The Fortunes of Africa: A 5000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor

Language: English

Pages: 784

ISBN: 1610394593

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


Africa has been coveted for its riches ever since the era of the Pharaohs. In past centuries, it was the lure of gold, ivory, and slaves that drew fortune-seekers, merchant-adventurers, and conquerors from afar. In modern times, the focus of attention is on oil, diamonds, and other valuable minerals.

Land was another prize. The Romans relied on their colonies in northern Africa for vital grain shipments to feed the population of Rome. Arab invaders followed in their wake, eventually colonizing the entire region. More recently, foreign corporations have acquired huge tracts of land to secure food supplies needed abroad, just as the Romans did.

In this vast and vivid panorama of history, Martin Meredith follows the fortunes of Africa over a period of 5,000 years. With compelling narrative, he traces the rise and fall of ancient kingdoms and empires; the spread of Christianity and Islam; the enduring quest for gold and other riches; the exploits of explorers and missionaries; and the impact of European colonization. He examines, too, the fate of modern African states and concludes with a glimpse of their future.

His cast of characters includes religious leaders, mining magnates, warlords, dictators, and many other legendary figures—among them Mansa Musa, ruler of the medieval Mali empire, said to be the richest man the world has ever known. “I speak of Africa,” Shakespeare wrote, “and of golden joys.” This is history on an epic scale.

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Barth found calicoes from Manchester, silks and sugars from France, red cloth from Saxony, beads from Venice and Trieste, mirrors and needles from Nuremberg, razors from Austria, sword blades from Solingen in Germany, paper from Italy. Although the Sokoto Caliphate lost much of its early reforming zeal, slipping back into decadence and corruption, it held together as an Islamic state until the end of the nineteenth century. Like the rest of west Africa, however, it was eventually confronted by the growing encroachment of European powers.

When the Bargain is made they are brought away . . . They appear to be very dejected when brought on board. The Men are put into Irons, in which Situation they remain during the whole of the Middle Passage, unless when they are sick. During the eighteenth century, some 904,000 slaves were exported from trading ports on the Niger Delta and Cross River. A fourth region which started to deliver huge numbers of slaves for sale in the eighteenth century was the Gold Coast. Hitherto, the Gold Coast had been a market for slave imports.

White slave labour helped build the Mole, a large breakwater protecting the harbour, dragging giant blocks of rock weighing twenty tons or more from hills outside the city. Tunis and Tripoli held about 7,500 Christian captives over the same period. The ports of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli also served as a haven for thousands of European pirates, many of whom ‘turned Turk’ and who joined in the plunder of Christian shipping with equal enthusiasm, sharing the profits with ruling officials. ‘If I met my own father at sea I would rob him and sell him when I was done,’ boasted John Ward, an infamous seventeenth-century English pirate based in Tunis.

It is not victory that we have gained, for we have driven our swords into our own bodies . . . Through carrying on this war and abandoning the Faith of our ancestors, we have become a byword among the pagans and Arabs. Exhausted and depressed, Susenyos returned to Dankaz, issued a proclamation granting his subjects freedom of religion and abdicated in favour of Fasilidas. He died a few months later, having been given the last rite by a Portuguese priest and was buried in a church that Pedro Paez had constructed.

Women who come before the sultan are naked and unveiled, and so are his daughters. On the night of the twenty-seventh of Ramadan I saw about a hundred naked slave girls come out of his palace with food; with them were two daughters of the sultan with full breasts and they had no veil. Later in the fourteenth century, the Mali empire, weakened by dynastic quarrels, began to disintegrate; tributary states asserted their independence; Tuareg nomads invaded from the north; Fulbe cattlemen infiltrated from the west; Mossi horsemen raided from the south.

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