Posts Tagged ‘Ibn Battuta’

African History in Maps

July 5, 2020

Colin McEvedy, The Penguin Atlas of African History (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1980).

This is another book which I though might be useful for those with an interest in African history and archaeology. Colin McEvedy wrote a series of similar books, showing the progress of history through maps. They were on ancient, medieval and modern history, as well as an Atlas of World Population, with Richard Jones. This does the same for Africa, using maps of the continent from geological times through to 1978. The earliest is of the planet 175 million years ago, when Africa was part of a single supercontinent, Gondwanaland. Subsequent maps show how this had split into the modern continents by about 50 million years ago. This is followed by a map showing the development of the Great Rift Valley and Lake Victoria. The book then goes on with maps showing the early pre-human and human sites, the emergence of the different racial populations and language groups, and the various African peoples and the great states and civilizations, beginning with Nubia, Egypt, and Carthage. It shows the great migration and movements of peoples and their dispersion across the continent, and its population at various points in history. The maps also show Africa with southern Europe and the near east to illustrate how the empires from these areas expanded into Africa, such as Rome, Persia and the Arabs. Sometimes the movement of conquest was in the other direction, such as Carthage, whose territory included part of modern Spain, and the Almoravids, who rule Islamic Spain and part of northwest Africa. Some maps are of the continent as it was known to the ancient and medieval geographers in 1350, as well as the travels of Ibn Battuta, the Portuguese voyages of 1482-8, Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India of 1497-8, population and trade routes c. 1600, the foundation of European enclaves and trading forts, the population in 1800 and the European geographer’s view of the continent the same year and then in 1856, the European exploration of the east African lakes, and their invasion and conquest of the continent. The emergence of the newly independent African states is shown in a series of maps from 1960 onwards. The last map is of the African population as it was expected to be in 2000.

The blurb for the book runs

This is a succinct account of civilisation in the continent that gave birth to the human species.

It is a fragmented and turbulent history in which the movements of peoples contrast with the creation of permanent states – Egypt, the earliest organized kingdom in the world; Carthage, the trading city that built an empire to rival Rome; Nubia; Abyssinia; Mali, the land of gold; Benin and Zimbabwe. Seamen probe its coast, traders cross its deserts and gradually the exploiters move in; and then, in the twentieth century, Africa finds the leaders it needs to re-establish its independence and create the nation-states of today.

Using the formula successfully established in his previous historical atlases, Colin McEvedy outlines this progress with the aid of fifty-nine maps and a clear, concise trext. Though his synthesis will be especially useful to those involved in the teaching of African history, its broad perspectives will undoubtedly appeal also to the general reader.

This is obviously a dated book, and I’m not sure if some of the anthropological language used to describe some of the African races would be acceptable today. For example, the book distinguishes between Negroes, Pygmies and Bushmen. Obviously much of the book is very much as Africa was seen by outsiders, such as Arab travellers like Ibn Battuta, and the European explorers and conquerors. This is doubtless partly because many African cultures did not possess a written language before the appearance of Europeans. They did possess their own oral histories, and the Islamic empires of north Africa and Christian Abyssinia/Ethiopia were literate. In the case of the Islamic states, this was in Arabic, which served as the official language in the same way Latin did in medieval western Europe.

Despite its limitations, I still think this might be useful for people with an interest in African history. The texts accompanying each map are short, often no more than two pages, so the book should be accessible to ordinary people and not just university students.















































After Slavery, the West Indies Had Black Politicians

June 19, 2020

Following the Black Lives Matter protests in Britain has come the debate about the teaching of Black history in schools. There was an item about this on BBC news earlier this week. Some schools already teach it, including the Black British experience but also the Black kingdoms in Africa, which is taught before going on to slavery. There were comments from Black students, who said that it had boosted their self-esteem. However, not all schools teach it and there have been calls from Black politicos to make it compulsory.

But Caribbean history may also provide useful role models and inspiration for Black Britons. What isn’t really appreciated is that shortly after the abolition of slavery in 1837, Black West Indians elected Black and biracial ‘coloured’ politicians to protect them from the planters’ attempts to force them back into servitude. Gad Heuvelmans mentions this development in The Caribbean: A Brief History, 2nd edition (London: Bloomsbury 2014). He writes

Strikes and riots were one form of response of the ex-slaves to emancipation; another was challenging the political domination of the planters. This took the form of electing black and brown representatives to the local Assemblies. Although not forming a single political bloc, black and brown Assemblymen generally supported government policies. Moreover, they could be significant: in Dominica, for example, coloured representatives formed a majority in the Assembly. Their presence prevented the passage of harsh legislation against the ex-slaves which characterized many other West Indian colonies.

In Jamaica, the coloured and black members of the Assembly united to form the Town Party, a faction which opposed the predominately planters’ Country Party. The coloureds favoured funds being spent on education, resisted expensive immigration schemes, and sought to counter planter attempts to restrict the franchise. Moreover, the coloureds also voted against measures to shift the burden of taxation almost entirely onto small settlers. Brown and black representatives did remain a minority in the Jamaican House of Assembly, but as tehir numbers increased, the planters became increasingly alarmed about the possibility of being outnumbered. (p.113).

I’ve known Black educators and historians get frustrated about the lack of awareness of this aspect of West Indian history. One of the experts, who also worked at the Empire and Commonwealth Museum was a Black historian from the West Indies. He used to give talks regularly to Bristol’s Black community was active in several Black improvement programmes. I remember him telling me how exasperated he got when he was talking to a young man, who blamed the problems of the Black community on slavery. He told the young man that that was no explanation as they had Black politicians immediately after slavery.

I think this is right. You can’t put all of the problems of the western Black communities down to slavery. Some of it is also due general racism, and the oppressive measures the planter elites imposed to try and force Black West Indians back onto the plantation under their control. But just as they had strongly resisted slavery, so the newly emancipated Black population turned to politics and got themselves and their representatives elected to resist attempts to disenfranchise them. No small achievement! I don’t want to be accused of telling Black people what they should or shouldn’t do to improve their condition, but perhaps it would give more Black Britons hope and inspiration if they knew more about this.

Another nation that might also provide useful role models might be Ghana. As the former Gold Coast, in the 1920s this had a remarkably enlightened governor for the time. It was the first British colony to appoint indigenous people as members of its governing council. I think its governor also wrote a book on racism in the 1940s, with the title of ‘Colour Prejudice’ or ‘Colour Issue’ or something like it. This included not only examples of White racism, but also Blacks against Whites. He quotes the 14th century Arab traveler ibn Battuta on the racism towards Whites of the people of the Black African kingdom of Mali.  This was something like ‘They would be great Muslims, if they didn’t treat Whites with such contempt’.

And regardless of skin colour, I wish there was more of the spirit of the Town Party today. We need more spent on education, just as we need more spent on welfare and the NHS. We need to stop the Tories shifting the tax burden onto the poor instead of the rich.

And the Tories are doing what they can to disenfranchise and force into servitude Britain’s working people, all while trying to preserve a facade of freedom.



I Stand with Nigeria and Mali

November 22, 2015


The Nigerian Flag


The flag of Mali, drawn as an outline of the country

In addition to the ISIS massacre in France, Islamist terrorists have committed two more atrocities, killing hundreds in Nigeria and Mali. There was a two minute silence for the victims of the Paris attack during the week, with world leaders expressing their horror and outrage. No-one has yet ordered a similar memorial for the victims of the African atrocities, yet their victims are just as worthy of being honoured and commemorated.

And like the attacks in France, this is an attack on civilisation.

West Africa has been the centre of the some of the most ancient and magnificent African civilisations. Nigerians were working iron several centuries before Europeans due to the natural iron bloom that is found in part of the country. Scholars, artists and connoisseurs have been deeply impressed with the naturalistic skill of the sculptures produced by the Nok culture, and later in the 17th century at Ife. The country also has a pattern of earthworks, the remains of cities dating from the seventh century AD, stretching over an area of about 65 square miles/ kilometres. You’ll have to forgive my vagueness about its exact extent. It’s a long time ago since I read the article about it in New Scientist, which was published about ten or fifteen years ago.

Much African history remains obscure, as until the arrival of Islam and exploration and colonisation by the Europeans, most African cultures did not have writing. The exception to this, of course, were Nubia and Abyssinia. Finding archaeological remains of these cultures can also be extremely difficult, as with certain exceptions, like the great Swahili cities in Kenya and the fortress at Zimbabwe, as well as Nubia and Abyssinia, Africans tended to use wood rather than stone for building. The result is that much of the remains of African civilisations has perished over time. Nevertheless, pictures of great African cities produced by European traders and explorers show just how impressive these cities were at their height.

Mali too was the centre of a great African civilisation. It was the centre of the Songhai and Mandingo empires, great Muslim states that became synonymous in West Africa with the religion itself. In one of the local languages, the word for to convert to Islam literally meant, to become a Mandingo. One of the main sources of its wealth was control of the gold supply. The country had so much gold, that when its emperor, Mansa Musa, visited Egypt on the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, he distributed so much of it that it caused a recession.

The Egyptian traveller, Ibn Battuta, was also impressed with the country’s Muslim piety and high standard of civilisation, when he visited in the 12th or 13th century. He declared that the Malians would be excellent Muslims, if they did not regard White people with such contempt.

I can also remember being taught at school in Geography class about the vast economic potential of Nigeria. It could be the world’s richest country from its massive oil wealth, if there wasn’t so much corruption.

These were the ancient civilisations, with their own traditions of grandeur, that Boko Haram and the like attacked in the week. Like many people last week, I observed the two minute silence for Paris. I also stand with the people of Nigerian and Mali against the attacks on the lives and dignity of their citizens and visitors, against the butchers and murderers who attacked them. And they’re just two of the many countries throughout the world that have suffered from the attacks of these monsters. The world and its people must stand together against them, and show that despite differences of language, race, culture and religion, we stand for peace. We must never let them and the other preachers of hate win.