Has Africa resisted colonization

Forgotten Knowledge - Our view of Africa is sketchy

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Hand on heart: What do you know about the great medieval empires of Mali, Ethiopia or Nubia?

When it comes to the history of the African continent before the arrival of the western colonial powers, we in Europe have huge gaps in our knowledge. Why is that so?

Africa historian Verena Krebs on almost forgotten high cultures, their traces in Europe and the legacy of racist colonial rulers.

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Verena Krebs is a historian at the Ruhr University Bochum and researches mainly on Africa, Ethiopia and trade between Europe and Africa in the Middle Ages.

SRF: Why do we in Europe believe that Africa did not have a significant history until the arrival of the Europeans in the 16th century?

We have fallen into a narrative from colonialism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. At the time, people were convinced that there is not much history in Africa without the white man.

What the colonial powers thought of African civilizations

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When the Belgian colonial rulers came across the Kingdom of Cuba in the remote interior of what is now the Congo in the 19th century, they encountered a state with a sophisticated political, tax and judicial system and a highly developed craft tradition.

The Belgian invaders were convinced: the Cuba must have been in contact with western civilization.

The whites thought no differently about the advanced cultures of the African Middle Ages: from the Nubian kingdoms with their pyramids to the rich written culture of the medieval Mali Empire to the heyday of Greater Zimbabwe.

Since many research disciplines arose at universities in the 19th and 20th centuries, there was no active research into the history of Africa for a long time.

That is why we still have little knowledge of the history of Africa. There are perhaps only five books I can recommend about the ancient kingdom of Mali, one of the largest empires in the world in the 14th century.

Africa and Europe were in lively exchange in the Middle Ages. You will see that when you visit a medieval church with us.

What are the characteristics of the heyday of African civilizations?

Parallel to the European Middle Ages, there were powerful, independent kingdoms in large parts of Africa: for example the Ethiopian Empire on the Horn of Africa, which converted to Christianity in the 4th century and developed an enormous power.

Or medieval Nubia in what is now northern Sudan, which was quadrilingual and produced an enormous amount of text and knowledge in Arabic, Coptic, Nubian and Greek. The West African empires of Ghana and Mali were also powerful.

In the European Middle Ages, Africa enjoyed a great reputation in Europe. Why?

Africa and Europe were in lively exchange in the Middle Ages. You will see that when you visit a medieval church with us. A large part of the really valuable medieval cultural assets are made of materials that originally came from Africa: be it gold, ivory or rock crystal from Mali.

The slave trade had enormous consequences. In West Africa, for example, millions of people and their knowledge disappeared with them.

How did these contacts affect knowledge and the exchange of ideas?

We know that the Ethiopian rulers, for example, always sent their envoys to the strongest power in the Mediterranean - e.g. B. to Venice, later to the Kingdom of Aragón, to the emerging maritime power Portugal or to the Council of Constance.

The knowledge was also obtained by kidnapping western travelers and bringing them to the court. These hostages then became informants for the Ethiopian emperor.

Many of the African high cultures are not known to us. Is that also due to the African tradition of oral tradition?

Written form is not the ultimate. When a system is stable, a great deal of knowledge can be passed on extremely reliably through oral traditions. Speech survives a very long time.

However, it is a great disaster for an oral culture when this tradition is interrupted. For example in West Africa through the slave trade or colonialism.

The transatlantic slave trade had enormous consequences. Millions of people disappeared in West Africa, and with them their knowledge.

If we go back to the beginnings of these upheavals: What role does the circumnavigation of Africa by the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama play in 1498?

A crucial role. When the Portuguese reached the Indian Ocean in the early 16th century, they encountered the thriving Swahili cities on the East African coast. Cities that had been part of a complex trade network for centuries.

The Portuguese demanded that the local rulers convert to Christianity and submit to the Portuguese king. The city of Kilwa, one of the most prosperous cities of the time, resisted and was then bombed and destroyed by the Portuguese.

As a result of this aggressive approach, not only did extensive trade networks collapse, but also local knowledge. After all, such networks were not only used to trade goods and goods. They also served the exchange of knowledge, religions and ideas.

The interview was conducted by Katharina Bochsler.

Broadcast: Radio SRF 2 Kultur, Context, 02/21/2020, 9:02 a.m.

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  • Commentary by Jonas Sanddorn (Sea Buckthorn)
    The article says: "When the Portuguese reached the Indian Ocean in the early 16th century, they encountered the thriving Swahili cities on the East African coast. Cities that had been part of a complex trade network for centuries."
    I have a quiz question for SRF:
    What did the Swahili cities trade in - besides gold and ivory?
    Agree Agree to the comment Select answers to reply to the comment
    1. answer from Verena Krebs (Verena Krebs)
      The typical goods of the trade network of the Indian Ocean: incense, ceramics / porcelain and fabrics (from the Arab region, from China and India), cosmetics (rose water), glass beads, etc. The cities benefited from being intermediaries between different spheres (the African hinterland, from which gold and ivory came and the Arab-Asian world) to be. It has been well researched in the last few decades: Stephanie Wynne-Jones, Mark Horton, Gwen Campbell etc. have worked on it.
      Agree agree to the comment
    2. answer from Jonas Sea Buckthorn (Sea Buckthorn)
      Resolution of the quiz question: I'm sorry Ms. Krebs, rose water does not give full marks: Countless East Africans have been sold to the Near and Middle East by Arab Muslims for many centuries. But too little is talked about it, say experts (e.g. Prof. Dr. N'Diaye). Since the male slaves were castrated, the traces of this crime are less obvious than in the Atlantic slave trade.
      Agree agree to the comment
    3. answer from Verena Krebs (Verena Krebs)
      ... and the slave trade was of course also a very important factor (keyword Zanj rebellion, obviously), although research is discussing the weighting for East Africa. The slave trade that you refer to (in the Near and Middle East in the Middle Ages), however, had the Horn of Africa / Ethiopia as the focal point - these are then the Nubian slaves and 'Ethiopian' eunuchs, which we get from the Arabic sources 11-15 Century.
      Agree agree to the comment
    4. Show answers
  • Commentary by Roger Gasser (allesrotscher)
    Bombardment of the Portuguese in the 16th century? Cannons maybe !!
    Agree Agree to the comment Select answers to reply to the comment
    1. answer from Verena Krebs (Verena Krebs)
      A slip of the tongue or a mistranslation from English (they actually speak of bombardment in this context) .... I noticed myself while listening to it.
      Agree agree to the comment
    2. answer from Eric Zurfluh (Eric.Z)
      The term bombardment is of French origin and referred to the bombardment with large guns during the fortress war.

      Googling once would have been enough.
      Agree agree to the comment
    3. Show answers
  • Comment from andreas furrer (andfurrer)
    you always see things through glasses. there is also something calming about it - e.g. when you thinks of the current robot hype. thomas mann and his colleagues (nineteenth / twentieth century) undoubtedly saw each other on the edge, but in the end this is just something to skimp on. the bouillon continues to cook underneath.
    Agree Agree to the comment Select answers to reply to the comment
    1. answer from Roger Gasser (all red)
      Who understands more than a train station?
      Agree agree to the comment
    2. answer from andreas furrer (andfurrer)
      if you count the votes for them and against me together, you get a proud 104. for a train station not bad, especially if you look at the slave trade as a secondary theater. has nothing to do with robot hype, of course, and certainly not with thomas mann.
      Agree agree to the comment
    3. Show answers

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