Africa by 1500

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This sub-section describes the socio-economic and political structures in Africa before 1500 with specific focus on different kingdoms, trade systems and iron-age communities.

The Iron Age

Africa before the Iron Age

Before the beginning of the Iron Age in sub-Saharan Africa, the earliest indigenous people, the San, were nomadic and survived by hunting and gathering. This meant that the population was small. Many scientists think they preferred the lives of nomads because there was so much food and other resources and because their low numbers protected them from invasion and migrations. The Khoi people were herders, that is, they kept animals, but they also did some hunting. The earliest African people who farmed with both animals and planting crops were the Bantu-speaking people. They were the first Africans to discover and process iron, so we call them the Iron Age people. Let us first look and see what the Iron Age is.

Tools in the Stone Age

Bronze Age tools

Picture A: Tools in the Stone Age (left) were made from stone that had been chipped into useful shapes like arrow or spear heads, or knives. Bronze Age tools (right) were smelted, like steel, but were not as strong.) (Sources: (Sources:

What was the Iron Age?

The Iron Age is the last period in a three-age archaeological system. The Stone Age and Bronze Age occurred before the Iron Age and are named after the materials that were used to make tools and implements. Iron replaced bronze at different times in different cultures.

Iron technology had spread to the corners of the classical world by about 500 BC, but in sub-Saharan Africa people developed metallurgy much earlier. The Iron Age in Africa dawned around the 6th century BC in places like Ethiopia, the Great Lakes region, Tanzania and Nigeria. East African people produced steel in carbon furnaces by 1 400 BC. Steel was a much later development and was only invented in the 18th century in the West.

Picture B: The inside of a late Iron Age furnace from Gabon and an iron age furnace from South Africa. (Sources: (Sources:

The use of iron resulted in many technological advances like furnaces to heat the metal to high temperatures and smelting equipment, as well as weapons and other tools. Pots and dishes were also made of metal and sometimes caused lead poisoning, while metal swords and body armour, as well as better catapults, made for stronger armies. Mining also developed rapidly and pumps were developed to keep mines from flooding.

Picture C: Some Iron Age tools found in southern Africa. (Source:

The technology of the Iron Age spread very slowly across Africa and only occurred over the entire continent by the 1st century AD.

How did the Iron Age spread through Africa?

The Iron Age and its technology was carried throughout Africa by the Bantu speaking people and their migrations.

Bantu-speaking people travelled from the north and central parts of Africa in the last 100 years BC and kept migrating for the next 1 000 years. Their language mixed with the languages of groups they met along the way, which is why so many African people are Bantu-speaking. They moved east and south and eventually established great kingdoms like Great Zimbabwe and Mapungubwe. They taught other groups iron-smelting and agriculture, which helped develop communities.


Hunting and farming

Picture D: In southern Africa, especially Botswana, the ancestors of the Khoi and San people still make a living through hunting and gathering. Usually the men hunt while the women collect roots and plants to supplement their diet. (Source:

Farming began when people started domesticating animals and plants instead of hunting and gathering. Agriculture allowed people to settle down in communities and villages, which led later to the development of towns, cities, cultures and civilisations. People in sub-Saharan Africa became less nomadic, which made their societies more complex.

Picture E: Cattle was used for meat, milk, leather and as trade goods. (Source:

Because people now lived in settled groups their societies became more organised. They had to develop special skills needed by their community and became more specialised. Administration, economy, trade and politics were born. Sometimes one group would produce too much of a product, like maize, and would trade with another group for other things they wanted or needed. Without farming there would be no trade.

Picture F: Pottery develope to make containers to store and transport food such as maize and oil. (Source:

Other technologies also developed because of farming, like pottery to make containers to store food. Iron was used to make implements, and the need to keep track of trade and production resulted in literacy and numeracy as people had to be able to count and write. Communication and transport also grew and the population increased.

Activity 1

Ӣ Write a page on the Iron Age and how it spread through Africa.

Ӣ What are the differences between the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages?

Ӣ Why is steel so important to civilisation? What do we use it for today?

”¢ Why is the term “Bantu” controversial in South Africa and what does it actually refer to?


Outcomes: Learners are able to use skills and knowledge to construct knowledge in the form of an historical argument and communicate it through writing. Demonstrate an understanding of concepts relevant to the area of investigation and recognise that relations of power operate within societies.


Great Zimbabwe

Map A: Great Zimbabwe ruins are located between the Limpopo and Zambezi Rivers and are the only traces of an Iron Age civilizationthat grew in the area between 500 between 1600 AD. (Source:

Great Zimbabwe is one of the truly lost civilisations of the world because nobody knows how it was built, how it was organised or what caused its decline in the 1600's. This is because there is no written or oral history about the people of Great Zimbabwe. The only source of information available about this ancient culture is the Great Zimbabwe ruins. It is an Iron Age site situated in the Kalahari Desert between the Limpopo and Zambezi Rivers.

Around 400 AD the first people moved into the area and in about 500 AD the Bantu-speaking ancestors of the Shona people arrived. They began building parts of the great stone walls during the 1100's. Zimbabwe is the Shona word for “house of rock or stone” or “venerated house” and is associated with rulership.

The first reports of the Great Zimbabwe ruins filtered into the coastal trading ports of Mozambique in the 16th century. João de Barros, a Portuguese traveller, wrote about “a square fortress, masonry within and without, built of stones of marvellous size, and there appears to be no mortar joining them", in his book Da Asia, which was published in 1552. It was the most complete record of the Portuguese conquests and although he never saw the city himself he believed they had found the fabled capital of the Queen of Sheba, Axuma.

Picture A: The Christian Bible relates that the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon and brought him gifts of ivory, baskets and great quantities of gold. (Source:

Other Portuguese record keepers of that period linked the fabled city with the region's gold trade and thought it must be the biblical Ophir, where the Queen of Sheba found gold for the Temple of King Solomon. On 5 September 1871 a young German named Carl Mauch discovered what he believed to be the ruins of Ophir. He had started his search in August 1871 and had been helped by a lone German trader, who told him of "quite large ruins which could never have been built by blacks" , and local Karanga tribesmen led him to the site.

Map B: There is a great deal of debate regarding the exitence of the Christian king Prester John. Some believe that his kingdom was in Africa, as indicated on this map. (Source:

During the 1870s, European travellers and British colonisers were amazed at the grand scale and clever workmanship of the city and felt that the architecture could not be local. They thought it been brought to the area by foreign powers. They didn’t believe that African “savages” could have built such a structure and speculated that the ruins were the work of Egyptians, Phoenicians, or even Prester John, the legendary Christian king of lands beyond the Islamic empire. British archaeologists David Randall-MacIver and Gertrude Caton-Thompson confirmed the site's age and African origin during the early twentieth century. Read more about Prester John.

What did the city look like?

Picture B: An aerial picture of the elliptical Great Enclosure that  forms part of the Great Zimbabwe ruins. (Source:

The construction of Great Zimbabwe began in the 1100's and continued for more than 300 years. It is different from similar sites in the area because of its size as it is the largest ancient structure south of the Sahara Desert. It is situated in the east of the Kalahari Desert about 17 km from Masvingo in Zimbabwe.

Picture C: The Great Enclosure at Great ZimbabwePhotographs © George P. Landow. (Source:

The city is surrounded by great open plains used for grazing and farming, which made it possible for the inhabitants to support themselves. It wasn't built on the banks of a river and seems to lie in the middle of nowhere, but the kingdom eventually covered more than 100 square miles. Some archaeologists believe that it was buillt on a gold mine and that the city was mainly used as a religious centre with the ancient Shona religion making the greatest contribution. It may have been a place where Mwari, the supreme Shona god, creator and sustainer of life, was worshipped and where cults of the mhondoro (spirits of the ruling dynasty) flourished.

Great Zimbabwe's most famous works of art are the eight birds carved of soapstone that were found in its ruins. The birds sit on top of columns that are more than a metre tall and are, on average, 40 centimetres in height. The sculptures combine human and bird elements with human features like lips for a beak and five-toed feet instead of claws. The statues were excavated in about 1900, but it is difficult to say exactly where they were found and how they were positioned as there are no written records. Some scholars suggest that the birds were emblems of royal authority, and may even have represented the ancestors of Great Zimbabwe's rulers. Although their precise significance is still unknown, these sculptures are powerful symbols of rulership in the modern era, and are used on Zimbabwean national flag.

Picture D: A soapstone sculpture of a bird found at the ruins. They are also used on the national flag of Zimbabwe as a national symbol. (Sources: (Sources:

The ruins stretch over an area of 7 square kilometres in south-eastern Zimbabwe and include an elliptical building that is the most impressive and marvellous of the stone remains. The outer wall of the building is nearly 10 metres high and up to 5 metres thick in parts. It is over 243 metres long and and has a circumference with a maximum diameter of around 90 metres. The inside of this building was probably used by the king or ruler to melt gold in smelters.

Picture E: The conical tower inside the Great Enclosure is about 10 metres tall. (Source:

Inside the outer wall there is a solid conical tower that is about 10 metres high and 4 metres wide around its base. It tapers to the top and is built from granite blocks. It also rests directly on the ground and has no room beneath it. It seems to have been used for religious purposes and not as a burial mound, as initially thought. Two high walls form a 55 metre passage that runs parallel to the outer wall and allows access to the Tower.

Picture F: The narrow passage that leads to the conical tower. (Source:

The huge stone buildings are very straight and uniform and their construction was very well planned . The stones in the major walls are perfectly fitted to each other and no mortar was used. The only openings in the wall are for the entrance and several drainage ditches.

Who lived at Great Zimbabwe?

Like Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe had a ruling elite, which appear to have controlled wealth through the management of cattle, which were the staple diet at Great Zimbabwe. At its height, Great Zimbabwe could have had a population of between 10 000 and 20 000 people. The majority of them lived some distance from the main stone buildings and only 200 to 300 members of the elite classes lived inside Great Zimbabwe's massive walls. The city was the centre of society and politics in the region as royalty and their advisors lived there.

Archaeologists think the walls could have been a symbolic show of authority instead of a fortress or cattle kraal. They may have been designed to preserve the privacy of royal families and to keep them apart from, and above, the commoners. The walls are built around huts made of daga, with some huts actually adjoining it, and is linked with them to form a series of courtyards. Daga was also used to form raised and painted seats in some courtyards. Since Great Zimbabwe's daga elements eroded a long time ago, the remaining stone walls can only give us a partial idea of the original architecture.

Great Zimbabwe disappeared in the 1600s and, as with Mapungubwe, there are different theories regarding the reasons for decline. Some scholars say that it happened as a result of a combination of changes in the environment and a decline in the gold trade. It could also be that the gold resources, water and usable land in the area were depleted, or that the trade and industry in the area was disrupted by the Portuguese.


It is very difficult to say how the people of Great Zimbabwe lived because there are no records of their society other than the ruins of the city, but we do know that the area was very rich in gold and that residents traded on the Limpopo River. This is proven by traces of Chinese pottery and stoneware from the Ming Dynasty, which lasted from 1368 to 1644, that have been found at the ruins. A glazed Persian bowl from the 13th or 14th century was also discovered, and some Near Eastern engraved and painted glass. A coin from Kilwa, inscribed with Arabic, also prove that Great Zimbabwe traded with the East.

Picture G: Archaeologists found a small coin from Kilwa at the ruins. It was inscribed with the name of al-Hasan bin Sulaiman, the Sultan of Kilwa from 1320 to 1333. Source:

There has been speculation that Great Zimbabwe came into being as a result of the excessive wealth cerated by the East African gold trade. Evidence of imported cloth, glass beads and ceramics have been found there and seem to indicate that Great Zimbabwe was probably in direct contact with the trading cities of the East African Coast for exporting gold. There was a sudden increase in building activity there at the time, just as there was in the cities on the East African Coast. Some believe that the decline of Great Zimbabwe during the 15th century was directly related to the decline of coastal cities. The residents of Great Zimbabwe farmed to provide food and other basic resources for themselves, but were mainly a trading civilization.



Ӣ Why is there so little information available about the residents of Great Zimbabwe and how do we find out how they lived?

Ӣ What other cities were Great Zimbabwe mistaken for?

Ӣ Who was the Queen of Sheba and how do we have proof of her existence? Is it a credible source?

Ӣ Find an open space outside and measure out the size of the Great Enclosure at Great Zimbabwe.

Ӣ Why do you think European travellers and colonisers did not believe that Great Zimbabwe could have been built by local people?

Ӣ What was Great Zimbabwe's society like?

Ӣ Write an essay about the people who lived at Great Zimbabwe.

Ӣ What proof do we have that Great Zimbabwe traded, and who their trading partners were?

Ӣ Why did the Great Zimbabwe kingdom decline?

Ӣ List some of the objects found at Great Zimbabwe and how they are still relevant today.


Outcomes: Learners are able to use skills and knowledge to construct knowledge in the form of an historical argument and communicate it through writing and in practice. Demonstrate an understanding of concepts relevant to the area of investigation and recognise that relations of power operate within societies. Identify perspectives and points of view in historical sources of information.

Engage critically with issues of heritage and public representations of the past and the conservation of heritage.



Trading Across the Ocean

Map A: Indian Ocean trade routes linked the Far East with the Middle East and East Africa about 1200 AD.(Source:

Indian Ocean trade began in about 800 AD and came to an end in the 1500s when the Portuguese began using the sea routes and tried to control the trade network for its own benefit.

Picture A: Cowrie shells were traded to be used as jewelry or as for exchange purposes of coins. (Source:

As trade between East Africa and Asia grew powerful city-states developed along the African coast. These included the Swahili cities of Kilwa and Sofala. Initially there was only trade between the Swahili and Arab people, but soon the brisk trade in cowry shells, cloth, beads for gold, rhinoceros horns, iron and ivory spread inland. It was through Arab traders that Islam was introduced to the area. The route also contributed to the development of Swahili language and culture.This trade network was not limited to the East African coast, but also played a role in the growth of new political and cultural kingdoms on Madagascar.

The kingdoms of Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe were affected by Indian Ocean trade and based their economies on selling and buying goods on the Limpopo River. The coastal Swahili cities traded with inland kingdoms like Great Zimbabwe to get gold, ivory, and iron, which they sold in India, Southeast Asia, and China. These items were rare in Asian countries and could be sold at a profit while the East African cities bought cotton, silk and porcelain from the East at high prices.

The city-states on the African east coast were ideal for trade because they had access to gold from the interior and were easy to reach by sea from Asia because of favourable ocean currents and winds. Their harbours were large and well-run and merchants could enjoy a comfortable rest in cities with accomodation and entertainment. East Africa was also peaceful with very few conflicts that could disrupt the trade industry.


Many merchants from Arabia, India and Southeast Asia decided to live in East Africa, and married local inhabitants. Their cultures and the local communities' cultures mixed and a new ethnic group called the Swahili developed.

Picture B: Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer, was ordered to find a trade route linking Portugal and India by sailing around the southern tip of Africa. He succeeded and also discovered the Swahili city-states on the East African coast. (Source:

The Swahili cities grew rich and played a major role in world economy in the 1400's even though Euope didn't know about them. This meant that Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama was in for a great surprise when he discovered Sofala and Kilwa in 1498. He was welcomed where he stopped, but his ships and trade goods from Europe didn't really interest the Swahili people.

Map B: The route Da Gama took became known as the Spice Route and linked Europe to Asia by sea for the first time. (Source:

Da Gama was on a mission from his government to find a trade route linking Portugal to India by sailing around the southern tip of Africa. This route was necessary because European countries had been buying Asian products imported by land routes, which were becoming dangerous and expensive. He was successful and reported to his king on trade in East Africa. The Portuguese government was immediately interested in the Swahili states and sent ships to gain control of Indian Ocean trade. The African states had no armies and couldn't defend themselves when the Portuguese attacked.

How do we know?

How is it possible to know so much about Indian Ocean trade if the Portuguese destroyed the Swahili cities? Archaeologists have found Chinese porcelain at Great Zimbabwe. This is evidence of trade with the East through the Swahili merchants tavelling up the Limpopo River.

Another source of information are the written records of people who lived at the time and explored these regions, like Ibn Batuta. Ivory carvings from the east coast of Africa were also found at Mapungubwe, and in his writings Ibn Batuta confirmed that the people of Great Zimbabwe traded gold dust with a Swahili community in Sofala. Vasco da Gama and other Europeans who visited the area kept records of the cities and their destruction. The trade documents kept by Asian and African companies and governments also provide a record of sales and purchases.


Ӣ Indicate the Indian Ocean trade routes on Map A.

Ӣ What effect did Indian Ocean trade have on the coast of East Africa?

Ӣ What goods were traded along this route, and why?

Ӣ How did the Swahili culture develop?

Ӣ Who did the Swahili trade with and how can we prove this? What did they trade?

Ӣ How did Europe find out about the trade city-states of East Africa?

Ӣ Who is the man in Picture B and why was he sailing along the East African coast?

Ӣ What was the result of his discoveries?

Ӣ How do we know what happened to the Swahili civilization if all its cities were destroyed?

Ӣ What were the benefits of the new spice route for the world?


Outcomes: Learners are able to demonstrate an understanding of concepts relevant to the area of investigation and recognise that relations of power operate within societies. Learners are able to identify perspectives and points of view in historical sources of information. Learners can engage critically with issues of heritage and public representations of the past and the conservation of heritage.



Trading through the Desert

Map A: Western Sudan was situated between the Sahara Desert in the north and the tropical rain forests of the Guinea coast to the south and did not cover the same area as Sudan today. The area is made up of savannah veld. Source:

Map B: This map clearly shows the part of Africa covered by the Sahara Desert. A part of Sudan falls inside the desert, but a part of it is covered by grassland, with rainforests to the south. (Source: old_sahara.htm)

Muslim Arab travellers, geographers and historians were the first to record the history of Sudan and its medieval kingdoms. Medieval times, or the Middle Ages, stretched from about 900 AD to 1400 AD. The only clues about the area before their arrival are archaeological and don't tell much about the people of bilad-al-sudan or “Land of the Blacks”, as the Arabs named the region.

Map C: This is an ancient map of the Sahara Desert showing its residents. (Source:

The 3 empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai controlled western Sudan during this time. They didn't have geographical borders or specific ethnic or national identities. The kingdoms had political and economic capitals like Ghana's Kumbi Saleh and Songhai's Gao, but they weren't permanent and have been described as “floating” capitals that moved from one city to another or travelled along with their rulers. These kingdoms had strong leaders and family-based societies and all competed to control trade routes, but their growth was restricted by the Sahara Desert.

Trans-Saharan Trade

Map C: Trans-Saharan trade routes were well established. (Source:

The Trans-Saharan trade and networks existed before the arrival of Arabs and Berbers in the 7th century, but their presence expanded and strengthened this commercial industry, and made the kingdoms of western Sudan possible. The natural environment of savannah grasslands would have been ideal for farming with livestock and plants, and also well placed for trade. It is likely that the area was a trade centre before the 3rd and 4th centuries, when camels arrived for the first time from North Africa. Gold and slaves were mainly traded for salt on these routes, but many other goods were also imported and exported. Before European merchants and sailors opened up the Atlantic Ocean the West African trade trade industry focused northwards.

The city of Timbuktu

Trade routes were well established and also promoted the development of learning centres like Timbuktu in modern Mali, and encouraged the spread of Islam. Scholars from the Middle East and Rome, like the philosopher and scientist who travelled from Baghdad, Al Masu'di, came to study in the city. Timbuktu has ensured that many ancient documents have been preserved, which allows for the study of the societies of this era.

Picture A: Timbuktu is situated in modern day Mali. The buildings are made of mud and have some have survived for hundreds of years. Sources: and

Many western scholars say that Africans from the Middle Ages were uncultured and warlike and that all the knowledge they had came from the west through colonisation. The existence of Timbuktu proves them wrong. Timbuktu developed into a centre of study long before the inhabitants of the area knew about the western world and students who went there were taught medicine, astronomy, philosophy and mathematics. All the relevant records have been preserved and are still available today to prove that west Africa was well-developed before the arrival of Europeans.

Timbuktu was at its peak from 1493 to 1591 when it was ruled by the Askia dynasty of the Kingdom of Songhai. Students flocked there from a wide area and 3 great mosques were built using techniques that are still used today.

Towards the end of the 1500s Timbuktu collapsed because of internal and external reasons. Most of the Songhai empire was defeated by a Moroccan attack in 1591, which marked the end of the region's trade. Ocean trade routes were established by the Europeans and Timbuktu was attacked by different nations until 1893, when the French took the city.

Gold, salt and slaves

Picture B: Gold disks from Ghana. (Source:

Gold was so abundant in West Africa that it wasn't considered very valuable. The precious metal was popular among African rulers and merchants travelling to Cairo, Egypt, in North Africa, Europe and the Roman Empire. It was used to trade for salt essential for survival south of the Sahara. Salt, a preservative and dietary supplement to retain water in the human body, was important in the dry environment of the desert.

Picture C: Salt was important to the people of western Sudan because it helped preserve food. (Source:

The kingdoms of western Sudan lay between the gold producing areas and Saharan salt mines, which allowed them to become enormously rich by taxing imports and exports. The region was known for its fine cloth, which was mostly traded to Cairo. Conditions in the Sahara Desert were extremely harsh and made trading incredibly difficult, but a stretch of land was available to merchants to make North Africa attainable.

After the Americas were discovered in the 16th century many European people settled there. The colonisers farmed with cotton and tobacco and needed cheap and secure labour. West Africa became their main source for slaves. European slave traders did not introduce the concept of slavery to West Africa as Arabs had familiarised the population with slavery. Trans-Saharan trade now shifted to become trans-Atlantic trade with slaves as the main product instead of gold. These changes came about after the West African kingdoms had collapsed.

How do we know what really happened?

How is it possible for us to know what really happened to the Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali and Songhai? This period in African history was recorded by Arab travellers, traders and scholars who visited these kingdoms and wrote about the mighty empires and cities they saw, like Timbuktu and Jenne. African storytellers, or jalis, still tell the legends of ancient kings and battles in their tales. Archaeologists provide evidence from ancient sites that inform on dates.

It is important to remember that the accounts of the people who lived in those time were influenced by their own cultures and religions. This gives an idea of how they thought, what society and education was like, and how the world looked.



Indicate the location of the western Sudan by using Maps A and B.

Why do we have so little information about the area before the arrival of Arab traders?

When did these traders arrive in the area and why?

Which 3 kingdoms thrived in this area and how were they ruled?

Which industry allowed these kingdoms to grow as they did?

What were the main goods traded along the Trans-Saharan trade routes and why were they important to the people who bought and sold them?

Which animals were used in the trade industry the most? Why were they so important?

Why would traders travel through and area as harsh as the Sahara desert?

Write a short essay about Timbuktu. Does South Africa have centres of learning that compare to it?

What does the presence of a city like Timbuktu tell us about Africa before the arrival of Europeans?


Outcomes: Learners are able to use skills and knowledge to construct knowledge in the form of an historical argument and communicate it through writing. Learners are able to demonstrate an understanding of concepts relevant to the area of investigation and recognise that relations of power operate within societies. Learners are able to raise questions about the past and extract and organise evidence from a variety of historical sources of information. Learners are able to engage critically with issues of heritage and public representations of the past and the conservation of heritage.




The Kingdom of Ghana

Map A: The Kingdom of Ghana was situated south of the Sahara Desert and was the earliest African empire in this area. (Source:

The Kingdom of Ghana, also known as Wagadu or Wagadugu, was the earliest known empire of western Sudan and was founded by a king of the Soninke people. Europeans and Arabs mistakenly named it Ghana, which means “ruler”. The first historical records of this nation are from the end of the 8th century, but it probably came into being long before that. Oral records maintain that it emerged by the 7th century and had over 144 kings. Modern day Ghana has no historical connection to the medieval kingdom.


Picture A: Kumbi Saleh may have been the capital of the Kingdom of Ghana, although it is possible that the capital moved along with the king. (Source:

The rulership of Ghana was matrilineal, which means that the sister of the king gave birth to the new ruler. The bloodline of the royal family was continued through its women. The king did not rule his state alone, but was helped by a People's Council whose members came from all levels of society. This type of social organisation shows that Ghana's political system was well develped because it included citizens and didn't rely on the guidance of a single person.

Economy and industry

This kingdom had a very advanced system of administration and taxation because traders had to travel through its lands to carry goods like gold and salt to and from North Africa to the southern parts of West Africa. The state's economy was dynamic and helped to expand the kingdom into an empire.

It also had large armies and defeated smaller states around it who had to pay tribute and taxes to its rulers. Although Ghana received great riches from its subordinates, it did not rely on them for its economic growth. Instead it developed agriculture, iron smelting, stonemasonry, carpentry, pottery, cloth manufacturing and goldsmithing. The products they produced were traded along the Trans-Saharan trade routes from western Africa to Egypt and the Middle East in the north. They usually exchanged their goods for gold, salt, copper and sold war captives as slaves.

Picture B: The people of Ghana worked with gold and traded their goods towards the north. This bracelet and gold weights are examples of their work.(Sources: (Sources:

Even though there are written records of Ghana, like in the “Book of Routes and Kingdoms” by 11th century geographer Abu cUbayd al-Bakri, the kingdom is still a mystery. North Africans call it the “Land of Gold” because gold was plentiful in the area, but the locations of its gold mines were kept secret to maintain control over them.

Religion and decline

Picture C: The Almoravid were Muslims from northern Africa who conquered the Kingdom of Ghana. They were highly educated and even played chess. (Source:

Although the people of Ghana protected their good relations with Muslim traders, allowed Muslims to live in its cities, and even encouraged Muslim advisers to help the royal court with its administration of legal issues, the kingdom never converted to Islam. The Muslim religion had been the main faith in northern Africa since the 8th century and Ghana's northern neighbours were dedicated believers. These Muslims called themselves the Almoravids and in 1076, in the 11th century, they declared a holy war, or “jihad”, against Ghana under the leadership of Abdullah ibn Yasin.

The kingdom of Ghana was destroyed and many of its people converted to Islam. After this the once powerful state lost its military and commercial power. From 1180 to 1230 the southern parts of what used to be Ghana was controlled by the Soso people, who were anti-Muslim, but the empire of Ghana had come to an end.



Ӣ Indicate the location of the Kingdom of Ghana on Map A.

Ӣ What countries exist in that region today?

Ӣ What other names are used for this kingdom? Why did it have more than one name? Name a place in South Africa that is called different names by different groups of people.

”¢ What is a “jihad”? Why, and by whom, was a jihad declared against the Kingdom of Ghana? Where in the wold, today, has jihad been declared and why?

”¢ What does “matrilineal” mean? Find an example of a modern society in Africa that is organised in the same way.

Ӣ How did the rulership of Ghana work and what did this say about its political development?

Ӣ Write an essay about economy and industry in the Kingdom of Ghana. Note why the empire became so rich and what its main commercial activities were.

Ӣ What religion did most of the people in Ghana subscribe to? What influence did this have on its eventual decline?


Outcomes: Learners are able to use skills and knowledge to construct knowledge in the form of an historical argument and communicate it through writing. Learners are able to demonstrate an understanding of concepts relevant to the area of investigation and recognise that relations of power operate within societies. Learners are able to raise questions about the past and extract and organise evidence from a variety of historical sources of information. Learners are able to engage critically with issues of heritage and public representations of the past and the conservation of heritage.




Ghana as described by Abu cUbayd al-Bakri

The city of Ghana consists of two towns situated on a plain. One of these towns, which is inhabited by Muslims, is large and possesses twelve mosques, in which they assemble for the Friday prayer. There are salaried imams and muezzins, as well as jurists and scholars. In the environs are wells with sweet water, from which they drink and with which they grow vegetables. The king’s town is six miles distant from this one”¦.

Between these two towns are continuous habitations. ”¦In the king’s town, and not far from his court of justice, is a mosque where the Muslims who arrive at his court pray. Around the king’s town are domed buildings and groves and thickets where the sorcerers of these people, men in charge of the religious cult, live. In them too are their idols and the tombs of their kings. These woods are guarded and none may enter them and know what is there”¦.

The king’s interpreters, the official in charge of his treasury and the majority of his ministers are Muslims. Among the people who follow the king’s religion only he and his heir apparent (who is the son of his sister) may wear sewn clothes. All other people wear robes of cotton, silk, or brocade, according o their means. All of them shave their beards, and women shave their heads. The king adorns himself like a woman (wearing necklaces) round his neck and (bracelets) on his forearms, and he puts on a high cap decorated with gold and wrapped in a turban of fine cotton. He sits in audience or to hear grievances against officials in a domed pavilion around which stand ten horses covered with gold-embroidered materials.

Behind the king stand ten pages holding shields and swords decorated with gold, and on his right are the sons of the (vassal) kings of his country wearing splendid garments and their hair plaited with gold. The governor of the city sits on the ground before the king and around him are ministers seated likewise. At the door of the pavilion are dogs of excellent pedigree who hardly ever leave the place where the king is, guarding him. Round their necks they wear collars of gold and silver studded with a number of balls of the same metals. The audience is announced by the beating of a drum which they call duba made from a long hollow log. When the people who profess the same religion as the king approach him they fall on their knees and sprinkle dust on their head, for this is their way of greeting him. As for the Muslims, they greet him only by clapping their hands”¦.

Their religion is paganism and the worship of idols”¦.

On every donkey-load of salt when it is brought into the country their king levies one golden dinar and two dinars when it is sent out. ”¦ The best gold is found in his land comes from the town of Ghiyaru, which is eighteen days’ traveling distance from the king’s town over a country inhabited by tribes of the Sudan whose dwellings are continuous”¦ The king of Ghanam when he calls up his army, can put 200,000 men into the field, more than 40,000 of them archers.

Please use this as a resource:

The Kingdom of Mali

Map A: The Kingdom of Mali rose from the ashes of the Kingdom of Ghana and became the richest and most powerful African state of its time. Source:

The Kingdom of Mali existed between 1200 and 1500 and was one of the richest empires in Africa. It grew from a small state called Kangaba and was established by the Madingo, or Madinka, people. It became the greatest Muslim state in the western Sudan. The Madingo people were farmers and middle-men in the gold trade and had been conquered by the Kingdom of Ghana. When the small nation was again attacked, 11 of the king's 12 sons were killed, with only Sundiata Keita, a cripple, spared and exiled.

At the end of the 11th century the Soso people established a state in the southern parts of the former Kingdom of Ghana. Their rulership lasted for a short time and set the stage for the birth of the Kingdom of Mali, a legacy that is still passed on in oral traditions through jalis, today.


Picture A: King Sundiata, or Mari Djata, the Lion Prince of Mali by artist Davis Wismiewski. (Source:

Sundiata Keita began ruling Mali in 1230 and called himself Mari Djata, or Lion Prince. He commanded a mighty army and expanded his country by defeating neighbouring kingdoms. Eventually he divided his empire into provinces that were ruled by governors.He died in 1255.

The kings of the Mali empire were called “mansa” which means “lord”, a title that had been adopted by Sudiata. The most famous of all, after Sundiata, was his grandson, Mansa Kankan Musa I. Musa, who was in power from 1312, to 1337 was not the first Muslim ruler of Mali, but he became famous as a result of his hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, the holy city of Islam, in 1324 and 1325. His lavish display of riches and generosity drew the attention of the whole Islamic world and Europe.

Map B: This 14 th century Spanish map shows North Africa's Atlas Mountains, the king Mansa Musa of Mali, the king of Organa, the king of Nubia, the king of Babylon, and he Red Sea.  Source:

Picture B: The ruler of Mali, Mansa Musa, is shown holding nuggets of gold on ancient maps because he brought so much gold with him on his pilgrimage to Mecca. Source:

He brought 500 slaves and 500 golden staffs as well as gold to trade along the way. The enormous amount of gold he brought had serious economic results for the lands he passed through, especially Egypt, because the price of the precious metal dropped. His travels put Mali on the map and soon the kingdom became legendary. Mansa Muta's image holding nuggets of gold was even used to indicate the area on maps of Africa.

During this time Mali covered the area from the Atlantic Ocean to the salt plains in the north and the gold mines in the south. Timbuktu, in Mali, also became a centre of learning, religion and trade and many important scholars visited the country, like Ibn Battuta, the greatest of all Arab travellers and writers.

Economy and industry

The people of Mali farmed and traded and became rich from taking over control of the salt and gold trade that had been ruled by Ghana. The natural environment was ideal for planting cotton, peanuts, grains and other crops, which fed the people. The inhabitants of Mali were Muslim, and because slavery was not forbidden by Islam they also became wealthy through selling slaves. Mali was immensely rich in gold and traded with North Africans, the Middle East and Europe.


Picture C: Ibn Battuta was a great explorer and writer and visited the Kingdom of Mali after Mansa Musa's death.(Source:

When Ibn Buttata visited Mali in the 14th century, shortly after Mansa Musa's death, he was surprised and impressed by how strictly order was enforced in the kingdom and he even visited the king. After the death of its king Mali lacked a ruler that could lead such a large and powerful kingdom.

The former ruler's grandsons fought over his throne and far-off provinces of the empire began breaking away while enemies attacked it in its weakened state. In 1534 the ruler Mansa Suleyman asked Portuguese colonisers at the coast for help, but they refused. Mali shrank to the original size of Kangaba by 1645. Mali finally collapsed with the rise of the Kingdom of Songhai, but no empire ever had the power and wealth the Kingdom of Mali had once held.

Outcomes: Learners are able to use skills and knowledge to construct knowledge in the form of an historical argument and communicate it through writing. Learners are able to demonstrate an understanding of concepts relevant to the area of investigation and recognise that relations of power operate within societies. Learners are able to raise questions about the past and extract and organise evidence from a variety of historical sources of information. Learners are able to engage critically with issues of heritage and public representations of the past and the conservation of heritage.


Activity 7


Ӣ Indicate the location of the Kingdom of Mali on Map A.

Ӣ How did the Kingdom of Mali develop?

Ӣ How do we know so much about its history? Does your culture have any oral traditions? Bring an example of a story or lesson unique to your culture to school and perform it for the class.

”¢ What is a “jali” and what role do they play today?

Ӣ Who was the most famous ruler of Mali?

Ӣ How did he attain his fame and what effect did he have on the North African economy?

Ӣ What was Mali's main industry?

Ӣ Why did the Kingdom of Mali decline?



Visiting the King of Mali

This is Ibn Battuta's description of the public-sitting ceremony of the Kingdom of Mali's king and religious leader, the Mansa Sulayman, who ruled after Mansa Musa."[The sultan] has a lofty pavilion, of which the door is inside his house, where he sits for most of the time. . . . There came forth from the gate of the palace about 300 slaves, some carrying in their hands bows and others having in their hands short lances and shields. . . Then two saddled and bridled horses are brought, with two rams which, they say, are effective against the evil eye. .

Dugha, the interpreter, stands at the gate of the council-place wearing fine garments of silk brocade and other materials, and on his head a turban with fringes which they have a novel way of winding. . . . The troops, governors, young men, slaves, the Masufa, and others sit outside the council-place in a broad street where there are trees. . . . Inside the council-place beneath the arches a man is standing. Anyone who wishes to address the sultan addresses Dugha and Dugha addresses that man standing and that man standing addresses the sultan. If one of them addresses the sultan and the latter [the Sultan] replies he uncovers the clothes from his back and sprinkles dust on his head and back, like one washing himself with water. I used to marvel how their eyes did not become blinded."

The Kingdom of Songhai

Map A: The Kingdom of Songhai became the largest empire in African history, but its enormous size eventually led to its collapse. (Source:

The Kingdom of Songhai, or Songhay, developed from a community of fishermen who lived along the Niger River and were skilled canoeists. During the 9th century they became part of the state of Songhai and began trading with Muslim traders in Gao, which than became part of the kingdom.

The Kingdom of Songhai grew from the ashes of the Kingdom of Mali and was the last kingdom in the western Sudan. During its domination of the area Mali had defeated the small kingdom of Gao in 1325. The city of Gao, the capital of the kingdom, had been occupied by the Songhai before Mansa Musa from Mali had arrived, and as Mali began to decline after Musa's death during the 14th century, Songhai began to rise, around 1464.

The leader that inspired this rise was Sonni cAli, or Ali, Ber, who conquered most of the remaining Mali empire, including the city of Timbuktu. During the next 100 years the Songhai empire reached its peak as Islam as a religion and Islamic learning was actively promoted by the king. By the end of the 15th century Songhai had replaced Mali, but was defeated by a large Moroccan force at the end of the 16th century. This ended 700 years of domination of the western Sudan by centralised and powerful black kingdoms.

It seems strange that history repeats itself, but after the fall of two other medieval gold based trading kingdoms, Ghana and Mali, Songhai declined for similar reasons.


Great Songhai leaders like Sonni cAli Ber, who was killed in a Muslim rebellion, and his successor Askia Muhammad Toure, who ruled from 1492 to 1528, built this empire into the most powerful in West Africa. It was larger than both Mali and Ghana and introduced organised government to the area. Sonni cAli aggressively built Gao into the Kingdom of Songhai by using his cavalry and very mobile fleet of ships. He conquered Timbuktu and the harbour of Jenne, or Djenne, both important Malian cities.

Picture A: The Great Mosque in Jenne is the largest mud mosque in the world. This city was an important harbour for the Mali kingdom and was conquered by Sonni cAli Ber in his campaign to expand Gao into the Kingdom of Songhai. Source:

Sonni cAli was replaced by Askia Muhammad Toure, who established a new ruling dynasty, the Askia. He continued Sonni cAli's campaign to expand the kingdom by taking control of important oases in the Sahara Desert and finally defeating Mali. He followed this with further campaigns to conquer more neighbouring kingdoms. He centralised his government by introducing a large bureaucratic force to oversee and administer his kingdom.

Picture B: Muhammad Toure standardised weights, measures and currency which allowed West Africa gold merchants to be more accurate in their trade. Source:

Muhammad Toure was innovative and improved trading by standardising weights, measures and currency, blending the different Songhai cultures into one national culture. He was also a devout Muslim and replaced Songhai administrators with Arab Muslims to spread Islam through his empire. Muslim judges called qadis, ran his legal system on Muslim principles. Most of the people living in cities embraced Islam. In rural areas where 97% of the Songhai people lived, traditional African religions dominated.

His efforts were the most ambitious and influential in sub-Saharan Africa until Europeans arrived. Askia Daud, who lived from 1549 to 1582, also promoted expansion and soon Songhai stretched as far as Cameroon. The kingdom included several thousand cultures and became the largest empire in African history.

Economy and industry

Like the kingdoms of Ghana and Mali before it Songhai became rich through trade. There was a privileged class of craftsmen and slaves were mostly used as farm workers. Trade only really thrived under Muhammad Toure with kola nuts, gold and slaves as the main exports. These goods were exchanged for textiles, horses, salt and luxury goods.

Picture B: Kola nuts, or Cola nitida, grow on the Nitida tree and has been used in West Africa for hundreds of years. The nuts have about the same amount of caffeine as coffee beans and were used to promote endurance, alertness and stamina. Today kola nuts are still used in soft drinks and is prescribed for motion sickness, depression, fluid retention and migraine headaches. (Source:

Leo Africanus, a Spanish Moroccan traveller and writer, visited Gao and noted that there was a very wealthy ruling class: "The houses there are very poor, except for those of the king and his courtiers. The merchants are exceedingly rich and large numbers of Negroes continually come here to buy cloth brought from Barbarie (Morocco) and Europe. Here there is a certain place where slaves are sold, especially on those days when the merchants are assembled. And a young slave of fifteen years of age is sold for six ducats, and children are also sold. The king of this region has a certain private palace where he maintains a great number of concubines and slaves."

Because of its might and size Songhai had access to gold mines and slaves captured from conquered countries.


Songhai declined as a result of internal political struggles but its mineral wealth also drew the attention of invaders. The Songhai empire had become too large to control while changes in the environment caused droughts and disease.

Even though its army was 35 000 men strong, some of the inhabitants started to rebel against the king. This made the empire vulnerable and Morocco, which was one of its territories, revolted to gain control of its own gold mines and the sub-Saharan gold trade. After the Moroccan army attacked in 1591 the Songhai empire collapsed. In 1612 the Songhai cities fell to anarchy and the greatest empire in African history disappeared.

Outcomes: Learners are able to use skills and knowledge to construct knowledge in the form of an historical argument and communicate it through writing. Learners are able to demonstrate an understanding of concepts relevant to the area of investigation and recognise that relations of power operate within societies. Learners are able to raise questions about the past and extract and organise evidence from a variety of historical sources of information. Learners are able to engage critically with issues of heritage and public representations of the past and the conservation of heritage.




Ӣ Indicate the Kingdom of Songhai on Map A.

Ӣ Explain how the Kingdom of Songhai arose? What role did religion play in its development?

Ӣ What innovations did Muhammad Toure bring about relating to trade? Why were these innovations so important?

Ӣ What were the major goods traded by the merchants of Songhai? Which of these are still in use today, and what for?

Ӣ Describe the fall of the kingdom in an essay about a person who lived in the kingdom at that time. You may choose a character like a merchant or rebel. Eventually you will turn this into a short play to be performed in class.

Ӣ Why do you think that all 3 West African kingdoms declined for many of the same reasons?

Ӣ Create a timeline for this section by using all the information you've gathered from the lesson units.

•   Nasson, B. (ed) (2004). Turning Points in History: Book 1: Ancient Civilisations and Global Trade. Johannesburg: STE.
• Voigt, E. A. (1983). Mapungubwe: an archaeological interpretation of an Iron Age community. Pretoria: Transvaal Museum.

Last updated : 22-Nov-2011

This article was produced for South African History Online on 10-Nov-2011