Oral history tells of an indigenous trader who lived in the middle belts of the River Gambia known as Kambi. His wealth and popularity transcended boundaries, villages, and communities from the interior of western Africa to the Atlantic Ocean. When the Portuguese arrived in the region during the first half of the 15th century, they immediately realized that Kambi wielded economic and social authority because of the frequent movements of traders up and down the river. The traders told the Portuguese that they visited Kambi-yaa (or Kambi’s place in Mandinka) in order to trade, and the Portuguese decided to name the region Gambia.
Whether the above oral narrative is accurate is not of great concern. What is important is that the account provides a glimpse of the history of the region and the changes that were already under way by the 15th century. It is evident that the ancestors of present-day Gambians had arrived in waves, or series of migrations, and were fully established on both banks of the Gambia River when Portuguese explorers first arrived in the 15th century. The Portuguese reported having found Mandinka kings on the river who claimed to be vassals of the king of “Melle.” In 1620, Richard Jobson also reported that the Mandingo were the “lords and commanders” of all the Gambia. These early 15th century contacts, led to a continuous Europeans’ presence in the River Gambia that still persist. By 1816, Bathurst was established as the new capital of the Gambia but it was not until nearly 100 years later that the entire territory we now know as Gambia came firmly under British influence. British rule lasted until 1965, when a new era of self-rule began. The country has since witnessed three republics, the first ending in 1994, the second in 2016, and the third still existing as of 2018.
Arabic-speaking Muslim polities existed in medieval Spain and Portugal where they were superseded by Christian empires that gradually disavowed cultural connections to this past. Hebrew and Arabic were largely expurgated from homes and libraries. Jews and Muslims who refused to convert were expelled. And while an incipient study of that past existed, echoed even in popular literary forms, the need to disavow kinship prevailed, at least publicly and officially. The Maghrib, for its part, separated by a mere fourteen kilometers of sea from the southern tip of Spain, experienced Portuguese and Spanish imperial expansion firsthand, receiving the bulk of the displaced and interacting with fortified settlements and encroachments along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. Later European colonization of North Africa completed the galvanization of a Maghribi culture of resistance to and disavowal of European, Latin, and Christian cultural forms and connections. Spain and North Africa came to be conceived as separate worlds; domains of inimical faiths; divided by culture, language, religion, and a history of mutual hostility. This sense of separateness is deceptive, however, as the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa are bound by deep and extensive commercial, material, and cultural contacts. They share inextricable histories in which alternating movements of commerce, conflict, and migration have played fundamental roles in shaping recognizably Western Mediterranean societies. They should be thought of as areas of a unified region with a common culture, or at the very least, as areas sharing a common region, in which they interact regularly, creating extensive ties and parallel forms of cultural and social organization.
The union between the former French Cameroun and the British Southern Cameroons on October 1, 1961, to form the Federal Republic of Cameroon was a unique experiment in nation building and the struggle for independence in Africa. For instance, the Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC), the first truly nationalist party in the former French trusteeship that advocated immediate independence and reunification with the British Cameroons, was banned in May 1955 by French colonial authorities because of its radical views, since France was still reluctant to grant its African colonies complete independence. For France, the choice of who and which party could lead the territory to independence depended on who French authorities thought could guarantee continued relations with France following independence. In the end, Ahmadou Ahidjo and his Union Camerounaise (UC) emerged as the best candidate to meet France’s objectives in a postcolonial Cameroun. On the other hand, because of the colonial arrangement that allowed Britain to administer its section of the former German colony as part of its colony of Nigeria to the west, the nationalist struggle took a different trajectory and was more against Nigerian rather than British colonial domination. In other words, for many Southern Cameroonians, the focus by the two major parties (Kamerun National Democratic Party (KNDP) and Cameroons Peoples’ National Convention (CPNC)) during the campaign leading to the plebiscite on February 11, 1961, was whether the territory should be part of the Republic of Cameroun, which was engulfed in violence and bloodshed following its independence on January 1, 1960, or face the threat of Igbo domination if Southern Cameroonians decided to become part of an independent Nigeria.
The use of numerical data and statistical sources in African history has expanded in recent decades, facilitated by technological advances and the digitization of primary sources. This expansion has included new analysis of traditional measures (population, government, and trade) as well as new sources of individual-level data such as census returns, marriage registers, and military and police records. Overall, this work has allowed for a more comprehensive quantitative picture of Africa’s history, and in particular facilitated comparisons within Africa and between African countries and other parts of the world. However, there remain misunderstandings about the collection, use, and interpretation of these data. Increasingly sophisticated methods of quantitative analysis can alienate scholars who have an intimate knowledge of the data and how they are produced, but lack specialist methodological training. At the same time, limited understanding of the origins and reliability of quantitative data can lead to misinterpretation.
E. Ann McDougall
The Sahara: bridge or barrier? Today, most would answer that the desert was more a historical facilitator than hindrance in moving commodities, ideas, and people between North and sub-Saharan Africa. A recent publication even coined a new name for the region: “trans-Saharan Africa.”
However, the Sahara is also a place where people live. Complex societies, sophisticated polities, extensive economies—all flourished at various times, waxing and waning in response to much the same factors as societies elsewhere. It is just that in the Sahara the vagaries of climate and the availability of water always established the parameters of development. A long-term drying era led to the dispersal of the Late Stone Age Dhar-Tichitt agro-pastoral settlements in eastern Mauritania, but in the east, Lake “Mega-Chad” shrank, leaving rich, sandy soils that attracted new cultivators. The Garamantes people of the Libyan Fezzan overcame their lack of water by developing a sophisticated underground irrigation system that supported an urbanized, cosmopolitan civilization that outlasted the Roman Empire.
The introduction of the camel in the 4th century and the gradual growth of Islam from at least the 9th century added new possibilities for economic, cultural, and religious life. The Sahara benefited from the sequence of medieval empires emerging across its southern desert edge. Camel pastoralism, salt mining, oasis agriculture, and expansive trade networks shaped the region’s economy; those same networks facilitated cultural and scholarly exchanges. As Islam took root, growing its own understandings of North African and Middle Eastern schools of thought, a prodigious body of Saharan scholarship was created. It underpinned much of the jihad-led political upheaval and state-building in the 18th and 19th Sahel.
Saharan clerics also directed their religious fervor against the invasion of French imperialists; “pacification” took the colonialists decades to achieve. But the impact of this violence exacerbated traditional clan conflict and disrupted economic life. So too did policies aimed at sedentarizing pastoralists and reshaping their social relations in the interests of the colonial economy. Much talked-about but largely ineffective efforts to abolish slavery had far less real impact than taxation policies; these both suppressed traditional exactions such as those levied by “warriors” and introduced new ones, including those to be paid in forced labor. Life in the Sahara became increasingly untenable. The arrival of Independence did nothing to address colonial legacies; the years of drought that devastated herds and crops in the desert and along its edge less than a decade later further fueled both political instability and economic crisis. That today the region nurtures radicalized Islamic movements promising to return “true meaning” (not to mention material benefits) to that life is not surprising.