In the late 15th century, the coast of West-Central Africa was integrated into Atlantic trading circuits due to the actions of Portuguese navigators and traders, supported by the Crown and followed by the Dutch, French, and English. Thousands of people were enslaved through Congolese routes and sold several times until they reached the Americas, where they were put to work in agriculture, artisanal activities, cargo transportation, mining, and domestic and urban services, among many others. The enslaved Central Africans, for three centuries brought to the Caribbean and the Americas, and especially to Brazil, established new communities and cultural manifestations from the knowledge and sensibilities that they brought from their societies of origin.
The Congo has been present in the Americas in many ways. One of these was the election of a Congo king, celebrated with festive processions, in which the royal couple and their court paraded through the streets and attended dances with special choreographies set to African musical rhythms. These celebrations articulated and consolidated black identities and existed in various parts of the Americas and the Caribbean. In Brazil, they have been a tradition since colonial times and still go on today, referred to as congadas. Such festivities project an abstract idea of primordial motherland onto the memory of a mythic Congo, annually updated in festive rites that celebrate a Catholic African king and affirm black identities in Brazilian society.
Jean Ping (born November 24, 1942) was a leading figure in Gabonese politics from the late 1980s well into the 21st century. His mother belonged to the Nkomi ethnic group and his father was a rare Chinese resident of Gabon. Like most other young Gabonese intellectuals, he studied abroad in France and then became a supporter of the ruling Parti Démocratique Gabonais (PDG) party. After working as the Gabonese representative to UNESCO, Ping returned to Gabon in 1984. He became a close associate of dictator Omar Bongo, had two children with Bongo’s daughter Pascaline, and held a series of top ministerial posts from 1990 to 2014. Ping became Gabon’s most prominent diplomat. African Union delegates voted for Ping to become the president of the African Union in 2008. He held this position until 2012. Perhaps his greatest disappointment was the failure of the African Union to successfully mediate between Libyan president Muammar Qaddafi, Libyan rebels, and Western countries who chose military intervention to overthrow Qaddafi.
Although Ping had become a member of Omar Bongo’s inner circle, he pulled away from the PDG party after Omar’s son Ali Bongo Ondimba won the 2009 presidential elections. Ping quit the PDG in 2014 and ran for president in the 2016 elections. Many Gabonese and outside observers believed Ping triumphed in this contest. The official results that proclaimed Ali Bongo as the winner stated Bongo had won 95% of the vote in Haut-Ogooué province, where supposedly 99% of all eligible voters actually cast their ballot. Ping rejected the findings and declared he was the true president of Gabon. Ping’s career, starting as a young Gabonese intellectual and becoming a member of the PDG elite and finally the leader of the Gabonese opposition, is a crucial part of the political history of Gabon after the end of French colonization.
Central Africa became deeply intertwined in the Atlantic world with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1482, which opened up a new world of connections between African societies and European and American partners. As a region, central Africa stretches from Gabon to Mossamedes, near the border of the present nation of Namibia. Two distinct patterns of interaction marked the region’s integration into the wider Atlantic world. On the Loango coast, Atlantic trade by Dutch, British, and French merchants favored African kings in the short term but eventually paved the way for the rise of coastal rulers who seized upon wealth amassed through the slave trade to challenge kingship. After first playing out in the kingdom of Kongo, this dynamic unfolded in several other polities, such as the kingdom of Ngoyo and Ndongo.
South of the Congo River, Portugal’s ability to carve out coastal enclaves in Luanda and Benguela powerfully shaped the relationship with the Atlantic world. Both cities developed sprawling trading networks with their immediate hinterlands as well as several cities across the Atlantic, particularly in Brazil but later also in Cuba. Although the slave trade formed the cornerstone of trading networks, a continuum of social, cultural, and political ties bridged the ocean. Portuguese institutional and economic presence was deeply dependent on Angola’s ties with Brazil. The two Portuguese colonies interacted bilaterally, and Brazil was not only the source of commodities for the trade in human beings but also in crops, food supplies, and military hardware.
Distinct patterns of Afro-European interaction in Loango and Portuguese Angola should not hide the intense trade between these two regions. Since the 17th century, Luanda had depended on the Loango coast for palm-cloth currencies (libongos) that circulated widely in the capital city of Portuguese Angola. Cabinda men sailed to Luanda to purchase tobacco and sell slaves and other goods. As the French and then the British abandoned the slave trade, the direct slave trade with Brazil intensified and altered the structure of shipments of captives. In addition to the tightening Brazilian grip over central Africa’s slave trade, this development further integrated coastal trade between Loango and Portuguese Angola and set the stage for the continuation of shipments of captives until the 1860s.
Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda was an American- and British-trained medical doctor born in Nyasaland at the turn of the last century. He became leader of the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC) from 1958 to its banning in a state of emergency in 1959; became president of its successor party, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), after his release from detention in April 1960; and in September became that party’s “life president.” He was the prime minister of Malawi’s first independent government formed in July 1964, its first president when Malawi assumed republican status in 1966 under a single-party system, and in 1971 became its life president. Schools, airports, highways, and hospitals bore his name, and his portrait could be seen in every public and private office and home. He was the embodiment of personal rule.
The Banda regime became known for its collaborationist politics vis-à-vis apartheid South Africa and Portuguese Mozambique and for the ruthless repression of all political dissent at home. Banda defended his foreign and domestic politics as necessary evils. White regimes were far too powerful to be antagonized by a small land-locked emerging nation state. To do so would be to cut Malawi’s economic, political, and military throat. He maintained cordial relations with the United Kingdom after 1964 and formally eschewed association with communist states during the Cold War. Western states ignored widespread allegations of human rights abuses until the early 1990s when economic decline, the beginning of the end of apartheid, and the thawing of the Cold War led to a resurgence of protest, both foreign and domestic. In the face of this pressure, Banda allowed for a 1993 referendum on multiparty democracy, which led to multiparty elections the following year. He stood and lost as the MCP presidential candidate, and Bakili Muluzi, leader of the United Democratic Front (UDF), formed a government. The Muluzi administration approved a commission of enquiry into the May 1983 deaths of four MCP politicians in a “car accident” that had long been suspected as a cover for state murder. The Mwanza Enquiry (so named for the highway near the border with Mozambique where the “accident” took place) resulted in a criminal trial in which Banda and four others (see Cabinet Crisis and the Establishment of the Politics of Single-Party Personal Rule) were charged with conspiracy to murder but acquitted for lack of evidence. Banda went into retirement and stepped down as life president of the party in July 1997, a move, it has been suggested, to secure his legacy as elder statesman and father of the nation. He died at the Garden Clinic in South Africa on November 25, 1997.
Mark Dike DeLancey
The Grassfields constitutes a dynamic area covering primarily the Northwest and West regions of Cameroon. Considered by many to be the birthplace of the Bantu languages and a primary source of ancient sedentary cultures for Central Africa, the Grassfields witnessed the proliferation of a bewildering number of states beginning perhaps as early as the 16th century. Originally colonized by Germany, the fault line between the later British-controlled Southern Cameroons and the French-controlled Cameroun ran through the Grassfields, dividing the Bamenda groups from the Bamiléké and Bamum. In the postcolonial period, the Grassfields has been the heartland of important political opposition groups including the Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC) and later the Social Democratic Front (SDF), and more recently of the separatist Ambazonia movement.
Agathe Uwilingiyimana was the first woman prime minister of Rwanda and only the second woman prime minister on the African continent. A Hutu from southern Rwanda, she was among the first Rwandans killed in the 1994 genocide of Tutsi. She was a political moderate from an opposition political party who rejected ethnic extremism. As the constitutional leader of the country in the wake of the president’s assassination, Hutu extremists killed her so that they could take control of the government. Born to uneducated parents, Uwilingiyimana was among the first women to obtain a bachelor’s degree from the National University of Rwanda in 1985. Before entering politics, she taught high-school science for over a decade. She dedicated her life to promoting women’s equality, removing obstacles to girls’ education, and speaking on behalf of the poor. As one of Rwanda’s first prominent women politicians, Uwilingiyimana faced intense misogyny, particularly from members of extremist Hutu political parties. The media frequently portrayed her naked or in sexual contexts. She was attacked in her own home on multiple occasions and menaced when she appeared in public. She was killed on April 7, 1994, along with her husband and an aide. The Belgian United Nations peacekeepers guarding her were also killed. Her death paved the way for Hutu extremists to take over the government and carry out a genocide targeting Tutsi, members of opposition political parties, human rights activists, and journalists.
This examination of the history of women’s situation in Central Africa from the late colonial period of the 19th to the early 21st century sheds light on women’s experiences by highlighting their agency in confronting the changes they faced. The colonizers’ introduction of cash crop production and forced labor in the late 19th century to modernize the economy impacted the sexual division of labor, transforming the organization of the work within the family and community. In the post-independence period, traditional gender expectations continued to shape the lives of the majority of women, but a small number were able to take advantage of social mutations in the domains of education, politics, and work to become leaders. Transformations brought about by postcolonial armed conflict in three Central African countries profoundly affected women’s lives.
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.
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.
David M. Gordon
In his influential book, Kingdoms of the Savanna (1966), Jan Vansina described the rise of the kingdoms of the south-central African interior from the 15th century. These include the Luba (the mulopwe titleholders), Lunda (the nuclear Lunda, also termed Rund, of the mwant yav titleholders), Lunda-Ndembu, Chokwe, Pende, Luvale, Luluwa, Kanyok, Luba-Kasai, Kuba, Eastern Lunda, Yeke, and the Bemba. New analyses of oral traditions as well as the study of art, archaeology, ethnographic fieldwork, linguistics, and documentary sources haverevised understandings of these polities and added details. Historians have considered the context of the production of primary sources, in particular art and oral traditions, which were created during a transformative 19th century, when trade and violence contributed to the centralization of power for some polities and the disintegration of others. With subjects questioning the power of sovereigns, art, oral traditions, and oral praises projected royal genealogies and the qualities of kingship into a vague antiquity. The study of historical linguistics has also provided inroads into understanding the dissemination of political institutions and titles along with tentative accounts of their historical depth. Ethnographic fieldwork has further elaborated on the functioning of political systems and religious ideas. These diverse primary sources complicate the historiography of central African kingdoms; they also indicate the spread of alternative political and religious affiliations during the 18th and 19th centuries, in particular Luba fertility associations and Lunda fictive kin alliances.