Episode 3: Africa in Historical Context (Full Episode)

Uploaded by BlackStudiesOnline on 16.02.2012

Hello and welcome again to African elements. In this episode, we look at Africa in historical
context and the events leading up to the Atlantic slave trade. As we've seen before, Black Studies
is a response to widespread misrepresentation of the history of the African continent and
people of African descent, but what does an alternative context look like? Do we simply
glorify Africa in response? If, in fact we are to look to Africa's glorious past as an
alternative (and there is much glory, wealth and prestige in Africa's past to look at),
then how did things go from a wealthy Africa to the Atlantic Slave Trade and European colonization?
We will explore rise and fall of powerful and wealthy African kingdoms as well as the
fateful path they took that ultimately led to the Atlantic slave trade -the trafficking
of millions of human beings from West Africa to the Americas. All that coming up next.
Since topic of this program is to reframe the way we look at the African past and to
create an alternative viewpoint and context, why don't begin by revisiting exactly what
context needs reframing? These are the words of the famous 19th century German philosopher
reflecting on the continent of Africa ... It is manifest that want of self-control distinguishes
the character of the Negroes. This condition is capable of no development or culture, and
as we have seen them at this day, such have they always been. ...At this point we leave
Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the world; it has no
movement or development to exhibit." Georg Hegel's comments taken from lectures
that he gave circa 1830, reflect a fairly recent phenomenon in terms of world history
that has to be looked at in a particular context. What's framing his worldview and his craziness
is a very selective use of timelines. At the time that these philosophers are writing,
Europe is in a state of expansion. Europe has undergone an age of Renaissance and Exploration
and at that particular time Africa happens to be in a state of decline. But backing up
the timeline to, say the 4th and 5th century, what's going on in Europe? Well, Rome is declining;
Europe is in the Dark Ages, you see feudalism, warlordism, disease, black plague, bubonic
plague and various kingdoms that are vying for what's left of the crumbling Roman Empire.
So, Europe is in a pretty bad state. And, it happens that at that particular time Africa
is thriving. We see vast empires that are in enjoying access to global trade, they are
enjoying high living standards in civil society and they are quite wealthy. So, starting the
timeline there, Africa looks great and Europe does not look like such a great place to live.
So, the question always comes up how we go from these wealthy West African kingdoms to
the Africa that exists at the time Georg Hegel's disparaging description. There is a very complex
chain of events that takes place with some key players that helps to explain how that
process unfolds. We can simplify that process with an understanding
of what's going on in Europe and causing Europe's decline. By understanding why Europe is declining
in the Middle Ages one can apply that same model to West Africa. West Africa is going
to decline for much the same reason that Europe declined. So let's get into that process.
I'll start with the basics. What is culture? This is a critically important term that is
often used, but rarely defined. For the purpose of this program, I'm going to define "culture"
as beliefs, practices and modes of being of a particular people in a particular setting
adopted as a means of survival. Seems basic, but very important. Why do people do the things
the they do? Why do they structure society in any particular way? Why do they worship
the way they worship? For a very simple reason ... to survive. Understanding culture in this
way makes it easier to understand for example why the continent of Africa itself is so diverse.
Later on we'll see how those elements of survival in West Africa, once they were brought to
the Western Hemisphere, helped people survive in the Caribbean, Brazil and in what later
became the United States. Finally, the way I'm defining culture as a means of survival
in a particular setting, makes it easy understand why for example to this day black folks in
Georgia are very culturally different from black folks in, say, Louisiana. We've got
two very different settings and different modes of survival that people have adopted
as we'll see. The continent of Africa is an enormous landmass
about 4 to 5 times the size of the United States. As you can see on the map, Africa
is divided into about 4 regional climatic zones. The first climatic zone up on the top
here is the Saharan zone. The Sahara desert is the largest desert on Earth, and as you
can imagine the people of this region are going to be culturally very different from
the people in the second climatic zone -- just below it, this greenbelt here -- the savanna
grassland. The people of the savanna grassland are going to be much like the people in the
grasslands -- plains region -- of the United States. The Lakota the Arapahoe the Cheyenne
-- they share similar cultural characteristics because they have similar settings. It's a
grassland with large game, which are constantly on the move so, as a result, to survive you
will find migratory and semi-migratory people just like the Lakota and the Arapahoe and
the Cheyenne in the plains region of the United States. Why are they going to be semi-nomadic?
Because it helps them survive. They have to follow their food source which is the big
game that also follow these migratory patterns. So, again we have a culture that's based on
survival in that particular region, which is a climatically different region from the
light green area just below that that the equatorial rain belt.
We'll talk more about survival in the rain belt when we get into a discussion of West
Africa, but again as you can well imagine it will be culturally very different from
the folks on the grassland, who are in turn very different from the folks in our fourth
climatic zone the Kalahari Desert region which is in southern Africa. This is the region
where, if you seen the film, The Gods Must Be Crazy, we find the San and the KhoiKhoi.
Again, a people who have adopted a way of life that allows them to survive in that particular
region. On to Egypt. Egypt is a society that is a
typical river civilization and it's heavily dependent on the annual flooding of the Nile
River which brings in nutrients into the Nile Valley that are essential to survival and
makes it possible to harvest crops from year-to-year. Now what type of culture is going to flow
from that setting? When you think about Egyptian culture and civilization what do most people
associate that with? Pyramids? Now you're probably thinking what does that have to do
with survival in that particular region. It turns out that in a culture that is heavily
dependent on knowing when these annual floods are going to come, pyramids come in handy.
The pyramids were very carefully constructed oriented north-south east- west -- 4-sided
pyramids -- oriented in that particular way. Now why is that important? Well, if your survival
depends on knowng when these annual floods are coming the pyramids will literally tell
you that. What are pyramids? Well, turns out their gigantic sundials. So you can tell by
the orientation of the shadow when you can expect these annual floodwaters to come. Egyptians
are not the only ones who are heavily dependent on knowing what time of year it is. There
are other highly agricultural societies that need to know when to plant and harvest. Some
of the most noble of them happen to be the Aztec and the Mayans who are also pyramid
builders. They built the pyramids in much the same way and for the very same reason.
Other aspects of Egyptian society also make perfect sense when you consider the setting.
Patrilineal, patriarchal, male-dominated, hierarchical and polytheistic -- multiple
gods. Now look at some of the most prominent gods in the Egyptian pantheon. You've got
a God of the sun. This is the God that's going to tell you when to plant and when to harvest,
so it's essential to have a godlike that in this type of setting. God of the Nile. Also
if you're in a setting that relies on your God of the Sun, Ra or Osiris, God of the Nile,
it would be a good idea for your ruler to have a good relationship with the gods. Thus
you are going to endow your rulers with godlike status. Again, the religion and culture that
comes out of the setting is going to tell you a lot about how people survive in this
particular setting. Now, let's talk a little bit about West Africa.
We're talking about a different climatic region, so you can expect the folks were talking about
in West Africa to be culturally different from the folks in Egypt. In the sub-Saharan
grassland, we have folks growing a variety of grains and cereals, but most black folks
in the United States with a history dating back to the period of slavery came from the
equatorial rain belt region -- a great many of them from the area of present-day Nigeria.
So what kind of culture can you expect to come out of that region? Well, this is a region
that's forested, but what may seem a bit counterintuitive is that this is not a place that's particularly
well suited for growing food. Why is it that you have such huge trees in this thickly forested
region? Well, turns out that the only thing that will grow there. Because of the constant
soil erosion your agriculture is going to consist of plants with deep roots that are
not going to not get washed away as soon as the first rains come. So grains, cereals stuff
like that is not to work in the equatorial rain belt. What types of foods are you going
to grow? You are probably going to grow things like yams, watermelons, sweet potatoes, radishes
things that have deep roots. That's the only thing that can be grown there that won't get
washed away when the rains come and erode soil. That also happens to be the reason why
if you asked the majority of Americans what is America's pie, they'll say apple pie but
if you asked most black folks they will say sweet potato.
Also, culturally this is going to be a region that's going to rely on oral traditions to
pass information from one generation to another generation. Now, why not do it through writing?
Are these folks just not as smart as the European folks? Well, in the interest of reframing,
another way to put that is, why is it that we consider literary cultures to be more advanced?
Is that because it happens to be the norm in Europe? Well, remember this is a different
cultural setting and a different means of survival is going to be adopted and therefore
they're going to have a different means of transmitting information from one generation
to the other that is not look the same as it's going to look in Europe. Where does paper
come from? Well, turns out Europe was a preliterate society until they got paper from Asia. Egypt
wrote its records mostly on papyrus. Those types of things are not in West Africa. So,
you're going to have to come up with another way of transmitting information from one generation
to the next. The tendency to note difference and place it in terms of hierarchy comes largely
from a European framework. Since this program seeks to frame things differently, suffice
it to say that Europe transmitted information one way, West Africans transmitted it another
way, and neither is more or less advanced. So, we've already talked about the first major
player on the scene, that is Egypt. Egypt sits on some prime real estate. The 2nd two
major players on the scene, Greece and Rome, are very quickly going to realize that in
order to get what they need to survive they need to somehow go through Egypt. Europe as
it turns out is predisposed toward expansion. Europe doesn't have a whole lot of natural
resources so in order to get what they need to survive they are going to have to expand
or die. Again, if you look at the culture that comes out of that need for survival what
you see in Greece and Rome? Aries, God of war. You see Poseidon (or Neptune in Rome)
God of the sea. In order to expand you're going to need a strong Navy. The pantheon
of gods in Greece and Rome tell you a lot about survival in that particular region just
as Egyptian religion tells you a lot about survival in Egypt. So, Greece and Rome structure
their society around getting what they need to survive, which means access to trade to
Asia, and in order to get their going to somehow have to get through Egypt. That's the reason
why Alexander the Great in 322 BC conquerors Egypt and makes it a Grecian province -- the
same thing with Rome for the same reason. They're going to capture much of North Africa
and the gateway to the Middle East, which means access to China in order to get what
they need to survive. By the time Rome conquers much of North Africa, they have already established
a relationship with the folks in the trans- Sahara. So already folks in West Africa and
the trans-Sahara are linked into this global network of trade that Rome has established
for its own reasons because they need access to trade in China. Now, we've already discussed
how Rome based its entire society -- its military and its civil society -- around its need to
access trade with Asia. And that's working well for Rome for a while -- until about the
5th century A.D. when we have a new player on the scene the Muslims. Around the 5th and
6th century A.D., Islam is starting to expand across North Africa, across Egypt -- the Mameluk
Empire. Coincidentally you have a subsequent decline in Rome. Why? Because access to trade
with Asia has now been blocked by the Muslims. So, what happens to Rome? What happens to
Europe? It starts to crumble you have bubonic plague, middle ages, feudalism, warlordism
-- it's a very violent time not a very pleasant place to live. Why? Because the fundamental
structure that Rome and Western Europe had based its society on now has been jerked right
out from under them. This new phase of European history is largely going to concern itself
with that problem. How do you reclaim this territory that you lost the Muslims? Well,
they figure they might be able to do that during the Crusades, it didn't work quite
that well. And, when that failed what's their other option? Well we'll go by sea. But much
of the rest of the history of Europe is going to be around the central need of accessing
trade with Asia. Now, remember the sub-Sahara is already linked
to this global network of trade that Rome was controlling. So what happens as Rome declines?
West Africa expands. They are figuring ... What happened to our neighbors to the north? We
were linked into this economic trade network and now they're gone. So they better expand
so they can fill that vacuum that Rome has left. There are some new players on the scene
as well and that's going to dominate events in West Africa for the next several years.
What West Africa is going to very quickly understand is that if they want to play with
these new guys on the scene, as Islam is expanding across North Africa, they had better get with
the Muslim program which means converting to Islam which they had done by the Mali Empire.
What we are going to see emerge here is that West Africa is going to base his entire society
-- its civil structure, its organizational structure and its social structure -- around
trans-Saharan trade over Muslim controlled trade routes.
So what kind of culture are you going to get based on that need? Well, we already talked
about the conversion to Islam, that's pretty important. In order to sustain long-distance
trade across the Sahara, I guess you'd better import camels in order to have these camel
caravans. The main thing that West Africa has plenty of is gold and gold is going to
be traded pound for pound the same value as salt. Now why is also important? Well, if
you're society is based on long-distance trade your going to need salt in order to be able
to preserve food across these long caravans.
In the 14th century Mansa Musa who was the Emperor of the 2nd great kingdom in West Africa
-- the first Islamic kingdom in West Africa -- is going to undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca
and this was a world-famous pilgrimage. He was being recognized as one world's most wealthy
men. He goes on this caravan and starts spreading gold all over the place -- just tossing it
out like candy all over the trans-Sahara on his way to Mecca. Pretty nice guy, huh? He's
going a make a lot of friends along the way. And there is a strategic need that he is meeting
by taking this pilgrimage to Mecca and spreading all this gold. You are going to create a demand
for gold across the trans-Sahara. That's going to be important because if you have one commodity
and you have plenty of it what happens when you have too much of something? Well, the
value drops unless you can create a demand where you can offload your excess gold. That's
essentially what he was doing. But we see a familiar pattern here don't we?
What happened in Rome when they based their society on access to trade with Asia and all
of a sudden that was jerked out from under them? We can already see the writing on the
wall as to what's going to happen in West Africa. What do you suppose is going to happen
in West Africa once the trans-Saharan trade is jerked out from under them? You guessed
it... it same thing that happens in Europe -- warlordism, feudalism, violence, disease,
poverty, all the same things happened in Europe during the Middle Ages are going to happen
in West Africa. It's going to be a very critical time, at a particular moment when Europe happens
to be embarking on an age of expansion. Another critical event that takes place far
from West Africa, but nevertheless is critical in the chain of events leading to the Atlantic
slave trade is the fall of Constantinople. Constantinople is the last gateway that the
Eastern Roman Empire has with Asia. In 1453 Constantinople was conquered by the Muslims
and it became Istanbul. It was the fall of Constantinople that prompted Spain to hire
Christopher Columbus to sail all the way around the world to try to get to Asia and it prompted
the Portuguese to try to circumnavigate Africa. Now, what does this have to do with West Africa?
As it turns out it's much easier to transport goods by ship than it is by plane, train,
automobile or any other method. One can transport a lot more a lot cheaper by boat than, say
... camel caravan. So what happens when Portugal circumnavigates Africa? Africa is cut out
of the picture and the trans-Saharan trade comes into disuse. This is the lifeblood for
West Africa and when the trans-Saharan trade collapses that is the final nail in the coffin.
Again, this happens at a critical time. If you're Europe in the go to Asia by circumnavigating
Africa then you better have safe ports to stop in along the way to restock your ships,
to repair your sails. So, what you're going to end up needing is colonies along the way.
This is happening at a time when Africa is in a state of decline and is ripe for colonization.
It's here that important to discuss the role of slavery not only in West Africa but in
human history. We've seen slavery going all the way back to Egyptian times. It's is nothing
new in human history. The two things that tend to go hand-in-hand is conquest and slavery
-- where you find one you tend to find the other. For example, the Egyptians would conquer
their neighbors and they would make slaves of them. The Greeks conquered their neighbors
and made slaves of them. The Romans did the same thing. That's nothing new in West Africa
either. So, as society begins to fall apart and you descend into chaos what do you tend
to have a lot of? What goes hand-in-hand with conflict? Well, slavery. Just so happens that
is Africa is descending the one thing that they have plenty of -- slaves as a result
of this conflict -- is the one thing that Portugal is in need of.
So, just as West Africa had to adjust its society in order to survive with its key players
controlling an increasingly Islamic controlled north Africa, West Africans are going to have
to adjust their society to play with some new key players on the scene, the Portuguese.
Now, the question is often asked ... How is it that these Africans would've sold other
Africans to Europeans? It's important to understand that this was nothing new in West Africa.
There had been a trans-Saharan slave trade. There had been a trade in slavery for centuries
before Europeans arrived on the scene. There's no reason to think that that would be any
different now that Europeans arrived on the scene and they need the one commodity that
Africa has plenty of -- that is slaves. It's also important to understand that Africans
in that time did not consider themselves Africans anymore than Europeans consider themselves
Europeans. Back to the issue of context, the question is rarely asked ... How is it that
over hundreds of years of conflict between Spain, France and England that these Europeans
are killing other Europeans? Well, they didn't consider themselves Europeans. They consider
themselves Spanish, French and English -- just as West Africans are not considering themselves
to be West African. They are considering themselves to be Ibos, Ashante, Dahomeans, and Yourbans.
However, as we'll see in a later broadcast, West Africans did bring elements of their
society and culture to the Western Hemisphere and much of those elements of West African
culture are going to help them survive in a different setting.
That's all for this episode. Next time on African elements we look at the enslavement
of blacks in the British north American Colonies. We just saw in this broadcast that Europeans
had no problem fighting, slaughtering, and forcing other Europeans into servitude. In
fact, as we'll see next time, England's first idea of what a colony laws came from its subjugation
of the Irish. So why is it that Africans got tagged with slaves status? How did it come
to be that for free, white, and American and came to be practically synonymous, while blacks
- even free blacks -are associated with slaves status? We'll explore that next time on African