III. The Postclassical Period, 500–1500 > D. Africa, 500–1500 > 3. Historical Trends, 1000–1500
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See Historical Trends, 500–1000)
3. Historical Trends, 1000–1500
Between 1000 and 1500, processes of political, economic, and cultural change moved along the same trajectories as in the earlier period, but at an accelerated pace. This is a period still beyond the reach of all but the most mythical of traditions. Oral traditions, especially those dealing with the origins of kingdoms, often portray the complex processes that led to the formation of larger kingdoms in terms of the heroic actions of the kingdom's founder. Rather than seeing these oral traditions as discrete historical experiences, historians interpret such “foundation traditions” as symbolic templates for examining the general historical processes of transforming small-scale polities into larger kingdoms. Using corroborative historical sources—including archeology, king lists, and written records, including tarikhs, or chronicles—historians date the founding of many African kingdoms to this period.  1
In interpreting the history of this period, Africanists have found it difficult to separate political, economic, and cultural change. Instead, they understand change as mutually reinforcing processes that led to the gradual formation of larger polities, which in turn stimulated increased commercial activities and accelerated cultural change and experimentation. Although the central historical experience on the political level during this period was the gradual process of forming larger states out of clusters of smaller polities, large states or empires remained inherently unstable and prone to periodic dissolution. Oral traditions dealing with this period, as well as the available written records, are biased toward the more stable and enduring polities and their political histories. In contrast, we know relatively little about acephalous societies, although the archaeological excavations at Igbo- Ukwe in southeastern Nigeria demonstrate that complex political organizations may have existed even in societies without rulers. These excavations also point to important patterns of cultural change and social differentiation based on wealth.  2
In the West African savanna, this period witnessed the flowering of the medieval West African empires. Ancient Ghana (See 1076), to be distinguished from the modern nation of Ghana, was formed around the 9th century and reached its apogee at the beginning of the 11th century. The Morocco-based Almoravids sacked Kumbi-Saleh, the sahel capital of Ghana, in 1086, which ushered in the gradual decline of the first West African Empire. The sack of Kumbi-Saleh led to a dispersion of Soninke chiefs, princes, and merchants that stimulated state formation elsewhere in the region.  3
Mali, located in the Mande zone farther south, congealed around a series of micropolities and transformed them into a larger state. The founding of Mali is told in the epic of Sundiata. Using armies of conquest, Mali succeeded Ghana in forming a huge territorial empire, which stretched from Senegambia in the west to the Niger Bend in the east, and from the desert's edge in the north to the forest in the south. Mali's rulers converted to Islam, and Mansa Musa made the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1325. He was accompanied by such a large entourage and carried so much gold that Arab and European geographers began to include Mali on their world maps.  4
By the beginning of the 15th century, Mali was in decline and the Niger Bend state of Songhay was ascendant. By the time of Sonni Ali (r. 1464–92), Songhay had transformed itself from a small riverain polity into a great empire. Due to the existence of two important tarikhs originally written at this time, historians know that Songhay's core military divisions consisted of tightly organized cavalry, infantry, and river-based naval units; territory was governed by appointed military leaders; and bureaucracies managed diplomacy and the massive slave plantations that supplied the court and the standing army with food and materials.  5
The same processes of change represented in the formation and decline of the West African empires played out on a smaller scale throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa during this period, but the details are less available to historians. In the West African forest zone, Yoruba and Edo kingdoms emerged out of compact village communities. In the interlacustrine region of East Africa, five or six larger kingdoms developed out of a cluster of some 200 micropolities. Similar patterns yielded the kingdoms of the BaKongo, Luba, and Lunda of the savannas to the south of the equatorial forest, and they occurred in central Africa, where the Mwene Mutapa Empire transformed smaller Shona chieftancies into a larger territorial unit. In all cases, political consolidation was linked with military exploits, commerce, and culture change.  6
Political power in precolonial Africa was often expressed in terms of control over people and resources. The formation of larger polities in sub-Saharan Africa invariably involved competition. Military force was one, but only one, means of achieving control over people and resources. Alternatively, emergent rulers solidified their control over followers through patronage, often loaning cattle or distributing women to followers. Redistribution of wealth, especially of exotic trade goods, also bound followers to rulers.  7
Military force was a prime means of maintaining control over people and resources. Warfare became a central expression of political and economic power, although communities without formal state organizations also engaged in raiding and warfare. Warfare yielded booty, especially livestock and slaves. Slaves were important elements of most premodern societies, especially in societies where land was abundant in relation to the number of people to cultivate it. Since slaves could easily run away, they did not have much value at the point of capture; slaves' value increased the farther away they were transported. Thus warfare was inextricably linked to long-distance trade.  8
This period witnessed the development of important long-distance trade systems that linked sub-Saharan Africa with the Indian Ocean and with North Africa and the Middle East. Slaves, as a by-product of the consolidation of African polities, fed the growing demand for soldiers, for loyal government officials, for concubines, and for agricultural labor in the Muslim empires of North Africa and the Middle East. The trans-Saharan, Nile Valley, and Red Sea slave trades carried approximately 1 million slaves each century, from the 9th to the late 19th century.  9
Long-distance traders were also interested in African gold—which became the principal gold supply for the commercial world of the Mediterranean—as well as in exotic feathers, skins, and incense. Because long-distance trade deals primarily in low-weight, high-value items, it tends to cater to wealthy consumers. African consumers in the intercontinental market were interested in exotic luxuries, such as glass beads, fine ceramics, luxury textiles, paper, and books (especially copies of the Qur‘an), as well as mineral salt, horses, and weapons.  10
Long-distance traders needed to resolve several important technical impediments to cross-cultural trade, including the lack of a common language, adjudication in disputes, and reliable market information. To solve these problems, traders developed a network of linked yet dispersed communities known as diasporas. Long-distance trade depended on—and stimulated—local and regional trade. Trade was ubiquitous throughout sub-Saharan Africa, stimulated by specialized economic activities. Economic specialization grew out of adaptation to specialized environments, such as through herding or fishing, and out of specialized knowledge, such as smelting, weaving, or ceramics. Long-distance trade was one form of specialized economic activity, which flowed from the demand for commodities not locally available. The list of imported luxuries illuminates the close links between long-distance trade, political change, and cultural change. Most of the goods imported by long-distance traders catered to wealthy consumers and served military or patronage needs. Control over trade was a central part of maintaining political power, and it created needs that required continued participation in long-distance trade.  11
The traders best able to resolve the technical impediments to cross-cultural trade were those who shared a sense of belonging to supranational communities. In sub-Saharan Africa, most long-distance traders who plied the intercontinental trade routes were Muslims. In their diaspora settlements, Muslim merchants settled with clerics and created Muslim communities. African rulers, particularly those involved in the trans-Saharan, Red Sea, and Indian Ocean trades, saw in Islam a means of participating in a different moral and political community. The conversion of African rulers to Islam is indicative of the complex cultural changes that swept the continent during this period. Conversion must also be understood as part of a political calculus, in which some African rulers sought to consolidate their own power at the expense of traditional religious authorities. These were some of the reasons that, in 1492 or 1493, Muhammad Rumfa, ruler of the Hausa city-state of Kano, invited the Saharan cleric al-Maghili to instruct him in the arts of Islamic statecraft.  12
Although the historical evidence on social change is not very reliable for this period, some trends that became clearer over the period 1500–1800 certainly had their roots in this period. Increasing social differentiation by wealth and rank occurred simultaneously with increased trade and political consolidation. There were no sumptuary laws to distinguish noble from commoner, although such distinctions must have been fairly obvious. Nobles and the wealthy simply had more possessions than common folk: more wives, more children, more grain, more cattle, more slaves and dependents, bigger houses, and so on. Warrior aristocracies also emerged during this period to serve the political needs of larger polities and to provide slaves for the intercontinental trade. Increased trade between African groups and increased warfare heightened a sense of ethnic separateness, and led to the articulation of bounded ethnic identities. These trends became more pronounced in the period 1500–1800, which coincided with Africa's increased participation in the international slave trade. (See Overview)  13
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.