Africa provides a comprehensive and contiguous timeline of human development going back at least 7 million years. Africa, which developed the world’s oldest human civilization, gave humanity the use of fire a million and a half to two million years ago. It is the home of the first tools, astronomy, jewellery, fishing, mathematics, crops, art, use of pigments, cutting and other pointed instruments and animal domestication. In short, Africa gave the world human civilization.
That said, there were plenty of African kingdoms and empires spread out across the continent, too; regional and political powerhouses much like those that fill our history books today. Ancient Egypt is perhaps the most famous of all, but the hubbub around it sorely overlooks other impressive civilizations and the effects they had on the continent. Let’s take a look at some of Africa’s most notable empires and civilisations.
The Benin Empire
Where? Nigeria.When? circa 1180 CE – 1897 CE
Found in modern-day Nigeria, the Benin Empire was considered one of the oldest and most developed states in West Africa until its annexation by the British Empire. Famous artisans crafted masterpieces from ivory, bronze and iron. The Benin Empire had a strong trading relationship with the Portuguese, exchanging palm oil, pepper, and ivory for Manilla (a form of currency used in West Africa) and firearms. The relationship even saw an ambassador visit Lisbon in the 16th century. Britain’s first expedition to Benin occurred in 1553 and a mutually beneficial trading relationship existed throughout the 16th and 17th centuries until Benin suspected Britain of making controlling advancements. Dutch, British and Portuguese explorers brought numerous tales back to Europe of the beauty, wealth and sophistication of Benin.
The Kingdom of Kongo
Where? Spread across parts of what is now Angola, DRC, Republic of the Congo, and Gabon
When? circa 1390 CE – 1914 CE
Before European powers divided the African continent during the Scramble for Africa, the modern-day countries of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo both formed part of the Kingdom of Kongo. Although the kingdom’s precise boundaries are uncertain today, this empire did eventually stretch into both modern-day Congos and Angola under the leadership of a Kikongo warrior, Luken Lua Nimi, whose military and political prowess dominated central Africa for centuries. Congolese society was a quasi-feudal one and its economy was fueled by trade routes following rivers in the region and dealing in textiles, pottery, copper, and ivory.
The Kingdom of Mutapa
Where? Spread across parts of what is now Lesotho, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe
When? circa 1430 CE – 1760 CE
The Mutapa Empire encompassed a truly staggering portion of Southern Africa, from the Limpopo and Zambezi Rivers to the Indian Ocean coastline. Its territory was so large that if it were around today, it would stretch across parts of six Southern African nations. Legend has it, a warrior prince from the Kingdom of Zimbabwe established the Kingdom of Mutapa. Within a generation, Mutapa eclipsed the glory that was Great Zimbabwe and its surrounds. The Portuguese unwittingly became middlemen between India and the Mutapa’s smaller kingdoms in their bid to control trade in the region (which was also fueled by rumours that the biblical mines of King Solomon were held by the ruler of Mutapa). The Kingdom of Mutapa wielded such power, they acquired a subsidy from every captain who took office in Portuguese Mozambique and they imposed a 50% tax levy on all trade goods imported. Sadly, the kingdom’s decline began in the early 17th century due to factional in-fighting which gave the Portuguese an opportunity to make Mutapa a vassal state.
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