The materials offered below are intended to introduce candidates for the PRAXIS exam in history to some of the basic concepts, issues and interpretive ideas of African and Middle Eastern history.

    This is the PRAXIS review for Africa.

    To access the PRAXIS review for the Middle East, click on this link:

    Middle East Praxis Review

    These materials reflect the views of the author, and not necessarily those of Kean University, nor of anybody else.



      African History, as an academic discipline in Western Civilization, began in England in 1960 with the foundation of the Journal of African History.

      The first generation of African historians were people who had started out as something else, usually anthropologists like Jan Vansina and Steve Feierman or colonial historians like Roland Oliver and John Fage, but occasionally others like the Senegalese biologist Cheikh Anta Diop.

      The second generation of African historians were people trained in England by the first generation; this includes my own advisor Marcia Wright, my longtime friend and mentor Harold Marcus, and a few others.

      By the late 1960s it was possible to get a degree in African History in the United States. I am a member of the first generation of American-trained African historians.

      But because of my race and gender I have never been allowed to work in the field for which I trained. For many years I have worked at Newark State Teachers’ College as an instructor in Western Civilization.

      My professional reputation depends totally upon my publications, which one may access through my website:


      Because African history is comparatively new, it is difficult for a newcomer to study. There are two reasons for this.

      1. Africa is empirically complicated. There are inevitably very many words that are strange, derived from languages hitherto unknown to most of us.

      2. Scholars have not yet established subdivisions within the field that everyone agrees about, conspicuously historical periods.

        By way of contrast, notice how anyone who studies American history will understand without really being told that there exists a pre-Columbian period, a colonial period, a revolutionary period, the era of good feeling, the age of Jackson, etc. etc.

        In African history, we do not yet have that kind of consensus.

      My job is to help you pass a test none of us have ever seen. I strongly suspect that it was written by politically correct individuals with limited focus and a strongly moralizing agenda. There is nothing I can do about that. We are all the victims of a racist, sexist Establishment that will say anything to perpetuate its own power.

      Ok, here we go.

      1. LESSON I: Africa is not exotic; African people have the same history as does everybody else. The names are different, the dates vary, but the overall story is much the same.

      2. LESSON 2: The concepts are more important than the details. You will never remember ANYTHING unless you have a few conceptual boxes in which to put your data.

        Unfortunately, your TEST is very likely to ask you trivia quiz trivia that ignore the categories and focus precisely upon the detailed minutiae that you are least likely to remember. I understand that. But there is no way I can ever make the details stick in your mind without some pegs to hang that information on.


      Here are some useful first-order subdivisions of African history into PERIODS. These are the first set of pegs. In a moment we will come back and hang some things on each of them.

      1. Human origins and African prehistory: 10,000,000 to 5,000 years ago
      2. Africans build their own history to 1885
      3. Waves of foreign influence to 1600
      4. The slave trade era, 1600 to 1800
      5. The nineteenth century
      6. The colonial era, 1885 to 1960-91
      7. After independence, 1950 to the present


      1. Human Origins

        The story of human origins is changing rapidly. At the moment it looks like this:

        About 10,000,000 ye:ars ago the ancestors of humans and their nearest relatives on the primate family tree parted company; each established separate branches.

        Two recent fossil discoveries of the earliest human ancestor include: “Millennium Man,” (Lake Baringo, Kenya) and “Toumai” (Lake Chad, Chad).

        More familiar are later creatures of eastern and southern Africa called the Australopithecines. They came in many varieties, like the crew of the Starship Enterprise, and the exact chain of connection between them and us is uncertain.

        The last prehuman ancestor was called homo erectus. He was the first to expand outside Africa. You may have heard of Neanderthal Man, a creature of the Middle East and southern Europe. The last homo erectus survived until about 10,000 years ago in the forested regions of Sumatra, Indonesia.

        During the last two decades advances in biological sciences allow us to assure you that no one alive today is descended from the Neanderthals. All living humans are descended from a woman who lived in Africa about 200,000 years ago. Call her “Eve.” That is where and when the human story begins.

      2. African Prehistory

        The age between the appearance of true humans about 200,000 years ago and the rise of literate state society about 5,000 years ago is sometimes called “prehistory.”

        Africa, because it is the homeland of humanity, has much more prehistory than does any other continent; everybody else got started much later.

        A good deal is known about this topic, and it is very complicated. I doubt much of it appears on your test. Just a few points will do:

        1. About 71,000 years ago a great volcanic eruption came very close to killing off all humans. Before Mt. Tubo blew there were about 3,000,000 of us; afterwards only about 15,000, scattered around the planet.

          The survivors, in their scattered environments, gave birth to modern racial groups. That is why we have today a small number of fairly distinct racial groups, instead of one big continuum across the biological spectrum. (In time, we’ll probably get back to normal.)

          Africa has by far the greatest human diversity of any continent; everybody is an African, and has dark skin--as did all our ancestors long ago. But beneath the skin, African folk are less like each other biologically than are the inhabitants of any other continent. Asia comes next. Most Native Americans are closely related to all other Native Americans, and Europeans are descended from a mere handful of families.

        2. What makes us human? What separates us from our prehuman ancestors? There are at least two things:

          1. First, concepts of binding kinship that constitute the family.

          2. Secondly, language. At the moment it seems that Eve and her children were successful partly because they, unlike the Neanderthals and their kin, could speak.

            However, in the beginning it may have been a crude “babytalk” kind of communication similar to the pigins that people create today along the frontiers of cultural interaction.

            Only about 30,000 years ago, did people perfect syntax, that allowed the appearance of modern language. (Today the children of a community who speak a pigin will take what their parents gave them, and with it invent for themselves a Creole, a true modern language with sophisticated syntax.)

            When we refer to African people (or other people, for that matter), it is accurate, non-pejorative and often useful for an historian to make a group out of all the people who share the same native language.

            If I refer to the “Dinka,” for example, I am talking about all the people who are native speakers of the language linguists call “Dinka.”

            (Actually, the Dinka refer to themselves as “Jang,” meaning true human beings, but neither I nor anybody else has mastered all the terms of self-identification used by African speech communities. Nobody expects you to do so.)

        3. Most African people of historic times have spoken a language descended from one or another of the four major speech communities of late prehistory (about 20-15,000 years ago).

          1. One family, called Khoisan, survives among hunters and herdsmen of southwestern Africa, with remnants scattered around the rest of the continent that reveal it was once much more widespread.

            About 15 or 20,000 years ago, with the domestication of plants and animals and the coming of agriculture, which some people used to call the Neolithic or New Stone Age Revolution, there was a series of population explosions.

            Whoever made a successful transition to the new way of life FIRST guaranteed that very many descendants would speak his or her language, while other speech groups would be marginalized and perhaps even disappear.

          2. The Nilo-Saharan family dominated the great river systems of the African interior during the Mesolithic age.

            Modern languages descended from this tradition include Songhai, Kanuri, Boro Mabang, Teda, Fur, Nubian, Dinka, Nuer, Luo, Maasai and many others.

          3. The Afro-asiatic or Afrasan family spread out from Ethiopia to dominate North Africa and the Middle East. These folks developed a plow agriculture that emphasized grains such as barley and wheat.

            Languages descended from this tradition include Ancient Egyptian, Berber, Hausa, To-Bedawi, Afar, Somali, Tigrinnya, Amharic, Oromo, Hebrew and Arabic, and many others.

          4. The Congo-Kordofanian family developed forms of agriculture better suited to much of the continent, including grains such as sorghum, millet and African rice, and also forest crops such as the yam. They spread across West Africa in very early times.

            Some languages descended from this community include Wolof, Fulfulde, Mande, Twi, Yoruba, Igbo and many others.

            Then, about 1,000 BCE a subgroup called the Bantu undertook the colonization of the southern third of the continent (except for desert zones where agriculture was not possible and Khoisan speakers survived.)

            Well-known Bantu languages include Lingala, Swahili, Xhosa and Zulu, and there are about 600 others.

          5. One language, Malagasy, came to Africa by sea from Southeast Asia about 2,000 years ago.

            The people who brought it also came with chickens, taro (called cocoyam in Africa), the banana, the xylophone and marijuana. These things were adopted on the mainland, while Austronesian speech was not.


      1. Introduction

        What kind of world would African people create for themselves, if left to their own devices?

        If we look at the history of the continent from this perspective, we will find that African history does not differ greatly from everybody else’s history. You can use their example to answer some of your general World History questions.

        People created for themselves a series of types of society:

        • Each was larger in scale and greater in complexity and scale than the one that preceded it.

        • Each incorporated greater degrees of social hierarchy and inequality.

        • Each intensified the exploitation of natural resources.

        People changed not under the gifted leadership of inspired geniuses, but because they had to, being driven primarily by population increase.

      2. The first type of society may be called band society, characteristic of hunters and gatherers everywhere.

        People lived in groups of about 30-50 people, practiced band exogamy and bilateral descent, and governed themselves informally. The practiced an economy based on reciprocity, and preferred permissive child-rearing. A working day was about 2 and ½ hours, and good health and a good diet gave people a stature larger than that of the average American today.

        All Africans practiced this way of life up to about 15-20,000 years ago, and a few groups were able to preserve it into the twentieth century. Modern band societies have included the San, Mbuti and Dorobo.

      3. The second type of society, lineage society, emerged with the New Stone Age and the coming of agriculture.

        Kinship, organized on a unilineal basis, became the basis of society. Patrilineal versions prevailed wherever significant numbers of livestock were present, and matrilineal descent in areas without livestock. Ancestor veneration in religion and gerontocracy in politics became the norm; child-rearing became brutal and harsh, characterized by genital mutilation or other painful practices. Reciprocity continued to dominate economics, but politics now took the form of a balance between factions. There was never peace, but only rarely war. There was no government, but life was encased in very, very many rules about behavior, rules that Christian or Muslim outsiders would call “superstitions.”

        Few societies were able to retain this system into modern times. The Tiv of Nigeria and the Nuer of Sudan probably come the closest. The cattle-keeping cultures of East Africa that use age or generation sets to govern themselves also approximate this model (Pokot, Maasai, Borana, many others).

      4. In most cases the balanced lineage constitution was upset by the introduction of hierarchy and competition, leading to chieftainships in which one individual controlled the redistribution of the community’s surplus resources. Titles, trade, domestic slavery, competitive labor-organizing big-manism and acquisitive warfare flourished.

        The Igbo society of Chinua Achebe’s early novels exemplifies a typical unbalanced lineage society with a complicated constitution that incorporated checks and balances between a titled hereditary elite (Ezeulu of The Arrow of God) and entrepreneurial big-men (Okonkwo of Things Fall Apart). The Berber community of North Africa also fit the model, with a highly distinctive constitution, as does the Somali nation.

      5. The chiefdom also provided the setting in which the next type of society was born. This was the STATE, in which a ruling elite seizes power, forces the payment of taxes, and exercises a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.

        For reasons beyond my comprehension, the people who write your test almost certainly LIKE state forms of society and even equate them with civilization. I do not agree, but to be useful to you I will have to play along.

        Here is an outline of the chronology of state formation:

        • The first African state was Pharaonic Egypt, which began about 5,000 years ago.

        • About 3,000 years ago states arose in the Sudanese Nile valley and northern Ethiopia.

        • By what Europeans call the Middle Ages, state forms of government had come to dominate the whole belt of land south of the Sahara desert and north of the forest zone that we call the Sudan; a state tradition had also developed in what we now call Zimbabwe.

        • During what Europeans call the Early Modern period, state-building swept the forest zones of West and Equatorial Africa.

        • Finally, during the 1700s the state came to South Africa.

        Your test will almost certainly ask you to recognize the names of some of these states.

        Here are a few:


        (all dates except 1270 are approximate; the spellings you see elsewhere may differ too)

        • EGYPT or KEMET: (the old Egyptian name for Egypt is KEMET, which you may also be asked to recognize.)

        • The Nile Valley Sequence:

          • Kerma (c. 1,700 BCE)
          • Kush (700-300 BCE)
          • Meroe (300 BCE to 300 CE)
          • Medieval Nubia (300 - 1400 CE)
            • Nobatia
            • Makuria
            • Alodia or Alwa

          • Sinnar (1504-1821)

          • The Ethiopian sequence:

            • Old kingdoms (1000 - 500 BCE)
            • Axum (500 BCE to 700 CE)
            • Zagwe dynasty (700 to 1270)
            • Solomonic dynasty (1270 to 1974)

          • Some Sudanic states of the medieval period:

            • Ghana
            • Mali
            • Songhai
            • Kanem
            • Borno
            • Takrur
            • Wadai
            • Baghirmi
            • Dar Fur

          • Medieval but not Sudanic:

            • Zimbabwe

          • Early modern states of West Africa:

            • Oyo
            • Benin
            • Asante (pronounced Ashanti)
            • Dahomey

          • Early modern states of Central Africa:

            • Kongo
            • Tio
            • Luango
            • Luba
            • Lunda

          • Eighteenth-nineteenth century South Africa

            • Zulu

        Beyond the names, it will probably be useful for you to know that each kingdom normally had one big town where the king sat. (The people who write your test like towns because they consider them evidence of civilization.) So rest assured, African kingdoms usually had at least one big town; in fact, the country was often called by the name of its capital city-for example, the place I study, Sinnar. Note that Sinnar the city in 1700 had a population of 100,000; as European travelers of the day correctly noted, this put it in a select worldwide league of really big places. But notice that an African capital was a “company town” where everybody worked for the king-you couldn’t just live in a place like Tell el Amarna (Ancient Egypt), you had to have a good reason for being there.

      6. Early states comprised one ethnic group or a few closely related ones. The king spoke the language of his subjects and his behavior had to be culturally comprehensible to them.

        Often, however, states expanded into empires that included a whole ethnic mosaic of many subject peoples. The emperor was at liberty to rewrite the rules of government in ways that were simple, rational and beneficial to himself. In many cases this was the point at which a ruler adopted a foreign religion such as Christianity or Islam.

        It is always debatable where and when a kingdom became an empire, for even early states normally had at least some subject minorities. Just to be on the conservative side, you would be absolutely safe to think of Solomonic Ethiopia, Mali and Songhai as archtypical old agrarian empires.

      7. People who make their living buying and selling things-merchants- are very likely to want their own type of society that is very, very different.

        Given a chance, they will want to live in self-governing urban communities called city-states.

        In Africa, as far as we know, no society at its own initiative allowed the formation of an indigenous merchant class. The notion of being a merchant was always initially a foreign notion. Yet in time African people became converted to the foreigners’ way of life, and built their own city-states.

        The urban oasis settlements of the Sahara provide good examples, as do the Beja, Afar, Somali and Swahili city-states of the East African coast. During the slave-trade era some West African coastal communities followed the same pattern.

        Here are the names of some city-states:


        • Sijilmasa
        • Awdaghost
        • Tadmekka
        • Takedda
        • Walata
        • Ghat
        • Murzuq
        • Awjila
        • Kufra
        • Agades
        • Bilma
        • Jalo
        • Siwa
        • Jaghbub


        • Aydhab
        • Sawakin
        • Mitsawa
        • Adulis
        • Zayla`
        • Berbera
        • Moqdishu
        • Brawa
        • Pate
        • Lamu
        • Manda
        • Malindi
        • Mombasa
        • Kilwa
        • Sofala


        • Dakar
        • Rufisque
        • Goree
        • Freetown
        • Cape Coast
        • Elmina
        • Lagos
        • Brass
        • Bonny
        • Kalabari
        • Douala

      8. Modern Nation-States took shape in early modern Europe, and in north Africa.

        Morocco provides a conspicuous example, but Tunisia and Egypt were not far behind.

        Madagascar was all but completely unified during the 1700s under the powerful modern iMerina state.

        Tripoli hired John Locke to write a constitution for them, and a similar document, called the Mankessim Constitution, was formulated by African people themselves on the Gold Coast.

        Some of the most successful new and modern states grew up in resistance to white encroachment in southern Africa: these were Swaziland, Lesotho and Botswana.

        More recently, Eritrea has declared its independence as a modern state and withdrawn from the old Ethiopian empire.



      But Africa was conspicuously NOT left to its own devices. There is a second way of periodizing African history that exposes the role of foreigners in continental history.

      Waves of Foreign influence to 1600

      1. First Wave

          Name: Hellenistic
          Dates: 300 BCE to 600 CE
          Place: North Africa from Mauretania and Morocco to Egypt and Sudan; Ethiopia; East African coast no farther than Tanzania
          Language: Greek
          Religion: Christianity (Orthodox and Monophysite)
          Modern Relevance: Christian Ethiopia, Coptic Egypt

      2. Second Wave

          Name: Islamic
          Dates: 600-1600 CE
          Place: All of First Wave zone except Ethiopia; the Sahara and Sudanic region; East Africa to include Mozambique
          Language: Arabic
          Religion: Islam
          Modern Relevance: Islamic North, West and East Africa

      3. Third Wave

          Name: Early Modern European
          Dates: 1400 to 1600 CE
          Place: West coast south of Morocco; East coast as far north as northern Kenya; Madagascar
          Languages: Portuguese, Dutch
          Religion: Christianity (Catholic and Protestant)
          Modern Relevance: Afro-Portuguese communities of Angola, Mozambique (Ms. John Kerry), West Africa; Afrikaners of South Africa

    6. THE SLAVE TRADE ERA, 1600 TO 1800

      A slave trade within, into and out of Africa had existed for a very long time before 1600. (Conspicuous was an import trade in white European slaves, particularly children, throughout the Middle Ages, and on into the early nineteenth century, when Thomas Jefferson had to send the US Marines to the “Shores of Tripoli” to free the hundreds of white slaves still held by African elites.)

      However, the slave trade had never dominated the continent’s trading networks until about 1600. The reason for the importance of the slave trade from 1600 to 1800 lay in the demand for slaves in the plantation colonies of the New World, conspicuously on the sugar islands of the Caribbean, which were profit-oriented extermination camps where millions upon millions of Africans were worked to death.

      Estimates of the number of African people exported range from 10 to 100 million; 15 or 20 million seems a good guess at present.

      Distributed across 300 years in a large and populous continent, this loss of population is very small, and had little direct effect. The slave trade is very important in AMERICAN history, but it is a theme of secondary or tertiary significance in AFRICAN history.

      However, the existence of the trade did tend to brutalize African life, and gave new and ominous powers to elites who could never have existed before. There arose whole new countries such as Asante and Dahomey that depended totally on the slave trade, and new diasporas of African slave merchants who were eager to cash in on the business opportunity of the American trade.

      Whites were rarely allowed to pass beyond port communities; Africans themselves monopolized the procurement of slaves and their delivery to the coast.

      In the long run, as Walter Rodney noted in his significantly-entitled book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, the most damaging legacy of the slave trade era was that it placed political power into the hands of leaders who wanted to import every sort of trade good rather than manufacturing it at home.

      As recently as the mid-1700s, the 13 British colonies of North America and West Africa had very similar iron-producing technologies; by 1945 the USA had a big steel industry and West Africa did not-such was the legacy of trade-oriented leadership in Africa.

      A smaller but significant trade was set up to bring slaves to the Indian Ocean sugar island of Mauritius.

      Islamic slave exports flourished throughout the period, as the Ottoman Turks took over the Islamic coastlines from Algeria to Kenya during the 1500s. However, the Muslims lacked the huge market for agricultural labor found in the Americas.

      During the 1500s the Moroccans, the Turks and the Portuguese undertook major invasions of gold-producing kingdoms in the interior.

      1. Morocco destroyed Songhai (The Moroccan army of conquest, incidentally, was commanded by a white eunuch slave.)
      2. Portugal destroyed Zimbabwe
      3. The Turks, led by the Somali leader Ahmad the Left-Handed, temporarily destroyed Ethiopia

      None of the invasions resulted in colonization, but each damaged or destroyed an ancient African society and stimulated a new trade in slaves.


      1. “Legitimate” Trade

        Europeans convinced themselves that slavery was a bad idea in about 1800, and over the course of the century to follow they stopped most of the trade to the Americas.

        At the same time, the Industrial Revolution facilitated transport and created a new market in Europe for “legitimate” [non-slave] African products such as peanuts, copra, palm oil, gum Arabic, ivory, and others.

        For example, a new country called the United States exported coarse cotton cloth to East Africa in return for hides, to be made into shoes and gloves in Massachusetts and elsewhere.

        Unfortunately, African elites who had dedicated themselves to exporting slaves for the last three centuries now simply put their slaves to work in Africa itself producing the new export goods the Europeans wanted. By the end of the century, in many parts of the continent and conspicuously West Africa, anywhere from one third to two thirds of the population were working as slaves for the rest.

      2. The crisis of legitimacy

        African societies did not easily accept the rise of the new nineteenth century slavelord regimes, which had little legitimacy.

        Over much of the Sudanic belt and also in Equatorial Africa, the nineteenth century saw wave after wave of revolt by disaffected elements. In the Sudan the leaders were often Islamic holy men such as Osman dan Fodio or al-Hajj Umar Tal who explained and justified what they were doing as a purification of the faith. In the forest zone to the south more secular slavelords such as Samori Toure also flourished.

      3. Islamic Imperialism

        1. Egypt In the 1820s the government of Egypt launched an attack against its southern neighbors that by century’s end had brought eastern Africa as far south as Kenya, Uganda and northern Congo under Egyptian rule. In the middle of all this Ethiopia fought for its survival, and won. Unlike the nineteenth-century Europeans, the Egyptians did not reject slavery or the slave trade. On the contrary, the army itself was comprised of slaves, while other slaves worked plantations of cotton and indigo, or provided sexual services and performed domestic chores for middle class Egyptian households.

        2. In the 1830s the sultan of Oman moved his capital to Zanzibar and set out to annex east and central Africa between Somalia and the Zambezi River, and inland to Zambia, Malawi, and down the Congo river almost to the west coast. Here again the regime depended heavily upon slave labor for its major cash crop, cloves, and for military and domestic services.

        The two Islamic imperial powers dominated the eastern third of the continent and destroyed much of people’s ability to resist the European conquest that followed after 1885.

    8. THE COLONIAL ERA, 1885 to 1960-1991

      1. A. Periodization

        1. 1885 through WWI

          In 1885 most African societies were independent and self-supporting. By WWI most (Ethiopia and Liberia were exceptions) had been seized by some European power and incorporated into a European empire.

        2. WWI through WWII (with the Great Depression in between)

          During this era, the African colonies of Europe were steered into several different paths of exploitation that turned them into a limited number of fairly different sorts of places.

        3. From 1945 to Independence (1952-1991)

          During this age, “Winds of Change” swept the continent, and each former colony achieved political independence. Sometimes this transition was smooth, but in other cases independence came only after long and bitter struggle. The manner in which independence was achieved significantly influenced the kind of country the former colony became.

        4. Postcolonial Africa

          Since independence, each country has pursued its own destiny, some more successfully than others. The continent as a whole has addressed its own problems and opportunities through transnational organizations such as the Organization of African Unity, at the United Nations, and through a wide variety of regional organizations.

      2. The Era of the “Scramble” (English) or “Steeplechase” (French) for Africa, 1885-WWI.

          What were the preconditions for the Scramble?

          Some were European, others were African.

          1. European

            1. Capitalism: European economies organized on this basis needed to expand. They need not choose Africa as an outlet for their capital, but Africa was the last continent up for grabs.
            2. Competition: There were a number of European capitalist powers. They did not like each other very much, and were in fact taking sides in preparation for WWI. Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Portugal, Spain.
            3. Improvements in technology made European intervention both possible and profitable for the first time:
              • --The machine gun: “Whatever happens, we have got the Gatling Gun, and they have not” (Hillaire Belloc, Punch.)
              • --Improvements in tropical medicine. Quinine prevented malaria, which up to this point had killed 9 out of 11 whites in their first year, and half of the rest over the next five years.
              • --Cheap steam transportation made it possible for the first time for European businesses to profit from importing bulky “legitimate trade” items such as peanuts, copra, palm kernels and oil, cotton, gum Arabic, sisal and rubber. Did you ever hear of PALMOLIVE soap, from Lever Brothers? Think about it.

          2. African

            By 1885, 400 years of intimate integration into the European economic system had sapped the ability of African societies to resist.

            1. The slave trade had put into power pro-European elites who were committed to trade, rather than manufacturing.
            2. The centuries of importing consumer goods from or via Europe had created dependencies that made it difficult to even think of breaking the ties with Europe: consider the very sweet tea that figures very prominently in many North African social relationships today-but which was unknown there in 1850.
            3. By the late 1800s, Africa’s “infant industries” had been crushed through foreign competition.
            4. By the late 1800s, many parts of the continent had fallen into the hands of illegitimate regimes that maintained themselves only by force.

          The Conference of Berlin (1884-1885)

          The major European powers met in Berlin and drew up a set of rules by which they could carve up Africa among themselves without fighting each other. Then they went out and fought WWI anyway, for different reasons.

          Basic colonial policies

          1. The SCRAMBLE divided the continent into a large number of political units, many of them very doubtful.


          2. Each colonial regime subdivided their subjects into groups of people whom they called “tribes.”

          3. For each “tribe,” they appointed someone responsible: this person was commonly called a “chief.”

            Sometimes these colonial groups and leaders had at least something to do with what had existed before the Europeans came. Often, however, they were basically new creations; this was particularly obvious in places such as Mozambique, where many of the colonial “chiefs” were white men from Portugal.

          4. Each colony was expected to be self-supporting. People had to pay for the cost of their own conquest and administration. If there was going to be any fixing-up or improvements, they were going to have to pay for that too.

            By “pay,” I do not mean taking out a credit card or checkbook. Rather, people had to labor; either directly for the whites, or indirectly to produce a “cash crop” that the Europeans were willing to pay for with their own money-which you could then hand back to them as taxes.

      3. The Period Embracing the World Wars: Mature Colonial Systems

        During this period steps were taken that turned each African colony down a path that led to one of a limited number of fairly different destinies.

        1. “Cinderella” Colonies

          The neglected stepsisters of somebody’s empire African colonies were seized initially for STRATEGIC or PRESTIGE reasons. Sometimes these lands found no other reason for existence-or had to wait for many years before their Prince finally arrived

          Here are some: Djibouti-the Sidi Bel Abbas of the 21st century-the base of the French Foreign Legion. Resembles Death Valley, only humid; until a very late and nominal independence, no legitimate African inhabitants were even recognized. Libya (until the discovery of oil on the eve ov independence), Western Sahara, Mauretania (until the discovery of mineral wealth on the eve of independence) Mali, Niger, Chad Gambia Equatorial Guinea (until discovery of oil after independence)

          NOTE: In many cases, such as SOUTH SUDAN, some PART of a colony was governed on a “Cinderella” basis.


          On the one hand “Cinderella” colonies avoided the worst atrocities of the colonial age. They were able to preserve more of their cultural heritage; these are the places where art collectors go, and filmmakers who wish to record dances and ceremonies.

          On the other hand, at independence these lands lacked even the rudiments of infrastructure and the trained personnel necessary to make a modern state function. Therefore even after independence they remained very heavily dependent on money and personnel from the former colonial power, usually France. After a generation of largesse, the French cut back on their levels of support and allowed a greater degree of real freedom-which often led to civil war and domestic chaos.

        2. Small-scale cash crop or peasant colonies

          In some parts of Africa it was possible to grow a crop on one’s family farm that Europeans were willing to buy with their own money.

          The cocoa of Ghana, the peanuts of Senegal, the coffee of Rwanda and Burundi, and the cotton of Uganda provide examples.

          On the whole, this was probably the easiest way to deal with the experience of being colonized. People made some money. The new forms of wealth were fairly widely distributed, so that lots of folks could buy a radio, a bicycle, a metal roof for one’s house, and pay school fees to send the kids to get a western-style education. (At independence, Uganda had the highest percentage of philosophy PhDs of any country anywhere in the world.)

        3. Plantations and Company Rule

          But there are other cash crops that either cannot be grown on family farms at all for technical reasons or which can be produced much more economically if farmed on a large scale-rubber, sisal, bananas, and peanuts and cotton too, in many cases, provide examples.

          Once your colonial masters decided that some plantation crop was what your land was good for, you were in for a very different sort of colonial experience. Liberia, Congo-Kinshasa, the former French Equatorial Africa lands of Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville and Central African Republic, Mozambique provide good examples.

          The colonial power would typically subcontract both agriculture and government to a private corporation set up for the purpose; you would be forced to stop doing whatever you were doing and obliged to go live on a plantation with hordes of strangers from near and far. You would have to learn the colonial language, and much of your own culture would have to be sacrificed in order to survive in a new mixed-up world. You would get some practical training in whatever they wanted you to do, but serious education was out. So was politics.

          Normally, these colonies experienced the most spectacular atrocities of the colonial age, exemplified by the “Red Rubber” regime in King Leopold’s Congo.

        4. Mining Colonies

          In some places the Europeans found valuable minerals that could only be obtained through mining. The moment they did, everything else went on the back burner and that colony was tabbed for mining.

          Namibia and Zambia are archtypical examples, and mining was extremely important in Congo-Kinshasa, Zimbabwe and South Africa too.

          Mining requires very large amounts of poorly-paid labor. Colonial policies in mining colonies were therefore shaped to prevent any sort of gainful employment other than working as a miner. (Cash-crop farming, for example, would be regulated out of existence.) The life-style of miners was de-Africanized to the greatest possible extent, so that what survived was a modern westernized proletariat that greatly resembles your own working class society.

        5. Labor Reservoirs

          The mines (and sometimes, the plantations) required so much labor that whole colonies such as Malawi, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland or Bourkina Faso were designated labor reserves. In very many cases, such as Zambia or the Sudan, all the parts of the colony that did NOT have mines or plantations were designated labor reservoirs for those that DID.

          In these colonies, or parts of colonies, any sort of development that might have allowed people to survive and advance themselves without going to work on the plantations or in the mines was destroyed.

          The colonizers wanted to create as big a labor force as possible; the French used the gross-out expression, “faire des negres,” or “make blacks.” To the extent that these policies worked, they created spectacularly high birth rates, so that lands such as Malawi and Bourkina Faso are today among the most spectacularly overpopulated and impoverished places on earth.

        6. Settler Colonies

          In some places Europeans arrived with the intention of staying there permanently and becoming farmers. That meant occupying land and forcing African people to come labor for them on it.

          South Africa and Algeria, at opposite ends of the continent, are the best examples, but white settlers were also very important in Zimbabwe, Namibia, Kenya, Angola, Eritrea, Libya, and Tanzania.

          In settler colonies big blocks of land were taken for white development and African people were crowded together on packed and overstuffed reservations, of which the notorious Bantustans of South Africa are the best known. The point of the reserve system was, that no family could make a living there-somebody would have to come out and work for the w hites on terms dictated by them. You worked 50 weeks a year for the whites and commuted home 700 miles away to be with your family during your two weeks of vacation-unless you were a miner and got out after a two-year contract (if they had not “lost” your papers in order to keep you without having to pay you).

          In order to make this highly repressive system work, settler colonies required an elaborate bureaucracy of coercion, with compulsory identity cards, myriads of cops to check them, and a gigantic penal system to punish everybody who ran afoul of some rule.

          In order to justify white privilege and black oppression, the settler colonies constructed really nasty racist ideologies, which seem familiar enough to me, as an American southerner from KKK country, but which were not typical of the other types of European colonies in Africa.


      4. After independence, 1950 to the present

        1. Some countries had to fight for their independence. I like to begin with Libya, which fought all the way through the Fascist era. Ethiopia too fought the Fascists.

          Most histories leave these lands out and start after WWII with: Algeria, Kenya, Guinea-Bissau, Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa.

        2. Most African countries were granted political independence peacefully after WWII, as soon as the former colonial power was convinced that there had come into existence a local African elite that would continue the same policies as the colonial power had introduced. The mining colonies are still mining countries; the cash-crop places are still cash-crop places, the labor reservoirs are still labor reservoirs, etc.

        3. In time most of the once-militant lands that fought for independence shifted over to policies similar to those of the second group.

        4. At independence, most governments undertook a policy of ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT.

          Normally, this meant doing MORE of what one was doing ALREADY. (If you grew coffee (Ethiopia), for example, then grow MORE coffee.) The problem with this is called the LAW OF SUPPLY AND DEMAND: The more of anything there is around, the less any given unit of it is worth. Prices for African products sank as their abundance increased.

          Worse, these DEVELOPMENT programs, like any serious business anywhere, had been undertaken with borrowed money, and one had to pay interest on the loans.

          By 1981, Africa was paying out more in loan service than she was bringing in through the sale of all her products-and foreign aid too.

          At that point the INTERNATIONAL MONETARY FUND stepped in, in country after country, to impose CONDITIONALITIES. (This is what happened to New York City under the Abe Beame administration, when the place went bankrupt and Felix Rohatyn of Lazard Freres had to step in with the “Municipal Assistance Corporation” to tell New York exactly how many policemen, firemen, teachers, etc. it would have to fire, and exactly what sorts of policies it would be allowed to follow.) In Africa, many countries today operate under IMF conditionalities, which see to it that the development loans taken out after independence get repaid-regardless of whether there has been any development or not.

        5. African governments have been asked to do things that are very much contrary to the best interests of their people. This is not a situation that brings out the best in people. When times began to grow hard, in many cases the military, the one interest group with guns, took the opportunity to seize power.

          Unfortunately, being a soldier does not necessarily give you any special insight into how to run a country under difficult conditions.

        6. As the popularity and effectiveness of governments eroded, people both inside and outside Africa looked for ways around them.

          Outsiders invented the NGO, the “Non-Governmental Organization,” through which charity and public services could be delivered bypassing African governments.

          The governments increasingly looked out for themselves and their friends, a process outsiders call “corruption.”

        7. With the decline of governments, people have looked to other sources of power and legitimacy. This has been a problem in many places, and sometimes has led to spectacular atrocity (Rwanda, Burundi) or the de facto disintegration of w hole countries (Chad, Somalia, Liberia. Sierra Leone).

        8. AIDS is one of many diseases that is spectacularly deadly to humans precisely because it was not originally a human disease. After decades of international terror that led to many silly theories that blamed the CIA or some other gang of western scientists, it has now been established that the disease is in fact native to the West African chimpanzee. Humans initially contracted the disease by eating infected meat-rather like MAD COW DISEASE-as a consequence of a culinary fad among some West African elites for eating game, or as people say in those parts, “bush meat.”

          Among humans, the disease is most commonly transmitted sexually, and folk who already have some other form of vd are especially vulnerable. As a rule of thumb, the more upset your part of Africa was by the experience of colonial rule, the worse the AIDS epidemic in your neighborhood is likely to be. Cinderella colonies and small-scale cash crop communities are the safest. Southern African lands are the hardest hit, though East Africa was attacked first, and everyone, particularly those connected with modern-sector activities such as mining or truck driving, are vulnerable. (Notice that in the USA, AIDS spread across the country along Interstate 10.)