2 Africans before Captivity

West African Histories and Cultures

Africans before Captivity

Most Africans who came to North America were from West Africa and West Central Africa. (See Figure 1-1) Western Africa begins where the Sahara Desert ends. A short erratic, rainy season supports the sparse cover of vegetation that defines the steppe like Sahel. The Sahel serves as a transition to the Sudan and classic savanna where a longer rainy season supports baobab and acacia trees sprinkled across an open vegetative landscape dominated by bushes, grasses and other herbaceous growth. Next comes another narrow transitional zone, where the savanna and forest intermingle, before the rain forest is reached. Finally, there is the coast, fringed with mangrove swamps and pounded by heavy surf (Newman 1995:104). The Sahara is likened to a sea lying north of West Africa and the Sahel to its shore. The desert and the Sahel form geographical barriers to sub-Saharan West Africa that, like of the Atlantic Ocean, contributed to the comparative isolation of the region from civilizations in Europe and the Middle East until the 15th century.

Map of the continent of Africa depicting slave regions in the west and west central coasts. Legend text: Senegambia; Sierra Leone; Windward Coast; Gold Coast; Bight of Benin; Bight of Biafra; West Central Africa.
Figure 1-1 African Slave regions by Grin20 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 . Map depicting major slave trading regions of Africa.
Map featuring nations of Guinea, Mali, Niger, Benin, and Nigeria in West Africa. Map also shows geographic features such as the location of the Sahara Desert and the Niger River and the Niger River Basin.
Figure 1-2 Niger river map , a derivative of Niger river map by Wizardist is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 . Map of the Niger River Basin and its inland delta.

Knowledge of sub-Saharan West Africa is limited for the period before 800 A.D., after which the rise of Islam made Arabic records available, according to Phillip Curtin (1990:32). Evidence from Dar-Tchitt, an archeological site in the area of Ancient Ghana, suggests agricultural expansion and intensification gave rise to walled villages of 500–1000 inhabitants as early as 900–800 B.C. By 700 B.C. the settlement patterns changed to smaller, somewhat more numerous and unwalled villages.

Jenne-Jeno, a second archeological site, was first settled around 250 B.C. Located around the inland delta of the Niger river, Jenne-Jeno probably started out as a place where local farmers, herders, and fisher folk brought produce to exchange with one another. (See Figure 1-2) Over time the location became an interregional trade center. It might have been the first one in the region, but if so others soon followed and several of these became sites for a series of kingdoms and empires in the Sahel and Sudan. Eventually the region was densely populated by people who had a social organization based on kinship ties and political forms that are properly called states, and cities based on Saharan trade, at least as far south as modern day Djenne, which is between Timbuktu and Bamako in southern Mali.

What we know comes from Berber travelers, who made their first visits to the region in the 8th century (Curtin 1990:45; Newman 1995:109–110). Oral sources included African poems, praise songs, and accounts of past events usually passed on through official oral historians such as Griots, who recite the histories from Ancient Mali and Songhai often while playing stringed instruments unique to West Africa such as the Kora and Ngoni. (3)


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