Exam preparation materials


Beginning in the tenth century, strong centralized states developed in southern and western Africa based on the wealth accumulated from trade. The trend of increased power continued with the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the establishment of powerful kingdoms by the Songhai, and in the kingdoms of Kongo and Angola, among others. While you are not expected to know each of these kingdoms in detail, you should recognize the pattern of state-building and the relationship of Africa to both the Islamic world and the Europeans.

The sub-Saharan empire of Songhai was mentioned briefly in the previous chapter. Like its predecessors, Ghana and Mali, this was an Islamic state with economic ties to the Muslim world through the trans-Saharan trade of salt and gold. Like other empires, this was built on conquests and military force. Sunni Ali (ruled 1464–1493) consolidated his empire in the valley of the Niger River using an imperial navy, established a central administration, and financed the city of Timbuktu as a major Islamic center. And like all great empires, Songhai fell, in this case to Moroccans with muskets, a superior military force.

On the west coast of Africa, the centralized kingdom of Kongo was bolstered by its trade with Portuguese merchants as early as the 1480s. The Europeans established close economic and political relationships with the king, which initially worked to everyone’s advantage. The kings of the Kongo converted to Roman Catholicism, and King Alfonso I was particularly successful at converting his people. Over the long term, Portuguese tactics and the desire for slaves from the interior undermined the authority of the kings of Kongo and the state gradually declined. Eventually, there were outright hostilities and war between the two former allies and the kingdom was mostly destroyed.

South of Kongo, the Portuguese established a small trading post in Ndongo, or Angola, as early as 1575 for the sole purpose of expanding their trade in slaves from the interior. As a result, Angola grew into a powerful state and when the Portuguese attempted to further exert their authority and control, Queen Nzinga fiercely resisted. For 40 years, the warrior queen led her troops in battle, studied European military tactics, and made alliances with Portugal’s Dutch rivals. Despite her efforts, in the end, she could not unify her rivals nor overcome the superior weaponry of the Portuguese.

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