted them as eyewitness observation. Neither approach is helpful for historians seeking a nuanced understanding of Africa’s past. Used critically, written documents can provide a window into how human actors understood themselves, their history, specific events, and the world around them, which is difficult to discern in the absence of textual or visual representation. Scholars have developed to major strategies to utilize the unique strengths of documentary sources whilst minimizing their weaknesses. Firstly, historians pay close attention to local context, cultural bias, and pre-existing genealogies of knowledge about Africa and Africans evident in textual sources. Secondly, historians triangulate between different kinds of historical methods and sources such as archaeology, linguistics, ethnography, oral tradition, and even genetics and palynology.
Promoted by necessity, scarcity, and/or abundance, trade is one of the most essential cultural behaviors that promoted contact and exchange of ideas, commodities, and services between individuals and communities and variously transformed African societies of different regions and time periods. Anthropological, historical (including historical linguistics), and archaeological evidence points to the existence, on the one hand, of intra-African trade and, on the other, of external trade between Africa and those outside the continent. Traditionally, however, trade and exchange involving perishable and organic commodities such as grain and cattle have until now been very difficult to identify due to a lack of well-resolved documentation techniques. By comparison, some objects such as metal artifacts, glass beads, ceramics, and porcelain are pyrotechnological products, with a high survival rate that makes their trade and exchange easily visible archaeologically. Given the well-known regional differences across the continent, it is essential to combine multiple sources and techniques, in a multipronged way, to provide a dynamic picture of the mechanics of precolonial African trade and exchange of various time periods and geographies.
Writing Africa’s history before the 10th century almost always means relying on sources other than written documents, which increase in number especially from the 16th century onward. Archaeology (including the study of art objects), the comparative study of historically related languages, paleo-environmental studies, and oral traditions provide the bulk of information. Writing Africa’s early history ideally involves collaboration among experts in using each kind of source, an increasingly common practice. Despite the challenges of analysis and interpretation posed by this base of sources, early African history has a depth and breadth akin to the histories made from the written sources in archives. Even so, whereas written documents provide details about individuals and precise dates, the sources for writing early African histories more often provide detail about conceptualization, for example, of time, hospitality, and individualism and about larger, environmental contexts shaping those concepts and shaped by the actions of the people who held them. Translating such concepts and scales of action into accounts accessible to those—including many historians—not steeped in the methodological conventions underlying the analysis of each source is a major challenge facing historians of Africa’s earlier past.
Kelly Duke Bryant
Education was profoundly political in colonial French West Africa (1895–1960), a federation that included the modern-day countries of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), Benin (formerly Dahomey), Côte d’Ivoire, and Niger. It shaped political discourse across the federation as officials, educators, missionaries, African families, and African students weighed in on the type of education they thought best. Dissatisfaction with education policies or with the quality of schools encouraged Africans to become politically active, and the practical skills they learned in school along with the status gained through school attendance prepared young people to agitate for colonial reform and ultimately for independence.
Colonial officials engaged in a back and forth with the Catholic missionary orders that provided public schooling in much of the region, especially as they sought to balance early 20th-century metropolitan demands for secularization with the colonies’ need for reliable and inexpensive schools. In the second half of the 19th century, administrators attempted to undermine Qur’an schools through regulation and surveillance, hoping that this would result in increased attendance in French schools. In doing so, they competed directly with popular Islamic leaders and the interests of the Muslim community, which had the unintended effect of involving African Muslims in colonial politics in new ways. Officials also attempted to “adapt” colonial school curricula to the local realities of African communities, usually by decreasing academic content and focusing instead on vocational and agricultural training. Yet over several decades, they encountered significant resistance from urban educated elites and rural farmers alike, all of whom pushed in one way or another for schooling that would allow for social mobility and, ultimately, claims for equality with the French. Finally, education played a crucial role in formal politics in the region, preparing Africans for political candidacy and leadership, mobilizing the voting public, and helping to determine access to voting rights after African subjects became citizens in 1946. Education and politics were thus inextricably linked in colonial French West Africa.
In the first half of the 20th century, Sudan, which included the territories of present-day Sudan and South Sudan, was ruled by a dual colonial government known as the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium (1899–1956). Britain was the senior partner in this administration, Egypt being itself politically and militarily subordinated to Britain between 1882 and 1956. During most of the colonial period, Sudan was ruled as two Sudans, as the British sought to separate the predominantly Islamic and Arabic-speaking North from the multireligious and multilingual South. Educational policy was no exception to this: until 1947, the British developed a government school system in the North while leaving educational matters in the hands of Christian missionaries in the South. In the North, the numerically dominant government school network coexisted with Egyptian schools, missionary schools, community schools, and Sudanese private schools. In the South, schools were established by the Anglican Church Missionary Society, the Roman Catholic Verona Fathers, and the American Presbyterian Mission. Whereas Arabic and English were the mediums of instruction in Northern schools, the linguistic situation was more complicated in the South, where local vernaculars, English and Romanized Arabic were used in missionary schools.
The last colonial decade (1947–1957) witnessed a triple process of educational expansion, unification, and nationalization. Mounting Anglo-Egyptian rivalries over the control of Sudan and the polarization of Sudanese nationalists into “pro-British” independentists and “pro-Egyptian” unionists led the British authorities in Khartoum to boost government education while giving up the policy of separate rule between North and South. In practice, educational unification of the two Sudanese regions meant the alignment of Southern curricula on Northern programs and the introduction of Arabic into Southern schools, first as a subject matter, then as a medium of instruction. Missionary and other private schools were nationalized one year after Sudan gained independence from Britain and Egypt (1956).
Egypt’s trade in the Ottoman period with the Sudanic kingdoms to its south waxed and waned according to political conditions at either end of its trade routes. During the 16th and 17th centuries, powerful kingdoms developed in the area of Sinnar (near modern-day Khartoum) and to the west in the area of Darfur. The trade route connecting western Sudan to Egypt, known as the Forty Days Road, was ancient, probably dating to the Pharaonic period, but it experienced a remarkable revival in the 17th century when the Keira sultans of Darfur consolidated their rule in western Sudan and engaged in trade with Egypt in order to obtain luxury goods. In the following two centuries, trade between Egypt, Sinnar, and Darfur flourished, the pattern being that Egyptian, Syrian, and European-made goods were exchanged primarily for Sudanic exports of slaves, ivory, ostrich feathers, and livestock. Sudanese merchants, known as jallaba, came to Egypt and Egyptians settled in the Sudan as a result of these developments. Asyut was the town in Upper Egypt chiefly benefiting from the revival of the caravan trade, but the primary trade destination was Cairo, whence most merchants went.
In 1820, the Egyptians invaded the Sudan and trade between the two countries fell under a different set of rules and regulations. Initially monopolized by the government, items in the trade began to be sold by individual traders, and after 1839, when the Muhammad Ali, ruler of Egypt, was forced to withdraw from lands his army had conquered in Arabia and the Levant, European free enterprise soon became a major economic force in the Nile Valley. For a brief period, between 1845 and 1860, Egyptian middlemen, working closely with jallaba, profited richly from the Sudan trade, the city of Asyut prospered, but eventually they fell victim to European economic domination.
Margaret Ekpo was a woman leader, a pioneer parliamentarian and a human rights activist who contributed immensely to the political development of Nigeria during the colonial and pre-Civil War eras. She was actively involved in the struggle for Nigerian independence, and agitations for women’s inclusion in policies and programs of government. A leading member of National Council of Nigeria and Cameroons (NCNC), which became the National Council for Nigerian Citizens in 1960, Margaret rose to become a member of National Executive Council (NEC) of the party as well as the Vice President of the NCNC Women Association. In 1954, she was appointed a Chief with a seat in the Eastern House of Chiefs, breaking gender barrier that had hitherto made the space a male preserve. Margaret was a patriotic Nigerian. As part of her contributions to the constitutional development of Nigeria, Ekpo attended many constitutional conferences in Lagos and London as an adviser to the NCNC. She deployed different strategies to build political consciousness among women in Eastern Region of Nigeria. Her concern on universal suffrage led her to speak unequivocally against women exclusion in political process in the Northern Region of Nigeria. Margaret was an industrialist. She founded a sewing institute named “Windsor Domestic Science Institute” where she trained women in bookkeeping, dressmaking, and home economics among other activities. She believed that women must not be idle but work to earn income to assist their husbands. Margaret founded Aba Market Women Association, which she also used as a platform to educate women on their rights. She was rights activist who utilized her position as a parliamentarian to agitate for the political, economic, educational, and cultural emancipation of her people. For instance, she fought for the welfare of workers and their fundamental human rights. She demanded gender equity in the appointment of people to the Census Board, employment in the police force, and called for more girls to be offered scholarships. Margaret mobilized women against the British colonial administrators following the killing of coal miners at Iva Valley, Enugu, known as “Enugu Colliery Massacre” in 1949, and the murder of Onyia, a wardress in Enugu prison killed in 1954 for her refusal of sexual advances of a warder. She wanted government to coordinate the processes through which Nigerian students abroad access scholarships. Margaret believed in the indivisibility of Nigeria and suffered for her conviction during the Nigeria–Biafra Civil War (1966–1970). For her services to humanity, Ekpo received several awards and honors. An airport, Margaret Ekpo Airport Calabar, was named after her in her life time. She was awarded National Officer of the Order of Niger (NOON) and Commander of the Order of Federal Republic (OFR). Ekpo was a member of the Board of Trustees of Women’s Research and Documentation Centre (WORDOC), Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria. Chief Margaret Ekpo died on September, 21, 2006 at the age of ninety-two.
Azza El Kholy
Shajarat Al-Durr’s life and death constitute a story that deserves to be told. Turkic in origin, she was sold into slavery but grew up to become a great Sultana. She was purchased by Al- Saleh Ayyub, and soon became his favorite concubine, and later his wife after bearing his son Khalil who died in infancy. She was intelligent and beautiful, and was the Sultan’s companion and advisor in many state affairs. Her astuteness appears in her role in boosting the morale of the army by concealing her husband’s death during the Crusade in 1249. Upon Al- Saleh’s death, his son Turanshah became Sultan, and persecuted her and his father’s Bahari Mamluks who, abetted by her, murdered him. They then instated her as Sultana of Egypt because of her liaison with the Ayyubid dynasty as wife of the Sultan, and mother to his deceased son.
For eighty days she ruled as Sultana. Coins were minted in her name, and she was praised in prayers around the country until the Abbasid Caliph, Al- Musta’sim, sent a derogatory message offering to send a “man” to rule Egypt. Shajarat Al-Durr, a wise woman, abdicated the throne in favor of Aybak, one of her husband’s Mamluks and the man she took as husband to avoid political turmoil, thus finally marking the end of the Ayyubid dynasty and the beginning of the Mamluk era. They ruled together until he betrayed her trust when she learned that he was thinking of taking another wife, and seeking to rule on his own. A proud woman, Shajarat Al-Durr ordered him dead. In retaliation, Aybak’s Mamluks and his first wife killed her, and thus ended the life and reign of one of the most prominent women in Islamic history.
Buchi Emecheta (1944–2017) was a Nigerian writer, born in Lagos to a seamstress mother and a railway worker father. Emecheta’s early ambition was to get an education, like her brother Adolphus. Orphaned early in life, a scholarship to a coveted high school gave her the opportunity she wanted. Married at sixteen to Sylvester Onwordi, she joined him in London in 1962. Their marriage soon ended because of Onwordi’s physical and mental abuse. By the age of twenty two, she was a single mother with five children. Her first novel, In the Ditch, published in 1972, chronicled the struggles of Adah, who represented Emecheta’s own alter ego, in raising children in the slums of London. Overall, Emecheta published over twenty books, which frequently centered on a black woman’s experience. Many of her novels revisit the same themes and draw inspiration from her life. There is perhaps no other African writer in whose works their own biography is centered as much as it is in hers. Her work illuminates her life while her life informs her work. Her life and fiction feed one another to the extent that her novels are often referred to as “fictionalized” accounts of her life. Although Emecheta was a symbol of the modern African woman, she rejected being called a feminist. If she were to be called a feminist, it had to be “feminist with a small letter ‘f’.” A term she would have accepted for herself as well as for her strong female characters would have been Obioma Nnaemeka’s “nego-feminism,” a feminism of Africa, of negotiation, and a no ego feminism.
While the single most consequential event in Africa during the 19th century was European colonization of the continent, most of the century was characterized by tremendous growth and innovation in African political and economic institutions, as well as the expansion of literacy and the development of enduring intellectual traditions. Many African societies were making strides toward the creation of new self-governing nations over the course of the 19th century, as the ending of the transatlantic slave trade made way for the development of new industries and commercial systems. Large powerful states governed in numerous places across the continent, including the Sokoto and Tukulor Empires, Asante, Dahomey, Egypt, Buganda, Bunyoro, and Ethiopia. Many African states had powerful armies and distinct political identities.
The emergence of modernities in 19th-century Africa also came in the form of religious change. This era saw the expansion of Islam in rural areas of western, northern, and eastern Africa, accompanied by the rapid growth of Islamic education and literacy. At the same time, Christian mission societies facilitated the establishment of mission schools and colleges based on European institutions of higher education. The new class of mission-educated African elites included teachers, clergymen, doctors, civil servants, law clerks, journalists, private entrepreneurs, and academics. These individuals, mostly men, had a profound influence on African visions of modern nationhood, particularly in West and Southern Africa.
In many ways, Africa was becoming modern in the decades prior to the European conquests of the late 19th century. For the purposes of this article, “modernity” refers to the cultural and social revolution that accompanied the rise of industrial capitalism and included an expansive universalism. The development of modernity in Africa and elsewhere was linked to the new age of science, economics, realism, rationalism, and humanism dawning toward the end of the 18th and start of the 19th century. In particular, the newly founded colonies of Sierra Leone and Liberia became centers for the diffusion of African-American cultural influence, as liberated former slaves and their descendants from the British Empire, the United States, maroon communities, and captured slave ships settled there.
In order to appreciate the 19th-century development of African modernity, it is important to remember, as A. Adu Boahen once explained, that European colonization of the African continent occurred suddenly and unpredictably. As late as 1880, there was little indication that European nations intended to dramatically alter the map of Africa by force. Most African states and societies were entirely autonomous and controlled by their own rulers. The unexpected European conquest of African territories at the end of the 19th century thwarted much of the progress Africans had made throughout that century and arguably reversed key processes of modernization. And while colonial regimes also introduced new modernities into Africa, these were mainly destructive and exploitative in nature.
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).